Washington, March 6, 2014 — One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis remains immensely popular among American Catholics and is widely seen as a force for positive change within the Roman Catholic Church, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. More than eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of the pontiff, including half who view him very favorably. The percentage of Catholics who view Francis “very favorably” now rivals the number who felt equally positive about Pope John Paul II in the 1980s and 1990s, though Francis’ overall favorability rating remains a few points shy of that of the long-serving Polish pope.
Seven-in-ten U.S. Catholics also now say Francis represents a major change in direction for the church, a sentiment shared by 56% of non-Catholics. And nearly everyone who says Francis represents a major change sees this as a change for the better.
It is less clear whether there has been a so-called “Francis effect,” a discernible change in the way American Catholics approach their faith. There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic. Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass.
On the other hand, about a quarter of Catholics (26%) say they have become “more excited” about their Catholic faith over the past year (outnumbering the one-in-ten who have become less excited). And fully 40% of Catholics say they have been praying more often in the past 12 months (compared with 8% who say they have been praying less often). It is important to note that none of these questions about religious practices were explicitly tied in the survey to Francis’ papacy; the questions dealing with attitudes toward Francis came elsewhere in the questionnaire.
These are among the key findings of a new Pew Research Center survey, conducted Feb. 14-23, on landlines and cellphones among a national sample of 1,821 adults (including 351 Catholics).
Expectations for Change in the Church
- The survey also finds that a growing number of American Catholics expect that in the near future the Catholic Church will allow priests to get married; 51% think the church will make this change by the year 2050, up 12 percentage points from the days immediately following Francis’ election.
- But there has been less movement in Catholics’ expectation for other kinds of change. Roughly four-in-ten Catholics think that in the coming decades the church either definitely or probably will allow women to become priests, about the same number who held this expectation a year ago. And 56% of Catholics think the church will soon allow Catholics to use birth control, very similar to the 53% who said this last year.
Support for Changes to Church Teachings
- Support for certain changes remains high among American Catholics. Nearly eight-in-ten say the church should allow Catholics to use birth control, while roughly seven-in-ten say the church should allow priests to get married and allow women to become priests.
- By comparison, support for the church sanctioning same-sex marriages is lower. Half of U.S. Catholics say the church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples, while 43% say it should not. Roughly one-in-three – including 21% of those who do not think the church should accept same-sex marriages – say they expect the church will recognize such marriages by 2050.
In addition to the new poll, Pew Research is releasing a companion report analyzing media coverage of Francis, which finds that he ranked among the top global newsmakers in major U.S.-based digital news outlets in his first year in office. Francis ranked behind figures such as U.S. President Barack Obama, South African leader Nelson Mandela and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but ahead of former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition, the tone of conversation about Francis on Twitter was more positive than negative, in contrast with that of Pope Benedict XVI in his final year as leader of the Catholic Church.
The full survey report, “Catholics View Pope Francis as a Change for the Better,” is available on the website of the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. The full media analysis, “Media Coverage of Pope Francis’ First Year,” is available on the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project website.
Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. Its Religion & Public Life Project seeks to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs.