New Pew Survey on Pope Francis

RNS (Religion New Service) report: “Survey: Pope Francis is still popular, but warm feelings waning among conservatives.” Like Pew, RNS focused on the political aspects of the study. Unlike Pew (here), they completely ignored the non-political results. RNS also ignored all results for non-Catholic, an even stranger decision.

Needless to say, Catholics view popes far more favorably than non-Catholics. While about 85% of American Catholics have a “favorable” view of the pope – the same as in earlier surveys – only about 60% of all Americans (including Catholics) do. This is a very dramatic difference, yet RNS chose to ignore it.

Despite Pope Francis’ popularity among Catholics, the study found this had little effect: “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).” This is a strange way to describe the results. While Pew talks of “no evidence of a rise,” there is actually a continued decline in those calling themselves Catholic, and this in spite of a large increase in Latinos, who tend to be Catholic. Attendance at mass is also declining. To date, Pope Francis has failed to stem the loss of traditional Catholics.

Although Pope Francis maintained high “favorable” ratings among Catholics, RNS issued a warning: “there are signs Francis’ honeymoon period has ended in some circles. Roughly a quarter (24 percent) of American Catholics say he is naive, up from 15 percent in 2015, and 34 percent now say the pontiff is too liberal, compared with 19 percent who said the same three years ago.” But RNS (and Pew) view this as a political matter: “The divisions appear to be more political than theological. According to the survey, the share of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics who say Francis is too liberal has more than doubled since 2015, jumping from 23 percent to 55 percent. Similarly, while only 16 percent of Republican Catholics surveyed in 2015 said Francis is naive, roughly a third say so today.” Democratic Catholics perceive only a slight increase Francis’ liberalism and naivety over this period. Neither RNS nor Pew considered the possibility that the minority Republican Catholics have become more radicalized under Trump.

Child Abuse

RNS completely suppressed the results on Pope Francis’ handling of the Church’s child abuse scandals. Pew reports a significant drop in Francis’ ratings: “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.)” This difference occurs for both Republican and Democratic Catholics. Both liberals and conservatives view child abuse as immoral. They may differ in its perceived importance, but Pew did not ask. While Catholics are clearly concerned - recall they gave Francis 85% approval overall - their placid acceptance of this scandal continues to amaze me.

The Pew report also presents detailed results on attitudes towards Pope Francis’ efforts on homosexuality and divorce. Overall, perceptions are favorable. Surprisingly, Catholics seem to have similar attitudes towards both sets of proposed changes. I suspect this means they responded based on their overall attitude towards the pope rather than specifics of those proposals.


Pope Francis continues to be viewed favorably, especially by Catholics. However, Catholics continue to leave the Church. Pope Francis’ bungling of child abuse and other issues has had little effect on his ratings. Political considerations seem to have greater effect. Catholics seem to keep their religion in a separate compartment, one which is treasured but largely ignored.

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