Pope Benedict XVI wins widespread approval for the job he did, according to two new polls taken after his decision to step down, but American Catholics are split on what direction his successor should take in leading the church.

About three-quarters of Catholics expressed a favorable view of Benedict in a poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life and in a separate Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Pew found 74 percent of Catholics had favorable impressions of Benedict. In the Post-ABC poll, Benedict’s favorability ratings were 76 percent among Catholics and 54 percent of all Americans, while 14 percent of Catholics and 27 percent of the overall public rated him unfavorably.

While the numbers reflect positive feelings toward the retiring pontiff, they indicate Benedict is less popular than his predecessor.

Pope John Paul II was rated favorably by more than 90 percent of American Catholics in three separate Pew polls in the 1980s and 1990s. In the Post-ABC poll, Benedict’s ratings stand well below those of John Paul II, who was viewed favorably by 67 percent of Americans and 87 percent of Catholics during his final month as pope.

When he became Pope, many considered Benedict to be much more conservative than his predecessor John Paul II. Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. interviewed Benedict — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — nearly 30 years ago and now reflects on the Pope’s legacy. (The Washington Post)

Benedict’s tenure has been dogged by long-running criticism of the way the Catholic Church dealt with allegations of sexual abuse by priests. In 2008, more than seven in 10 Americans in the Post-ABC poll — including Catholics — disapproved of the church’s handling of the issue.

The latest Pew survey also registered a deep dissatisfaction with how Benedict has addressed the sex abuse scandal. Nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, said he has done a poor or “only fair” job handling the scandal, compared with 33 percent who praised him as having done an excellent or good job.

Almost six in 10 Catholics said priests should be permitted to marry. As many said it would be a positive step if Benedict’s successor comes from a developing region, such as South America, Asia or Africa.

At the same time, as many or more Catholics are reluctant to usher in a host of contemporary changes. About half, 51 percent, told Pew they want the new pontiff to “maintain the traditional positions of the church,” while 46 percent said the next pope should “move the church in new directions.” Factoring in the margin of error, Pew said the split was roughly equal.

Catholics who attend Mass weekly were more likely to favor a more traditional church, while those who go to Mass less frequently expressed a desire for change.

About one in five of those who want change told Pew that the church should become more modern. About 15 percent want the next pope to be more proactive in combatting sex abuse in the church, punishing the priests involved. Nine percent approved of female priests, and another 9 percent said the church should be more accepting of homosexuality and gay marriage.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted Feb. 13 to17 among a random national sample of 1,006 adults. The margin of error for the full survey is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.