U.S. Catholics Support Benedict in Poll
Respondents Critical of Church's Priorities and Its Handling of Abuse Cases

By Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. Catholics have a positive impression of Pope Benedict XVI, but most see the Church he leads as out of touch with their views and few approve of the way the clergy sex abuse scandal has been handled, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

American Catholics responded positively to the election of German-born Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope three years ago, and 74 percent have favorable views of the pontiff now as he begins a six-day visit to the United States. He will confront a flock closely divided over whether he should focus on maintaining the traditional celebrations of the Roman Catholic Church and a widespread sense that the Church is not in sync with the views of Catholics here.

Overall, 50 percent of Catholics said the pope should emphasize Catholicism's traditional teachings and customs, and 45 percent would prefer that he steer policies to reflect the attitudes and lifestyles of modern Catholics. That even split is almost unchanged from three years ago when Benedict became pope but a big shift from October 2003, when nearly two-thirds preferred a path of modernization.

Benedict rates as favorably with U.S. Catholics as did Pope John Paul II on the eve of his second major visit to the United States, in 1987. Near the end of his papacy in March 2005, nearly nine in 10 Catholics had favorable views of John Paul II.

Both popes received particularly high ratings from the most devout Catholics: Eight in 10 Catholics who attend weekly church services view Benedict favorably, as do 69 percent of those who attend less often. The new pontiff also gets higher ratings among those who emphasize tradition than among those who would prefer change. Benedict is a forceful advocate for traditionalism, including returning prayers, vestments and music from earlier eras to church services.

More broadly, 48 percent of all Americans view the pope favorably; half as many hold a negative view. Nearly three in 10 have yet to form an opinion.

The generally positive reviews for Pope Benedict come despite a sharply critical public assessment of the way the Catholic Church has dealt with sexual abuse of children by priests and an increasing sentiment among Catholics that the Vatican is out of sync with their views.

About three-quarters of Catholics and non-Catholics alike disapprove of how the Church is dealing with this issue; nearly six in 10 "strongly" disapprove. And in the new poll, 62 percent of Catholics said the Church is not reflective of their views, up 10 percentage points from the beginning of Benedict's papacy in April 2005.

Among Catholics, disapproval of the handling of sex abuse issues has spiked 20 percentage points since February 2004, with intensely negative feelings jumping from 32 percent at that time to 58 percent now. When Benedict became pope three years ago, most Catholics cited "addressing the issue of sexual abuse by priests" as among his highest priorities. At that time, the abuse issue topped the priority list of both weekly churchgoers and those who attended less often.

Catholic dioceses in the United States have paid out about $2 billion in settlements and legal fees to compensate victims of sex abuse.

And the percentage saying the Catholic Church is out of step with the views of U.S. Catholics is back to its level in late 2003, when John Paul II celebrated the 25th anniversary of his papacy. The biggest loss of confidence in the past three years has occurred among the most observant Catholics. A slim majority of weekly churchgoers now see the Church as out of step with U.S. Catholics; in 2005, six in 10 said the Church was largely "in touch" with American Catholicism. Nearly seven in 10 of those who attend services less often call the Catholic Church "out of touch," a figure little changed from three years ago.

One reason for the perceived disconnect is that U.S. Catholics continue to be at odds with the Vatican on two issues related to the priesthood: Fewer than four in 10 favor prohibitions against women in the pulpit and priests being allowed to marry. Male and female Catholics are similarly likely to oppose the ban on female priests.

About one in five Americans, 22 percent in this poll, consider themselves to be Catholics. Another 7 percent of those surveyed said they were raised Catholic but do not identify with the religion. Two percent of Catholics said they were brought up in a different faith.

The poll was conducted by telephone April 10 to 13 among a random sample of 1,197 adults, including additional interviews with randomly selected Catholics. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus three percentage points; it is six points for the sample of 292 Catholic respondents.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta and staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company