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​CBS News/NYT poll: Majority of U.S. Catholics positive about Church

The reign of Pope Francis in the Vatican coincides with an unprecedented positive assessment of the Catholic Church by American Catholics. Fifty-three percent of Catholics say the Church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today, the highest that figure has been since the question was first asked in this poll in 1987.

Sixty-three percent of Catholics say the condition of the Church in the U.S. is excellent or good, up from 54 percent in 2013.

American Catholics also have positive views of Pope Francis: 63 percent are favorable, just 3 percent unfavorable. Among Americans overall, 41 percent are favorable toward the pontiff and just 8 percent are unfavorable.

Seventy-nine percent of Catholics approve of the direction Pope Francis is taking the Catholic Church, including more than half who strongly approve. Fifty-three percent say he shares their priorities for the Church, and majorities approve of how he is addressing specific issues like poverty and the environment.

Most American Catholics would like to see more reforms in Church doctrine. Majorities favor allowing Catholics to use artificial birth control, women becoming priests, priests being allowed to marry, and divorced Catholics receiving communion even if their previous marriage was not annulled.

Pope Francis and the Direction of the Catholic Church

As Pope Francis plans his first visit to the United States since becoming Pope, most American Catholics give him high marks for his leadership. Eight in 10 American Catholics approve of the direction Pope Francis is leading the Church, including more than half (53 percent) who say they approve strongly. Just nine percent of American Catholics disapprove.

Pope Francis finds even stronger support among the Catholic Church's most active parishioners: 66 percent of American Catholics who attend mass at least once a week strongly approve of the direction he is leading the Catholic Church; four percent disapprove. American Catholics of Hispanic descent are also particularly supportive of the first Pope from Latin America: 62 percent strongly approve; eight percent disapprove.

Seventy-six percent of Catholics think the direction of the Church has changed at least somewhat under the leadership of Pope Francis, including 30 percent who think it has changed a lot since he assumed office. Eighteen percent say he has brought "not much" change, or none at all. Among Americans overall, 62 percent think he has brought at least some change to the Church; 14 percent say he has brought "not much" change, or none at all.

For the first time since CBS began asking the question in 1987, most Catholic Americans think the Catholic Church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today. Fifty-three percent of American Catholics think the Church is in touch -- the highest figure in CBS News Polls -- while just 40 percent think it is not, a reversal of what was recorded in February 2013 just before Francis became Pope.

Catholic Americans also view the condition of the Catholic Church in the U.S. more favorably since Francis became pontiff. Sixty-three percent of Catholic Americans rate the Catholic Church in America as either excellent or good, up from 54 percent in February 2013.

More significantly, the percentage who thinks the Catholic Church in the U.S. is getting better has more than doubled since then, from 17 percent in February 2013 to 36 percent today. Now just 12 percent of American Catholics think the Catholic Church in the U.S. is getting worse. In February 2013, more Catholic Americans thought things were getting worse than getting better.

Views of the Pope

Pope Francis is viewed positively by most Americans, and especially among Catholics. Forty-one percent of Americans overall have a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, which jumps to 63 percent among American Catholics. Although favorable views among non-Catholics are lower, just 9 percent view him unfavorably. Most are either undecided (13 percent) or haven't heard enough about him yet to form an opinion (40 percent).

At 63 percent, Pope Francis' favorable rating is higher than that of Pope Benedict XVI's at any point in his papacy, and matches that of Pope John Paul II in September 2004, a few months before he died.

Rating Pope Francis

On specific measures, Pope Francis gets high marks for addressing a number of issues facing the Catholic Church today. Eighty-four percent of American Catholics approve of the job he's doing addressing the concerns of the poor, and 68 percent approve of the job he's doing addressing environmental issues. Another six in 10 Catholics approve of the job he's doing addressing social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, the concerns of women in the Church, the distribution of wealth in the world, and immigration.

Church Doctrine

Catholic Americans look like Americans overall on a number of social issues which Pope Francis has addressed publicly, even when some of these positions are in opposition to Church teachings. Sixty-eight percent of Catholics think abortion should be available in some form, and 54 percent favor the death penalty for persons convicted of murder -- both stances which go against Church doctrine but are in line with the thinking of most Americans. Sixty-one percent of Catholic Americans support same-sex marriage.

American Catholics (and Americans overall) are more in line with the Pope on global warming: 54 percent of Catholics think global warming is caused by human activity. When it comes to immigration, 65 percent of Catholics think illegal immigrants who are living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, and this rises to 82 percent of Hispanic Catholics.

The Role of the Pope

Just under half of Americans view Pope Francis as having a more universal role than leader of the Catholic faith. While 35 percent of Americans regard Pope Francis more as the leader of and spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church, 45 percent view him more as a moral and humanitarian spokesman for all people regardless of religion. Among Catholic Americans this view is particularly strong - 61 percent of Catholic Americans view him more as a humanitarian leader -- but even non-Catholics are more apt to view Pope Francis as a humanitarian leader (41 percent) than as leader of the Catholic Church (37 percent).

Pope Francis and Reforming the Church

Allegations of child sexual abuse by priests continue to bother some American Catholics. Eighteen percent of Catholics volunteer the Church's handling of these matters as the most important problem facing the Catholic Church today, putting it at the top of the list.

Nevertheless, Pope Francis gets much higher marks than his predecessor for handling this issue. Forty-eight percent of Catholic Americans think Pope Francis and the Vatican have done a good job handling the reports of past sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, up from just 19 percent who said the same of Pope Benedict XVI at the end of his papacy in 2013.

And Catholic Americans overwhelmingly support Pope Francis on two reform measures that he recently put into effect: allowing priests to grant forgiveness to women who have had an abortion and repented for it, and speeding up the process for granting marriage annulments.

But when it comes to changing Church doctrine, Catholic Americans would go further. Seventy-three percent of Catholics favor allowing the use of artificial methods of birth control, and another 65 percent approve of letting Catholic priests get married -- both topics which have been discussed by the pontiff but which he has not so far endorsed. Sixty-three percent of Catholics believe divorced Catholics should be allowed to receive communion even if their previous marriages were not annulled -- while Pope Francis has loosened the rules for annulment he has not gone so far as taking that step. Sixty-four percent of Catholics also approve of allowing women to be ordained as priests, a reform Pope Francis has firmly rejected.

Catholics who attend mass at least weekly are less enthusiastic about these possible reforms than Catholics who attend mass less frequently.

White non-Hispanic Catholics strongly favor all of these proposed reforms, but Hispanic Catholics are less enthusiastic about some. While almost two-thirds of Hispanic Catholics favor allowing artificial birth control and women priests, just 52 percent favor allowing priests to get married, and just 49 percent favor allowing divorced Catholics to receive Communion.

Still, most American Catholics - 53 percent -- think Pope Francis shares their priorities for the Catholic Church. American Catholics who attend mass less than once a week -- and who show more support for many changes in Catholic doctrine that the Pope has not endorsed -- are less inclined to think he shares their priorities than those who attend mass more often.

On issues of personal morality -- such as using birth control, abortion, and divorce - 40 percent of Catholics think Pope Francis' views match theirs, but slightly more - 43 percent -- think he is more conservative than they are. On social issues -- such as the environment, immigration, and the distribution of wealth - 43 percent think Pope Francis' view match theirs, while 22 percent think he is more conservative, and 24 percent think he is more liberal than they are.

Few Catholics think it is necessary to agree with the Pope on every issue in order to be a faithful member of the Church. Eighty-one percent of Catholics think it's possible to disagree with the Pope on issues of personal morality such as birth control, abortion, and divorce, and still be a good Catholic, and 82% think it's possible to disagree on social issues like the environment, immigration, and the distribution of wealth.

Hispanic Catholics for the most part agree, though they are less likely to think it's okay to break with the Pope than their white non-Hispanic counterparts.

And 77 percent of American Catholics are more likely to follow their own conscience rather than the Pope's teachings (13 percent) on difficult moral issues, including seven in 10 Catholics who attend mass at least once a week.

This poll was conducted by telephone September 8-15, 2015 among a random sample of 1,559 adults nationwide. Data collection was conducted on behalf of CBS News and The New York Times by SSRS of Media, Pa. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones.

The poll employed a random digit dial methodology. For the landline sample, a respondent was randomly selected from all adults in the household. For the cell sample, interviews were conducted with the person who answered the phone.

An oversample of Catholics was interviewed for a total of 513 interviews with Catholic respondents. The results were then weighted in proportion to the adult population. The margin of error for the sample of Catholics is six points.

Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish using live interviewers. The data have been weighted to reflect U.S. Census figures on demographic variables.

The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher and is available by request. The margin of error includes the effects of standard weighting procedures which enlarge sampling error slightly.

This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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