Poll: Everybody Loves the Pope, but the Catholic Church? Not So Much


Pope Francis is adored by American Catholics and non-Catholics, who have embraced his optimism, humility and more inclusive tone. But as the 78-year-old pontiff arrives in the United States for his first visit, the public’s view of the Catholic Church is not nearly as favorable, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

That gap will be masked by the huge throngs of Catholics greeting Francis in Washington, New York and Philadelphia. Many of them see him as an agent of change, with a majority of Catholics saying that the church is in touch with them — a reversal from two years ago, when 6 in 10 said the church was out of sync.

“He’s calming, he’s relaxing and he’s reassuring,” said Mike Harvey, 53, a Catholic who lives in Wilmington, Del. “People separate the pope from the church. You look at this man trying to lead the movement for everyone, past and present.”

But in a country moving steadily away from organized religion and with the denomination still haunted by a clergy sexual-abuse scandal, there is no evidence that Francis’s likability has boosted Catholic identification, worship attendance or prayer.

The poll, along with interviews with religious scholars and Catholics around the country, suggests that the perception of Francis is different from the experience in the pews.

“The church is not grounded in the human experience,” said William D’Antonio, a Catholic University sociologist who researches U.S. Catholicism. “The pope is. This pope has an understanding I’ve not seen in any other popes. He talks like a person who actually knows something about human life.”

Francis is a social-media star whose 22 million Twitter followers (in nine languages) religiously retweet his near daily 140-character-count aphorisms. “The one who helps the sick and needy touches the flesh of Christ, alive and present in our midst,” he tweeted this summer on his ­English-language feed. Even Jon Stewart, a Jew, was smitten: “Okay, that’s it — I’m converting,” he said on his Comedy Central show last year. “I love this guy.”

But the pope’s pop culture popularity helps obscure this fact: He has made no significant changes to Catholic teaching on issues that sometimes put the papacy at odds with the church’s American parishioners.

That’s why Mary Barry, 57, a small-business owner in Arlington, Tex., and her husband said they are taking “a wait-and-see approach” on whether to attend Mass regularly, three years after stopping. They decided that the church no longer spoke to them.

The Barrys are not unique. Roughly 1 in 8 Americans consider themselves former Catholics, and most who still identify with the faith do not attend weekly Mass, according to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. While the Catholic Church’s retention rate is similar to that of other Christian denominations’, it has struggled to attract new members to offset steady losses. For each person who has converted to Catholicism, there are more than six who have left the church.

In the Post-ABC poll, 45 percent of self-identified Catholics reported attending Mass nearly once a week or more often, 19 percent attended monthly, and 35 percent said they attend less often or never.

While non-practicing Catholics said in follow-up interviews that they admire Francis, they do not like that the church is not softening its stance on same-sex marriage, the role of women in the church and abortion.

“I am hoping he can change people’s minds in the Catholic community about being more open,” Barry said. While Francis himself seems more open, she said, “I have yet to see that filter down into the community.”

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SOURCE: Michael S. Rosenwald, Michelle Boorstein and Scott Clement
The Washington Post

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