Poll: American Catholics Support New Pope

American Catholics are responding with broad support if not deep enthusiasm to the selection of Pope Benedict XVI, with rising interest in traditionalism but also a clear message on his first priority: addressing the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Eighty-one percent of Catholics in this ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of the election of German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope. Just over a quarter, though, call themselves "very enthusiastic" about it.

His reputation as a traditionalist appears to be one reason. The vast majority, 80 percent of Catholics, think Benedict will work mainly to maintain church traditions, while nearly half would prefer, instead, that he modernize church policies. At the same time, support for traditionalism has grown in the past year and a half, possibly in reaffirmation of basic faith as John Paul II's health flagged.

Selection of Pope Benedict XVI Among Catholics
Approve of Selection Yes No
81% 13
Enthusiastic About Selection Very Somewhat Not Very Not At All
27 46 15 9

In terms of Benedict's work ahead, 71 percent of Catholics cite "addressing the issue of sexual abuse by priests" as among his highest priorities; far fewer, 41 percent, say "preserving the church's traditions" should be a highest priority. Last on the priorities list, at 22 percent, is "responding to the concerns of women in the church."

Weekly churchgoers, as well as those who attend less often, put the abuse issue atop the priorities list. There are differences on some other issues: The two biggest are interest in tradition (20 points higher among weekly churchgoers) and in responding to the concerns of young Catholics (15 points higher).

Papal Priorities
Highest High Lower
Sexual abuse by priests 71% 24 4
Encouraging human rights 61 34 4
Concerns of young Catholics 43 52 5
Relations with other religions 31 54 12
Attracting new priests 30 41 23
Concerns of women 22 54 19

Weekly churchgoers also are more apt to be "very enthusiastic" about Benedict's election, 41 percent versus 15 percent.


As noted, this poll finds a boost in some traditional attitudes among American Catholics, possibly an expression of faith during the failing health and death of Pope John Paul II, the pageantry of his funeral and yesterday's installation of Pope Benedict XVI as his successor.

The number of Catholics who say the pope should focus on tradition has risen from 33 percent in October 2003 (the time of John Paul II's 25th anniversary as pope) to 41 percent last month and 50 percent today. The number who prefer a focus on modernizing church policies has declined in that time, from 64 percent to 48 percent. The change has occurred equally among weekly and non-weekly churchgoing Catholics.

Church Policy
Should pope change policies?MaintainChange
4/24/05 Among Catholics50%48
3/13/05 Among Catholics4157
10/13/03 Among Catholics3364

Similarly, there's been a 10-point drop in the number of Catholics who describe the church as "out of touch" with the views of Catholics in America today, down from 62 percent in 2003 to 52 percent now.


American Catholics also are somewhat less apt than all Americans in this survey to favor legal abortion (46 percent of Catholics do, compared with 56 percent of all Americans); still, that means nearly half of Catholics are out of sync with the Vatican on this issue. And there are broader gaps on other issues -- two-thirds of Catholics support the death penalty; nearly six in 10 support both embryonic stem-cell research and legal recognition for same-sex couples.

Additionally, in terms of its direct engagement in politics, seven in 10 Catholics oppose the church's denying communion to Catholic politicians who are in favor of legal abortion. Even among weekly churchgoing Catholics, 58 percent are opposed.

Catholics also are less likely than Protestants to say religion is "the most important thing" in their lives. Sixteen percent of all Catholics say so, rising to 25 percent of weekly churchgoing Catholics. But it's 28 percent among all Protestants, 50 percent among weekly churchgoing Protestants, and 55 percent among weekly churchgoing evangelical Protestants.

Is Religion the Most Important Thing in Your Life?
All Catholics 16
Weekly Churchgoing Catholics 25
All Protestants 28
Weekly Churchgoing Protestants 50
Weekly Churchgoing Evangelical Protestants 55


Finally, for all the controversy about sexual abuse, the priesthood retains some attraction. Fifty-three percent of Catholics say they'd want their son to become a priest (if they had one), and that rises to 68 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly.


This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 21-24, 2005, among a random national sample of 1,082 adults, including an oversample of Catholics for a total of 284 Catholic respondents. The results have a three-point error margin for the full population, and six points for Catholics. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

Click here for PDF version with full questionnaire and results.

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