The FINANCIAL — Pope Francis’ favorability rating in the U.S. has returned to where it was when he was elected pope. It is now at 59%, down from 76% in early 2014. The pontiff’s rating is similar to the 58% he received from Americans in April 2013, soon after he was elected pope.
After Pope Francis was elected the leader of the 1.2 billion-member Roman Catholic Church in March 2013, he attempted to focus the church on a renewed sense of protecting the poor, on interfaith relations and on respecting gay and lesbian members of the church. He was lauded in the American news media, with accolades including Time magazine naming him the Person of the Year in 2013. The next time Gallup asked about Pope Francis, in February 2014, his favorability had swelled to 76%.
In the current poll, conducted July 8-12, Francis’ favorable rating declined, while his unfavorable rating increased to 16% from 9% in 2014. One-quarter of Americans say they have never heard of him or have no opinion, up from 16% in 2014. Now removed from the plaudits of 2013 and the high ratings of 2014, it appears that fewer Americans know enough about the pope to be able to rate him, according to Gallup.
Pope’s Image Among Catholics and Conservatives Worsens
The drop in the pope’s favorable rating is driven by a decline among Catholics and political conservatives, two groups that have been ardent supporters of the modern papacy. Seventy-one percent of Catholics say they have a favorable image of Francis, down from 89% last year.
Pope Francis’ drop in favorability is even starker among Americans who identify as conservative — 45% of whom view him favorably, down sharply from 72% last year. This decline may be attributable to the pope’s denouncing of “the idolatry of money” and attributing climate change partially to human activity, along with his passionate focus on income inequality — all issues that are at odds with many conservatives’ beliefs.
The pope’s image has taken a hit among liberals and moderates as well. Francis’ favorable rating among liberals fell 14 percentage points. Many liberals have criticized the pope for not embracing ordination of women as priests or allowing priests to marry. His papacy is still relatively new, however, and in time he may address these long-standing doctrinal questions more fully.
Francis’ Ratings Higher Than Benedict’s, but Below John Paul’s
Pope Francis’ 59% favorable rating exceeds the 40% who viewed Pope Benedict XVI favorably in 2010, before he retired in early 2013 after an eight-year papacy. Benedict was plagued by priest abuse scandals in the last years of his papacy. Americans’ views of Benedict were higher before 2010, but never as high as the 76% achieved by Francis last year.
In contrast, Pope John Paul II, who served as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church for nearly 27 years, always polled above 60% in the 1990s and 2000s, reaching a high of 86% favorability in late 1998. The 64% who have viewed Francis favorably throughout his papacy is below John Paul’s average of 72%.
Also, a higher percentage of Americans say they have never heard of Francis than said the same about John Paul II. However, on average, a significantly higher percentage of Americans said they had never heard of Pope Benedict, reaching 39% in 2005.
Pope Francis is still viewed favorably among Americans, but his image has declined since early 2014. The decline in his favorable rating reflects, in part, the increase in the percentage of Americans who don’t have an opinion of the pope, but also a sharp drop in favorable opinions among Catholics and political conservatives.
Pope Francis’ image may rebound once he makes his first visit to the U.S. in September. The pope will be traveling to New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and will be the first pope to address a joint session of Congress. Pope John Paul II’s image was boosted by his trips to the U.S. in 1993 and 1999, and Pope Benedict received his greatest favorability rating — 63% — when he visited the U.S. in 2008.