What Do Protestants Think of Pope Francis?

Research Releases in Culture & Media • March 17, 2014

Yet Pope Francis insists that he is “a normal person,” and has no desire to be “a superman or a star.”

Some religion columnists and commentators attribute the public’s esteem to his humble insistence that he is ordinary. In fact, humility may just be the pontiff’s paradoxical trademark. The Washington Post summed it up in one headline: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll Love Jesus.” The Post is not alone in pointing out that the pope’s actions, words and demeanor are often reminiscent of the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels. Humility may be exactly the kind of “ordinary” Pope Francis hopes will become the norm among all of those who claim to follow Christ.

It’s widely accepted that Catholics love the Holy Father, but what about people of other traditions? Some have called Francis a pope for Protestants or for Millennials, but what do these groups actually think of him? And if his influence is so far-reaching, what has been the impact of the so-called “Pope Effect,” one year into his papacy?

A new study conducted in late February 2014 by Barna Group examines the impact of the new leader of the Catholic Church on the U.S. population, including the nearly half of Americans who identify as Protestants.

The World’s Most Well-Known Religious Leader
Just last March white smoke billowed above St. Peter’s Square and then-Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis I, head of the Roman Catholic Church and leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. In a single year, Pope Francis has become the most well-known religious leader in ministry today.

Of all U.S. adults surveyed, 62% say they are somewhat or very familiar with the pontiff. Not surprisingly, Catholics take the lead at 99%. Among practicing Protestants, 58% say they have a working familiarity with the pope.

Second to Pope Francis is Billy Graham, the famed evangelist who has been in public ministry for 65 years. Sixty percent of adults say they are familiar with Rev. Graham. The third-most well-known religious leader is the Dalai Lama; just under half of all adults (49%) say are somewhat or very familiar with him.

Popularity, Power and Public Critique
Familiarity is, of course, not the same as favorability—but Pope Francis receives positive marks among a majority of U.S. adults (54%). About one-quarter (26%) say their opinion of the pontiff is neutral, less than one in 10 (7%) view him unfavorably and 14% say they don’t know enough to have an opinion. More than half of all adults (54%) say Pope Francis is an improvement on his predecessor (among practicing Catholics, it’s a two-thirds majority). When asked to identify how well certain words describe the current pope, nearly nine out of 10 Americans say he is very or somewhat honest (87%), compassionate (88%) and intelligent (86%).

Practicing Catholics take the lead in giving him high marks: an overwhelming 98% have a favorable view of the Holy Father. In contrast, just 45% of practicing Protestants express a very or somewhat favorable opinion, and among non-mainline Protestants even fewer have a favorable view (37%).

On a generational scale, positive views of the pope increase among older adults. While only 41% of Millennials see him in a positive light, favorability is higher among Busters, also called Gen-Xers (51%), and Boomers (63%). The generation most favorable toward the pontiff is the cohort to which Pope Francis belongs: the Elders, two-thirds of whom view him favorably (66%).

But what about dissenters? The largest demographic to express negative views is practicing non-mainline Protestants, one-quarter (26%) of whom feel somewhat or very unfavorable toward the pope. Specific critiques of Pope Francis range from descriptions of him as out of touch (22%) to the more serious allegation that he is corrupt (17%). While he has sometimes been cast as the pope for faith-jaded Millennials, young adults are notably skeptical about the pontiff’s integrity: 37% say he is somewhat or very corrupt, more than twice the national average.

Adults are evenly split on whether Pope Francis—often billed by the media as progressive compared to former pontiffs—is too liberal (27%) or too conservative (27%) on social issues. Four in 10 adults (39%) believe the pope is too powerful.

These critiques uncover some notable denominational and generational differences. For example, just 8% of practicing Catholics say the pope is either somewhat or very corrupt, while 22% of practicing Protestants say so. The leading groups to disapprove of the pope as too liberal include non-mainline Protestants (51%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Millennials (36%). On the opposite end of the spectrum, those most at odds with Pope Francis as being too conservative on social issues are also non-mainline Protestants (30%) and Millennials (38%).

The Spiritual Influence of Pope Francis
He is famed for taking his faith outside the church and into the streets, so it follows that Pope Francis’s influence may likewise extend beyond the Catholic Church. So what does the much-discussed “Pope Effect” really look like?

More than one-third of respondents (35%) say Pope Francis has improved their view of the Catholic Church. Elders, in particular, have been swayed by the pontiff: 42% say their view of the Church has improved because of his influence. Practicing Protestants remain relatively unmoved by the new pope: 70% say their view of the Catholic Church has stayed the same. Still, one-quarter of Protestants indicate their view of Catholicism has improved with Pope Francis’ ascension to leadership.

When asked if they have made changes in their spiritual practice because of Pope Francis, 5% of all adults and 11% of practicing Catholics say the Holy Father has, indeed, influenced their faith practice. And while some Millennials may be slow to trust his integrity, one in 10 say the pope has inspired them to practice faith differently—more than any other generation.

Looking at reported weekly church attendance numbers from January 2013 to January 2014, attendance among all U.S. adults declined from 37% to 36%, and from 48% to 46% among self-identified Catholics. Interestingly, Catholic Boomers and Elders (those ages 49 and older) are less likely to report church attendance in a typical week, while Catholic Millennials and Gen-Xers show significant increases in church attendance over the last year. Among Millennial Catholics, church attendance is at 47% compared to 34% just one year ago—an increase of 13 percentage points. Among Gen-X Catholics, 42% attended church in the past week, compared with 32% a year ago.

In an open-response question, the survey asked those who reported changes under Pope Francis’s influence to describe what, specifically, they are doing differently. Among the most common answers were returning to more regular church attendance, more frequent or fervent prayer and stronger belief or trust in God. Other common responses highlighted one of Francis’s trademarks: under his influence, at least a few Catholics and Protestants—young and old alike—say they are trying to be more humble.

Perspectives on the Research
David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group and director of the study, suggests, “The research shows the profound influence transformative leaders can have even beyond those directly under their leadership. At the same time there are limits to a leader’s impact, and this study also reveals how difficult it is to make a substantial dent in people’s faith habits. Despite widespread approval, Pope Francis has had mixed results when it comes to influencing religious behaviors.

“Millennial and Gen-X Catholics seem to be most responsive, in practical terms, to the pope’s leadership. But these same generational segments outside the Catholic Church generally express greater skepticism of the pontiff than do their peers within the Catholic tradition. This dichotomy may be a result of two factors. First, that Millennial and Gen-X Catholics had been dropping out of parish involvement at precipitous rates before—and even since—the start of Pope Francis’s reign, so there is more room among the younger generations for return movement. And second, the wider population of young Americans is more hardened than older generations against religious institutions.

“Finally, while much has been made by the media of Protestants’ approval of Pope Francis, our research shows the historic schism between Catholic and Protestant traditions is alive and well in America. Although some Protestants hold the new pontiff in high esteem, millions more, particularly non-mainline Protestants, express deep skepticism about the pope’s integrity. This may change in the coming years, of course, but for now Protestants remain on the fence about Pope Francis’s leadership.”

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About the Research
The research included in this report is the result of a nationwide online study conducted February 20 to February 24, 2014. The survey included 1,026 adults 18 and over. The maximum sampling error for the study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

People are identified as having a “practicing” faith if they have attended a church service in the past month and say their religious faith is very important in their life.

Generations: Millennials (or Mosaics) are the generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, between 1965 and 1983; Boomers, between 1946 and 1964; and Elders, in 1945 or earlier.

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website (www.barna.org). Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group, 2014