Home Christian News US Catholics More Polarized Than Ever About Still-Popular Pope Francis, Survey Says

US Catholics More Polarized Than Ever About Still-Popular Pope Francis, Survey Says

U.S. Catholics
Pope Francis smiles at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, April 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

(RNS) — U.S. Catholics are more polarized than ever in how they view Pope Francis, even though majorities on both ends of the political spectrum have a positive view of the pope, according to a new survey.

Pew Research Center, in a report released Friday (April 12), found that three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (75%) have a favorable view of Francis, with nearly 9 in 10 Catholic Democrats and those who lean Democrat (89%) expressing favorable views, and just under two-thirds of Catholic Republicans and those who lean Republican (63%) saying the same.

While the favorability rating from the Democratic camp was roughly in line with recent years, the Republican and Republican-leaning favorability rating represented a decline, creating the largest partisan gap in approval of Francis since his papacy began.

Of the 14 times Pew has asked about Francis’ popularity, the new survey records the pope’s second lowest favorability rate. The only time he received lower scores was in September 2018 — a factor possibly influenced by the survey being taken right after Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò alleged that he had warned Francis of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexually predatory behavior and that Francis had ignored the warning.

Francis’ highest favorability rating reached 90% in February 2015, just months after he had confirmed he would be visiting the U.S. during 2015.

"Three-quarters of U.S. Catholics rate Pope Francis favorably" (Graphic courtesy Pew Research Center)

“Three-quarters of U.S. Catholics rate Pope Francis favorably” (Graphic courtesy of Pew Research Center)

According to the Pew survey, Catholics who view Francis unfavorably were more likely than Catholics who view him favorably to say he represents a major change in direction for the church, with just over half of Catholics who view Francis unfavorably (54%) holding that view compared with 4 in 10 Catholics who view him favorably (41%).

In the days before last October’s Synod of Bishops, Francis prayed the assembly would be a place where the Holy Spirit would “purify the church” from “polarization.” The October assembly followed a multiyear global consultation of the Catholic faithful, a process that church reformers hoped and traditionalists feared would lead to sweeping changes in the church.

Last month, the Vatican announced that, instead of addressing controversial issues at the concluding assembly next October, study groups have been formed to address those issues, and they will finish their work by June 2025.

The Pew survey revealed that majorities of U.S. Catholics supported church reform measures, although Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more supported these reforms at lower rates than Catholics who attend less frequently. Just over a quarter of U.S. Catholics (28%) said they attend Mass weekly.

More than 8 in 10 U.S. Catholics (83%) expressed support for the church to allow birth control use, with 62% of weekly Mass attenders saying the same. Three-quarters (75%) expressed support for allowing unmarried Catholics who are living with a romantic partner to receive Communion, with 57% of weekly Mass attenders agreeing.

In terms of reform to the priesthood, 69% of adult U.S. Catholics expressed support for allowing married priests, with a little more than half of weekly Mass attenders (53%) saying the same. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. Catholics (64%) supported ordaining women priests, with 41% of weekly Mass attenders saying the same.

As for recognizing the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, more than half of U.S. Catholics (54%) expressed support, including a third of weekly Mass attenders (33%).