U.S. Catholics are happier with their church and their pope than they’ve been with either in at least a decade, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll that also finds Pope Francis at least as popular with Catholics today as Pope John Paul II was even at his peak in such surveys.
Among Catholics, 92 percent have a favorable view of Francis and 95 percent say the same of the church, a poll released Wednesday finds. Francis’s popularity marks a large increase from Pope Benedict XVI’s 76 percent favorable rating in a Post-ABC poll in February just after he announced his retirement.
The jump in popularity is led by Catholics with moderate and liberal political views.
Ninety-four percent of Catholics who identify as moderate or liberal say they have favorable views of Francis, compared with 73 percent who said the same of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, after he announced his retirement. Among politically conservative Catholics, 91 percent are favorable toward Francis, compared with 84 percent who said the same of Francis’s predecessor in February.
Francis has triggered a huge wave of interest since becoming pope in March, swelling crowds at his weekly addresses, generating many millions of social media followers and becoming the focus of countless articles written around the globe about his welcoming approach to faith. Tangible effects so far are unclear, however, and one recent survey found no immediate effect in the percent of Americans who say they’re Catholic or who say they attend Mass.
Non-Catholics also voice largely positive views of Francis — 62 percent favorable and 18 unfavorable; 21 percent have yet to form an opinion. Benedict drew 48 percent favorable views among non-Catholics after announcing his resignation, while 31 percent saw him unfavorably.
As with Catholics, the jump in papal popularity among non-Catholics is more prominent on the left than the right. Seventy-two percent of non-Catholic liberals see Francis positively, compared with 40 percent who said this of Benedict in February. Among non-Catholic conservatives, 59 percent see Francis positively, compared with 55 percent who said the same of Benedict.
The poll mirrors a February finding that Americans overall — Catholic and not — by a 2-to-1 ratio have favorable rather than unfavorable views of the Catholic Church, 62 percent to 30. That is a high point in the past decade, bringing the favorability of the country’s largest faith group back to the levels of the early 2000s, before the clergy sex-abuse crisis hit.
Post-ABC data go back to 1999, when 68 percent of all Americans said they had a favorable view of the Catholic Church. That number fell to a low of 40 percent in December 2002 before climbing back up.
Pope John Paul, who led the church from 1978 until his death in 2005, had high popularity numbers among Americans. The peak in Post-ABC polling came in the weeks before his death, when 87 percent of U.S. Catholics said they had a favorable view of him. At that time, 67 percent of all Americans said the same, compared with 71 percent who said that in early 1998 — his peak by that general yardstick.
When Benedict stepped down, 54 percent of all Americans said they had a favorable view of him, compared with 27 percent who had an unfavorable one and 19 percent who had no opinion. Seventy-six percent of U.S. Catholics had a positive view of him at the time, compared with 14 percent who said their view was unfavorable. After a high-profile U.S. visit in 2008, Benedict’s favorability rating peaked, at 83 percent, a separate Pew Research Center poll found, a mark similar to where Francis stood in the firm’s polling this fall.
The new poll was conducted last week and included 1,006 randomly selected adults reached on landline and cellphones. The full survey has a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points; the margin among Catholics is 7.5 percentage points among the 224 Catholics surveyed.
Polling analyst Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated former Pope Benedict’s favorable rating in a February Post-ABC poll just after he announced his retirement. This version has been corrected.