A new survey by the Saint Leo University Polling Institute reveals that many American Catholics say they would favor change in church policy to allow priests to marry, and to permit women to become priests. At the same time, American Catholics continue to give high approval ratings to Pope Francis, and to the late Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) and the late Pope John XXIII (1881-1963), both of whom were installed as Catholic saints on April 27.

The responses were collected as part of a national online survey conducted from May 28 to June 4. The survey allowed the 1,016 respondents to identify themselves as Catholics (249) or non-Catholics (753), with a handful not fitting into either group. The survey delved into American public sentiment regarding the practices of the Roman Catholic Church, and the public’s views of Church leadership.

It turns out that Catholics, by 60 percent, said the Catholic Church should allow priests to marry. American Catholics responding this way were only 6 percentage points below non-Catholics, at 66 percent, and 4 percent below the blended general population, at 64 percent. Nearly a quarter of American Catholics said priests should not be allowed to marry, however, and 16 percent were unsure or didn’t know.

Specifically, the survey asked:

Should the Catholic Church allow priests to get married, or not?

Entire Base Catholics non-Catholics
64% Yes 60 66
13% No 24 9
23% Don’t know / not sure 16 25


More than half of American Catholics polled also said they favor ordaining women as priests, at 58 percent. Those Catholics who said the Catholic Church should not ordain women accounted for 26 percent of respondents, with 16 percent unsure.

The survey asked:

Should the Catholic Church allow women to become priests, or not?

Entire Base Catholics non-Catholics
61% Yes 58 61
20% No 26 18
19% Don’t know/unsure 16 20


Michael Anthony Novak, assistant professor of theology and religion at Saint Leo University, considered the responses within a historical and cultural context. “As regards restoring the ancient practice of a married priesthood, or allowing women to be priests, there is almost as much support among American Catholics as non-Catholics for both ideas, but much greater opposition among Catholics, too,” Dr. Novak noted. “My suspicion is that here you see the effect of the general American political belief in ‘equality’ being projected onto Catholic practice.”

But, Dr. Novak added, “There are goods other than equality at play in Catholicism, too. Such distinct Catholic concerns would complicate application of a merely homogenizing equality to everything, including serving as priests. Whether this American support shows theological depth, or whether it is simply one more Western cultural fashion, only time will tell.”

Three Popes in the News

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute continues its practice—since its inception in December 2013—to track American public sentiment toward Pope Francis. The institute combines answers of “strongly favorable” and “somewhat favorable” to note an overall favorability rating, and likewise combines “somewhat unfavorable” and “not at all favorable” into the general unfavorability rating.

Pope Francis continues to enjoy high favorability ratings of 83 percent favorable, 7 percent unfavorable among Catholics (+77). Non-Catholics give the pontiff a 60/13 favorable/unfavorable rating.

The survey asked:

Do you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Pope Francis? Would you say your opinion of Pope Francis is …

Entire Base Catholics non-Catholics
30% Strongly favorable 46 25
35% Somewhat favorable 37 35
7% Somewhat unfavorable 6 8
4% Not at all favorable 1 5
23% Don’t know/unsure 11 27


The survey, which began a month after the canonizations of Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII, asked people to consider their opinions of those leaders. Pope Saint John Paul II’s favorability rating among Catholics is 74/13 (+61). Pope Saint John XXIII, who passed away more than a half century ago, has a 66/6 rating (+60) among Catholics.

The survey asked:

Pope John Paul II died in 2005 and was recently canonized, that is, made a saint, by the Catholic Church. Would you say your opinion of Pope John Paul II is…

Entire Base Catholics non-Catholics
20% Strongly favorable 41 13
34% Somewhat favorable 33 34
10% Somewhat unfavorable 11 10
6% Not at all favorable 2 8
29% Don’t know/unsure 12 35


Pope John XXIII died in 1963 and was recently canonized, that is, made a saint, by the Catholic Church. Would you say your opinion of Pope John XXIII is…

Entire Base Catholics non-Catholics
14% Strongly favorable 33 9
26% Somewhat favorable 33 24
7% Somewhat unfavorable 4 8
6% Not at all favorable 2 7
45% Don’t know/unsure 28 52


In considering these results, Dr. Novak said he was “struck by two factors in looking at the popularity of these three Popes. First, that there seems to be a short memory among Americans, with less people sure about what they think of John Paul II than of Francis, and nearly half of those polled uncertain about what they think of John XXIII. Catholics, unsurprisingly, seem to pay more attention to this history, and are far less likely to simply lack an opinion. So only a quarter of Catholics said they were unsure about what they thought of John XXIII, as opposed to half of non-Catholics. Likewise, twice as many Catholics had favorable opinions of John XXIII as non-Catholics. His decisive role in the history of the Church is much stronger in the minds of Catholics.”

Further, Dr. Novak commented on the “bump in disapproval ratings toward John Paul II, when compared with Francis and John XXIII. The numbers themselves do not reveal why that is. I suspect that it may simply reveal the inevitable frustrations that come with such a long papacy (an administration twice as long as FDR’s four elections to the presidency). Or the bump in disapproval may point to current perceptions that John Paul II failed to respond comprehensively enough to revelations of sexual abuse within the clergy. Even with the disapproval rating of 13 percent among Catholics (roughly twice that for Francis or John XXIII), he still retains an approval rating of 74 percent: a nearly 6-to-1 margin. His epic role at the end of the 20th century has not been forgotten,” Dr. Novak concluded.

About the Saint Leo University Polling Institute/Methodology

This Saint Leo University national poll of 1,016 people, including 802 likely voters, was conducted between May 28 and June 4, 2014. The margin of error is approximately 3 percent +/- with a 95 percent confidence level. Among Catholics, because of the smaller sample size, the margin of error is approximately 6 percent. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. Sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantages of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that are convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive – usually 50 cents deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account – for their participation.

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is a regionally accredited, liberal-arts-based institution known for an inclusive Catholic heritage, enduring values, and capacity for innovation. The school was chartered in 1889 by Catholic Benedictine monks in rural Pasco County, FL, making Saint Leo the first Catholic college in the state. Over its 125-year history, Saint Leo has provided access to education to people of all faiths, emphasizing the Benedictine philosophy of balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit.

Today the university welcomes learners from all generations and backgrounds, from civilian occupations and the armed forces, and from all 50 states and more than 60 nations. Saint Leo’s 16,000 undergraduate and graduate students may elect to study at the beautiful University Campus in Florida, at more than 40 teaching locations in seven states, or online from other locations. The university’s degree programs range from the associate to the doctorate. Throughout these rich offerings, Saint Leo develops principled leaders for a challenging world.

Media Contacts: Kim Payne, Saint Leo staff writer and media coordinator, at kim.payne@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-7233/(717) 798-1508 or Jo-Ann Johnston, academic communications manager, jo-ann.johnston@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-8237/(352) 467-0843.