Poll: Pope Francis and Former Catholics

A new poll released in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States offers data that suggest the pontiff will have the ear of many Catholics who have left the church or otherwise become discouraged with its leadership.  

The poll by Public Religion Research Institute and Religion News Service presents an interesting profile of those who identify as former Catholics, a group that it says comprises 15 percent of the U.S. population. It finds a gender gap, for example: former Catholics tend to be male (55 percent) while current Catholics are more likely female (56 percent). The former Catholics are more likely to identify as liberal (37 percent) than current Catholics (27 percent) or as political independents (50 percent, former Catholics; 36 percent, current Catholics).

Former Catholics are reported to have a much more positive view of Pope Francis (64 percent approve) than of the church (43 percent). Similar gaps can be found among young people and liberals.

Catholics are much more likely to say that Pope Francis understands the needs and views of American Catholics (80 percent) than to say the U.S. Catholic bishops do (60 percent).

While some conservative Catholics have objected to Francis's priorities,  the poll suggests that overall, American Catholics have a more favorable feeling toward their church than they did before Francis became pope. (56 percent said their feelings had changed, and of those 3 out of 5 said their feelings toward the church had become more favorable.)

 

The differences break down on political lines. Democrats were more than twice as likely to say their feelings had become more positive (42 percent) than more negative (17 percent). For Republicans, it was more or less equal: 24 percent, more positive, and 20 percent, more negative.

Catholics seem to believe there will be a “Francis Effect,” since two-thirds reported that they expect him to attract Catholics back to the church, while just 20 percent say he will not.

But former Catholics aren’t so sure: 51 percent say Francis will attract more former Catholics back to the church, and 29 percent said he will not.

That still indicates the pope’s visit is a significant opportunity for the church to evangelize among former Catholics.

But it couldn't be left entirely up to the pope, however popular. Success would depend on the reaction and follow-up: whether, bishops, clergy, religious, teachers, lay leaders and Catholic media and punditry treat  the pope's visit as an opportunity to reach those Catholics who have turned off the church’s message, or if instead it becomes another exercise in self-justifying partisan political debate—an extension of the battles that drove many Catholics into the “nones” column in the first place. 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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