Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on April 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-POPE-CLIMATE, originally transmitted on April 15, 2015 or with RNS-POPE-POLLS, originally transmitted on Sept. 16, 2015.

Catholics love their celebrity pope and most -- not all -- of his priorities

(RNS) Americans are gung-ho for Pope Francis’ U.S. visit -- if they know he’s coming.

They really, really like him, too, particularly Catholics -- even if they’re sometimes confused about what he believes.

But most Americans (52 percent) and nearly a third of Catholics (31 percent) say they hadn't heard about the pope’s September visit to Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., according to a new survey released Tuesday (Aug. 25) by the Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service.

Overall, 67 percent of Americans and 90 percent of U.S. Catholics hold a favorable view of him.

“Americans embrace Pope Francis as a celebrity -- even when they don’t know what he thinks or does,” said Robert Jones, president and CEO of PRRI.

Many attached glowing traits to Francis. Asked to describe him in their own words, most just identified him by his role as pope or other neutral terms, but 27 percent chose positive terms, calling him “humble,” “compassionate” and “caring.”

The majority share his top priorities -- on concern for the poor, the environment and the economy. But the flock veers from the shepherd on doctrine, particularly on sexuality and marriage.

However, on question after question, Jones said, 1 in 5 Catholics said they didn’t know the pope’s views. And when they think they do, they’re sometimes wrong.

Consider the confusion over same-sex marriage. Francis has not changed the Catholic Church’s official position opposing its legalization. Yet many U.S. Catholics (38 percent) believe he supports it, according to the survey of 1,331 U.S. adults. It was conducted in English and Spanish Aug. 5-11. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

The confusion might be because people like to believe the pope -- famous for his  “Who am I to judge” comment -- thinks as they do: 49 percent of Catholics who support same-sex marriage mistakenly think the pope does as well.

Coming after the eight-year reign of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a theology professor with a passion for orthodoxy, Pope Francis’ “shift in tone has changed people’s perceptions,” said Jones.

READ: Benedict relies on words, not John Paul’s dramatic images

"Views of Pope Francis vs. the Catholic Church." Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)

"Views of Pope Francis vs. the Catholic Church." Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Unlike the popular pontiff,  when it comes to the institutional church, 25 percent of Americans pile on the negative terms such as “dogmatic” or “hypocritical” or “overly concerned with money.” Only 9 percent of Americans offered positive associations with the institutional church, such as mentioning its charitable work.

The U.S. bishops take a critical hit with Catholics. While 80 percent of Catholics say Argentine-born Pope Francis, who has never visited the United States, understands of the needs and views of American Catholics well, only 60 percent say the same for the U.S. bishops.

Young Catholics are particularly critical of the bishops, perhaps because of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ intense political involvement opposing gay marriage and insurance coverage for contraception, both issues millennials favor, said Jones.

Neither are Catholics uniformly on board with Francis’ many calls for social and economic justice. Most (57 percent), chiefly Democrats and women, say the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor than on abortion and the right to life. But 33 percent of Catholics, chiefly Republicans and men, say the opposite.

Overall, Catholics are statistically in line with most Americans on current hot-button social issues:

  • 72 percent (like 71 percent of all Americans) say government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
  • 73 percent of Catholics (66 percent of Americans) say the U.S. government should do more to address climate change.
  • 61 percent (63 percent of Americans) want to see a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • 51 percent, chiefly Democrats, (53 percent of Americans) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

The Catholic Church preaches against homosexual behavior.  But PRRI finds most U.S. Catholics either don’t know or don’t heed that teaching:

  • 53 percent of Catholics say they don’t think same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs.
  • 60 percent favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
  • 76 percent favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination.
  • 65 percent oppose a policy that would allow small-business owners to refuse, based on their religious beliefs, to provide products or services to gay and lesbian people.
Perception of pope's stance on same-sex marriage among Catholics who FAVOR same-sex marriage. Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)

Perception of pope's stance on same-sex marriage among Catholics who favor same-sex marriage. Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Reactions to the pope also reflect the complexity of the church in the United States today. Catholics are not only divided by ethnicity, generation and geography; they also differ in the ways they see the church, its role in their lives, in politics and in society.

“There is one Catholic Church in the world, but an anthropologist from Mars who landed in the U.S. today would see two churches,” said Jones.

One is conservative, 76 percent non-Hispanic white, older and centered in the northeast and Midwest, according to PRRI’s 2014 American Values Atlas, issued in February 2015, based on a random national sample of 11,115 Catholics.

READ: Online atlas ‘heat maps’ U.S. views on hot social issues

Perception of pope's stance on same-sex marriage among Catholics who OPPOSE same-sex marriage. Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)

Perception of pope's stance on same-sex marriage among Catholics who OPPOSE same-sex marriage. Graphic courtesy of Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI)

The other is young, overwhelmingly Hispanic and centered in five states in the Southwest: Texas (where 74 percent of Catholics are Hispanic), California (70 percent), New Mexico (70 percent), Arizona (59 percent) and Nevada (59 percent).

“If Pope Francis were touching ground in Las Vegas (where 67 percent of Catholics are Hispanic), he’d have a very different audience than he’ll see in the Northeast,” said Jones. PRRI found that in Washington D.C.m 32 percent of Catholics are Hispanic,  33% in New York City and and 12% in Philadelphia where the pope will offer his largest public Mass of the tour.

There's another division -- one the Catholic Church would like to erase by bringing former Catholics back to the fold. These are the 15 percent of Americans who say they grew up Catholic but told PRRI they no longer identify with the faith.

READ: Catholic bishops, Becket Fund slam newest HHS contraception mandate rules

Nearly 2 in 3 (64 percent) of former Catholics hold a positive view of the pope and 59 percent say he understands U.S. Catholics well, but only 35 percent say the same for the American bishops. That aligns with their sour view of the institutional church: Only 43 percent hold a positive view.

Still, the survey finds, 66 percent of Catholics and 51 percent of former Catholics expect Pope Francis will attract more Catholics back to the church.

Jones speculates that the pontiff "might change former Catholics views of the institutional church if it begins to look and feel more like Pope Francis’ persona."

They might engage more in church life, attend Mass or even resume identifying as Catholics -- the ultimate “Francis effect.”

The open question, said Jones, is whether “Pope Francis will function more like the Dalai Lama. They have warm feelings for him but they are not going to go hunt down a Buddhist meditation center.”



  1. But should Francis even have his job? The one passage in the NT (Matt 16: 18) that addresses the authenticity of the papacy and said passage has by rigorous historic testing found to be historically nil.

  2. It’s always nice to have a Pope with the charisma of Francis. I fear, though, that he is more liked than he is listened to.
    Catholics, especially, need to adopt his views on faith and morality as life choices in adherence to the Word of God…..not just admire him as a “cool Pope”. He is not a celebrity, he is the Vicar of Christ, who means every word he says and ultimateley defends the firm directives of the Catholic Faith.

  3. Dominic,

    Directives as in the resurrection that never happened? Ditto for the ascension. the assumption, original sin, limbo, the “sacraments” of the eucharist, reconciliation, confirmation, baptism et al?

  4. said Robert Jones, president and CEO of PRRI.

    Hey, Grossman – what’s PRRI? Don’t you think when you create a question in the copy of your work, you should answer it?

  5. ” ….women, say the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice and the obligation to help the poor than on abortion and the right to life.”

    In other words, the Catholic Church is more of a nuisance.

    But regardless of polls, no serious discussion of the Catholic Church
    should begin without mentioning its many crimes against humanity.

    AND this Pope still employs – in the Vatican – CARDINAL BERNIE LAW
    who was The Kingpin of the Boston Pedophile Priest Network !

    Bernie oversaw hundreds of pedophiles! He should be in jail!
    And he let the Priests continue their crimes while invoking the most immoral codes of Christianity:

    “We are in the forgiveness business” – Cardinal Bernie Law

    The immorality of such ‘forgiveness’ is never discussed enough.
    Instead we get happy talk about blissfully ignorant dogma.

  6. And seeing them dead will prove what? There will be successors til the end of time.

  7. Let’s not forget the values Madlyn Murray O’Hare left the world. Atheists should be proud of their modern queen. She is a testament to all that is vulgar and creepy. Her own kind murdered her. A martyr for atheists worldwide. May she rest in pieces.

  8. @Dominic,

    “O’hare…may she rest in pieces”

    You shake in your shoes with fear and carry with you a Loveless, heartless obedience to a monster. And you dare to utter the name of a hero?

    When religion insists on obedience – even on unbelievers – it is not asking for respect, it is insisting on your submission.

    “The master shall cut him to pieces” – Jesus (Matthew 24:51)

    “Fear Him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell.” – JESUS (Luke 16:15)
    “They are dogs!” – JESUS (Matthew 15:26)
    “Execute them in front of me..” – JESUS (Luke 19:27)

    Humanity must stand up to this despicable, depraved barbarism.
    O’Hare was a hero for doing so.

  9. suzy,


    You are going to far.
    Attack the religion which allows evil behavior. Sure.
    Demand justice of individuals when we have evidence of crimes and coverups such as those of the Pedophile priests. Absolutely.

    But claiming death fixes this
    is just another dogma as bad as Christianity.

    It is right to hate a Prison (religion), but let’s not hate the Prisoners (believers) for being stuck there.

  10. Well Dominic both of you are wasting your time and money.

  11. How many unbelievers are you personally aquainted with?

  12. A hero for denouncing a recognized good in favor of any old thing except God. Nice legacy, and a deformed idea of heroism on your part.

  13. Me ? Unfortunately, too many…….family included. They’re always angry and “protest too much”. I ignore engaging them in conversations on religion, because generally their understanding of it is limited or based on the fashions of today’s enlighted egotists. Bill Maher types…..dull and stupid.

  14. Me? Too many, family included. All think they are Bill Maher, he of the hissy fit smirk against anything religious. I avoid conversations on religion with them because they are only interested in retreading a personal grief against God or the Church. Atheism is “in” today….they will change when its no longer fashionable.

  15. Dominic,

    Jesus is not about love or goodness.
    Jesus is about obedience to a sinister, horrific idea. You have fallen for it because your parents fell for it. You never thought about it – and you still don’t.


    “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” – JESUS (Matthew 12:40)

    The Jesus character is referring Jonah 1:17
    which says:

    “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah who was in the belly three days and three nights.” (Jonah 1:17)

    And for that reason alone,
    Jesus must be dead and buried for three days?

    What a ridiculous set of lies. Who could believe such nonsense except primitive, superstitious barbarians.

  16. Bernardo, where did you ever receive such bizarre information? How do you know the resurrection never took place? Were you there? Whew!

  17. Greg1,

    For starters: (you were not there either) and then there are these observations:

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors (e.g.Notre Dame, Catholic U, Georgetown) of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university’s theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Continued below:

  18. Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus’ crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary’s corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke records it. (Luke mentions it in his gospel and Acts, i.e. a single attestation and therefore historically untenable). The Ascension ties Jesus’ mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus’ followers.

    The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary’s special role as “Christ bearer” (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus’ Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary’s assumption also shows God’s positive regard, not only for Christ’s male body, but also for female bodies.” ”

    Continued below:

  19. Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him.”

    More observations are available upon written request:

  20. Forget your dubious research, Bernardo. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is a Doctrine that Christ rose from the dead in bodily form, though perfected. All the second guessing now is pure folly. Same with your new ideas on the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption…. both infallibly defined by the Church.

  21. Dominic,

    My ideas? Might want to re-read my comments.

  22. Correct observation by Suzy. Dominic is obviously reading-challenged. And thinking-challenged.

  23. Frankly, you sound pretty angry yourself Dominic. And you are certainly dull and st​upid.

  24. But Chris, you still read my comments and reply. I must intimidate you. Happens often to the lesser educated.

  25. Coffee? I thought that rank odor was you thinking.

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