Francis 5 years on: Pope remains popular but growing numbers say he is 'too liberal' and 'naive'

Five years into Pope Francis's time in the role he remains highly popular, but growing numbers of American Catholics on the political right view him as 'too liberal' and 'naive' according to a new survey by the respected Pew Research Center.

And at the same time, the number of white evangelical Protestants who hold a negative view of the pope has jumped significantly, from nine per cent in 2013 to 28 per cent today.

ReutersPope Francis leaves at the end of the Ash Wednesday mass at Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome, Italy, February 14, 2018.

The poll, timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the pope's election, found that on the one hand, 84 per cent of American Catholics currently say they have a 'favourable' view of Pope Francis, which is virtually identical to the share who expressed a positive view of the pope after the first year of his pontificate. Further, roughly nine in 10 US Catholics describe Pope Francis as 'compassionate' and 'humble' while a majority – six in 10 – say Francis represents a 'major change' for the better.

On the other hand however, the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is 'too liberal' has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19 per cent to 34 per cent. Around a quarter of US Catholics (24 per cent) now say he is 'naïve', which is up from 15 per cent in 2015.

Cynicism also appears to have set in over the pope's handling of sexual abuse: over the same period, the share of American Catholics who give Pope Francis 'excellent' or 'good ratings on the issue dropped from 55 per cent to 45 per cent. And that was despite the fact that the survey was conducted before the recent papal visit to Chile and Peru, which sparked fresh questions over the pope's approach to the issue.

Meanwhile, the survey finds signs of growing polarisation along partisan lines when it comes to views among US Catholics. The share of Republican and Republican-leaning Catholics who say Pope Francis is 'too liberal' has more than doubled since 2015 (from 23 per cent to 55 per cent), while one-third of Catholic Republicans now say Francis is 'naïve,' up from 16 per cent who said this in 2015.

In contrast, among Democratic and Democratic-leaning Catholics, Pew said that there has been no statistically significant change in opinion on either of these questions.

And while most Republican Catholics continue to express a favourable view of Francis, the share is down compared with the end of his first year in office, four years ago.

Pew pointed out that at that time, there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90 per cent) and Democrats (87 per cent) who expressed a favorable view of Francis. Yet today, the pope's favourability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89 per cent) than among Catholic Republicans (79 per cent).

The share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined over the same period, from 60 per cent to 37 per cent.

There has been little shift since the end of Francis' first year as pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better (71 per cent today as opposed to 76 per cent in 2014).

The new national survey by the Pew Research Center was conducted from January 10 to 15 among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics.

Among the US public as a whole (including both Catholics and non-Catholics), around six in 10 say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, which Pew pointed out is on par with the share of Americans who gave Francis a favourable rating in the early summer of 2015, and slightly below the peak of 70 per cent who rated him favourably in February 2015 and again in early 2017.

Pope Benedict XVI generally had lower favourability ratings from the American public, while Pope John Paul II earned higher ratings from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s.

Pointedly, analysis of Pew Research Center surveys conducted since Francis became pope finds no evidence of a rise in the share of Americans who identify as Catholic (22 per cent in 2012; 20 per cent in 2017), and no indication of a resurgence in mass attendance. In 2017 surveys, 38 per cent of Catholic respondents said they attend mass weekly; in the year before Francis became pope, 41 per cent of US Catholics reported attending mass weekly.

Beyond Catholics, other Christian groups appear to favour Pope Francis meanwhile, with two-thirds (67 per cent) of white mainline Protestants and 58 per cent of religiously unaffiliated adults holding positive views, along with roughly half of black Protestants (53per cent) and white evangelical Protestants (52 per cent).

However, notably, white evangelical Protestants have become considerably more likely to rate Francis unfavourably. Just one in 10 white evangelicals (nine per cent) had negative views immediately after his election, compared with 28 per cent today (similar to the 31 per cent who rated him unfavourably about a year ago).

At the same time, religiously unaffiliated Americans have become more likely to rate Francis favourably (39 per cent in March 2013; 58 per cent today), although the share who rate him favourably has declined somewhat in the past year, from 71 per cent in January 2017.

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