'Pope Francis Effect' Improves 1 in 4 Americans' Views of the Catholic Church

09/08/2015 05:12 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2016

As the United States prepares for an extended week-long visit from Pope Francis later this month, findings from a public opinion survey conducted earlier this year show that His Holiness is improving views of the Catholic Church among a wide swath of Americans.

According to the 2015 Colonel's Canvass Poll, conducted by researchers at Centre College in March, roughly one-third (31.8 percent) of Americans report awareness of the Pope's efforts to "push for more transparency and openness in the Vatican Bureaucracy." Slightly over 1 in 10 Americans (10.8 percent) say that they have followed this news story either very closely or fairly closely.

Of those who have followed the story, 44.2 percent report that Pope Francis's efforts have given them a "more favorable" view of the Catholic Church, whereas only 5.5 percent report that it has produced a "less favorable" view. The remaining 50.3 percent say that this did not change their view of the Catholic Church one way or another. Combining these responses shows that nearly 1 in 4 Americans (22.6 percent) are both aware of the Pope's efforts to improve the Vatican and that it has resulted in a more favorable view of the Catholic Church for them.

Other research has shown similar evidence for the "Pope Francis Effect." For example, a recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that Catholic religious affiliation strength has intensified during Pope Francis's tenure, resulting in Catholics becoming more excited about their faith and praying more frequently. Another survey has shown that roughly a third of American Catholics have developed a more favorable view of their church over the last few years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many Catholics feel more comfortable attending church due to the Pope's more inclusive approach. Pope Francis also enjoys widespread popularity among Americans of all religious backgrounds. (Another recent survey suggests that the "Pope Francis Effect" may be more muted, however.)

The Colonel's Canvass Poll confirms and extends this collective evidence, showing that the "Pope Francis Effect" is affecting popular views of the Catholic Church as a whole by both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Of those who are aware of the Pope's efforts to improve transparency, it has improved overall views of the Catholic Church among nearly half of both American Catholics (49.2 percent) and Evangelical Protestants (45.2 percent), as well as a little over a third (36.5 percent) of Mainline Protestants.
There is also a clear political dynamic at play. The survey revealed that the "Pope Francis Effect" has resulted in a more positive view of the Catholic Church among Democrats and Independents than among Republicans. 51.6 percent and 47.8 percent of Democrats and Independents (respectively) who were aware of the Pope's efforts say that it improved their view of the Catholic Church, compared to only 36 percent of Republicans. There is a similar pattern among political liberals and moderates (56.4 percent and 55.2 percent respectively) compared to political conservatives (33.3 percent). This is consistent with other survey findings that have shown Pope Francis's favorability to have recently dropped among political conservatives in the United States.

Conducted by Benjamin Knoll and Chris Paskewich, political science professors at Centre College, the "2015 Colonel's Canvass Poll" was part of a community-based learning component of their spring 2015 courses. In all, 90 students participated in fielding the survey and administering the questions to respondents. The randomized, nationally representative telephone survey was conducted March 12-18, 2015. It sampled 715 respondents, 62 percent of whom were reached via landline and 38 percent via cellphone. The margin of sampling error for the survey is plus or minus 3.7 percent for the full sample, 6 percent for the news awareness subsamples, and up to 10 percent for the various demographic subsamples. Full topline results for the survey questions associated with this release can be found here.