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In the five years since his election, Pope Francis has become a byword for humility and compassion among American Catholics, a new survey has found. But conservative Catholics are increasingly concerned about his reforms and vision for the Catholic Church, according to the same survey.
And despite talk of a “Francis effect” convincing lapsed Catholics to return to the fold, the survey shows no indication that the Pope has inspired an increase in the number of American Catholics, or in attendance at Catholic Masses.
The survey, conducted in January by the Pew Research Center, polled a national sample of 1,503 American adults, of which 316 were Catholics. The margin of error ranges from 2.9 percentage points for all Americans to nearly 10 points for subgroups of American Catholics.
When Francis stepped to the window of St. Peter’s Basilica on March 13, 2013, the day of his election, he was relatively unknown even inside the Catholic Church. But the new Pope quickly won public acclaim – from Catholics and nonbelievers alike – for gestures like paying his own hotel bill, living in the Vatican guesthouse instead of the Apostolic Palace, and washing the feet of Muslim inmates during Holy Week.
“Those kinds of things have faded into the background, and people are now looking at what he has really changed in the church,” said John Thavis, author of “The Vatican Diaries” and former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service. “He does have his share of critics, but he still has an awful lot of support among mainstream Catholics.”
For sure, the Pope enjoys approval ratings rarely seen among secular leaders.
Nine in 10 American Catholics see Francis as compassionate and humble, according to the Pew survey released Tuesday. More than 80% of American Catholics hold favorable views of Francis, which is higher than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, but not quite as high as Pope John Paul II in his heyday during the 1980s and ‘90s.
Among all American adults, not just Catholics, 62% rate Pope Francis favorably, according to Pew.
A polarizing Pope
At the same time, though, Catholics are increasingly polarized about the actions Francis has taken as Pope. Since 2014, the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a “major, positive change” for the church declined from 60% to 37%.
Similarly, the number of American Catholics who view Francis as “too liberal” (34%) or “naive” (24%) has multiplied dramatically during the past three years.
Pew’s study gives statistical shape and size to the small but growing anti-Francis movement. A new raft of books calls Francis a “dictator” or “lost shepherd” who is leading the church into a civil war between conservatives and liberals.
In those and other books, conservatives have criticized the Pope for famously saying of gay people, “Who am I to judge?” and for opening a path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Others argue that Francis’ freewheeling remarks in press conferences, speeches and homilies have created confusion about Catholic teachings.
“The Roman pontiff should be a focus of unity in the church,” writes Philip F. Lawler, a Catholic journalist in his new book, “Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock.”
“Francis, regrettably, has become a source of division.”
Still, Pew’s survey seemed to find widespread support among American Catholics for the Pope’s liberalizing agenda.
More than six in 10 Catholics (63%) say he has done at least a little to make the church more accepting of homosexuality, and just 17% said they would like to see him do less in that area. Likewise, just 11% told Pew they do not want Francis to make the church more accepting of divorce and remarriage.
No ‘Francis effect’
The Pope’s popularity hasn’t yet translated into a “Francis effect,” according to the Pew study.
Twenty-two percent of Americans identified as Catholic in 2012, before Francis’ election, and 20% did the same in 2017, a statistically negligible slip. Attendance at Mass, meanwhile, has stayed steady over the same period, with about 4 in 10 Catholics reporting weekly attendance.
The report also found that more than half of American Catholics – 55% – say their parish priests are “very supportive” of Pope Francis, with an additional 23% saying their priest is “somewhat supportive.”
The clergy sexual abuse scandal continues to roil the church, and an increasing number of Catholics say they are concerned about the Pope’s response to the crisis. Nearly half – 46% – say Francis is doing a “poor” or “middling” job on the issue, up from 34% who said the same three years ago.
The survey was conducted before the Vatican announced that the Pope had sent a top sexual abuse investigator to Chile to investigate a possible cover-up of crimes by a priest whom Francis later promoted as a bishop.
The Pope had forcefully defended Bishop Juan Barros, calling the accusations against him “slander,” before apparently making an abrupt about-face and sending the investigator to Chile.
When asked by Pew about Francis’ most significant accomplishment, Catholics gave a wide range of responses, from setting a good Christian example (9%) to “opening up the church” (9%) and helping the poor (8%). No one response garnered more than 9%.