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Poll: Mixed Feelings On Pope

Pope John Paul II was popular among many Catholics and non-Catholics, but feelings are mixed about his impact on the Church and the world, according to a CBS News analysis of past surveys done by CBS News on its own, and in conjunction with The New York Times.

American Catholics had mixed views of his leadership, and those assessments became more negative over time, the analysis shows. Also, most Catholics thought the pope had a limited role in world affairs.

It's clear that American Catholics changed during his tenure in the Vatican. They are older and more educated today, more diverse racially and regionally, and less Democratic in their political preferences.

They are also more willing to see their leader as more conservative than they are when it comes to issues of morality.

Still, while they may disagree with Church teachings on a married clergy or birth control, those who are currently Catholic (and especially those who are observant churchgoers) are only somewhat likely to think the Church should change with the times to reflect the views of Catholics today.


Pope John Paul II enjoyed very positive ratings from American Catholics throughout his tenure as Pope. Non-Catholics, too, had favorable opinions of him over the years, but despite serving as Pope for more than two decades, a number of Americans were unable to offer an opinion of him.

In a CBS News poll conducted last September, 37 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the pope, while one in 10 viewed him unfavorably. That was one of his most positive ratings. He received his highest rating from the American public in September 1995, weeks before a visit to the United States. Back then, 38 percent said they viewed Pope John Paul II favorably.

The views of Catholics were more positive, and they were more likely to voice an opinion of him. In September 2004, 63 percent of American Catholics had a favorable opinion of Pope John Paul II.

Surprisingly, the pope's highest rating among Catholics occurred in mid-April 2002, just when the scandals involving child sex abuse by American Catholic priests were becoming news. 69 percent had a favorable opinion of the Pontiff at that time.

Just two weeks later, opinions of Pope John Paul II were at their lowest. After the pope's high-profile meeting with American Cardinals in Rome, a majority of Americans, including Catholics, felt the pope did not go far enough in addressing the problems of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. In late April 2002, only 25 percent of the American public had a favorable opinion of the pope. Still, 53 percent of Catholics viewed him favorably, but that was the lowest rating ever given the pope among American Catholics.

The CBS News poll in September 2004 did show differences among some groups in their views of the pope:

  • Overall, men were more likely than women to say they had a favorable opinion of him. But among Catholics, more than six in 10 of both men and women said they had a favorable opinion of him.
  • Americans age 45-64 were more likely than any other age group to have a favorable opinion of the pope. A majority of those under 30 were unable to offer an opinion of the pontiff.
  • Among Catholics, all age groups held favorable opinions of Pope John Paul II, but views among older Catholics were even more favorable.
  • Also, 81 percent of Catholics who attended church weekly viewed the pope favorably, compared to 56 percent of those Catholics who attended less frequently.

    American Catholics had mixed views of the leadership of Pope John Paul II, and assessments became less positive over time.

    In a CBS News survey done September 2004, 43 percent of self-identified Americans Catholics said the pope's leadership had helped the Catholic Church, but just as many, 46 percent, described the pope's leadership as a mixed blessing. In September 1995, a majority of Catholics said the pope's leadership had helped the Church. Few Catholics thought the pope's leadership had hurt the Catholic Church.


    Most Catholics thought the pope had a limited role in world events. In September 2004, just under a third of Catholics said he had a great deal of influence in world affairs, and another 54 percent said he had some influence. These views were similar to views expressed nine years ago.


    Most Catholics saw a schism between their own views and the views of their church's leader. In April 2002, 57 percent of Catholics thought the pope was more conservative than themselves on matters of personal morality, while just half as many (three in ten) thought the pope shared their views on issues of morality.

    While American Catholics had always perceived the pope as more conservative than themselves, the difference in ideology appeared to have widened: In 1987, 47 percent of Catholics said the pope was more conservative than they were on social and political issues, 36 percent said the pope shared their own opinions, and one in ten thought the pope had more liberal views than themselves. In 1995, just over half said the pope's views on social and political issues were more conservative than their own.


    Pope John Paul II was elected pope in 1978, more than 25 years ago. During his tenure, significant social, geopolitical and cultural changes occurred in this country and throughout the world, and the Catholic Church itself underwent upheaval in recent years.

    How were the changes within and outside the Church reflected in the Church's laity?

    The proportion of Catholics in the population changed little. About one-in-four Americans currently identify themselves as Catholics; one-in-three says they were brought up as such. In 1978, when the pope was first elected, about 30 percent of Americans said they were brought up as Catholics.

    Compared to 1978, Catholics are somewhat older and better educated today. In 2004, 34 percent of those raised as Catholics were age 30 to 44, compared to 24 percent in 1978. Among those brought up as Catholic, 48 percent had some college education or higher in 2004; 33 percent had done so in 1978.

    Most notably, those brought up as Catholics are found in different areas of the country than they were 27 years ago. In 1978, nearly half lived in the Northeast. While many people raised as Catholics can still be found in that region, the percentage living in the South more than doubled, from 11 percent in 1978 to 26 percent today.

    More of those raised as Catholics are also living in rural areas and fewer in urban environments. The percentage that live in rural areas grew from 21 percent in 1978 to 28 percent in 2004, while the number living in small or large cities dropped from 38 percent to 27 percent.

    The racial breakdown of those raised as Catholics changed only slightly between 1978 and 2004, but more Catholics today are Hispanic. The percentage of current Catholics who identify themselves as Hispanic grew from 14 percent in 1987 to 23 percent in 2004.

    Americans brought up as Catholics changed politically too. While more than half identified themselves as Democrats in 1978, such monolithic party allegiance has dissipated over the intervening years. Now, their party loyalties are divided: 32 percent say they are Democrats, and equally as many are Republicans. 28 percent are Independents.

    In addition, those who were brought up Catholic became less liberal. One-in-four described themselves as liberal in 1978, compared with just 16 percent in 2004.

    Those changing political ties were reflected in presidential elections as well. Catholic voters chose Jimmy Carter in 1976, but then chose Republican candidates from 1980 until 1992, when they backed Bill Clinton (they repeated their support of Mr. Clinton in 1996). In 2000, Democrat Al Gore squeaked out a 2-point lead among Catholic voters, but this past November, they chose Republican George W. Bush over Democrat John Kerry by 52 percent to 47 percent.


    Despite the changes in their political views, notably little changed in the role religion plays in the lives of those brought up as Catholics. In 2004, 32 percent of them attended religious services every week -- the same percentage as said so in 1984. In 2004, 54 percent of those raised as Catholic attended church less than every week -- the same as 20 years ago. There was little change in the number who never attend services.

    If anything, Catholics today are more apt than those of 15 years ago to say that religion is very important to them. In 1989, 15 percent of those who said they were currently Catholic said religion was extremely important in their life; in early 2004, 24 percent said that was so.



    In a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in January, three-in-10 Catholics said abortion should be generally available, down from 42 percent who said so in 1989. 29 percent of Catholics said in January that abortion should not be permitted under any circumstances, up from 13 percent in 1989. Four-in-10 Catholics said in the January poll that abortion should be available but under stricter limits than it is now.

    In April 2002, amid the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandals, just a quarter of Catholics supported making abortion generally available, as many as one-third said abortion should not be permitted at all, while four-in-10 wanted to impose stricter limits on abortion. In 1995, before Pope John Paul II's visit to the U.S., seven-in-10 Catholics said abortion should either be generally available (34 percent), or available under stricter limits (36 percent), and a quarter said abortion should not be allowed.

    Birth Control

    Historically, views of most Catholics on the issue of birth control have been in opposition to that of Church doctrine. In a poll conducted in April 2002, 71 percent of Catholics favored the use of artificial methods of birth control. These views have not changed very much over the years. 64 percent of Catholics favored the use of artificial methods of birth control in 1987; and in 1985, when those who were raised Catholic were asked about birth control use, seven in 10 said they favored using artificial methods of birth control.

    Even a majority of the most devout Catholics support the use of artificial birth control methods. In 2002, 59 percent of Catholics who went to church weekly favored the use of birth control; 34 percent opposed. In the same survey, six-in-10 people who called themselves "strong" Catholics said they favored the use of artificial methods of birth control.

    Priests and Marriage

    Catholics also have traditionally taken an opposing view than the church when it comes to allowing Catholic priests to marry. In April 2002, at the height of the child sex abuse scandals, seven-in-10 Catholics said they favored letting priests get married – the highest number since CBS News began asking the question. Even in the years prior to the scandals, a majority of Catholics supported the idea of allowing priests to marry.

    Catholics who are weekly church goers also favor allowing priests to marry. In the spring of 2002, 67 percent of Catholics who attend church weekly said they supported the idea of letting Catholic priests get married.


    Last fall, Catholics in the U.S. were divided over what direction the Church should take in the future. A bare majority, 51 percent, thought the Catholic Church should change some of its teachings to better reflect the opinions of most Catholics today, but 43 percent said the Church should hold to its teachings regardless of what most Catholics think.

    In 1987, American Catholics wanted the Catholic Church to change some of its teachings so as to keep up with the times by 59 percent to 33 percent.