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Pope very popular in United States, but no 'Francis effect'

Pope Francis blesses the altar during Ash Wednesday at Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome March 5, 2014.
CREDIT: REUTERS/MAX ROSSI
Pope Francis blesses the altar during Ash Wednesday at Santa Sabina Basilica in Rome March 5, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/MAX ROSSI

BY TOM HENEGHAN, Thu Mar 6, 2014

(Reuters) - One year after his election, Pope Francis is "immensely popular among American Catholics," a survey said on Thursday, but there is no sign of a "Francis effect" inspiring more to attend Mass or do volunteer work.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center said 85 percent of Catholics in the United States viewed the Argentine-born pontiff favorably, with 51 percent reporting a "very favourable" view of him, while only 4 percent expressed a negative opinion.

Among Catholics, 68 percent thought he represented "a major change for the better," a view shared by 51 percent of the non-Catholics responding to the poll in telephone interviews of 1,340 Americans from February 14 to 23.

But the poll also found the rock-star status of the pope, whose simple style has attracted record crowds to the Vatican and won Time magazine's Man of the Year title for 2013, has not clearly translated into greater lay participation in the church since his surprise election on March 13, 2013.

"There has been no measurable rise in the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic," the survey said. "Nor has there been a statistically significant change in how often Catholics say they go to Mass."

Forty percent of Catholics said they were now praying more often and 26 percent were "more excited" about their faith, but their frequency of going to confession or volunteering at church has not changed.

RISING EXPECTATIONS

"If there has been a 'Francis effect', it has been most pronounced among Catholics who already were highly committed to the practice of their faith," the survey concluded.

Francis's 85 percent favourable rating lags behind the 93 percent the late Pope John Paul scored in 1990 and 1996. Pope Emeritus Benedict's rating reached 83 percent in 2008, just after his only visit to the United States, but it was mostly in the 70s.

The survey said women were slight more favourable to Francis than men and Catholics aged 40 and older were more likely to have a very favourable view than younger believers who came of age under the more dogmatic popes John Paul and Benedict.

Pope Francis's openness to reforming some Church doctrines seems to have raised U.S. Catholics' expectations of fundamental changes in coming decades, judging by responses to the poll.

The biggest jump concerned allowing the now celibate clergy to marry. Some 51 percent thought priests would be able to marry by 2050, compared to 39 percent who thought that a year ago.

Some 56 percent expect artificial birth control to be allowed by 2050, a slight rise from 53 percent last year, and 42 percent expected to see women priests, up from 37 percent.

"Regardless of their expectations about what the Church will do, large majorities of Catholics say the Church should allow Catholics to use birth control (77 percent), allow priests to get married (72 percent) and ordain women as priests (68 percent)," the survey wrote.

"Half of Catholics say the Church should recognise the marriages of gay and lesbian couples," it added.

SOME DISAPPOINTMENT

These responses were roughly in line with results reported in Germany and several other European countries last month to a Vatican survey on sexual morality being taken for a major synod of world bishops on family policy due in October.

Most national bishops conferences have not published their results for the Vatican survey, but the few reports released in Europe indicated a wide gap between Church teaching on sex and the views that many Catholics actually hold.

Some disappointment rang through in comments on how Francis is doing his job. In his lowest rating, only 54 percent said he was addressing the clerical sexual abuse scandal well.

U.S. Catholics rated the abuse scandal the most important issue for the new pope in a Pew survey in March 2013.

By contrast, 81 percent thought he was spreading the faith well and standing up for traditional moral values. Some 76 percent credited him with addressing the needs of the poor.

The survey said 22 percent of Americans identify as Catholics and 40 percent of them reported they attended Mass weekly or more often. Another 42 percent of self-identified Catholics went to church only occasionally and 18 percent never.

(Reporting by Tom Heneghan; Editing by Grant McCool)

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