Pope Francis’ Favorability Increases, But Remains Lower Than Last Year

St. LEO – On the heels of a Vatican summit on sexual abuse of minors by clergy, a new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey shows slightly more than one-third of Americans hold a favorable view of the Catholic Church while more people hold a favorable opinion about Pope Francis than the last poll of 2018.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute (http://polls.saintleo.edu) survey was fielded nationally online among 1,000 adults from February 16 through February 25, 2019. When all 1,000 answered questions, the margin of error for results is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points. As part of a Catholic university, founded on Benedictine traditions, the Saint Leo University Polling Institute surveys on topics that affect Catholics and the public’s opinion of the pope.

The poll was taken during the February 21 through February 24 “Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church,” in Rome.

Among those responding, 37.2 percent report a strongly or somewhat favorable view of the Catholic Church while a majority, 51.1 percent, hold somewhat unfavorable or not at all favorable view of the church.

Pope Francis’ favorability rating increased to 55.6 percent from 44.7 in the October 2018 poll. In the poll conducted in August 2018, 64.4 percent of Americans said they have a favorable—very and somewhat combined—opinion of the pope while in February 2018, those reporting a favorable opinion was 65.6 percent.

In this year’s poll, among Catholics nationally, 73.2 percent have a favorable opinion of the pontiff, compared to 69 percent in October 2018, 87.4 percent in the August 2018 poll, and 85.9 percent in the February 2018 poll.

“Although historically we have always seen a dip in the pope’s overall favorability rating in the mid-fall (October/November) poll, his overall favorability rating dropped compared to this same time last year,” said Dr. Marc Pugliese, associate professor of religion at Saint Leo University.

Pugliese attributes these drops in the pope’s overall favorability ratings to the clerical sexual scandal surrounding the church and Pope Francis. “So much has come to light and been in the news lately,” he said. “Catholics are probably more aware of the details compared to the wider public.”

The release in August 2018 of the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report of hundreds of clerical sexual abuse cases, the release in January 2019 by the Catholic Church in Texas of the names of nearly 300 priests, who were credibly accused of child sex abuse over eight decades, and the investigation of many other dioceses may have played a part in the poll results, Pugliese said. “Also in February, Pope Francis admitted that there has been a chronic problem of clergy sexually abusing nuns, some of which even resulted in abortions,” Pugliese said. “This was something new and shocking.”

The February poll did ask respondents about how they would rate the job Pope Francis is doing on handling cases of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops, and 30.1 percent report a favorable opinion.

In addition, the recent Vatican summit on the clerical sexual abuse scandals convened by Pope Francis was disappointing for many, the Saint Leo associate professor said. “In what has become a pattern, there was the perception that at the summit there was much talk but little concrete action.”

The poll also asked about how Pope Francis is handling cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy, and 31.4 percent say they strongly approve or somewhat approve. Among Catholics respondents, 46.8 percent approve of the pontiff’s actions in these cases. Of those who identified as Christian, 26 percent say they approve while 24.5 percent of those who identify as “other” approve.

“The sex abuse scandals are not limited to the Roman Catholic Church, but because of the Catholic Church’s size and prominence it has drawn the most attention,” Pugliese noted. “The clerical sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church publicly exploded 20 years ago. News was recently released of sex abuse scandals among leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention over the past 20 years. Similar to the situation in the Catholic Church, the accused moved on to other churches with impunity.”

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute also surveyed about other issues Pope Francis is addressing and respondents were asked to provide their opinion about how he is doing.

The following table shows the cumulative totals for strongly and somewhat approve.  The national results are displayed in declining order by the approval column for February 2019. (Note: February 2019 was the first time the poll included a question about the abuse of nuns by Catholic clergy).

How would you rate the job Pope Francis is doing on… Strongly & Somewhat
Approve November 2017 – %
Strongly & Somewhat Approve February 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve    May     2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve August 2018 – % Strongly & Somewhat Approve October 2018 -% Strongly & Somewhat Approve February 2019 – %
Advancing the cause of the poor 65.6 66.9 64.9 65.7 52.0 59.6
Human rights 65.4 66.1 66.6 66.7 51.3 58.9
Environmental issues 53.0 55.9 55.2 58.3 45.3 46.0
Marriage and family issues 51.4 52.7 56.7 54.6 42.1 43.5
Migration / Immigration 49.8 51.3 53.0 53.8 40.6 40.9
Handling cases of sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy 40.6 40.5 44.3 46.5 30.8 31.4
Handling cases of sexual abuse of nuns by priests and bishops 30.1


“Since the Saint Leo University Polling Institute has been tracking the data, Pope Francis has always received the highest approval ratings on the job he is doing advancing the cause of the poor [59.6 percent], human rights issues [58.9 percent], and moderate approval ratings for the job he is doing on the environment, marriage and family issues, and on migration/immigration,” Pugliese said.

Noting the pope consistently has received the lowest ratings on the job he is doing on handling sexual abuse involving Catholic clergy, Pugliese said this poll was consistent with that pattern.

“However, in our two polls since the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report in August, the pope’s ratings on each of these particular issues has dropped significantly—about 15 percentage points,” Pugliese said.

“I think one of the largest drops—that on the issue of migration/immigration [from 53.8 percent in August 2018 to 40.9 percent in February 2019]—was also partly the result of the recent fight between the president and Congress over the border wall, which led to the longest government budgetary shut-down in U.S. history.”

About the Poll
METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted from February 16 through February 25, 2019, among a base of 1,000 respondents, using an online instrument. The national survey has a +/- 3.0 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level on a composite basis. In Florida, the survey was conducted among 500 people across the state during the same time frame, also using an online survey instrument. The Florida poll has a +/- 4.5 percent margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level (on a composite basis).

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The 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 advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is 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 $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: http://polls.saintleo.edu. You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

Media contacts: Mary McCoy, Saint Leo University, University Communications mary.mccoy02@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-7118 or (813) 610-8416 (cell/text).

Jo-Ann Johnston, Saint Leo University, University Communications jo-ann.johnston@saintleo.edu or (352) 588-8237 or (352) 467-0843 (cell/text).     

More About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo University (www.saintleo.edu) is a modern Catholic teaching university that is firmly grounded in the liberal arts tradition and the timeless Benedictine wisdom that seeks balanced growth of mind, body, and spirit. The Saint Leo University of today is a private, nonprofit institution that creates hospitable learning communities wherever students want to be or need to be, whether that is a campus classroom, a web-based environment, an employer’s worksite, a military base, or an office park. Saint Leo welcomes people of all faiths and of no religious affiliation, and encourages learners of all generations. The university is committed to providing educational opportunities to the nation’s armed forces, veterans, and their families. Saint Leo is regionally accredited to award degrees ranging from the associate to the doctorate, and the faculty and staff guide all students to develop their capacities for critical thinking, moral reflection, and lifelong learning and leadership.

The university remains the faithful steward of the beautiful lakeside University Campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, where its founding monks created the first Catholic college in the state in 1889. Serving nearly 12,000 students, Saint Leo has expanded to downtown Tampa, to other sites in Florida and beyond, and maintains a physical presence in seven states. The university provides highly respected online learning programs to students nationally and internationally. More than 93,000 alumni reside in all 50 states, in Washington, DC, in three U.S. territories, and in 76 countries.