Sep 16, 2015

From the Archives

What Americans Think of Pope Francis and His Policies

From nightclub bouncer to the world’s most well known religious leader, the rise of Pope Francis has captured the hearts of people around the world. His actions, words and demeanor since taking over the papacy in 2013 have won wide acclaim across generational lines, and are bridging the age-old divide between Protestants and Catholics. The celebrated Pontiff is coming stateside September 22 to 27, touring the East Coast with stops in Washington, DC, New York and Philadelphia, including speeches to the U.S. Congress and the UN General Assembly.

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In anticipation of this historic visit, Barna Group conducted a survey to determine Americans’ views of the Pope and his policies. Does Pope Francis enjoy the same favorability as he did a year ago? Do his views resonate with those inside and outside the Catholic Church? Has the Pope’s favorability influenced the way people view the Catholic Church itself? The Pope has notably gained the attention of Millennials, but what do they think of his perspectives on hot-topic social issues like same-sex marriage, abortion and climate change? A new nationwide survey of U.S. adults provides answers to these questions.

Pope Francis Is Coming to Town
Pope Francis may be the world’s most well known religious leader, but only about half of Americans are aware of his forthcoming visit. Catholics tend to be more aware of his visit (59%) than Protestants (49%). Knowledge of the Pope’s visit also increases with age, with only 45 percent of Millennials aware of his visit, compared to 60 percent of Elders.

What Do Americans Think of Pope Francis? 2014 vs. 2015
Pope Francis’ approach has marked a break from the typical moralizing tone of Popes past, and it’s a tone that has resonated deeply with Americans. Pope Francis enjoys widespread popularity in this country that has only increased over the past year from 54% of all adults reporting favorable views of the Pope in 2014 to 60% in 2015. Growth is most notable among younger generations with the Pope’s favorability among Millennials and Gen-Xers increasing by 14 (41% to 55%) and 20 (51% to 71%) percentage points in one year, respectively. Among the older generations, favorability drops slightly from 64% to 54% for Boomers, and 66% to 58% for Elders, however both remain high relatively speaking.

Favorability is up among Protestants, but there are harsher critics within his own tradition; favorability dipped slightly among Catholics since 2014. Protestants overall report a 10-point increase (from 48% to 58%), but Catholics’ favorable impressions dropped 6 percentage points. Still, Catholics overall report highly favorable views—at 79 percent, the highest among all segments.

Pope Francis has said that what the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds. His desire is for the church to be a “field hospital,” mending the hearts of those both inside and outside its walls, and healing the fracture between Catholics and Protestants. But is the hard work of healing a centuries-old wound having any effect? When asked whether Pope Francis has improved their view of the church, Protestants and younger generations are the most persuaded.

The Pope’s appeal to younger generations is hard to ignore. Half of Millennials agree that the Pope has positively influenced their view of the Catholic Church (49%), almost twice as many as 2014 (27%). It’s the same story among Gen-Xers, with half affirming that he’s improved their view of the church; this also represents an increase from a year ago (36% to 50%). More Protestants since 2014 also report the Pope’s positive influence on their views of the church—from one-quarter (27%) to nearly four in 10 (39%). Catholics dropped three percentage points since last year on this question but remain high overall, with half reporting an improved view of the church.

Noted for his humility and modesty, Pope Francis is often touted as the “everyman” Pope, and this clearly resonates with—and inspires—Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. But has inspiration turned into imitation?

In just a single year from 2014 to 2015, the proportion of American adults who say Pope Francis has caused them to make changes to their spiritual life has quadrupled, from five percent to 21 percent. The most significant shifts have been among Millennials (up 23 points) and Gen-Xers (up 25 points). The story is slightly different among older generations, with Boomers reporting a 6-percentage point increase, and Elders actually reporting a one-point drop.

There is a 10-percentage point increase in Catholics who report the Pope’s influence on spiritual life. Interestingly, Protestants report a dramatic 19-percentage point increase from 2014. The influence of Pope Francis on those outside his tradition and age group continues.

Pope Francis and the Big Issues
Since his election in 2013, media and commentators have noted a significant shift in papal rhetoric to a more open and hopeful tone. But though many have wondered if he is a liberal reformer, Pope Francis has neither officially changed nor challenged any traditional, orthodox Catholic beliefs. Barna asked Americans if they believed Pope Francis’ views on a variety of today’s big issues are too liberal, too conservative or just right. For the most part, Americans—regardless of age and religion—say that Pope Francis is taking the right stance.

When it comes to divorce and marriage, most adults believe Pope Francis is doing pretty well, with 40 percent agreeing he has the “right stance” when it comes to issues surrounding the marriage covenant. The major differences here are between generations, with more Millennials believing he is too liberal (28%) than among other generations (18% of Gen-Xers, 11% of Boomers and 1% of Elders).

The issue of birth control garners the most controversy. Even though a plurality says the Pope has the right stance, a higher proportion of adults view his position as being “too liberal” (23%) than on other issues. Again, Millennials are the generation most likely to say so (29% of Millennials, compared to 22% of Gen-Xers, 20% of Boomers and 25% of Elders).

As with the issue of birth control, a high percentage of respondents claim the Pope is “too liberal” on abortion (21%)—with Millennials most likely to feel this way (27%). This is the issue for which the lowest proportion of adults claims he is “too conservative” (9%), and the highest percentage choosing “unsure” (37%). Although abortion remains a contentious and complicated political issue, few adults appear to believe Pope Francis is too conservative on the issue. Catholics were more certain of the Pope’s position than Protestants: 55% vs. 36%, respectively believe the Pope has the “right stance” on this issue.

On the other end of the spectrum, the largest proportion of adults to report “too conservative” (15%) is on the issue of same-sex marriage—though an almost equal number claim his stance is “too liberal” (17%). Additionally, an equal one-third of adults believe he has the “right stance” or say they “don’t know.” This diversity of opinion on same-sex marriage reflects Barna’s research on the issue, which shows that Americans remain deeply divided.

Francis has made climate change and global warming a priority for his papacy, and it appears that he is making an impact. Just after poverty and social issues, the Pope scores the second-highest “right stance” on this issue (41%). The Pope’s stance on the environment also garnered the highest amounts of adults who claim he is “too conservative” on the issue (15% among all adults) and the lowest amount who claim he is “too liberal” (12% of all adults).

When elected to the papacy, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose “Francis” as his papal name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century saint known for his commitment to serving the poor. This was an early clue to the nature of Pope Francis. Among all of the policies surveyed, the highest proportion of U.S. adults regard the Pope’s policy on poverty and social issues as the “right stance” (46%). This opinion is particularly high among Catholics at 67 percent, the highest among any group on any issue.

What the Research Means
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group, directed the research study and points out several implications of the findings:

“First, it is notable that only about half of Americans are aware of his soon-coming visit to the U.S. This ratio is likely to grow as media attention increases right before and during his time on the East Coast. However, it is a sign of the distracted era in which we live that many Americans—including two out of every five U.S. Catholics—are not aware of his visit in September.

“Second, Pope Francis remains hugely popular, and his favorable impact seems to be growing within the U.S. population. Catholics seem to have been won over to Francis within the first six months of his tenure. While he has his vocal critics, Protestants and other Americans have become significantly more receptive and positive about the Pontiff in the last 12 months.

“Third, the Pope’s views on social and environmental issues are met with various levels of agreement among Americans, even among Catholics. This fits within a larger cultural trend of skepticism toward external sources of moral and spiritual authority. Americans and especially Millennials are having a harder time believing that things such as the Bible, the teachings of the Pope, and historic Christian orthodoxy ought to matter in the shaping of their own opinions.

“Fourth, the spiritual impact of Pope Francis is one of the most remarkable findings from the study, with one in five Americans saying the Christian leader has caused them to make changes to their spiritual life. Though self-reported, the perceived influence of the Pope among younger Americans stands in stark contrast to the trends toward religious and church disengagement among Millennials.

“Finally, whether one agrees with his perspectives or not, Pope Francis continues to be a fascinating case study in spiritual leadership. More than a year into his papacy, the research demonstrates how people respond positively to a leader who, among many other things, prioritizes the poor and believes Christian convictions matter in society.”

Comment on this research and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

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About the Research
The current study was conducted via online surveys from August 24 to August 26, 2015. A total of 1,000 interviews were conducted. The sample error is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. The completion rate was 71%.

The 2014 study included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 20 to February 24, 2014. The survey included 1,026 adults 18 and over. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

Generations: Millennials are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Gen-Xers, between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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