Pope Francis is adored by American Catholics and non-Catholics, who have embraced his optimism, humility and more inclusive tone. But as the 78-year-old pontiff arrives in the United States for his first visit, the public’s view of the Catholic Church is not nearly as favorable, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
That gap will be masked by the huge throngs of Catholics greeting Francis in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Many of them see him as an agent of change, with a majority of Catholics saying that the church is in touch with them — a reversal from two years ago, when 6 in 10 said the church was out of sync.
“He’s calming, he’s relaxing and he’s reassuring,” said Mike Harvey, 53, a Catholic who lives in Wilmington, Del. “People separate the pope from the church. You look at this man trying to lead the movement for everyone, past and present.”
But in a country moving steadily away from organized religion and with the denomination still haunted by a clergy sexual-abuse scandal, there is no evidence that Francis’s likability has boosted Catholic identification, worship attendance or prayer.
The poll, along with interviews with religious scholars and Catholics around the country, suggests that the perception of Francis is different from the experience in the pews.
“The church is not grounded in the human experience,” said William D’Antonio, a Catholic University sociologist who researches U.S. Catholicism. “The pope is. This pope has an understanding I’ve not seen in any other popes. He talks like a person who actually knows something about human life.”
Francis is a social-media star whose 22 million Twitter followers (in nine languages) religiously retweet his near daily 140-character-count aphorisms. “The one who helps the sick and needy touches the flesh of Christ, alive and present in our midst,” he tweeted this summer on his English-language feed. Even Jon Stewart, a Jew, was smitten: “Okay, that’s it — I’m converting,” he said on his Comedy Central show last year. “I love this guy.”
But the pope’s pop culture popularity helps obscure this fact: He has made no significant changes to Catholic teaching on issues that sometimes put the papacy at odds with the church’s American parishioners.
That’s why Mary Barry, 57, a small-business owner in Arlington, Tex., and her husband said they are taking “a wait-and-see approach” on whether to attend Mass regularly, three years after stopping. They decided that the church no longer spoke to them.
The Barrys are not unique. Roughly 1 in 8 Americans consider themselves former Catholics, and most who still identify with the faith do not attend weekly Mass, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. While the Catholic Church’s retention rate is similar to that of other Christian denominations’, it has struggled to attract new members to offset steady losses. For each person who has converted to Catholicism, there are more than six who have left the church.
In the Post-ABC poll, 45 percent of self-identified Catholics reported attending Mass nearly once a week or more often, 19 percent attended monthly, and 35 percent said they attend less often or never.
While non-practicing Catholics said in follow-up interviews that they admire Francis, they do not like that the church is not softening its stance on same-sex marriage, the role of women in the church and abortion.
“I am hoping he can change people’s minds in the Catholic community about being more open,” Barry said. While Francis himself seems more open, she said, “I have yet to see that filter down into the community.”
Barry’s view helps explain the poll’s results. Nearly 3 in 4 Catholics hold a strongly favorable view of the pope, and 47 percent hold a strongly favorable view of the denomination. Even among Americans with strongly unfavorable views of the Catholic Church, Francis is seen positively by 50 percent of them.
Wishful thinking is probably playing some role in the gap.
When the Public Religion Research Institute asked Catholics in a survey in August where the pope stood on same-sex marriage, 63 percent of opponents of same-sex marriage correctly said the pope also opposed gay nuptials, while just 15 percent thought he supported them. But among Catholics who support allowing same-sex marriage, only 36 percent thought Francis was opposed to it, while 49 percent said he supports it.
Kathleen Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame, says the gap in perceptions between Francis and the institutional church is tied to the pontiff’s “leading with the positive.”
In homilies, interviews and viral posts on social media, the pope’s focus is largely on the areas where there is more agreement among many American Catholics — concern for the poor, refugees and immigrants; the environment; and Christ’s teachings on mercy and forgiveness. That has helped with the perception of change: The poll found that Catholics who attend Mass infrequently are more likely to sense a change in church policies than those who are regularly in the pews.
“Francis focuses on what the church says yes to before all the things it says no to,” Cummings said. “And in this country, for the last few decades, we heard a lot first about what the church says ‘no’ to.”
The pope’s activism on social, economic and environmental issues is supported by a wide swath of Catholics and non-Catholics, with just 14 percent of Americans wishing he would be less active on those issues. Thirty percent of Catholics wish he would be more active on those issues, while more than half think Francis should continue as he has been. Just over half of non-Catholics are comfortable with his current level of outspokenness.
The poll also found limited discomfort about Francis’s speech Thursday before a joint meeting of Congress, the first for any pope. Two-thirds of Catholics said it was appropriate for him to address social, economic and environmental issues before lawmakers, as did nearly 6 in 10 among the public overall.
Although the Post-ABC poll showed that Catholics who attend Mass weekly approve of the pope’s direction at about the same rates as less observant Catholics, other polling shows weekly attending Catholics are less supportive of many items on liberal Catholics’ wish list: allowing women to become priests, accepting homosexuality and ending opposition to all abortions.
Edward Wnorowski, 71, a lifelong Catholic from Jacksonville, Fla., who prefers attending Mass in Latin, said: “As a Catholic, I have to support my pope, but I have to shake my head at some of the things he’s involved in.
“He should be more concerned with how many confessions priests are hearing every week, how many are receiving the Eucharist, how many people are coming to church.”
Asked whether the pope’s softer tone could help bring more people to Mass, Wnorowski said: “Going back to Mass is a good thing. But you have to do it out of compunction. Are you going back because the church has loosened the rules for you? Or do you want to confess your sins?”
A long-term challenge for the pope is whether he can bring together those who are devout and distrustful of departures from the canon, and those who are disaffected and hopeful that the church will acknowledge societal changes.
Cummings, the Notre Dame scholar, said the pope’s trip could shrink the gap between his popularity and the church’s if he can change the behavior of American bishops.
Francis has taken dramatic digs at bishops in his tenure, including during a Christmas message last year at the Vatican. He told top church bureaucrats that they had “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and that sometimes they see themselves as “lords of the manor, superior to everyone and everything.”
While in Washington, Francis is slated to address U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
“This is a chance for him to inspire the bishops, to challenge the bishops,” Cummings said.
She said some bishops already have, in her view, modeled themselves after Francis, focusing less on abortion and traditional marriage and more on the environment and immigration. And a few were elevating women to positions of power — administrative, not spiritual — in their dioceses, she said.
“The question becomes, do the ordained have to have all the power and all the privilege? When you look for leaders, are you seeing only ordained or also lay people?” she said. These kinds of questions, if Francis highlights them in the United States, could have an impact later.
What is clear is that there probably will not be a post-trip bounce for Francis to build on.
In the past, papal visits have done little to boost Catholic affiliation. After five trips to the continental United States by John Paul II and one by Benedict XVI, only once did Catholic identification rise in following years — after John Paul’s 1993 visit for World Youth Day. The level of Catholic identification ticked back down two years later, according to a Post analysis of surveys conducted by the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Surveys show that papal visits also have not even temporarily stemmed the long-term fall in worship attendance among Catholics.
Barry, the Texas Catholic who no longer regularly attends Mass, said she would not resume attendance after the pope’s trip — she wants to see what, if any, changes filter down to her parish.
“But I still say my prayers,” she said.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Sept. 7-10 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cellphone respondents. Overall results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin is 7.5 points among the sample of 218 self-identified Catholics.
Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.