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Pew research: Pope Francis hugely popular with U.S. Catholics

History’s first non-European Pope seen as ‘a change for the better’

March 25, 2014

NEW YORK

 A key Roman Catholic tenet holds that the Pope is the head of their church on Earth, part of a line of succession tracing back two millennia to Simon Peter ― the rock of Jesus’ quote in Matthew 16:18, “…upon this rock I will build my church.” 

According to a Pew Research Survey conducted over a 10-day period last month, U.S. Catholics consider Pope Francis to be a rock star. 

He’s not doing too badly with non-Catholics, either. 

Nearly a year since the former Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio assumed the papacy following Benedict XVI’s February 28, 2013, resignation, 85 percent of American Catholics view Francis “favorable.” Inside that number Pew divined that 51 percent view Francis “very favorable” with the balance rating him “mostly favorable”

By contract, while Benedict enjoyed overall favorable reviews during his tenure, his “very favorable” Pew rating fluctuated dramatically, bottoming out at 17 percent in 2005 but only recovering to 32 percent in the month preceding his stepping down.

Francis’ two predecessors all netted favorable reviews in Pew studies, John Paul II’s highest “very favorable” rating reached 53 percent in 1990. 

Among the non-Catholics, 66 percent gave a “favorable” rating to the pope while just over half ― 56 percent ― responded “yes” when asked if Francis “represents a major change in the direction for the Catholic Church.” Nearly three-quarters ― 71 percent ― of Catholics also felt he represented change. 

Yet, not all is coming up roses for Francis. Despite his phenomenal personal popularity ― just over a quarter of those surveyed felt “more excited” about their Catholicism as opposed to 11 percent who felt less excited ― and the overwhelmingly hopeful and optimistic impression he’s engendered as a potential engine of change, the Pew Research team discovered that “it is less clear whether there has been a so-called ‘Francis effect,’ a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith.” 

For example, the survey shows no discernable uptick in percentage of Americans identifying themselves as Catholic. Additionally, there has been no “statistically significant change” in their attendance at Mass or in how often they say they go to Mass or to confession or do volunteer work in their parishes or communities across the two years of survey data surrounding these issues. 

If any conclusions can be drawn, the Pew Research team discovered that, on average, American Catholics can be said to be optimistic about the Francis papacy but with a wait-and-see attitude. While they’ve given him positive marks for the reforms he’s brought to the Vatican to date, how he handles the matter of sex abuse scandals within the Church will be the ultimate deciding factor for many. 

When asked to project out to the year 2050 (the same questions posed a year ago,) this year’s results are 3 percent stronger this year that the Catholic Church will “definitely/probably” allow birth control. 42 percent (up from 36 percent) believe women will be allowed to become priests by 2050, while the strongest gain was an upturn of 12 percent ― to 51 percent ― that Roman Catholic priests will be allowed to marry by mid-century. Yet, on the subject of same-gender marriage, the first year Pew posed this question, only 37 percent of the respondents are optimistic the Catholic Church will recognize them over the course of the next three dozen years.

Jim Nedelka, a ruling elder at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House in New York, has been reporting for the Presbyterian News Service since 2007. 

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