As he approaches the fifth anniversary of his papacy, Pope Francis continues to be popular among Americans, a new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu) shows.
The online poll, conducted from Feb. 18-24, asked 1,007 adults nationally if their opinion of Pope Francis was strongly favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or not at all favorable. The poll shows 65.6 percent of Americans say they have a favorable – very and somewhat combined – opinion of the pope.
As part of a Catholic university, founded on Benedictine traditions, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute consistently polls on the public’s opinion of the pope.
Among Catholics nationally, Pope Francis enjoys an 85.9 percent approval rating, which is an increase from 81.4 percent in the Saint Leo University Polling Institute’s November (2017) survey. That is lower than the 87.9 percent favorability he earned from Catholics in September (2017).
His overall popularity of 65.6 percent is higher than in previous polls. Francis’ favorability in November 2017 was 62.9 percent, according to the Saint Leo poll, down from 67.9 percent in September, and from 70.5 percent in March 2017.
“It’s not that surprising that we’ve seen the pope’s overall approval rating go up since the November poll,” said Dr. Marc Pugliese, assistant professor of religion and theology at Saint Leo University. “Over time we’ve seen a correspondence between the seasons of the liturgical year and the pope’s approval ratings. Our polls over the last couple of years show that Pope Francis’ approval ratings are higher during Lent and Advent. The spring 2018 poll took place immediately after Lent began this year.”
Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent, began on Feb. 14 this year.
Pugliese said another reason for the uptick in Pope Francis’ overall favorability rating may be that March 13 marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of his papacy, which is getting more publicity as it approaches.
The Saint Leo poll also asked respondents to rate how well the pope is doing on issues he has focused on over time. He continues to receive the highest approval ratings for his advocating on behalf of the poor.
“The pope’s concern for the poor – expressed in both his words and his deeds – continues to be something his most known for,” Pugliese added.
Pope Francis’ approval rating on human rights also remains high and represents a slight increase over November’s ratings (66.1 percent now over 65.4 percent in November).
“Just how deeply Pope Francis is concerned about human rights is seen in how in early February he declared that the first week of Lent would be dedicated to prayer and fasting for peace in many war-torn areas of the world with a special focus on the Congo and Sudan, where many have been killed in political unrest and civil war,” said Pugliese, the assistant professor of religion and theology.
“Pope Francis also recently hosted leaders from some of the most troubled parts of the world to discuss peaceful solutions,” Pugliese added. “Following up on his heavy focus on the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis in Bangladesh and Burma in the fall, Pope Francis had the prime minister of Bangladesh at the Vatican in mid-February to discuss both a long-term solution for the refugee situation, and also to discuss Christian-Muslim relations in the Muslim majority country.”
The lowest approval ratings for Pope Francis continue to be on his handling of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy. The approval rating on this is essentially the same now (40.5 percent) as it was in November (40.6 percent), but this represents more than a 3 percent decline since September (43.8 percent).
The pope’s defense of a bishop in Chile, who is suspected of covering up abuse by a priest, as well as recent news accounts that the pope received a letter in 2015 from a victim of that priest, may have resulted in the lower ratings.
At the end of January, the pope did name a delegate to travel to Chile to investigate the accusations against the bishop, saying this was in response to new potential evidence.
“However, this was perhaps ‘too little, too late,’ ” said Saint Leo’s Pugliese.
“But I’d say that this recent controversy over his handling of the issue in Chile has affected the ratings minimally. Since the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has been the target of criticism for his handling the clerical sexual abuse scandal.”
By political party, the national Saint Leo University poll shows the favorability rating of the pope much higher among Democrats with 76.3 percent, compared to 63 percent of Republicans, and 62.5 percent who say they are independent. In regard to human rights, 75.3 percent of Democrats approve of the job Pope Francis is doing while 61.8 percent of Republicans and 64.9 percent of independents give him favorable ratings.
On the issue of migration/immigration, Pope Francis’ ratings dip considerably among Republicans with 45.4 percent approving of his work. Among Democrats, 67.8 percent say they approve while 45.3 of independents endorse his work. Among those who say they are conservative, the Saint Leo poll shows 43 percent hold a favorable opinion of his performance on migration/immigration while 65.3 percent of liberals say they approve of the pope’s stance on those issues.
Although there has been a very slight increase in the pope’s approval rating for the job he is doing on migration and immigration, his rating in this area remains low compared to ratings on the job Pope Francis is doing in other areas. The current national approval rating is at 51.3 percent while it was at 49.8 percent in November.
“Americans who oppose immigration naturally tend to think that the pope’s pro-immigration stance and activism is wrong,” Pugliese said. “Even though it is probably not fair to judge how well the pope is doing on immigration based on the status of immigration in our country, I think that those who are more supportive of immigration do so.
“The pope has no direct control whatsoever over what happens with immigration in the United States, but I think people tend to view how well he is doing in this area in the light of what is happening in America at the time. Perhaps the thinking here is that the pope should be exercising more influence on U.S. policymakers.”