Americans polled just after Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States like the leader of the Catholic Church so much that three-quarters, or 75.8 percent, reported holding either a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of the pontiff, according to data collected by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute.
The nonpartisan survey of 1,000 respondents nationwide was conducted September 27 – 29, 2015, to capture Americans’ sentiments immediately following the end of the pope’s six-day visit. It was a special survey solely about Pope Francis and his impact, and conducted apart from the institute’s usual quarterly survey on politics and other topics in the public sphere. This poll included Catholics, other Christians, members of other faith groups, and those not affiliated with any faith group. The margin of error was plus or minus 3 percent for responses gathered from the overall survey base. (Detailed information is at http://polls.saintleo.edu.)
“The pope is very popular, not just among Catholics, but also among Christians, and non-Christians,” said Frank Orlando, Saint Leo University instructor of political science. “In the past, politicians needed to work with the pope to help with Catholic voters. While between 20 and 25 percent of all Americans are Catholic, this pope is reaching almost everyone,” Orlando added.
The Saint Leo University Polling Institute has been tracking the popularity of the pontiff across the broad population over time, and the most recent survey reflects a clear boost in the pope’s popularity. In a poll conducted in March 2015, 66 percent of respondents reported having either a very favorable or somewhat favorable opinion of Francis. In late September and early October 2014, 63 percent reported a very favorable or somewhat favorable reaction.
“It seems to make a great difference to see Francis here in America, engaging Americans within our context,” added theologian Dr. Michael Anthony Novak, in commenting on the increase.
Additionally, 88.8 percent of respondents credit Pope Francis, who is from Argentina, with energizing Latinos or Hispanics with a new enthusiasm for the Catholic Church.
Francis’ Major Recent Themes and Statements
Because Pope Francis gave several speeches during his three-city tour, and because he also made many well-publicized statements leading up to his trip, the survey asked Americans to comment on several specific recent messages across a wide range of topics addressed by the pontiff. Respondents were asked how strongly they agree or disagree with the following.
Messages Reactions: Percent who “Strongly” or “Somewhat Agree”
Young people from all backgrounds need hope and opportunity: 94.6
Family life is precious and should be supported: 94.5
The U.S. is blessed with many gift: 93.2
Business and technology can serve humankind: 90.1
The U.S. is one of the world’s liveliest and most successful democracies: 86.2
The U.S. could do more for the vulnerable: 82.3
The U.S. has a positive history of religious diversity: 81.9
The U.S. has a remarkable and impressive record of absorbing waves of immigrants: 81.3
The pope’s decision to allow Roman Catholic priests to absolve women who have had abortions after they seek forgiveness: 80.5
Protecting the environment is the responsibility of all Christians: 78.9
The pope’s recognition that the process for married Catholics to obtain annulments of their marriages should be simpler and less expensive: 78.6
Arms trading must be halted: 77.3
The U.S. needs to do more to address global climate change: 75.8
Wealthy nations should open their borders to migrants fleeing hunger and violence: 64.3
The death penalty should be abolished everywhere: 41.9
Pastoral Approach Appreciated
Respondents felt warmly about Pope Francis’ approach to different groups, which Dr. Stephen Okey, a Saint Leo theologian, describes as pastoral. “Many are positively struck by Pope Francis’ apparent openness to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) and divorced Catholics,’’ said Okey, an assistant professor. “The perception is that Francis ‘embraces’ members of these groups while previous popes ‘judged’ them. However, Francis is also not signaling any changes in Catholic teaching with respect to these controversial issues,’’ Okey added. (The poll was taken before it was revealed that Pope Francis met with an American county clerk who opposes same-sex marriages.)
With other groups, Okey added, “The people who are most vulnerable in society are also those most at risk from what Francis call the ‘throwaway culture,’ including the poor, the disabled, the imprisoned, and the unborn. By spending time with them, Francis is calling on all of us to re-center our focus on those who are marginalized.”
Environmental Message Gains Broader Agreement
Saint Leo science faculty member Dr. Leo Ondrovic said the public response to the environmental messages from the pope is significant. “There is widespread agreement with the pope, when he says protecting the environment is the responsibility of all Christians, as polling shows 78.9 percent agree strongly or somewhat. (Also, 85.4 percent of Catholics respondents answered the same way). The U.S. Congress should pay attention when the pope says the U.S. needs to do more to address climate change, as 75.8 percent of respondents (and 82.3 percent of Catholics) strongly or somewhat agree.”
Ondrovic, an associate professor of biology and physics, continued: “The high level of agreement has not been seen in polling in the past, so it would appear the pope has struck a nerve among our population with the environmental theme. This is far more than a simple majority. These numbers show that those who continue to believe the environment should not be addressed are outnumbered by more than 3-to-1! This groundswell of support for environmental concerns would seem to be a large shift in American attitudes following the pontiff’s visit. It would seem Pope Francis was successful in promoting concern for the environment.”
Views on Pregnancy and Abortion
The survey also tried to detect whether Pope Francis’ teaching regarding pregnancy and protecting the unborn had any sway on Americans’ pre-existing views. In the survey, 22 percent said they were opposed to abortion in any circumstances. Another group, 37.2 percent, described themselves as pro-choice. Pro-choice respondents were asked if the pope’s influence might make them consider changing their position—5.1 percent said they were open to consider opposing abortions.
American Political Labels Can Be Deceptive
More than one-third of the survey respondents, at 37.3 percent, said Pope Francis is too liberal for them. A smaller group, 26.3 percent, said Pope Francis is too conservative for their tastes.
That should not be a surprise, explained Novak, an assistant professor of theology. “Popes never line up very well with the (two) poles of American politics, because their concerns and actions are not based either in what Americans consider ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ politics. That is why after two years as pope, as our poll indicates, you have what seem like very contradictory impressions: that a little over a quarter of Americans consider Francis too conservative for them, and that a little over a third of Americans feel the opposite, that Francis is too liberal for them,” he explained.
And yet, the situation could also be interpreted positively by politicians, according to Orlando, the political scientist. “Because the pope is so popular, and because his Catholic message can be split between the two parties, there’s something for everyone to latch on to. This leads to a situation where the pope-as-cheerleader is being tossed around like a football between the two parties. Politicians who haven’t made an allusion to the pope in their entire career are now mining the vast public record of Pope Francis for quotes. The hope is that they can bask in the pope’s moral glow, and this poll seems to show that that isn’t a bad strategy.”
METHODOLOGY: The poll sampled opinions of 1,000 approximately proportional to state population contribution nationwide. The survey was conducted September 27 – 29, 2015. All surveys were conducted using an online survey instrument. The poll has a +/- 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level on a composite basis. The margin of error for subgroups is larger, but answers are available.