U.S. Catholics Admire, Disagree With Pope

A quarter-century into his papacy, the ailing Pope John Paul II is a beloved leader but in many cases an unpersuasive one, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds.

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Even as they express admiration for the man, majorities in the pope's American flock reject a variety of his teachings, say he hasn't influenced their views — even on religious matters — and see the Roman Catholic Church as out of step with their lives.

On a range of issues — including premarital sex, birth control, the death penalty, ordaining women and allowing priests to marry — majorities of American Catholics differ with the pope. About six in 10 call the church out of touch with the views of American Catholics.

And in what can only be regarded as a rebuke to this conservative, tradition-centered pontiff, nearly two-thirds say the next pope should focus less on traditional policies, and more on changing those policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of Catholics today.

Also, as John Paul's health declines, American Catholics for the first time are evenly split (49 percent to 47 percent) on whether he should resign for health reasons or lead the church until he dies. In three polls last year, majorities wanted him to keep the job until the end.

Approval Ratings

Overall nearly eight in 10 American Catholics approve of the pope's work as he reaches the 25th anniversary of his Oct. 16, 1978, election (40 percent strongly approve). On a more personal level, 84 percent of Catholics view him favorably, as do 65 percent of all Americans.

Yet his personal popularity is far greater than his influence. Most Catholics, 60 percent, say their local church officials better represent their views on religious and moral issues. Fewer than half of Catholics — about four in 10 — say the pope has influenced their personal religious and moral views; fewer, 33 percent, say he's influenced their personal behavior; and fewer still, 21 percent, say John Paul II has influenced their political opinions.

Fewer than a third of Catholics say John Paul has "strongly" influenced them in any of these areas — on religious beliefs, 30 percent; on moral views, 27 percent; in their personal behavior, 22 percent; and in their political opinions, 11 percent. (Among non-Catholics, naturally, the pope has decidedly less influence: from 7 percent to 13 percent say he's influenced their views on these issues.)

Pope's Performance

Most Catholics rate the pope's efforts positively across a range of topics, but his ratings tend to be better on general themes than on church-specific matters. Broadly, for example, 86 percent to 90 percent of Catholics say he's done an excellent or good job setting a personal moral example, encouraging human rights, preserving church traditions and encouraging democracy — all his best ratings.

Many fewer, about six in 10, give positive ratings to his efforts to make the church more appealing to people today, or to his work responding to the concerns of young Catholics. And fewer still, 53 percent, say the pope has done a good job either in responding to the concerns of women in the church, or in making it attractive for people to serve as priests.

There's a gender gap on some of these issues. Sixty percent of Catholic men say the pope has done good work on women's issues; fewer Catholic women, 46 percent, agree. Similarly, 70 percent of Catholic men say the pope has done well "making Catholicism appealing to people today." Agreement declines to 54 percent of Catholic women.

Policies and Issues

Many American Catholics have long opposed some of the church's policies, and that resistance continues. In one case it's grown: A new high, 67 percent, oppose the church's ban on married priests, up from half in 1986. Catholics by 2-1, 64 percent to 32 percent, also oppose the church's prohibition on women priests.

On social issues, as well, most Catholics are more closely aligned with broader public opinion than with their church's position. Eighty-eight percent of Catholics say the use of birth-control pills and condoms is morally acceptable. More than six in 10 Catholics say premarital sex is morally acceptable. Ditto for the death penalty.

Fewer Catholics, but nearly half, buck the church and say homosexual relations between consenting adults are morally acceptable. The fewest, three in 10, say abortion is morally acceptable when the woman's life is not in danger.

These views provide a backdrop to the finding that six in 10 Catholics say the church is out of touch with American Catholics, compared with 34 percent who say it's in touch. That sentiment is deep as well as broad, expressed by majorities of Catholics across age, income, and education categories.

Most Observant

A difference, naturally, is among the most observant Catholics. Among those who say they attend church weekly (44 percent of Catholics), 52 percent see the church as in touch with the views of Catholics in America today. Yet even among these weekly churchgoers, 44 percent say the church is out of touch.

Weekly churchgoing Catholics, and especially weekly churchgoing Catholics who call themselves "very religious," are also more apt than Catholics in general to approve of the church's teachings, to say the pope has influenced their lives, to approve of his performance on various issues, and to want the next pope to stick to tradition.

For instance, 56 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say the pope has influenced their religious beliefs, and 52 percent say he's influenced their moral views. But majorities even of these most-churched Catholics say the pope hasn't influenced their personal behavior or their political opinions.

Fifty-two percent of Catholics who attend church weekly say premarital sex is morally unacceptable. But majorities differ with the church on the acceptability of the death penalty and on the issue of birth control.

Among weekly attenders, 45 percent say the next pope should stick with traditional policies. But again, even in this most-observant group, 51 percent say instead that the next pope should change church policy to reflect the views and lifestyles of Catholics today.

Backing for a new direction from the next pope is highest — three-quarters or more — among Catholics who think the pope should resign, who aren't very religious, and who think the pope should have done more to address the issue of sexual abuse of children by priests.

Abuse Response

The abuse issue continues to dog the church. Seven in 10 Catholics (and almost eight in 10 non-Catholics) disapprove of the way the church has handled the issue, and a majority do so strongly.

Seventy-four percent of Catholics also say the pope should have done more to deal with this issue. That concern, though, has little impact on his overall ratings.

Only on the question of whether the church can be trusted to deal with abuse in the future do Catholics and non-Catholics disagree. Fifty-five percent of Catholics say the church can be trusted on this issue; just 30 percent of non-Catholics agree.

Next Pope

There's been some discussion of whether the pope's replacement should come from the developed world — especially Europe, where most popes have come from — or from a developing part of the world, such as Africa or South America, where the church is growing fastest. In this poll, American Catholics by a 20-point margin prefer a pope from the developed world, 43 percent to 23 percent.

There's another gender gap on this issue. Fifty-one percent of Catholic men prefer a pope from the developed world; 37 percent of Catholic women agree.


Catholics represent just over a fifth of the adult U.S. population — 21 percent in this poll. Forty-four percent, as noted, say they attend church at least once a week; 16 percent say they attend a few times a month, and 38 percent less often than that.

Gender and age are factors in attendance, with half of Catholic women and 52 percent of those over the age of 45 attending weekly, compared with 36 percent of men and 35 percent of Catholics under age 45.

While Catholics are perhaps slightly more apt than Protestants in general to attend weekly services, 44 percent to 38 percent, regular attendance is highest, 54 percent, among evangelical Protestants. Catholics are somewhat less likely than all Protestants to say they're "very" religious — 28 percent of Catholics apply that term to themselves, compared with 36 percent of Protestants and 49 percent of evangelical Protestants.


This ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 9-13 among a random national sample of 1,281 adults and an oversample of Catholics for a total of 504. The results have a three-point error margin for the full population, and 4.5 points for the Catholic sample. Sampling, data collection and tabulation were done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

To see complete results of the poll, click here.

Previous ABCNEWS polls can be found in our Poll Vault.