Looks as though the honeymoon is over for Pope Francis, at least with respect to his popularity in the United States. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church, who enjoyed a sky-high favorability rating of 76 percent in 2014, is starting to see his popularity tail off, according to Gallup poll data released today. Interestingly, those leading the turn away from the Argentinian Jesuit turned pontiff are political conservatives and members of his own flock.
Francis won global accolades when he assumed the papacy in 2013, in large part for his everyman style and his decision to eschew the trappings of royalty that have traditionally accompanied the office in favor of simple clothes, simple lodgings, and communal meals with other priests.
However, as it has become increasingly clear that Francis is attempting to lead by example -- that is, to push Catholics to spend more time thinking about things like serving the poor and protecting the planet and less about acquiring money and material goods -- his numbers have started slipping.
When Francis issued an encyclical earlier this summer calling on Catholics to treat climate change as a serious problem and saying that they had a moral duty to preserve a healthy planet for future generations, there was a lot of pushback from conservatives.
Even before the encyclical was released, former U.S. senator and current presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who wears his devout Catholicism like a badge, went so far as to suggest that the Pontiff should butt out when it comes to the climate debate.
“The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we do – what we’re really good at, which is – which is theology and morality,” Santorum said.
Francis has also been pointedly critical of capitalist economies – particularly their tendency, as he sees it, to devalue the lives and happiness workers in the pursuit of profit.
At least partly as a result, the Pope’s new Gallup numbers reflect a sharp drop in his popularity.
In February 2014, 76 percent of Americans expressed a favorable opinion of him, while only 9 percent said they had a negative opinion. By this month (the recent Gallup survey was conducted between July 8 and July 12) his favorable rating had dropped to 59 percent, and his unfavorable rating had nearly doubled, jumping to 16 percent.
When Gallup examined how those changes were reflected across different societal groups in the U.S., the pollsters found that the Pope’s popularity had plummeted most of all among political conservatives, dropping from 72 percent to 45 percent, a 27-point fall. The shine was off the new pontiff among Liberals and Moderates as well, where Francis saw drops of 14 percent and 8 percent. However, it was only among conservatives that his favorability ranking fell below 50 percent.
The Pontiff, it turns out, is even losing support among his fellow Catholics. In 2014, he enjoyed 89 percent favorability, a number that dropped 18 percentage points to 71 percent in the recent survey. Among Protestants and other Christians he was down 21 percent, jus barely retaining a majority positive rating, at 52 percent.
Francis is scheduled to visit the U.S. for the first time as pope in September, a trip that will include an address to the U.S. Congress. Gallup’s Art Swift notes that previous U.S. trips by previous popes have led to significant gains in public opinion. Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, registered his highest approval ratings when he came to the U.S. in 2008.
However, Francis has shown no reluctance to deliver uncomfortable criticisms and may well use the publicity surrounding his U.S. visit to help drive home the messages he has been delivering elsewhere around the globe. It remains to be seen just how gladly those messages will be received in the U.S.