The latest NBC/Marist poll released today showed that most Americans have an unfavorable opinion of all the presidential candidates except Bernie Sanders. Trump leads among Republicans; Hillary Clinton among Democrats; but Americans don’t trust any of them but one.
By comparison, Gallup released poll results last week that showed that the approval rating of Pope Francis dipped in the United States after his recent Encyclical on climate change and remarks about out-of-control capitalism and income inequality. According to Gallup, 59% of Americans now approve of the Pontiff, down from 71% in 2014. Sixteen percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Pope, up from nine percent last year.
Although his ratings are far from underwater, Republicans and the media are saying the Pope’s popularity is plummeting. To put this into perspective however, Americans give the Republican-controlled Congress a nine percent approval, and the Republican Party itself a 32% favorable rating according to a Pew poll also released last week. The leading GOP presidential candidate, Donald Trump, stands at 18% among Republicans. Hillary Clinton’s favorability is only 37% in Iowa and New Hampshire according to the latest NBC/Marist poll. So 59% looks really good in comparison.
Clearly, conservative pundits and politicians are gleeful over the drop in Francis’ popularity. The good people at FOX News were almost giddy. They are very concerned that the Pope’s message about income equality, capitalism, and climate change will erode support for Republicans at the polls next year. The Pope’s positions could not be more opposite from the stands Republican politicians take on those issues.
Many conservative Catholics, including a few Bishops and clergy, are pleased with the news. They have opposed Pope Francis since he called for more tolerance of gays and extolled the clergy to stop talking about abortion “all the time.” However, most of the angst among conservative Catholics is because of the Pope’s position on economic policies and climate change. The five Catholic Republicans running for president have all blasted the Pope for even taking a position on those issues—an issue opposite theirs.
In one sense, a 59% favorability rating for a Pope in the United States is surprising. Although most Americans are Christians, a majority of them are not Catholic. In some Protestant churches, Catholics are still demonized because the wounds of the Reformation have not completely healed.
Many fallen-away Catholics harbor negative feelings about their former church particularly for its stand on abortion, contraception, married priests, and marriage equality. Also, polls often do not consider the opinion of the some Catholics, namely poor Latinos, because many do not have phones. They are more likely to support the Pope than affluent Anglo Catholics with phones.
Actually, his 59% favorability is surprising because in the 1970s, the American Catholic hierarchy made a decision to throw their lot in with Republicans because of that Party’s stand against abortion. Directly or indirectly, the Catholic hierarchy and clergy have promoted the election of Republicans at all levels of government just because of abortion. In 2012, a Bishop in Illinois said from the pulpit that Catholics who voted for Democrats could not go to heaven.
By shifting to the GOP, Catholics have played a big role in electing Republicans at all levels who are anti-abortion, but who are also against all policies and programs that benefit the poor and the environment. In other words, the Church has unintentionally sold out the very people Jesus spent his public life advocating for and God’s creation.
The drop in the Pope’s popularity is likely coming from Republicans, Catholic and otherwise, who totally disagree with his calls for income equality, a higher minimum wage, and an end to burning fossil fuels. When Francis called out-or-control capitalism the “Devils dung,” he was seen as going too far.
Pope Francis has made it clear that the priority for the Church is to care for the poor, the helpless, immigrants, and God’s creation itself. This is the opposite of the platforms and rhetoric of the very Republicans that Catholics have elected and continue to support. A conundrum exists. An interesting question arises: Are Catholics, especially Bishops and priests, more loyal to the head of their church or the Republican candidates they traditionally support?
Realistically, in an affluent capitalistic nation obsessed with conspicuous consumption and addicted to oil, a 59% approval for a Pope like Francis is quite remarkable. It shows that most people admire him for the reforms he is undertaking within the Church, and they recognize that this is truly a sincere holy man filled with love of God’s creation. Few politicians possess those qualities.