Poll: Pope Francis beloved by U.S. Catholics and seen as a force for positive change

He’s the most popular pope with U.S. Catholics since John Paul II.

The Holy Father is a hit.

One year into his pontificate, Pope Francis has proven immensely popular with Catholics, scoring an 85% approval rating, and is being lauded by Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a force for positive change, according to a Pew Research survey.

He is the most popular pope with U.S. Catholics since John Paul II, who had a net favorable rating of 93% in 1996.

Pope Francis won his highest marks among Catholics for spreading the faith and standing up for traditional moral values (81% said he was doing an excellent or good job), and addressing the needs and concerns of the poor (76% good/excellent). Only 54% rated him highly for his response to church sex scandals, though, and his marks for addressing the priest shortage were even lower, with 50% saying he was doing a good or excellent job.

Despite Francis’s popularity, the survey found that there is little evidence of the “Francis Effect” — fallen away Catholics returning to the church that some speculate is occurring as a result of his populist pronouncements. The percentage of U.S. adults who identify as Catholic remained the same, 22%, as in the year preceding Francis’ election and there is no change in reported mass attendance.

Francis is an approachable, “very bright straight shooter with a populist streak,” whose style resonates not just with Catholics, but with people and leaders of other faiths as well, said Bill Donohue, CEO and president of The Catholic League.

While Donohue thinks that Francis’ remarks about not judging gay people have been inaccurately interpreted, he said Catholics both liberal and conservative are united in their appreciation of Francis’s aversion to finger wagging (“no one likes a scold”) and the pontiff’s disdain for clericalism and elitism. “He’s very much against the smugness and uppityness of some bishops,” telling church leaders to “get off your high horse and serve the people,” said Donohue. His refusal to embrace elitism is one issue on which Catholics with diverse views about married priests, women priests, and gay marriage “can cross the aisle and shake hands.”

The survey also revealed that 77% of Catholics want the church to allow birth control, 72% want it to allow priests to marry, 68% believe women should be allowed to be priests, and 50% would like the institution to recognize gay marriage.

Sheila Anne Feeney