Pope Francis is cheered by faithful during an audience with health workers, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican, on March 3, 2018. (L'Osservatore Romano/ANSA via AP)

Survey: Pope Francis is still popular, but warm feelings waning among conservatives

(RNS) — Five years after Pope Francis ascended to the papacy, a new survey of U.S. Catholics reports that most still harbor warm feelings toward the pontiff — but his popularity is waning among political conservatives.

According to a new study from the Pew Research Center, the first Latin American pope retains a soaring 84 percent favorability rating among Catholics overall, with only a 1-point drop since 2014. A majority (58 percent) also still believe he represents a major positive change for the Roman Catholic Church.

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But 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.

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.

Source: Pew Research

By contrast, the report shows that when it comes to Democratic or Democratic-leaning Catholics, “there has been no statistically significant change in opinion on either of these questions.”

“Catholics who are Republican and Republican-leaning have become more negative to Pope Francis,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research at Pew. “I think this survey shows very clear evidence that Catholic attitudes about Pope Francis have become very polarized along partisan lines.”

The change follows several years of Francis invoking traditional Catholic social teaching to stake out positions widely seen as politically liberal. Since becoming the bishop of Rome, the pontiff has published an apostolic exhortation deeply critical of unfettered capitalism, repeatedly offered vocal support for immigrants and produced an encyclical calling for action on climate change.

Source: Pew Research

These moves have frustrated many Catholic Republican politicians in the U.S.

House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former presidential adviser Steve Bannon have all challenged or spoken critically of the pope’s views on things such as economics, refugees and the environment.

President Trump himself, a Protestant, has engaged in a war of words with Francis, who questioned Trump's faith.

“A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said in February 2016 when asked about the potential of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Meanwhile, Catholic writers such as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have railed against the pontiff for rhetoric regarding whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion.

The pope has also garnered attention for his more conciliatory approach to gay people, making headlines in 2013 after he responded to a question about gay priests by saying “who am I judge?” Francis has not, in fact, challenged the church’s traditional opposition to same-sex relationships but has introduced a change in tone on the issue.

The Pew report also suggests U.S. Catholics are more accepting of gay marriage than ever: 67 percent supported same-sex marriage in 2017, compared with 57 percent who said the same in 2015.

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Researchers also noted that Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often are “far more likely” than Catholics who attend services less often to “positively rate the pope’s performance on each issue asked about.”

“You have to remember, the pope is still the pope,” Smith said.

Compared with previous Pew studies on his predecessors, Francis' favorability ratings surpass any of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI's and approach those of St. John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite partisan differences on Francis, Catholics from across the political spectrum are in rough agreement about his handling of the child sex abuse crisis.

In 2015, 57 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics and 56 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholics said Francis was doing an excellent or good job addressing the sex abuse scandal. In 2018, the portion of those giving him positive marks on the issue has dwindled to 45 and 44 percent, respectively. (The survey was conducted before the recent media firestorm regarding Francis’ promotion of a Chilean bishop suspected of covering up abuse by a pedophile priest.)

Pew's survey of 1,503 adults was conducted Jan. 10-15 and has an overall margin of error of plus or minus 6.4 percentage points among Catholics.


  1. Of course Republicans find Pope Francis too liberal, just as Democrats found Popes John Paul II and Benedict too conservative. But the reality is, all popes have more in common than they have differences. It’s just a matter of what they choose to emphasize.

    Conservatives loved that John Paul consistently spoke out against abortion, but those same conservatives ignored his many statements against capital punishment and military spending. By the same token, Francis says things liberals love when he speaks about compassion in immigration reform and helping the poor, but they ignore his hard line on women’s ordination.

    There is no smooth translation of Catholic teaching into American politics. Both Catholic Republicans and Catholic Democrats who take both their faith and their political ideologies seriously have plenty to feel uncomfortable about.

  2. He’s an 80 year-old guy with one lung in a dress.
    This cult of personality, for all popes, is so pathetic.

  3. 1. This survey is far below Pew’s normally high standards. “Of 1,503 adults” who responded, 316 were Catholic – a very low number on which to base a national survey and a 6.4 margin of error is high.
    2. In fact, the survey did NOT ask WHAT SPECIFIC ISSUES motivated people’s response, but that didn’t stop this reporter from inserting his own presumptions.
    3. Then the reporter heaps on a number of myths promulgated by the mainstream media about this pope. The only quote by the pope when asked directly about Trump was, “We’ll wait and see.” Their meeting last May was described as “cordial” because they agree on denying women access to health care and equal rights for LGBTQ persons.
    In the only time Steve Bannon was recorded as actually saying something about this pope, he was laudatory.
    Douthat did not “rail against” the pope but soberly and truthfully stated disagreements with conservatives.

  4. Why would you put a lung in a dress? ?

  5. Not a Catholic, so your guess is as good as mine.

  6. My question has nothing to do with being Catholic and everything to do with poor sentence structure. Clarity in writing isn’t a matter of religion.

  7. In discussions with my Catholic friends and relatives, I refer to Pope Francis as our “Protestant Pope.” I long for the doctrinal clarity of Pope John Paul II, and I hope that Pope Francis follows the example of his immediate predecessor and soon retires.

  8. It’s the religion of pedophilia. Millions still owed to thousands of victims.

  9. meh…just another guy making claims about a god that lack credible evidence.

    But nice robes.

  10. to let the fabric breathe (bazinga)

  11. While I am an atheist….I don;t think it’s fair to put that on the entire religion. Certainly many top officials in the organization have a share of blame. But nothing in the religion per se advocates or leads to pedophilia.

  12. I’d say he’s better at marketing than encyclicals.

  13. In actuality, the celibacy requirement of said church is an unnatural practice. Since the time of Adam and Eve, the commandment has been to “multiply and replenish” the earth. From early times, it was common knowledge and practice
    to abuse alter and choir boys…and perverts were attracted to the church for this reason. Many of these boys grew up to become pedophiles themselves. It’s the dirty little secret among Catholic clergy for centuries.

  14. I agree it’s unnatural but there is no evidence it causes pedophilia. Some research indicates that pedophiles may be more likely to become priests either because they are confused by their pedophilia or to be closer to kids.

    Since I only see Adam and Eve as a fable…I cannot make much comment to that.

    I’m not convinced about a link between abused boys and later pedophilia. It seems to be more of a biological thing than an adapted condition.

  15. Jesus has the deciding vote doesn’t he? I think he’s doing a great job. I would love to sit down with him and discuss the issues he raised in his books. He i intelligent and had real life experience before becoming priest and then a prelate. He is not full of himself.

  16. Try to remember that from now on I will.

  17. Ah, the traditionalist Roman Catholic, who believes s/he’s “more Catholic than the Pope”!

    —a reason I’ve never been convinced re the RC claim of “submission to the Bishop of Rome”. You submit when you agree w/ him, and call him “Protestant” (you hope “soon retires”) when you don’t!

  18. If there’s one box I’d tick regarding Pope Francis’ views, that will be the box of climate change. He seems to be concerned about climate change and its aftermath which is why most Republicans are being put off by him. As for his views on LGBT, I’d put a question mark in that box.

  19. There are likely several factors related to the culture of the Church which result in widespread clergy sexual abuse. There is the unbridled authority that is handed to clergy by laypeople. Such authority led parents to never question their clergy’s involvement with their children.There were cases of children being left alone with their priest and abused in their own homes, while parents were present. Celibacy is also a factor, as is the culture of calling clergy “Father”.

  20. Francis hasn’t changed any of the core doctrine of the Church.

  21. Francis has done zilch in response to clergy sex abuse and the many bishops under him who protected offenders. He created a sham “commission”, then abandoned it. Now he’s recreated the window dressing, but its function is unclear. Creating a commission is not taking action. He has the authority to take decisive action against oerpetrators and enablers, but he won’t.

  22. Not through the front door, anyway. But the back door looks like a B & E job.

  23. Which core doctrine specifically? Is the trinity no more? Was Jesus not raised from the dead? Are your sins no longer forgiven? Are you no longer saved?

  24. Probably for the same reasons you’d put a man-you think he looks more dignified in it.

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