March 6, 2018

Pope Francis Still Highly Regarded in U.S., but Signs of Disenchantment Emerge

Five years after his election, pope draws growing number of negative assessments, especially from Catholic Republicans

(Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
(Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)

Five years into Francis’ papacy, the vast majority of U.S. Catholics continue to have a favorable opinion of the Argentinian pontiff, and most say he represents a major – and positive – change for the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, a new Pew Research Center survey finds signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably, and that they think he is too liberal and naïve.

Currently, 84% of American Catholics say they have a “favorable” view of Pope Francis, which is virtually identical to the share who expressed a positive view of the pope after the first year of his pontificate. Furthermore, roughly nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics describe Pope Francis as “compassionate” and “humble.” And though the share of Catholics in the U.S. who think Pope Francis represents a “major change” for the better is down from a high point in 2015, nearly six-in-ten still express this view.

But while Francis remains quite popular, there are signs that American Catholics are less enamored with him than was once the case. For instance, the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is “too liberal” has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19% to 34%. And about a quarter of U.S. Catholics (24%) now say he is naïve, up from 15% in 2015.

Over the same period, the share of American Catholics who give Pope Francis “excellent” or “good” marks for his handling of the sex abuse scandal dropped from 55% to 45%. (The survey was conducted before the recent papal visit to Chile and Peru, which prompted new questions and media coverage about the pope’s handling of this issue.) And there have been similar declines in the share of Catholics who give the pope positive marks for “spreading the Catholic faith” and “standing up for traditional moral values,” though on balance he continues to garner more praise than criticism on these fronts.

The survey also finds signs of growing polarization along partisan lines in Catholics’ views of Francis. The share of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics who say Pope Francis is “too liberal” has more than doubled since 2015 (from 23% to 55%). Similarly, one-third of Catholic Republicans now say Francis is “naïve,” up from 16% who said this in 2015. Among Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholics, by contrast, there has been no statistically significant change in opinion on either of these questions.

In addition, while most Republican Catholics continue to express a favorable view of Francis, the share who have a favorable view of the pontiff is down compared with the end of his first year in office, four years ago. At that time, there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90%) and Democrats (87%) who expressed a favorable view of Francis. Today, by contrast, the pope’s favorability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89%) than among Catholic Republicans (79%).

Over the same period, the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined from 60% to 37%. By contrast, there has been little movement since the end of Francis’ first year as pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better (71% today vs. 76% in 2014).

These are among the key findings of a new national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 10 to 15 among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics. Among the U.S. public as a whole (including both Catholics and non-Catholics), roughly six-in-ten say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, which is on par with the share of Americans who gave Francis a favorable rating in the early summer of 2015 (just before his visit to the U.S.), and slightly below the peak of 70% who rated him favorably in February 2015 and again in early 2017. Compared with Francis, Pope Benedict XVI generally earned lower favorability ratings from the U.S. public (except in April 2008, immediately following his U.S. trip), while Pope John Paul II earned higher ratings from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.

While Francis is quite popular with Americans overall, analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted since he became pope finds no evidence of a rise in the share of Americans who identify as Catholic (22% in 2012, 20% in 2017), and no indication of a Francis-inspired resurgence in Mass attendance. In surveys conducted in 2017, 38% of Catholic respondents say they attend Mass weekly. By comparison, in the year before Francis became pope, 41% of U.S. Catholics reported attending Mass weekly.

There are, however, a number of changes occurring within American Catholicism that were underway before Francis became pope and have continued during his pontificate. For instance, the share of U.S. Catholics who are Hispanic has grown from 32% in the year before Francis became pope to 36% today. The share of U.S. Catholics who favor allowing gays and lesbians to legally marry has grown from 54% in 2012 to 67% in 2017. And while there has been little change in the partisan composition of Catholic voters as a whole, white Catholic registered voters have continued to trend in a Republican direction. As of today, 54% of white Catholic voters identify with or lean toward the GOP, up from 50% in 2012 and early 2013.

Other key findings from the new survey include:

  • Roughly half of Catholics (55%) say the priests at their parish are “very supportive” of Pope Francis, and an additional 23% say their priests are “somewhat supportive” of the pontiff. Roughly one-in-five self-identified Catholics decline to answer the question or else volunteer that they do not attend church often enough to assess the level of support for Francis among their parish priests. Just 2% say their priests are “not too” or “not at all” supportive of the pontiff.
  • Roughly six-in-ten Catholics (58%) say Francis is doing an “excellent” or “good” job appointing new bishops and cardinals, and 55% say he is doing an “excellent” or “good” job addressing environmental issues.
  • Among U.S. Catholics as a whole, roughly three-quarters say the pontiff has done “a lot” (33%) or “a little” (41%) to make the Catholic Church more accepting of homosexuality. And seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics say Pope Francis has done “a lot” (26%) or “a little” (43%) to make the church more accepting of divorce and remarriage.
  • The survey shows, furthermore, that most Catholics seem to approve of Francis’ actions in these areas. Six-in-ten Catholics (63%) say Francis has done at least a little to promote acceptance of homosexuality, and also say he has done “about the right amount” or that they would like to see him “do more” on this issue. Similarly, 64% of Catholics say the pope has done at least a little to increase acceptance of divorce and remarriage, and that he has done “the right amount” or that they would like him to “do more.”

The rest of this report looks at the results of the survey and at longer-term trends in American Catholicism in more detail, including differences by religious affiliation and observance.

Views of Pope Francis

Pope Francis remains popular among a variety of Catholic and non-Catholic groups

In the five years since Pope Francis was elected, the share of American Catholics who have rated him favorably has ranged from 79% (in September 2013) to 90% (in February 2015), generally hovering in the mid-80s.

By this measure, Francis has been rated more positively, on average, than was his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. But Francis’ favorability ratings fall below the very high marks U.S. Catholics gave to Pope John Paul II during the late 1980s and mid-1990s. (Pew Research Center’s polling about John Paul II was conducted before the sex abuse scandal within the church received widespread media coverage in the early 2000s.)

Pope Francis’ popularity among Catholics is widespread across a variety of Catholic subgroups. He is viewed favorably by most Catholic women and men, as well as by those under age 50 and by older Catholics. (The survey did not include enough interviews with Hispanic Catholics to permit a comparison between them and white Catholics.)

Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week give Francis somewhat higher marks than do those who attend Mass less often; 56% of weekly Mass attenders say they have a “very favorable” view of the pontiff, compared with 40% among Catholics who attend Mass less often. Still, large majorities of both groups rate the pope at least “mostly” favorably.

The survey also shows that American Catholics are not alone in their admiration of Pope Francis. Two-thirds (67%) of white mainline Protestants and 58% of religiously unaffiliated adults have positive views of Francis, as do roughly half of black Protestants (53%) and white evangelical Protestants (52%).

There have been at least two notable shifts in Francis’ ratings among non-Catholic groups since his election. White evangelical Protestants have become considerably more likely to rate Francis unfavorably: Just one-in-ten white evangelicals (9%) did this immediately after his election, compared with 28% today (similar to the 31% who rated him unfavorably about a year ago). And religiously unaffiliated Americans have become more likely to rate Francis favorably (39% in March 2013, 58% today), although the share who rate him favorably has declined somewhat in the past year, from 71% in January 2017.

 

Five years into his papacy, most Catholics (67%) continue to say Pope Francis represents a major change in direction for the Catholic Church. This marks a slight decline since 2015 in the share who view the pontiff as a major change, with the decline concentrated among those who see Francis as a change for the better.

Early on in his papacy, roughly seven-in-ten Catholics saw Pope Francis as a major change in a positive direction. Today, 58% of American Catholics share this perspective. Since Francis’ earlier days there has also been a slight increase in the share who say the pontiff is a major change for the worse. And since 2015, the share who say he is not a major change at all has ticked up 9 percentage points.

Across the board, U.S. Catholics find the pope compassionate and humble

When asked about four distinct attributes that could apply to the pope, the vast majority of U.S. Catholics say “compassionate” (94%) and “humble” (91%) describe Francis. This is virtually unchanged from 2015, the last time Pew Research Center asked these questions. And these overwhelmingly positive feelings toward the pontiff hold true across a wide variety of Catholic subgroups, including men and women, older and younger Catholics, regular Mass-goers and those who attend religious services less often.

Over the same time period, however, there has been an uptick in the share who say the two negative descriptors apply to the pope. The share of U.S. Catholics who say the pope is “naïve” has increased since 2015, from 15% to 24% today. And about a third of U.S. Catholics (34%) say Pope Francis is “too liberal,” up from 19% who said this three years ago.

Catholic Republicans (as well as those who lean toward the GOP) are far more likely than Catholic Democrats and Democratic leaners (55% vs. 19%) to say that “too liberal” is an accurate descriptor for the pontiff.

Most U.S. Catholics say their parish priests are supportive of Pope Francis

A majority of American Catholics say their parish priests are supportive of Pope Francis, including 55% who say their priests are “very” supportive and 23% who say their priests are “somewhat” supportive. Just 2% say their parish priests are not too or not at all supportive of the pope. An additional one-in-five either volunteer that they do not attend church often enough to gauge their parish priests’ views of the pontiff (6%) or otherwise decline to answer the question (13%).

The share who see their parish leadership as very supportive toward Francis is similar across many Catholic subgroups – including Democrats and Republicans. But Catholics who attend Mass at least weekly stand out from those who attend less often. Fully seven-in-ten Mass-goers (72%) say their parish priests are very supportive of the pope, compared with 47% of those who attend less often. Those who attend Mass less than once a week are less likely to offer an opinion on the subject.

Pope Francis on the issues

Shrinking majorities of American Catholics give Pope Francis high marks for spreading the Catholic faith and standing up for traditional values

Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics say Pope Francis is doing a good or an excellent job spreading the Catholic faith and standing up for traditional moral values. Roughly six-in-ten (58%) give him high marks on appointing new bishops and cardinals, and 55% say the same about his handling of environmental issues. Just 45% of Catholics rate the pope’s handling of the sex abuse scandal as good or excellent.

While Francis continues to get positive ratings on multiple fronts, several of these positive ratings have declined noticeably in the past three years, and the share giving him negative ratings has increased. On the issue of spreading the Catholic faith, for example, just 10% said the pope was doing an “only fair” or “poor” job in 2015; today 25% give him negative marks. Likewise, U.S. Catholics are twice as likely today as in 2015 to negatively rate Pope Francis’ performance standing up for traditional moral values (26% “only fair” or “poor” today vs. 13% in 2015). And on the issue of the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, 46% say the pontiff is doing a poor or middling job (roughly equal to the share who give him positive reviews), up from 34% who said the same three years ago.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often are far more likely than Catholics who attend services less often to positively rate the pope’s performance on each issue asked about.

Most see Francis making the church more accepting, still see room for him to do more

New questions on this survey asked Catholics how much, if anything, they think Pope Francis has done to make the Catholic Church more accepting of homosexuality as well as of divorce and remarriage. Respondents also were asked whether they want the pontiff to do more or less in these areas.

Most U.S. Catholics say Francis has done at least some to make the church more accepting of homosexuality, including 33% who say he has done a lot and 41% who say he has done a little. Just 16% say he has done nothing at all.

Regardless of how much they think the pope has already done in this area, roughly four-in-ten Catholics (38%) would like to see him do more, including 12% who say he has already done a lot, 21% who say he has done a little, and 5% who say he has done nothing in this regard. Another three-in-ten Catholics say that Francis has done about the right amount in making the church more accepting of homosexuality, with 17% saying that he has done a lot, and 13% saying that he has done a little. One-in-ten say he has done nothing and that they would not like to see him do more, while just 6% say they would like to see him do less to increase the Catholic Church’s acceptance of homosexuality.

About a quarter of U.S. Catholics (26%) say Francis has done a lot to make the church more accepting of divorce and remarriage, 43% say he has done a little in this regard, and 17% say he has done nothing. Overall, nearly four-in-ten Catholics (37%) would like to see the pontiff do more to increase the church’s acceptance of divorce and remarriage, and a similar share (34%) say he has done at least a little in this area and that it is “about the right amount.” Smaller shares say he has done nothing and should do nothing (8%) or that he should be doing less to make the Catholic Church more accepting toward divorce and remarriage (3%).

In their own words – what is the most significant thing Francis has done as pope?

Another new question on the survey asked Catholics to describe, in their own words, the most significant thing Pope Francis has done in his time as pope.

In response, American Catholics named a broad range of accomplishments. About one-in-ten noted Francis’ work in setting a good Christian example (9%), opening up the church and becoming more accepting (9%), and helping the poor (8%). Another 7% say his biggest contribution has been to make the Catholic Church more accepting toward gays and lesbians, while 6% cite global outreach. And 5% say he is uniting the Catholic community and encouraging open communication and dialogue. Still others named a wide variety of additional actions in religious, social, and political spheres that the pope has undertaken during his first five years.

Just 4% of U.S. Catholics list negative or neutral actions as Pope Francis’ most significant accomplishment, such as becoming overly involved in politics or alienating conservative Catholics. Another 4% say he hasn’t done anything significant at all, or that they are still waiting to see what he will do. And three-in-ten American Catholics (29%) volunteer that they do not know or cannot name any significant thing that the pope has done.

Catholic trends during Francis’ papacy

Since Francis began his papacy he has enjoyed high favorability ratings from U.S. Catholics; many have wondered if his popularity would spur a so-called Francis effect, reinvigorating the Catholic community. Pew Research Center surveys do not see evidence of this type of effect, at least as measured by the share of Catholics in the U.S. adult population or the share of Catholics who say they attend Mass regularly, although of course it is possible that Catholic life in the U.S. has been revitalized in ways not measured in the Center’s surveys.

In 2012 and the first two months of 2013, before Francis became pope, 22% of U.S. adults identified as Catholics in Pew Research Center surveys. As of 2017, the Catholic share of U.S. adults stands at 20%, representing a very slight decline in the overall share of U.S. adults who are Catholic.

Over the same period, self-reported Mass attendance also has dipped slightly among self-described Catholics. In 2012, 41% of U.S. Catholics said they attended Mass weekly or more; now 38% say the same. Another four-in-ten (42%) say they attend a few times a month or several times a year, and one-in-five say they seldom or never attend Mass.1

The racial and ethnic composition of U.S. Catholics also shows continued signs of shifting. Catholics today are somewhat less likely to be non-Hispanic whites than in 2012 (56% now vs. 61% then). And they are somewhat more likely to identify as Hispanic – 36% of U.S. Catholics today say they are Hispanic, compared with 32% in 2012. These demographic changes began well before Francis became pope. And even without considering the impacts of future immigration to the U.S., data on the age structure of the U.S. Catholic population suggest that Hispanics will continue to grow as a share of the U.S. Catholic population, since they are considerably younger, on average, than are white Catholics.

U.S. Catholics also have steadily become more supportive of same-sex marriage over the years, and this has continued since Pope Francis assumed the papacy. In 2001, 40% of Catholics expressed support for allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. By 2012, just before Francis’ election, the share of Catholics expressing support for same-sex marriage had grown to 54%, reflecting increased acceptance of same-sex marriage among the U.S. population writ large. As of 2017, fully two-thirds of Catholics say they favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally.

By comparison, U.S. Catholics’ attitudes about abortion have been relatively stable. Overall, 53% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 44% say it should be illegal in all or most cases.

Just before Pope Francis assumed office, 44% of Catholic registered voters identified as Republican or said they leaned toward the GOP, and 48% of Catholic voters said they were Democrats or leaned toward the Democratic Party. Today those numbers are virtually unchanged. And the share of Catholics who identify as conservative, moderate or liberal on the political spectrum have been similarly stable.

Among white, non-Hispanic Catholic registered voters, however, the Francis years have been marked by the continuation of a longer-term shift toward the GOP. As of 2008, 49% of white Catholic registered voters in Pew Research Center surveys identified with or leaned toward the Democratic Party, while 41% favored the GOP. Since then, however, white Catholics’ support for the GOP has steadily increased. By 2012 and early 2013, just before Francis became pope, Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 8 percentage points (50% vs. 42%) among white Catholics. And today, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 14 points in this group (54% vs. 40%).

Most Hispanic Catholics, meanwhile, continue to identify as Democrats (64%), while far fewer (27%) say they are Republicans – little changed in recent years. Among Catholics overall, the fact that predominantly Democratic Hispanics are growing as a share of all U.S. Catholics has balanced out white Catholics’ shift toward the Republican Party.

 

  1. Recent research shows that surveys that ask respondents directly about how often they attend religious services obtain higher estimates of rates of weekly attendance as compared with other, more indirect methods of data collection (such as asking respondents to keep a diary of how they spend their days, without specific reference to attendance at worship services). When prompted directly by a survey question to report how often they attend religious services, respondents who indicate they attend every week seem to be indicating that they are the kind of person who attends religious services regularly, not necessarily that they literally never miss a week of church. See, for example, Brenner, Philip S. 2011. “Exceptional Behavior or Exceptional Identity? Overreporting of Church Attendance in the U.S.” Public Opinion Quarterly. In addition to the over-reporting of church attendance arising from asking respondents directly about how often they attend religious services, readers should bear in mind that telephone opinion surveys can produce overestimates of religious attendance due to high rates of nonresponse. See, for example, Pew Research Center’s 2012 report “Assessing the Representativeness of Public Opinion Surveys.” See also Pew Research Center’s July 21, 2015, Fact Tank post “The Challenges of Polling When Fewer People Are Available to be Polled.”