By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Nearly three-quarters of Americans, 73 percent, who say they’re familiar enough with Pope Benedict XVI to offer an opinion have a favorable view of the pontiff, according to a new poll. Benedict scored well not just among Catholics, but also white Evangelicals, black Protestants, and mainline Protestants.
The survey, conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and released today, offers the pope good news ahead of a projected 2008 visit to the United States.
To a considerable extent, the pope’s popularity crosses the normal American partisan divide. While 84 percent of Americans who describe themselves as conservative Republicans have a favorable view of the pope, 59 percent of self-described liberal Democrats also give Benedict XVI high marks. Benedict scored well among virtually every ideological subgroup, from a 68 percent approval rating among independents to 79 percent approval among conservative and moderate Democrats.
There are several fine points, however, that complicate the picture.
First, Benedict’s approval rating is substantially lower than comparable figures for his predecessor, John Paul II, who was viewed favorably by 86 percent of Americans in a 1996 poll. Benedict XVI also trails John Paul’s 1996 numbers in terms of the percentage of Americans who say they have a “very favorable” impression, at 21 percent for Benedict and 32 percent for John Paul II.
The gap is especially evident among Catholics; while 50 percent of American Catholics had a very favorable view of John Paul in 1996, just 36 percent express that impression of Benedict XVI today.
Second, growing familiarity with Benedict has not translated into higher approval ratings. In 2005, just 55 percent of the American public told Pew Forum pollsters that they knew enough about the pope to offer an opinion, while this time 68 percent volunteered an impression. Yet over that time, Benedict’s approval rating actually dropped from 81 percent to 73 percent, suggesting that some Americans who have come to know the pope over the last two years don’t necessarily like what they see.
Third, a plurality of Americans, 46 percent, say that Benedict XVI is doing only a “fair or poor job” in promoting relationships with other religions, while just 38 percent say he’s doing an “excellent or good” job.
Though the Pew Forum report does not draw the conclusion, that result likely reflects continuing fallout from Benedict XVI’s September 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg in Bavaria, which sparked protest across the Islamic world when Benedict quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor to the effect that Muhammad had “brought things only evil and inhuman.” It may also reflect negative reaction in the Protestant world to a recent Vatican declaration that the Catholic church remains the lone “true church” founded by Jesus Christ.
A solid majority of Americans, 56 percent, describe Benedict XVI as “conservative" and just 5 percent see him as "liberal." Among college graduates, fully 71 percent say the pope is “conservative.” Likewise, 68 percent of American Catholics describe the pope as "conservative."