Views of the Church as "in Touch" Soar; Most See Real Change Under Francis

For the first time in 20 years, a majority of American Catholics say the church

ByABC News
September 19, 2015, 11:59 PM

— -- For the first time in 20 years, a majority of American Catholics say the church is in touch with their views, a number that’s risen dramatically under Pope Francis.

On the eve of his U.S. visit, two-thirds of Catholics in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll also say the pope is changing traditional church policies on important issues. And nine in 10 approve of the direction in which he’s leading the church.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

There’s still room for improvement. Fifty-six percent of Catholics now see the church as in touch with the views of Catholics in America today – a less robust majority than the church might prefer. But that’s up from just 34 percent in March 2013, when Francis’ papacy began.

There’s also a sharp ideological division in views of the pope – in the opposite direction than existed for his predecessor, Benedict XVI. Among all Americans, those who call themselves very conservative see Francis much less positively than others. Benedict, by contrast, was more popular among conservatives, less so among moderates and liberals.

That said, views of Pope Francis remain broadly positive in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates. Among all Americans, seven in 10 see him favorably, including 44 percent who feel that way strongly. His popularity rises to 86 percent among Catholics, including three-quarters who have strongly favorable views. While his overall popularity has been essentially steady, strongly positive views of the pope are up since late 2013 by 8 and 11 points among all Americans and Catholics, respectively.

At the same time, views that the church is in touch with American Catholics’ beliefs are up sharply among Catholic men, but not women. And most Catholics would like to see the pope continue – but not expand – his activism on social, economic, and environmental issues. (Few, though, want him to curtail these activities.)

Further, some basic impressions of the Catholic Church have softened. Favorable views of the church overall increased in 2013 as Benedict resigned and Francis was elected in his place. Those positive ratings now have declined among all Americans and Catholics alike, by 7 and 14 points, respectively – essentially back to their previous levels. Today 55 percent of all adults and 81 percent of Catholics express a favorable opinion of the church.

Twenty-two percent of Americans identify themselves as Catholics, a number that’s held steady for more than a decade in ABC/Post polls. It peaks among Hispanics – 57 percent are Catholics, compared with 18 percent of whites and 7 percent of blacks. Hispanics, as such, are more apt than others to see the church and the pope favorably.

Conservative qualms

As noted, very conservative Americans have far less positive views of the pope, likely reflecting perceptions that he’s taken liberal positions on some issues. Just half of strong conservatives see him favorably, compared with seven in 10 or more of other conservatives, moderates and liberals alike.

Similarly, just 48 percent of very conservatives approve of the direction in which Francis is leading the church, compared with 61, 69 and 74 percent of somewhat conservatives, moderates and liberals, respectively. And fewer than half of strong conservatives – 47 percent – view the church itself favorably, compared with 57 percent of other adults.