Pope Francis poses for a photo with Argentine youths during his weekly audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 19. CNS photo/Alessandro Bianchi, Reuters

Catholics love their celebrity Pope and most — not all — his priorities

By  Cathy Lynn Grossman, Religion News Service
  • August 25, 2015

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 per cent) and nearly a third of Catholics (31 per cent) 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 per cent of Americans and 90 per cent of U.S. Catholics hold a favourable 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 per cent 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 per cent) 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 per cent 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.

Unlike the popular pontiff,  when it comes to the institutional church, 25 per cent of Americans pile on the negative terms such as “dogmatic” or “hypocritical” or “overly concerned with money.” Only 9 per cent 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 per cent 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 per cent 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 favour, said Jones.

Neither are Catholics uniformly on board with Francis’ many calls for social and economic justice. Most (57 per cent), 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 per cent 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 per cent (like 71 per cent of all Americans) say government should do more to reduce the gap between rich and poor.
  • 73 per cent of Catholics (66 per cent of Americans) say the U.S. government should do more to address climate change.
  • 61 per cent (63 per cent of Americans) want to see a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
  • 51 per cent, chiefly Democrats, (53 per cent of Americans) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

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

  • 53 per cent of Catholics say they don’t think same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs.* 60 per cent favour allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry.
  • 76 per cent favour laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination.
  • 65 per cent 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.

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 per cent non-Hispanic white, older and centred 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.

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

“If Pope Francis were touching ground in Las Vegas (where 67 per cent 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., 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 per cent of Americans who say they grew up Catholic but told PRRI they no longer identify with the faith.

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

Still, the survey finds, 66 per cent of Catholics and 51 per cent 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 centre.”

Comments (1)

  1. JeffB

"Overall, Catholics are statistically in line with most Americans on current hot-button social issues:
51 per cent... say abortion should be legal in all or most cases."
Those 51 % have excommunicated themselves according to the CCC. They are...

"Overall, Catholics are statistically in line with most Americans on current hot-button social issues:
51 per cent... say abortion should be legal in all or most cases."
Those 51 % have excommunicated themselves according to the CCC. They are not on the narrow path.

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