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Study: Politically conservative Catholics less content with Francis’s papacy

Pope Francis greets people outside St. Patrick in the City Church in Washington in 2015 (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

In the advent of Pope Francis’s fifth anniversary in the papacy, a new Pew Research poll of U.S. Catholics shows their regard of the pope is, for the first time, coloured by their political leanings.

The survey, released March 6, said it saw “signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavourably, and that they think he is too liberal and naive.”

In 2014, one year into Pope Francis’ papacy, “there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90 per cent) and Democrats (87 per cent) who expressed a favourable view of Francis,” the survey said. “Today, by contrast, the pope’s favorability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89 per cent) than among Catholic Republicans (79 per cent).”

“In our polling about John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when we look at them we don’t see any falloff from them over time,” Greg Smith, a Pew senior researcher, told Catholic News Service. “What’s interesting about this survey that this is the first one where this political polarisation among American Catholics really stands out.”

The March 6 poll was the eighth time Pew had asked Catholics their views about the Pope. Pew had asked Catholics about Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict eight times total over 25 years – five times for Pope Benedict and three for Pope John Paul.

Pope Francis still maintains marks any religious or civil leaders would covet: 94 per cent of Catholics say he is compassionate and 91 per cent say he his humble – numbers unchanged from a 2015 Pew survey. His overall favourable rating is down one point, from 85 to 84 per cent, from a 2014 poll. Those with unfavourable views of the Pope were double that of 2014, but still in the single digits at 8 percent.

But “the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is ‘too liberal’ has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19 per cent to 34 per cent,” the poll said. And 24 per cent of US Catholics now say he is naive, up from 15 per cent in 2015.

Since 2014, “the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined from 60 per cent to 37 per cent. By contrast, there has been little movement since the end of Francis’s first year as Pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better,” the poll said – 71 per cent today vs. 76 per cent four years ago.

Other groups hold Pope Francis in high esteem, although not as much as Catholics do. Of white mainline Protestants, 67 per cent approve of Pope Francis’s tenure, as do 58 per cent of religiously unaffiliated adults.

Slimmer majorities of black Protestants (53 per cent) and white evangelical Protestants (52 per cent) also approve of the Pope. Nine percent of white evangelicals were unfavourable toward Pope Francis when he was chosen Pope in 2013. That number has since tripled to 28 per cent; it had been 31 per cent last year.

The survey introduced new questions not asked in past polls.

Fifty-five percent of Catholics said the priests at their parish are “very supportive” of Pope Francis. Another 23 per cent say their priests are “somewhat supportive” of the pontiff.

Similar approval numbers were generated when Catholics were asked whether Pope Francis was doing an “excellent” or “good” job appointing new bishops and cardinals; 58 per cent said so. And 55 per cent say he is doing an “excellent” or “good” job addressing environmental issues.

A somewhat larger majority – 63 per cent – said Pope Francis “has done at least a little to promote acceptance of homosexuality,” the survey said, adding he has done “about the right amount” or that they would like to see him “do more” on this issue. Also, 64 per cent of Catholics say the Pope has done at least a little to increase acceptance of divorce and remarriage.

The survey further asked Catholics to describe the most significant thing Pope Francis has done in his time as Pope. In response, American Catholics named a broad range of accomplishments without being prompted as to specific issues. Nine per cent noted Francis’s work in setting a good Christian example, another 9 per cent cited his “opening up the church and becoming more accepting.” Eight per cent said helping the poor; 7 per cent said Pope Francis has made the church more accepting toward gays and lesbians; 6 per cent mentioned his global outreach; and 5 per cent said he is uniting the Catholic community and encouraging open communication and dialogue.

Four per cent each cited two negative or neutral actions: becoming overly involved in politics or alienating conservative Catholics. Another 4 per cent of respondents said he hasn’t done anything significant at all, or that they are still waiting to see what he will do. And 29 per cent either did not know or could not name any significant thing that Pope Francis has done.

The Pew survey was conducted from January 10-15 by phone among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics. The margin of error was 2.9 percentage points for the full survey, and 6.4 percentage points for Catholics.