October 7, 2015

Positive Impact of Pope Francis on Views of the Church, Especially Among Democrats and Liberals

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Pope Francis is applauded by members of Congress as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. Pope Francis is the first pope to address a joint meeting of Congress and will finish his tour of Washington later today before traveling to New York City. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Pope Francis is applauded as he arrives to speak during a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress on September 24, 2015 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that the pope has generated goodwill toward the Roman Catholic Church among many people across the political spectrum. Ideological liberals and moderates, along with Democrats, are especially likely to say Francis has given them a more positive view of the Catholic Church.

At the same time, the popular pope’s own favorability rating remains about where it was in early 2015. And most Americans say their view of the Catholic Church has not changed because of Pope Francis.

Pope Francis' Effect on Views of the Catholic Church: More Positive Than NegativeOverall, 28% of U.S. adults say they have a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis. Far fewer – just 6% – say they have a more negative view of the church because of Francis. Roughly six-in-ten Americans (58%) say their view of the Catholic Church has not changed very much.

Both Catholics and non-Catholics are more likely to say that Francis has had a positive rather than negative impact on their view of the church; the same is true of Americans in both major political parties and across the ideological spectrum. But improved views of the Catholic Church are especially apparent among self-identified liberals and moderates as well as among Democrats. Nearly four-in-ten liberals (39%), for instance, say they have a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis, dwarfing the 4% who say they have a more negative view of the church by a 10-to-1 margin. And among ideological moderates, 31% say their view of the Catholic Church has improved because of Pope Francis, while 5% say their view of the church has become more negative, a 6-to-1 ratio. Among conservatives, by contrast, the ratio of those with a more positive view of the church (22%) to those with a more negative view (10%) is closer to 2-to-1.

A similar split is seen among Democrats and Republicans. While 27% of Republicans say Francis has had a positive impact on their view of the Catholic Church and just 10% say they have a more negative view (a ratio of nearly 3-to-1), the ratio of positive to negative sentiments is even more lopsided among Democrats. Fully 35% of Democrats say they have a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis, while just 2% say Francis has pushed their view of the church in the other direction – a ratio of roughly 17-to-1.

Non-Catholics' Views of Pope Francis More Positive After U.S. VisitFrancis’ own favorability rating now stands at 68%, up modestly since June, when 64% of American adults said they had a favorable view of the pope, and roughly equivalent to the 70% of Americans who expressed a positive view of the pontiff in February 2015. The recent improvement (between June and October) in Francis’ favorability rating is concentrated among non-Catholics. Roughly two-thirds of non-Catholics (65%) now express a favorable view of Pope Francis, which is on par with February (when 64% of non-Catholics expressed a favorable opinion of the pope as he approached the two-year mark of his papacy) and up 7 percentage points since June.

Eight-in-ten Catholics surveyed (81%) now say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis. By comparison, 86% of Catholics expressed a favorable view of Pope Francis in June, and fully nine-in-ten Catholics (90%) expressed a favorable view of the pontiff in February. Pope Francis’ favorability rating among U.S. Catholics is now roughly equivalent to the rating Catholics gave Pope Benedict XVI following his visit to the country in April 2008.

These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research survey, conducted Oct. 1-4, 2015, on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 1,000 adults. While the survey provides a helpful initial snapshot of the impact of Francis’ visit on Americans’ views about the pope and the Catholic Church, its limited size (it included interviews with just 218 self-identified Catholics) and duration (interviews were conducted over just four days) make it difficult to discern much about why Catholics may be somewhat less admiring of Pope Francis now than they were earlier in the year.

Slightly Fewer Regular Mass-Attending Catholics Now Express Favorable View of Pope FrancisThe data do suggest, however, that Francis’ declining favorability rating among Catholics is mainly due to the changing views of regular Mass-attending Catholics. Among the 97 Catholics interviewed who say they attend Mass at least once a week, 84% have a favorable view of Pope Francis – down since February, when fully 95% of regular Mass-attending Catholics expressed a favorable view of the pontiff. Mass-attending Catholics have not become significantly more likely to express unfavorable views of Pope Francis; rather, they are now more likely to say they have no opinion.

Pope Francis Most Popular Among Democrats, Ideological Liberals and ModeratesOver the same period, there has been essentially no change in the share of Catholics who attend Mass less than once a week who view Francis favorably.

The data also show that among the public as a whole, including both Catholics and non-Catholics, Francis is more popular among Democrats than either Republicans or Independents. Partisan differences in views of Pope Francis were smaller in February of this year. Ideological liberals and moderates also see the pope more favorably than do conservatives.

What One Word Best Describes Your Impression of Pope Francis?In addition to asking about views of Pope Francis and his impact on impressions of the Catholic Church, the survey asked respondents what “one word” best describes their impression of Pope Francis. Among the most commonly mentioned words were “good,” “humble,” “kind” and “compassionate.” Positive words like these were mentioned far more often than neutral or negative words (like “religious,” “liberal” or “socialist”). Indeed, of the words that could be coded as positive or neutral/negative descriptions of the pope, fully three-quarters (76%) were positive, while 24% were neutral or negative.1

Trends in Papal Favorability Ratings

Favorable Views of the PopeThe new poll, conducted during the week following Pope Francis’ visit to the United States, provides the opportunity to make comparisons with the public’s reaction to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the U.S. in 2008. Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has generally been viewed more positively than was Pope Benedict by Americans overall. And compared with readings taken right before they visited, both popes received a modest “bounce” in their favorability ratings immediately following their respective trips to the U.S. Compared with a poll taken the previous month, the share of American adults expressing a favorable view of Pope Benedict grew by 9 points (from 52% to 61%) immediately following his April 2008 visit. Favorable views of Pope Francis have ticked up by 4 points compared with a survey conducted in May and June of 2015.

Pope Benedict’s post-visit bounce was just as pronounced among Catholics as among the public as a whole; 83% of Catholics expressed a favorable view of Pope Benedict immediately following his visit, up from 74% the month before. By contrast, there has been no increase at all in the share of Catholics expressing a favorable view of Pope Francis following his trip. And while Francis has generally been more warmly regarded by Catholics than was Benedict, Francis’ current favorability rating among Catholics is about the same as Pope Benedict’s peak rating immediately following his visit to the U.S.

Francis is, however, viewed “very favorably” by more Catholics than Pope Benedict was even immediately following his 2008 U.S. trip; 62% of Catholics now say they have a “very favorable” view of Pope Francis, along with 20% who have a “mostly favorable” view. In April 2008, 49% of Catholics expressed a “very favorable” view of Pope Benedict while 34% expressed a “mostly favorable” view.

Papal Visit Followed at Least Fairly Closely by Most Catholics, Nearly Half of Non-Catholics

Half of Public Followed Papal Visit at Least Fairly CloselyHalf of American adults say they followed news about the papal visit “very closely” (22%) or “fairly closely” (28%). Among Catholics, about six-in-ten say they followed news about Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. at least fairly closely, including 35% who followed the visit “very closely.” One-third of Catholics say they followed the visit “not too closely” (19%) or “not at all closely” (14%).

To put these figures in context, a survey conducted in May of this year found that two-thirds of U.S. adults (66%) said they followed news about unrest in Baltimore following Freddie Gray’s death “very” or “fairly” closely, and a survey conducted in January 2015 found that 43% of adults followed news about President Obama’s State of the Union speech “very” or “fairly” closely.

This year’s papal visit was followed at least fairly closely by nearly six-in-ten people residing in the Northeast region of the country (57%), along with roughly half of Americans living in the Midwest (52%) and South (50%). Compared with the Northeast, fewer Westerners (42%) say they followed Pope Francis’ visit closely.

  1. Only words that were mentioned at least four times were coded as positive, neutral or negative. Words mentioned by fewer than four respondents are not included in these tallies.