Pope Francis Very Popular Among Both U.S. Catholics, Non-Catholics

Mar 13, 2015
Originally published on March 13, 2015 8:00 pm

Pope Francis has maintained high approval ratings even as the Catholic Church struggles with declining membership and the effects of the sexual abuse scandal. In six months, he will make an anticipated visit to the U.S.

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It's been two years since an Argentine priest named Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis. It was a refreshing change for a Catholic Church in turmoil. Pope Francis refused velvet capes and red slippers. He embraced simple dress and chose a modest apartment for his residence, and made reaching out to the world's poor his papal mission. He's now hugely popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Still, church reform has a ways to go, as NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Pope Francis has not yet reached the popularity of John Paul II, the Polish priest who helped bring an end to Communist rule in Eastern Europe. But he's close, and Francis has achieved his high standing under more difficult circumstances. Many Catholic priests in recent years were revealed to be sexual abusers and the Church's standing with Americans went into a nosedive. A new survey by the Pew Research Center shows that Francis has overcome that taint. Greg Smith was the survey director.

GREG SMITH: We're up to the point now where 7 in 10 Americans as a whole say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, and that's only possible if there are a lot of Americans who have a favorable impression of him.

GJELTEN: The noon Mass at the Thomas More Cathedral in Arlington, Va. yesterday drew about 50 worshipers. One of them, Janie Connors, was actually raised as a Methodist but she and her sister switched to Catholicism. Her mother was dismayed - and then Francis came along.

JANIE CONNORS: She was a little bit uncertain about two of her daughters converting to the Catholic Church. And she was like, you know, she would say some derogatory things about the faith. And, you know, it was all right. But now she says that Pope Francis is her pope. She loves him.

GJELTEN: But for every convert like Janie Connors, four Catholics have abandoned the church. Worshiper Jim Nolan hopes that could get turned around thanks to a Francis affect.

JIM NOLAN: In the back of their minds, a lot of Catholics miss the church or miss the Eucharist or miss Mass, but they need a reminder. And Francis is doing that in a loving way and, I think, calling a lot of people back.

GJELTEN: Francis has not relaxed the Church's opposition to abortion, birth control or gay marriage, but he says the church should not obsess over such issues. He's more compassionate. Father Thomas Reese, senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, draws this analogy - when kids come home from college, do their parents interrogate them about that new nose ring or tattoo...

THOMAS REESE: Or do the parents embrace them, welcome them, tell them how much they're loved and say, tell us about, you know, what's been going on in your life? That makes a big difference. And what Francis is saying is that God is a compassionate loving parent, not a scold.

GJELTEN: Francis has argued for action on climate change. He criticizes market economics. He's even called for campaign finance reform. But Greg Smith of Pew says those bold stands apparently haven't hurt his standing. He's as popular among Catholic conservatives as he is among liberals, esteemed among both devout and casual Catholics.

SMITH: Catholics are divided about a lot of things, but they are not divided when it comes to Pope Francis. He is overwhelmingly popular among U.S. Catholics.

GJELTEN: Catholic reformers however, aren't yet entirely satisfied with Francis's papacy. The role of women in the Catholic Church is still disputed and Thomas Reese says the jury is still out on whether the Church will fully implement its new zero-tolerance policy whereby any priest guilty of sexual abuse is thrown out of the Church.

REESE: Any bishop who doesn't implement that rule needs to have the Vatican come down on him like a ton of bricks and we need to see the Pope do that, the Vatican do that.

GJELTEN: Pope Francis may not have a lot of time to accomplish all the changes he may desire. Speaking today in Rome on the second anniversary of his election, the 78-year-old pontiff said he has the feeling his papacy will be brief - four or five years, maybe just two or three, he said. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.