MIAMI – Though Catholics in America continue to have an overall favorable opinion of Pope Francis, according to the director of the Pew Research Center, the Argentine pontiff has tripled his negative ratings for his handling of clerical sexual abuse in the most recent survey and today is ranked below Pope emeritus Benedict XVI at his worst.
Speaking with the Crux of the Matter, which airs every Monday on the Catholic Channel, Alan Cooperman said the drop in the pope’s favorability is directly related to his handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
The share of Catholics who think the pope is doing a “poor job” has tripled from what it was in 2015, according to the Pew findings, reaching 36 percent of American Catholics.
“Back in 2014, 54 percent of American Catholics thought he was doing a good or excellent job [handling the abuse crisis],” Cooperman said. “Today it’s down to just 3 in 10, 30 percent of U.S. Catholics giving him a good or excellent, dropping 24 points in four years, 14 points just from the beginning of 2018.”
In terms of the pope’s overall favorability, the trend is also down: A Pew study from January 2018 showed that only nine percent of American Catholics said they had an overall unfavorable view of Pope Francis, while as of September, that number had gone up to 20 percent.
Cooperman spoke with Crux on Monday from Miami, where he was taking part in the Faith Angle Forum, organized by the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.
We just had midterm elections in America. What do we know right now about the Catholic vote in the midterms?
There’s an old saying in the study of religion and politics in the United States that goes: “We should just let Catholics vote and save everyone else the trouble,” because Catholics are a bellwether in most presidential elections and at a national level in congressional mid-term elections. Where Catholics as a whole go, so does the rest of the country. And that was true in this election.
Catholics moved about five percentage points more into the Democratic column than they had been in the last two mid-term elections. That’s a significant shift. If you look at other religious groups, like Evangelical Protestants, they’re right at the level they were, Protestants who are not Evangelicals too. Catholics have discernibly moved.
I think it’s apples to apples to compare mid-term elections to mid-term elections, because the dynamics of a presidential election are really quite different. To put some numbers to it, in this election Catholics as a whole were almost at a deadlock, 50 percent Democratic in their congressional vote, according to exit polls, and 49 percent Republican.
But if you look back to 2010 and 2014, in both of those elections, Catholics voted more Republican than Democratic, by approximately, all together close to 10 percent. So when Catholics move five points away from the Republicans towards the Democrats, I think they are in a dead heat.
Why is that?
That’s always a tough thing to answer, and the really sincere answer is, “We don’t know.” But there are some plausible hypotheses, such as the change of the demographics of the Church, with the share of Hispanic Catholics rising, and they lean more Democratic than white-non Hispanic Catholics.
Another thing is issues in this campaign, there are lots of them, but it’s no secret immigration was a big issue here. And for what we see in our polling, Catholic Democrats look a lot like other Democrats on the migration issue and Catholic Republicans look a lot like other Republicans. That’s true across a lot of issues. But I think it’s a plausible hypothesis to say that Catholics moved a little bit because of the issue of migration. That doesn’t mean that Catholics are any less willing to say clamp down on illegal immigration, but the tone of the debate might have turned some people off. But again, polls give us very limited data to work with.
In one of Pew’s most recent studies, you looked at the favorability ratings of Pope Francis. Could you shed some light about what it says about Catholics in the U.S.?
We’ve been asking questions about this pope and prior popes going back a long way. When we first started asking questions about Pope Francis not long after his ascension to the papacy, we found that the majority of American Catholics gave him either a good or excellent rating on the sex abuse scandals. The way we ask that question is we say, “What kind of job do you think the pope is doing in addressing the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church? Do you think he’s doing an excellent job, you think he’s doing a good job, only a fair job or a poor job?”
Back in 2014, 54 percent of American Catholics thought he was doing a good or excellent job. Today it’s down to just 3 in 10, 30 percent of U.S. Catholics giving him a good or excellent, dropping 24 points in four years, 14 points just from the beginning of 2018. On the reverse side of the coin, the number of Catholics who think the pope is doing a poor job has tripled from what it was in 2015 up to 36 percent of American Catholics.
Overall, however, Catholics still have a favorable attitude towards the pope, so they’re compartmentalizing. They don’t think that the clerical sexual abuse crisis is everything. We also ask other questions, such as how good a job is the pope doing on a variety of issues. By and large he’s doing ok.
But his overall favorability is going down. At the beginning of this year, in January 2018, only nine percent of American Catholics said they had an overall unfavorable view of Pope Francis. As of September, that number has gone up to 20 percent.
How does it compare to previous popes, John Paul II and Benedict?
Overall, at the height of his favorability, John Paul II had much higher ratings than either Benedict or Francis. Francis, I think, is somewhere in the middle. For a while, he had a far higher favorability than Benedict, but I think that now he’s dropped down to Benedict’s level and even below it.
The other thing that is so interesting about this, it’s the partisanship of it. In 2015, when he was elected, there was basically no difference in the favorability of Francis between Catholic Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. Overwhelmingly, nine out of ten gave the pope positive readings. Today there’s a significant political partisanship involved. He’s still viewed positively by 83 percent of Democrats, but only 61 of Catholic Republicans.
Everything is polarized in America, why should the pope be any different?
It’s true. I somewhat apologize, we don’t mean to be treating the pope as a politician here, and we’re not asking if people would vote for him, but we do ask questions that we hope are simple enough that people would understand them and answer them, but at the same time are complex enough that we’re looking at multiple facets of the pope’s job and we’re able to make apples-to-apples comparisons as to how people rated this pope and previous popes in the past.
[Clear trends are] the growing partisanship and the declining favorability of the pope, and especially we can see that’s driven by the pope’s handling of the clerical sexual abuse crisis.