WASHINGTON – U.S. Catholics are happier with their church and their pope than they’ve been with either in at least a decade, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that also finds Pope Francis at least as popular with Catholics today as Pope John Paul II was even at his peak in such surveys.
On the day Time magazine named Francis its Person of the Year, the survey showed that among Catholics, 92 percent have a favorable view of Francis and 95 percent say the same of the church. Francis’ popularity marks a large increase from former Pope Benedict XVI’s 73 percent favorable rating in a February Post-ABC poll just after he announced his retirement.
The jump in popularity is led by Catholics with moderate and liberal political views.
Ninety-four percent of Catholics who identify as moderate or liberal say they have favorable views of Francis compared with 73 percent who said the same of Benedict after he announced his retirement in February. Among politically conservative Catholics, 91 percent are favorable toward Francis, compared with 84 percent who said the same of Benedict in February.
Francis has triggered a huge wave of interest since taking office in March, swelling crowds at his weekly addresses, generating many millions of social media followers, and becoming the focus of countless articles being written around the globe about his welcoming approach to faith.
Non-Catholics also voice largely positive views of Francis – 62 percent favorable and 18 percent unfavorable; 21 percent have yet to form an opinion. Benedict drew only 48 percent favorable views among non-Catholics immediately after announcing his resignation in February, while 31 percent saw him unfavorably.
As with Catholics, the jump in papal popularity among non-Catholics is more prominent on the left than the right. Seventy-two percent of non-Catholic liberals see Francis positively, compared with 40 percent who said this of Benedict in February. Similar majorities of conservatives, by contrast, rated Francis and Benedict favorably (59 and 55 percent).
The poll mirrors a February finding that Americans’ overall – Catholic and not – by a 2-to-1 ratio have favorable rather than unfavorable views of the Catholic Church, 62 percent to 30 percent. That is a high-point in the past decade, bringing the favorability of the country’s largest faith group back to the levels it was in the early 2000s, before the clergy sex-abuse crisis hit.
Pope John Paul II, who led the church from 1978 until his death in 2005, had high popularity numbers among Americans. The peak in Post-ABC polling came in the weeks before his death, when 87 percent of U.S. Catholics said they had a favorable view of him. At that time 67 percent of all Americans said the same, compared with 71 percent who said that in early 1998 – his peak by that general yardstick.
The new poll included 1,006 randomly selected adults reached on landline and cellular phones. The full survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; the margin among Catholics is 7.5 percentage points among the 224 Catholics surveyed.
Meanwhile, Time editor Nancy Gibbs explained the magazine’s choice:
“Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly – young and old, faithful and cynical – as has Pope Francis. He has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.”
– The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.