(CN) – Trust in Pope Francis among U.S. Catholics is declining in response to his handling of the renewed sex-abuse scandal sweeping the church, a Tuesday poll from the Pew Research Center shows.
Interestingly the study shows Catholics still like their first Jesuit pontiff, but their confidence in him his waning: Just 30 percent of U.S. Catholics think Francis is doing an “excellent” or “good” job handling the church’s abuse crisis, down from 54 percent of people Pew polled in February 2014.
While the pope’s favorability rating is roughly 70 percent today, this is a decline as well from the 84 percent approval rating that Francis enjoyed at the beginning of 2018.
Dennis M. Doyle, a Catholic theologian and professor of religious studies at the University of Dayton, said in an interview Tuesday that the study certainly speaks to the Argentine pope’s popularity.
“But it becomes — with these attacks from intellectual enemies and so on, and with the new wave of a media blitz — you get a situation that’s starting to have parallels with the political division in larger society,” Doyle said.
Francis has endured backlash from Catholic conservatives since his inauguration in 2013, but that criticism intensified this past August with the letter from Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that called for his resignation.
A former Vatican ambassador to the U.S., Vigano insists that the church is being ripped apart by a so-called gay lobby and that homosexuality is at the root of the church’s sexual-abuse crisis.
As to Vigano’s claim that Francis schemed to cover up abuse by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., Francis declined to comment, telling the Associated Press last month that the letter speaks for itself.”
Pew reported Tuesday meanwhile that 6 out of 10 U.S. Catholics said the pope was doing an “only fair” or “poor” job. With 36 percent selecting “poor,” this number is triple the “poor” assessments of Francis since June 2015.
The decline is consistent among both male and female Catholics, young as well as old, according to the study. It includes regular churchgoers, who overwhelmingly gave him “excellent” or “good” marks in 2015. Those approval ratings were cut in half, cascading from 67 to 34 percent.
Pew also found that support of the pope is increasingly, dramatically divergent along political lines, with 83 percent of Democratic Catholics viewing him favorably compared with just 61 percent of Catholic Republicans.
Even by his papal name, chosen specifically to honor the patron saint of the environment, Francis has made the environment a central focus of his leadership. In addition to speaking out against climate change, Francis has developed a reputation for embracing the LGBT community.
Until now, Francis was on average more popular than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Before Benedict, Pope John Paul II was widely popular, though Pew did not take data after news of the sex-abuse scandal broke nationally thanks to a 2002 Boston Globe investigation.
Only a third of white evangelical Protestants view Francis favorably now, down from over half in January 2018, according to the study. About half of adults who don’t ascribe to a particular religion view him in good light.
Child sex abuse and subsequent cover-up scandals have rocked the Catholic Church around the world in recent decades, with cases in the United States, Latin America, Australia and parts of Europe, Africa and Asia.
“It’s hard for anybody to maintain this high status, as it were, this high favorability, when there is so much polarization and division percolating,” said Doyle, adding he doesn’t minimize the experiences of victims. “The reality of the abuse” is “a million times more important,” he said.
Though there are processes in place for removing a pope from his position, Catholicism is not a democracy. Still, Doyle explained, it matters what laypeople think.
“The papacy matters to Catholics,” he said. He added that in the U.S. the pope became “kind of an emblem of pride” for Catholics, who at one point made up a quarter of the population, formed their own subculture, and used the pontiff as a symbol of identity and coherence.
“The pope represents a Christianity that has its own integrity and has its own distinctiveness from the national governments, from the corporations,” Doyle said.