Public Opinion of Pope Francis, Catholic Church Holds Steady. New Saint Leo University Polling Institute Survey Shows

         ► Most disagree with the pope’s comments suggesting people are selfish for choosing pets over parenthood, but faculty experts say context is needed

         ► Poll shows strong agreement with Pope Francis’ thoughts on parents supporting their gay children

ST. LEO, FL ­– Public opinion of Pope Francis is holding steady, according to a new Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey with 54.4 percent of national poll respondents holding a favorable opinion of the pope. This was statistically the same as polling in October 2021 (54 percent held positive opinion) and February 2021 (55.6 percent held favorable opinion. Among Catholics nationally, the pope’s popularity increased with a favorable opinion rating of 78.9 percent, which went up from 73.2 percent in October 2021.

Polling was conducted online February 28 through March 12, among 1,000 total respondents nationally. The resulting margin of error for the results is 3.0 percentage points in either direction. In Florida, where the Saint Leo University’s residential campus is located, 500 additional people were polled. The margin of error for the responses is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

As part of a Catholic Benedictine university, the polling institute at Saint Leo University in Florida regularly covers Americans’ attitudes concerning Pope Francis and the Catholic Church in America.

Among other issues, the Saint Leo poll also examined opinions about statements made by Pope Francis regarding pet owners being selfish for preferring to have animals rather than children, and the poll asked about the pope’s admonition to parents to be supportive of their gay children. In addition, the poll measured Americans’ and Floridians’ opinions about the Catholic Church and issues such as denying Communion to political leaders who support legal access to abortion and politicians using their faith to make decisions.

Examining Pope’s Popularity Over Time

Looking at the recent Saint Leo University survey, Dr. Marc Pugliese noted, “It is interesting that the change in favorability ratings of the Catholic Church in the United States and Pope Francis are almost the same now as they were in October 2021 because we usually see a shift in both between the fall and spring polls.” Pugliese is an associate professor of religion and theology and associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“While the pope’s current favorability in March 2022 is close to what it was in the October 2021 poll, it is in fact down (54.4 percent in March 2022) compared to a year ago (55.6 percent in February 2021). This is part of a larger example of an overall pattern of decline over time in Pope Francis’ favorability ratings since the Saint Leo University Polling Institute began collecting this data shortly after Francis became pope:

Time of PollPope Francis’ Favorability Rating
(strongly or somewhat favorable)
2013 Fall61%
2014 Spring63%
2014 Fall63%
2015 Spring68%
2015 Fall66.4%
2016 Spring68.4%
2016 Fall62.6%
2017 Spring70.5%
2017 Fall67.9%
2018 Spring65.6%
2018 Fall44.7%
2019 Spring55.6%
2019 Fall56.6%
2020 Spring52.2%
2020 Fall56.4%
2021 Spring55.6%
2021 Fall                  54%
2022 Spring54.4%

“Early in his reign, Pope Francis became popular and widely liked relatively quickly, among Catholics of all stripes and non-Catholics alike,” Pugliese said. “He was named ‘Person of the Year’ for 2013 by Time magazine and was ranked among the top five ‘most powerful people’ by Forbes in 2014 and 2016. The height of his popularity came immediately before the intense coverage of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in the second half of 2018, when the Saint Leo University Polling Institute registered an all-time low 44.7 percent favorability rating in the fall of 2018.”

Since that time, there’s been a gradual decline in Pope Francis’ favorability rating, the polling shows. “This could be for a number of reasons, but the pope is generally seen to have become an increasingly polarizing figure between conservative and progressive segments within the Church, with progressives generally favoring the pope and conservatives and traditionalists generally being more negative about the pope,” Pugliese said. “It is important to note, too, that there is a well-documented strong correlation between the conservative and progressive segments of Catholic Church in the U.S. and political party affiliation. Catholic or not, those in the U.S. who are progressive politically also view the pope more positively than those who are politically conservative.”

Dr. Stephen Okey, Saint Leo University associate professor of philosophy, religion, and theology, said the drop in the pope’s favorability in 2018, “was likely tied to the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse. Since then, his approval rating has consistently been 54.5 [percent] +/- 2.5 percent.”

This suggests three things, Okey said. “First, [Pope] Francis overall has consistent majority support in the U.S. that only changes significantly in the face of major scandals. Second, that many of the intra-Catholic debates that seem significant [liturgical reform of the Tridentine mass, communion for pro-choice politicians, etc.], if they have any effect on papal approval, are marginal, and third, Francis’ approval is on average 10 to 12 points lower than it was prior to the Pennsylvania  grand jury report release, and although I don’t think that persistent drop continues because of that report per se, I think it is unlikely, outside of some significant intervention [Pope Francis mediates a negotiate settlement between Russia and Ukraine] that Pope Francis’ approval returns to the pre-2018 average of 65 to 68 percent.”

Among national poll respondents, Democrats express a favorable opinion of Pope Francis at 68.7 percent, independents at 50.2 percent, and Republicans at 48.9 percent. In Florida polling, results were similar with Democrats holding a favorable opinion of the pope numbering 68.4 percent, while independents approve at 47.7 percent, and Republicans at 48.4 percent.

Among Catholic respondents to the national poll, the pope’s popularity has increased from fall polling with 78.9 percent saying they have a favorable opinion of Pope Francis, while in October 2021, it was 73.2 percent of Catholic respondents. In February 2021, he earned high praise from 79.3 percent of Catholics and 79.9 percent in October 2020. Among Christians polled nationally, 48.4 percent give the pope high marks while 49.2 percent of those from other religions and 40.1 percent who say they are not members of a religion, also hold favorable opinions of Pope Francis.

Looking at the Catholic Church

As the head of the Church, Pope Francis earns higher marks than the Church itself, according to the most recent Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey.

Overall favorable opinion (strongly and somewhat) of the Catholic Church in the United States is 47.2 percent, but it is statistically even with the past few years of polling, with 47.7 percent in October 2021 and 46.4 percent in February 2021. Among Catholics, the favorable opinion (strongly and somewhat) is 76.7 percent, up slightly from 75 percent in October 2021 and down from 81.2 percent in February 2021.   

The following table shows Saint Leo University Polling Institute’s data on the favorability of the Catholic Church in the United States since 2019:

Time of PollCatholic Church in the U.S. Favorability Rating (strongly or somewhat favorable)
2019 Spring37.2%
2019 Fall42.0%
2020 Spring43.6%
2020 Fall48.1%
2021 Spring46.6%
2021 Fall47.7%
2022 Spring47.2%

“This inverse correlation between the favorability ratings of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and Pope Francis over time may reveal at least a degree of separation between the Catholic Church in the U.S. and Pope Francis—at the very least in people’s minds,” said Pugliese, the religion and theology associate professor.

Within the Catholic Church in America, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is seen to be more conservative than Pope Francis, Pugliese said, and to some degree at odds with the pope. “The numbers of conservative and traditionalist Catholics in the U.S. are growing, and there is a well-documented correlation between the political divides in the U.S. Catholic Church and political party affiliation. In the U.S. more generally, there has been an increase in the numbers of political conservatives as initial optimism about the Biden administration has given way to declines in approval ratings. So, if the numbers of those who would favor an at least perceived more conservative Church in the U.S. [compared to Pope Francis who is not viewed as more liberal], then this may account for the relatively recent rise in approval ratings of the Catholic Church in the U.S. while Pope Francis’ approval ratings have been declining over time.”

This also corresponds to the results of the most recent Saint Leo poll, as the favorability ratings for the Catholic Church in the United States among those who self-identify as having conservative political views came in at 52.9 percent while the favorability rating of those who self-identify as Liberal registered at 48 percent, Pugliese added.

Pets Over Parenthood?

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute in its March survey asked about a January statement from Pope Francis suggesting that some pet owners are selfish for preferring to have cats and dogs rather than children, and said those having pets rather than children were denying themselves the richness of parenthood and contributing to decreased birth rates. 

The question asked if respondents agree or disagree with the pope’s statements. Just 26.8 percent of all respondents agree with Pope Francis when he suggested that some pet owners were selfish for preferring to have cats and dogs over children. Nearly two-thirds, 62.3 percent disagree.

Pope Francis’ general audience on January 5, was on the theme of St. Joseph as an adoptive father of Jesus. At one point he said, “And many couples do not have children because they do not want to, or they have just one because they do not want any more, but they have two dogs, two cats … Yes, dogs and cats take the place of children. Yes, it is funny, I understand, but it is the reality. And this denial of fatherhood or motherhood diminishes us, it takes away our humanity.”

Pugliese noted that in a 2014 interview, and remarking on European conditions and culture today, the pope made related remarks, rhetorically asking if animals are more valuable than children and saying that it is simpler and “easier” to control an emotional relationship with a pet than with children who are more “complex.” 

“These comments have evoked a firestorm of criticism,” Pugliese said. “It is therefore not surprising that only 26.8 percent of all respondents and 32 percent of Catholics nationally expressed agreement [strongly or somewhat] with the pope’s remarks of this past January 5, while large majorities disagreed. They were viewed as insensitive to a number of issues surrounding childbearing and parenting, and many took personal offense. Reactions to the pope’s comments have referred to situations where having more children or even having children at all are difficult or even impossible.

“Parenting is a highly sensitive topic, and many do not take lightly to any negative statements about parenting, whether real or perceived,” Pugliese continued. “As is so often the case with Pope Francis sound bites, there is not only an immediate context but a larger context that is often not in the picture. We must also consider, for instance, how when commenting on the Church’s ban on artificial birth control in 2015, the pope said that Catholic parents must be ‘responsible’ and do not have to ‘breed like rabbits,’ and how Pope Francis has repeatedly and clearly distinguished between the contexts of wealthy countries and poorer countries. This distinction in relationship to the specific audience he was addressing may have also been in the backdrop of his comment on January 5.”

It is important to look at the context of the pope’s statements, Saint Leo theology associate professor Okey added, as Pope Francis discusses this point in the context of a larger point about adoption.

“He says, ‘How many children in the world are waiting for someone to take care of them!’” Okey said. “To put some numbers on this, Fortune Business Insights estimates the international pet market at more than $200 billion, while in 2016 The Hague said that accredited adoption agencies reporting IRS Form 990 in 2016 gave a global figure of $404 million. Francis’ point is not to reject the intrinsic dignity and goodness of pets as part of creation—this would be contra to what he says in Laudato Si‘—but rather is a critique of the disproportionate priority that pets sometimes get relative to human beings.”

Supporting Children, No Matter What

Also as a part of his series on St. Joseph, in addressing parents of children with serious health challenges and other issues, the pope on January 26, reminded parents to be supportive of their gay children or children with different sexual orientations.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey asked: “Pope Francis recently reminded parents they should be supportive of their gay children. In speaking about standing with their children in difficult times such as illness and accidents, the pope said parents should stand by children with different sexual orientations. He said: “Never condemn your children.” In general, how strongly would you say you agree or disagree with the pope’s sentiments?”

Nearly three-quarters of all respondents, 74.2 percent, agree with Pope Francis when he reminded parents they should be supportive of their gay children with different sexual orientations, with 50.1 percent saying they strongly agree and 24.1 percent saying they somewhat agree. Of the 17.6 percent who disagree, 10 percent strongly disagree and 7.6 percent somewhat disagree; another 8.1 percent are unsure.

In Florida, which recently passed the controversial, so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” which prohibits classroom instruction on gender identity or sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, 76.4 percent of poll respondents agree with Pope Francis about parents supporting their gay children. Of that, 48.1 percent strongly agree and 28.3 percent somewhat agree; while 6.6 percent strongly disagree, 8.2 percent somewhat disagree, and 8.8 percent are unsure.

Pugliese notes that in his January 26 remarks, Pope Francis cited a litany of issues that parents face and must address—including serious illness, children leaving, death, sexual orientation, and even “childish mischief.”

Pope Francis said, “So many parental problems. Let us think about how to help them. And to these parents I say: do not be afraid. Yes, there is pain. A lot. But think about how Joseph solved problems and ask Joseph to help you. Never condemn a child.”

“It is not surprising that almost three-quarters [74.2 percent] agreed [strongly or somewhat] with the pope’s remarks since regardless of where people differ on the litany of issues surrounding this subject there is a lot of general agreement that condemnation and rejection are not appropriate responses, let alone condemnation and rejection of one’s own children,” Pugliese said.

Looking at the demographics of poll respondents, Pugliese noted that the highest percentage of agreement with the pope’s statements about supporting children regardless of their sexual orientation was from those who self-identify as Catholic, with the percentages being: Catholic 80.8 percent, Christian 68.9 percent, other religions, 76.3 percent, and no religion, 77.8 percent. “The cross-tabulations show that by political party percentages of agreement with Pope Francis’ remarks were at 65.4 percent for Republicans, 82.8 percent for Democrats, and for 75.2 percent for independents, and by self-identified political views the percentages of agreement were at 65.7 percent for conservatives, 78.1 percent for moderates, and 85.1 percent for liberals,” Pugliese said. “These differences by political party and political leanings are what one would expect and come as no surprise.”

Pope Francis has been praised and criticized for his statements and actions surrounding issues of sexual orientation. Insisting that the Church must be welcoming and loving of people of all sexual orientations has been a recurring theme of his papacy but so, too, has his affirmations of the Church’s traditional teachings on marriage and sexuality, Pugliese said. As in other areas, Pope Francis’ statements and actions on these issues, are seen to be odds at times, and difficult to interpret.

“For instance, there has been debate over whether or not he endorsed same-sex civil unions in interviews for the documentary, Francesco, and whether he has expressed the view that homosexuality is a psychiatric illness, natural, or even by divine design,” Pugliese said.

“These debates notwithstanding, Pope Francis’ recent remarks about supporting children regardless of their sexual orientation is consistent with other statements and actions by him,” he continued. “In 2018 he said that parents should not shun their gay children, and in a 2020 meeting with the Italian group who supports LGBTQ Christians and their families, Jonathan’s Tent [La Tenda di Gionata], Pope Francis told parents that ‘God loves your children as they are’ and ‘the Church loves your children as they are because they are children of God.’”

About the Poll

METHODOLOGY: This national survey was conducted February 28 – March 12, among a base of 1,000 respondents nationally, using an online instrument. The national sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 3.0 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 1,000 respondents.

A statewide survey was also conducted during the same time period, among a base of 500 Florida respondents, using an online instrument. The sample has an associated margin of error of +/- 4.5 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence for questions asked of all 500 respondents.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute conducts its surveys using cutting-edge online methodology, which is rapidly transforming the field of survey research. The sample is drawn from large online panels, which allow for random selections that reflect accurate cross sections of all demographic groups. Online methodology has the additional advantage of allowing participants to respond to the survey at a time, place, and speed that is convenient to them, which may result in more thoughtful answers. The Saint Leo University Polling Institute develops the questionnaires, administers the surveys, and conducts analysis of the results. Panel participants typically receive a token incentive—usually $1 deposited into an iTunes or Amazon account—for their participation.

The Saint Leo University Polling Institute survey results about national and Florida politics, public policy issues, Pope Francis’ popularity, and other topics, can also be found here: You can also follow the institute on Twitter @saintleopolls.

About Saint Leo University

Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 62 degree programs to more than 15,800 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks and sisters, the private, nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education to learners of all backgrounds and ages in the liberal arts tradition. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a residential campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, 16 education centers in five states, and an online program for students anywhere. The university is home to more than 100,000 alumni. Learn more at