Pope changes Catholics’ attitudes, not their behavior

Poll shows most Americans in the church say he’s been a big boost in the right direction.

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICEMarch 6, 2014 

But Pope Francis’ popularity has not inspired more Americans to attend Mass, go to confession or identify as Catholic.

Francis is more popular among American Catholics than Pope Benedict XVI was in February of last year, when he suddenly resigned, according to the poll, released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. But Francis has not reached the sky-high ratings that Pope John Paul II commanded at the height of his papacy in the 1990s, when he was credited with helping to bring down the Communist government in his native Poland.

Francis has clearly invigorated the church. But the poll finds that he has raised expectations of significant change, even though he has alluded that he may not alter the church’s positions on thorny doctrinal issues.

Nearly 6 in 10 American Catholics in the poll said they expected the church would definitely or probably lift its prohibition on birth control by the year 2050, while half said the church would allow priests to marry. Four in 10 said it would ordain women as priests and more than two-thirds said it would recognize same-sex marriages by 2050.

Large majorities of American Catholics said they wanted the church to change on the first three matters, and half wanted the church to recognize same-sex marriages.

“Right now, because he’s still relatively fresh in his position, people are taking his signals seriously,” said Mark Rozell, acting dean of the school of public policy at George Mason University, who studies the role of the Catholics in American politics. “But that doesn’t mean those changes are necessarily going to happen.”

The poll is an early gauge of whether the first social media-friendly pope is having an effect on church attendance or conversions. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, director of media relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said her office had received anecdotal evidence of fuller churches, increased donations and people returning to confession.

The poll, conducted Feb. 14-23, included 1,821 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all Americans, and 6 percentage points for the subgroup of 351 Catholics.

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