What U.S. Catholics Think on the Eve of the Pope’s Trip

With Pope Francis coming to our country later this month, there’s been plenty of curiosity as to what U.S. Catholics think of him, and how they perceive his views on current issues. Many on the left are particularly interested because they are hoping this pope will change Church doctrine to reflect “enlightened” secular positions on marriage, sex, contraceptives, divorce and homosexuality – and that American Catholics will approve.

Three surveys have been released in the past two weeks that attempt to throw some light on U.S. Catholic opinion. First, the Quinnipiac University poll: The survey found that 66 percent of American adults had a “very favorable” or “favorable” opinion of Pope Francis. The Catholic favorability rate is 87 percent; Protestant 61 percent; and 63 percent of non-believers have a positive view of the pope. What the poll does not reveal, however, is why they are fond of him.

Quinnipiac also asked what adult Catholics thought in general about their Church leaders. Sixty-eight percent of weekly Mass attendees believe the hierarchy is in touch with the views of Catholics in America today, while only 47 percent of less observant Catholics agreed. No surprises in those findings. You don’t need a poll to learn that cafeteria Catholics generally disapprove of Church leaders who teach and promote doctrines they don’t like.

The last question, though, was a silly one: “In general, do you think the Catholic Church of today is moving in the right direction or the wrong direction?”

Catholics Protestants None
Right Direction   70%   36% 44%
Wrong Direction   16%   24% 22%

The survey doesn’t indicate what right or wrong direction means. Presumably, it was left up to the respondent’s imagination or recent mainline media interpretations that Pope Francis is moving the Church to the left on economic and cultural issues. But how much does it matter how non-believers and Protestants perceive the Church?

The next opinion poll survey released on September 3 was by the Pew Research Center. In anticipation of the October synod in Rome, Pew asked American Catholics for their views “about family structures, religious beliefs and practices, and other topics.”


Parts of the Pew poll employed odd methodologies. For instance, the pollsters created a “Cultural Catholic” category. These are 9 percent of respondents who “often think of themselves as Catholics in one way or another even though many belong to another faith tradition (such as Protestantism). Others are religiously unaffiliated, identifying as atheist, agnostic, or simply ‘nothing in particular.’” Huh?

Questions addressed to practicing Catholics revealed they are less accepting of non-traditional families: only 26 percent say children being raised by divorced parents is “acceptable, as good a any other arrangement”; 36 percent agree that children being raised by a same-sex couple is unacceptable; and 25 percent hold it is “acceptable but not as good as others.” As for children being raised by cohabitating couples, 16 percent find it not acceptable and 41 percent say it is “acceptable, but not as good as some others.”

The remaining answers to questions on family and marriage in the Pew poll don’t hold water because the respondents included cultural Catholics, ex-Catholics, and people who claim to have “connections to Catholicism” by way of “a parent or spouse, or through occasional attendance at Catholic Mass.”

The most thorough and revealing survey was commissioned by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. It covers a large number of issues and its questions gets into the weeds, “to tap the ways Catholics are conflicted over various matters.”

Here are some highlights of the 45-page report:

  • The survey found that 52 percent believe the Church should stick to its founding principles and 38 percent want its “beliefs and principles to conform to modern customs.”
  • As for the traditional definition that marriage is only between a man and a woman, 71 percent strongly or somewhat agree.
  • On abortion, 67 percent of those who attend Mass at least once a week accept Church teaching that the taking of innocent human life, whether born or unborn, is morally wrong, with 20 percent saying they accept part of this teaching. As for those who “never or seldom” attend Mass, only 23 percent accept Church teaching; 46 percent accept part of the teaching; and 27 percent do not accept the Church’s teaching at all.
  • A significant majority of all Catholics support laws that protect religious freedom. Sixty-three percent oppose local ordinances that force private businesses to provide services that violate their religious beliefs while 30 percent support such laws.
  • Pro-life Catholics overwhelmingly agree (79 percent) that Catholic institutions should not have to pay insurance premiums for so-called health care products (i.e., morning-after abortion pills) or services contrary to their faith. Fifty-four percent of pro-choice Catholics disagree, but, interestingly, 42 percent of them agree with pro-lifers.
  • Finally, the Catholic League survey reports 48 percent of Catholics agree that “adherence to Catholic teachings could be a conduit to improving the country as a whole,” while 44 percent hold it will make no difference.

Despite the confusion on various issues caused by the media’s deliberate misinterpretation of off-the-cuff comments made by Pope Francis during the past two years, it appears practicing Catholics by and large still stand by Church teachings, particularly those on the family. The next question is, in October, will the pope and the bishops at the synod stand by those same teachings?

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.