April 3, 2008

On Eve of Visit, Pope Benedict Still Unknown to Many Americans

Mixed Ratings for Pontiff's Outreach to Other Religions

Summary of Findings

Two weeks before his first visit to the United States as spiritual leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI continues to be viewed favorably by a majority (52%) of Americans, which is virtually unchanged from August 2007 (50%). However, the pope remains unfamiliar to a relatively large number of Americans: Three-in-ten say they do not know enough about Pope Benedict to offer an opinion, which also has not changed much since last summer (32%).

Among American Catholics, the pope is, not surprisingly, better known and viewed more favorably than among the general public. Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Catholics in the United States view their religious leader positively, which also has not changed since August 2007.

However, the current pontiff continues to be less highly regarded than his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. Favorable opinions of Pope John Paul II consistently outnumbered unfavorable views by much wider margins than is the case for Pope Benedict XVI.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted March 24-29 among 1,001 Americans, finds that as Pope Benedict completes his third year as spiritual leader of the world’s Catholics, he gets mixed ratings for his efforts to promote good relations between the Catholic Church and other major religions.

Overall, 39% of those who have heard at least a little about the pope say he has done an excellent or good job in promoting positive relations with other faiths, but about as many (40%) say he has done only fair or poor in this regard. Overall opinions about the pope’s efforts to foster good relations with other faiths are largely unchanged from last August (38% excellent/good vs. 46% only fair/poor).

Among Catholics, however, opinions of the pope’s outreach efforts have improved. Nearly two-thirds of Catholics (64%) say he is doing an excellent or good job at fostering interfaith relations, up from 54% in August 2007. Among Protestants, there has been very little change in views of how the pope is doing in promoting good relations with other religions.

Views of Pope Benedict’s ideology have changed somewhat since last summer. Currently, 45% of Americans view Pope Benedict XVI as conservative while 28% say he is either moderate or liberal. In August 2007, 56% said that Pope Benedict was conservative while 22% said he was moderate or liberal.

John Paul II Better Known, Better Liked

Pope Benedict XVI is considerably less well known, and less favorably viewed, than his predecessor John Paul II was in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, 30% express no opinion about Pope Benedict XVI; just 10% offered no opinion of Pope John Paul II in May 1987, nearly a decade after he became pope.

Although Pope Benedict’s overall favorability has changed little since last summer (52% overall today, compared with 50% overall in August 2007), the percentage saying they have a “very favorable” view of the pope has increased slightly (from 14% to 18%). This is largely driven by increasingly positive assessments from highly observant Catholics (those who attend church at least weekly); 49% view Pope Benedict very favorably today, compared with 39% who did so in August.

Observant Catholics See Pope Doing Well in Outreach

A substantial majority of Catholics who attend church at least weekly (78%) also say the pontiff is doing a good or excellent job promoting relations with other major religions. This is an increase of 18 points since August 2007. By comparison, the opinions of Catholics who attend less frequently have not changed over this period.

The balance of opinion among white evangelical Protestants has shifted somewhat in the opposite direction, however. White evangelical Protestants are less likely today to say the pope is doing an excellent or good job at developing good interfaith relationships (32% compared with 40% in August 2007).

Overall, 45% say Pope Benedict is conservative, down from 56% in August 2007. Although a majority of Catholics (58%) continue to say the pope is conservative, this number is considerably less than the more than two-thirds (68%) who viewed the pope this way in August 2007. An increasing number of Catholics (31% compared with 22% in August) identify the pope as moderate or liberal, and this change is seen among both highly observant and less observant Catholics.

Protestants’ views have also shifted over this time period, moving both toward a more moderate view of the pope’s ideological leanings and less certainty about his ideology. In August 2007, 47% of Protestants viewed Pope Benedict as conservative, compared with 34% currently. However, 35% of Protestants today are unable to characterize Pope Benedict’s ideology, compared with 28% in August of last year.

Partisans Differ in Views of Pope

Opinions of the pope are, on balance, favorable among all political groups. However, significantly more Republicans (62%) than independents (50%) or Democrats (47%) view the pope favorably.

Republicans also have more positive evaluations of Pope Benedict’s promotion of good relations with other religions. A plurality (46%) of Republicans evaluates him positively on this question. By contrast, Democrats are more evenly divided; 39% say he is doing an excellent or good job, compared with 38% who say he is only doing a fair or poor job. Independents are the most critical of the pope’s efforts to foster relations with other religions. Only about third independents (32%) rate his interfaith efforts as excellent or good, while about half (51%) rate them as fair or poor.