CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pope Francis’ visit boosted the church. The pope himself? Not so much

By  Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service
  • October 8, 2015

Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit gave his already-high favourability ratings only a modest bounce with most Americans — and no bounce at all among Catholics.

Yet his three-city September tour — from Congress to the United Nations and from cathedrals to a prison — generated significant goodwill toward the Catholic Church, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Pew’s survey, conducted just days after the Pope returned to Rome, was released Oct. 7 and offers a snapshot of his initial impact. The top finding: “Four times as many U.S. adults say their opinion of the Catholic Church is better now because of Pope Francis as people who say their impression has gotten worse,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research and co-author of the report.

Nearly six in 10 U.S. adults (58 percent) said their view hasn’t changed, according to the survey of 1,000 people, including 218 Catholics, conducted Oct. 1-4. But where there was movement, politics made a difference for the Pope, whose agenda included hot topics such as immigration, climate change, poverty and religious liberty.

“Democrats are especially likely to say Pope Francis has given them a more positive view of the Church,” said Smith.

Overall, 28 per cent had a more positive view of the Church after Francis’ visit, while six per cent said they now hold a more negative view. The remainder had no opinion.

However, among Democrats, 36 per cent say they have a more positive view now while only two per cent say their view is more negative. By contrast, 27 per cent of Republicans hold a more positive view and 10 per cent hold a more negative one.

“That’s 17 Democrats who have a more positive view for every one who says their view is now worse, compared to a ratio of nearly three positive to one negative for Republicans,” said Smith.

That doesn’t necessarily translate into a significant jump in ratings for Francis, whose overall favourable rating now stands at 68 per cent among U.S. adults. He didn’t inspire a boost among Catholics as the shy, scholarly and strict former Pope Benedict XVI did when he visited the United States in 2008.

Both popes did see increased favourability overall after their visits, Smith said. But among Catholics, Benedict’s favorability rating climbed nine points — from 52 per cent before his visit to 61 per cent after. In contrast, Francis’ favourability among Catholics has drifted downward. It was 90 per cent in a February Pew survey, 86 per cent in a June survey and now sits at 81 per cent.

“We don’t know why this is or whether the fact that Francis was already seen so favourably, there wasn’t much room to move,” said Smith.

“The overall recent improvement for Francis is concentrated among non-Catholics,” he said.

Now, 65 per cent of non-Catholics hold a favourable view, up seven per cent since June — based on the three largest groups: white evangelicals, white mainline Protestants and people with no religious identity.

Catholics who said they attended Mass at least once a week were responsible for most of the decline in Francis’ favourability rating.

“It’s not that they hold unfavourable views but they are more likely to say they have no opinion,” said Smith.

Francis’ warm embrace of Americans — he kissed babies and hugged adults in Washington, New York and Philadelphia — was reciprocated in the survey. Pew gave respondents an open-ended question: “What one word best describes your impression of Pope Francis?”

Three in four had positive things to say: good, humble, kind and compassionate. “Amazing” turned up, as well.

The remaining terms were neutral or maybe negative — depending on what you think of words such as “progressive” or even “socialist.”

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