WASHINGTON (Christian Examiner) – A new survey from the Pew Research Center, conducted after the visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September, shows the Catholic leader was instrumental in giving Americans a more positive image of the Catholic Church.
According to Pew, Francis helped generate "good will" among most Americans, and even among "ideological liberals and moderates, along with Democrats."
In the wake of Pope Francis' visit to the United States, during which the leader encouraged the church to avoid a "narrow faith" and look for ways to open its doors to others while maintaining its teachings, 28 percent of American adults said they had a more positive opinion of the church.
Even though more than half of Americans (58 percent) said the visit did little to change their views (which are generally positive), the small successes, especially among politicians, are notable for a church under pressure to change its teachings on the family and human sexuality.
"Both Catholics and non-Catholics are more likely to say that Francis has had a positive rather than negative impact on their view of the church; the same is true of Americans in both major political parties and across the ideological spectrum," the survey said.
"But improved views of the Catholic Church are especially apparent among self-identified liberals and moderates, as well as among Democrats. Nearly four-in-ten liberals (39 percent), for instance, say they have a more positive view of the Catholic Church because of Pope Francis, dwarfing the 4% who say they have a more negative view of the church by a 10-to-1 margin. And among ideological moderates, 31% say their view of the Catholic Church has improved because of Pope Francis, while 5% say their view of the church has become more negative, a 6-to-1 ratio. Among conservatives, by contrast, the ratio of those with a more positive view of the church (22%) to those with a more negative view (10%) is closer to 2-to-1."
The positive feelings, however, did not translate to a similar increase in positive feelings about the pontiff himself. According to Pew, Francis's favorability rating was up since June, when it was 64 percent, but not significantly. Now, it is 68 percent (roughly the same at February). In February 2015, his favorability rating stood at 70 percent. His favorability was higher, as should be expected, when Catholics alone were considered.
"Eight-in-ten Catholics surveyed (81%) now say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis. By comparison, 86% of Catholics expressed a favorable view of Pope Francis in June, and fully nine-in-ten Catholics (90%) expressed a favorable view of the pontiff in February. Pope Francis' favorability rating among U.S. Catholics is now roughly equivalent to the rating Catholics gave Pope Benedict XVI following his visit to the country in April 2008," Pew said.
Francis has been seen by many as a reformer in the church, but also as a stern critic of capitalism, modern technology and industry. He has also given hope to the gay rights movement that homosexuals will eventually achieve full acceptance in the church, though that hope is based on a false impression of the pontiff's published comments.
In 2013, Pope Francis said of gay people:
"When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn't be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem ... they're our brothers."
Pope Francis, however, has repeatedly said the Catholic Church views marriage only as a union of man and a woman. In January in the Philippines, for instance, he said during an outdoor mass that the church is facing forces that seek to "disfigure" God's design for the family.
The recent firing of a Catholic priest at the Vatican for publicly declaring himself a homosexual on the eve of a synod on the family also indicates that Francis's views on the family and human sexuality have not changed.
Francis also signaled openness to the salvation of all, including atheists. The Vatican quickly walked back that statement and said the Pope meant the salvation of all is possible because of Christ's death on the cross, but it can be rejected.