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Pope Francis Significantly More Popular Than The Catholic Church Among Americans

Catholics divided by partisanship—53 percent of Republican Catholics say the Church should focus on pro-life issues; 68 percent of Democratic Catholics urge focus on social justice

WASHINGTON – Ahead of Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S., a survey released today finds that the pope’s popularity among the American public is significantly higher than that of the Catholic Church. Two-thirds (67 percent) of Americans have a favorable opinion of the pontiff, compared to 56 percent who hold a favorable view of the Catholic Church. Among Catholics, approximately nine in ten view both the pope (90 percent) and the Catholic Church (89 percent) favorably.

The August 2015 PRRI/RNS Survey was conducted by the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in partnership with Religion News Service from August 5 to August 11, 2015 among a random sample of 1,331 adults. The survey measures Americans’ opinions on Pope Francis, the Catholic Church and a number of social and political issues. Additionally, the survey contains detailed data on the beliefs and opinions of American Catholics, including differences by race and ethnicity, religious attendance, partisanship, age and other characteristics. The survey also compares the views of current and former Catholics across a range of issues.

“While there is only one official Roman Catholic Church, politically speaking, there are increasingly two American Catholic churches, and Pope Francis will be addressing both,” said Dr. Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “One of these is predominantly white, older, concentrated in the Northeast and tends to support Republican presidential candidates, while the other is primarily Hispanic, younger, concentrated in the Southwest and supports Democratic presidential candidates.”

The survey finds that Catholics overall say the Catholic Church should focus more on social justice issues and the obligation to help the poor (57 percent) than on abortion and the right to life (33 percent) in its statements about public policy. However, Catholics are strongly divided along party lines. While more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Democratic Catholics say the Church should focus more on social justice issues, a majority (53 percent) of Republican Catholics say it should focus more on right to life issues.

“Evidence for a so-called ‘Francis Effect’ is limited,” said Dr. Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director. “A majority of Catholics report that their feelings toward the church have changed, and mostly for the better. Roughly two-thirds of Catholics believe Pope Francis will help bring people back to the Church, but former Catholics are much less optimistic. There are no signs yet of any significant uptick in Catholic affiliation or religious attendance.”

A majority (56 percent) of Catholics report that their feelings toward the Catholic Church have changed over the past couple of years. Among those whose views have changed, nearly six in ten (59 percent) say their feelings have become more positive. Similarly, roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Catholics say Pope Francis will attract more Catholics back to the Church, but former Catholics are significantly less optimistic about the pope’s capacity to reengage Catholics: only 51 percent say the same.

Although Pope Francis has not changed the Catholic Church’s official position opposing same-sex marriage, nearly four in ten (38 percent) Catholics believe that the pope supports allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. Notably, Catholic perceptions of the pope’s position on same-sex marriage tend to mirror their own beliefs. Among the majority of Catholics who support same-sex marriage, nearly half (49 percent) believe the pope shares their view. Among the minority of Catholics who oppose same-sex marriage, more than six in ten (62 percent) believe the pope supports their view.

Among the findings:

  • Catholic community is becoming more diverse. According to data drawn from PRRI’s American Values Atlas, 59 percent of Catholics are white non-Hispanic, more than one-third (34 percent) identify as Hispanic, and seven percent identify as another race or as mixed race. Roughly half (49 percent) of younger (age 18-29) Catholics identify as Hispanic.
  • American Catholics are more likely to say the pope, rather than U.S. bishops, has good understanding of their needs. By a margin of 20-percentage points, American Catholics are more likely to say Pope Francis (80 percent), as opposed to U.S. Bishops (60 percent), understand their needs and views well. Among former Catholics, roughly six in ten (59 percent) say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics well, while only 35 percent say U.S. Bishops understand American Catholics well.
  • Six in ten Catholics support same-sex marriage, and a majority do not believe it goes against their religious beliefs. Six in ten (60 percent) Catholics, including 59 percent of white Catholics and 61 percent of non-white Catholics, favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally. A majority (53 percent) of Catholics disagree that same-sex marriage goes against their religious beliefs, while 42 percent agree.
  • Most Catholics—even regular churchgoers—support LGBT nondiscrimination laws and oppose broad religious liberty exemptions to these laws. Sixty-five percent of Catholics—including 58 percent of Catholics who attend religious services at least weekly—oppose a policy that would allow small business owners to refuse to provide products or services to gay and lesbian people, even if doing so goes against the business owner’s religious beliefs.
  • Non-white Catholics are more supportive than white Catholics of climate change action and reducing rich-poor gap. Eighty-one percent of non-white Catholics and 65 percent of white Catholics agree that the government should do more to address economic inequality. Similarly, 86 percent of non-white Catholics and 64 percent of white Catholics say the government should do more to address climate change.
  • Six in ten Catholics support path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. Sixty-three percent of Americans and 61 percent of Catholics say the current immigration system should allow immigrants living in the U.S. illegally a way to become citizens, provided they meet certain requirements. Notably, there are only modest differences in the views of white Catholics (58 percent) and non-white Catholics (64 percent).
  • Catholic attitudes on abortion mirror overall American opinion. Most (53 percent) Americans and Catholics (51 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while approximately four in ten (43 percent and 45 percent, respectively) say it should be illegal. However, Democratic Catholics are nearly twice as likely as Republican Catholics to say abortion should be legal (65 percent vs. 35 percent, respectively).

Read the report, including a brief profile of American Catholics and former Catholics, and breakdowns by religious affiliation, partisan affiliation, age, and other demographics, as well as additional findings and analysis.

Read the topline questionnaire, including survey methodology.


The survey was designed and conducted by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and was made possible through generous funding from the Henry Luce Foundation. Bilingual (Spanish and English) telephone interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,331 adults 18 years of age or older between August 5 and August 11, 2015 (671 respondents were interviewed on a cell phone). The survey included an oversample of 312 Catholic and former Catholic respondents. The sample is designed to represent the total U.S. adult population and includes respondents from all 50 states. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.4 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence.

Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.