Pope Francis’s popularity among Americans — including Catholics – – has taken a nose dive since last year, a poll released Wednesday shows, largely driven by conservatives who often disagree with Francis on the causes of environmental and economic problems.
The Gallup poll shows Francis’s favorable rating with Americans at 59 percent — down from 76 percent in February 2014.
The current number is similar to what it was when Francis was first elected in 2013 but suggests, Gallup says, that Americans across the spectrum have different hopes for Francis and seem unsure about where his papacy is heading. The stark fall in positive views wasn’t coupled with a dramatic rise in people seeing Francis unfavorably. A large part of the shift appears to be people now saying they have no opinion — a category which rose to 25 percent from 16 percent.
Essentially unknown in the United States when he was elected, Francis quickly charmed many Americans by veering away from a specific focus on orthodox Catholic doctrine and instead speaking conversationally and empathetically about protecting the poor, engaging openly with other faiths and with secular culture. The pope appeared on multiple U.S. magazine covers from Rolling Stone to the Advocate, which covers LGBT issues. By February 2014, his favorability rating had risen to 76 percent, Gallup reported.
But within the last year, it has become less clear what tangible change will come of his papacy. Liberals are holding out hope — and from the Gallup poll, perhaps may be disappointed — that he will make changes on issues like gay equality, married priests and women’s role in spiritual leadership. American conservatives have been alarmed at times by his free-wheeling, unspecific comments about doctrine and by his views of the economy.
Popular conservative commentator and active Catholic Ed Morrissey, who writes on the Hot Air blog, said he thinks Francis is coming out of an initial “honeymoon period” — for everyone. However for Catholics, Morrissey said, regular polling on the pope only says so much.
“With U.S. politicians you judge them political cycle to political cycle, but with popes you judge them papacy to papacy. We’re applying an American political-reaction paradigm to a pope. I’d say it’s almost similar to doing a month-to-month poll on views of Queen Elizabeth in the U.K. It doesn’t change our affection or commitment to him,” Morrissey said.
That said, Morrissey believes the conservative displeasure comes from “the issues the pope is embracing, that can alienate conservatives.” He cited Laudato Si, the pope’s recent document on climate change and excess. “I’m not sure it’s a great idea for him to be involving himself into micro-economics and the same with climate change. I think some of this is him going outside the normal paradigm, but John Paul was very involved in geopolitics and conservatives loved that.”
Francis’s favorability among U.S. Catholics fell from 89 percent last year to 71 percent, according to Gallup. That’s about the same percent drop as among Americans in general, which makes sense since Catholics tend on many issues to align with the public overall.
His steepest favorability drop was among Americans who call themselves conservative, from 72 percent to 45 percent. Among liberals, it went from 82 percent to 68 percent.
In the last year and a half, Pope Francis has written in several high-profile documents about economics, denouncing trickle-down theories and slamming over-consumption in the developed world.
Gallup shows that Francis is still ranked more favorably than Pope Benedict and, on average, less so than Pope John Paul II.
Public views on Francis aren’t completely clear. A Pew poll released in March showed his favorability in the United States on a constant rise. If trends from previous pope trips hold, Francis’s visit in September to the United States will change the numbers, likely in a more positive direction.