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Two Years after His Election, Pope Francis Enjoys Rock-Star Status in US

A week away from the second anniversary of Pope Francis’ election to the papacy, the Pew Research Center has released its latest report on the Pope’s popularity, and far from diminishing, the Pontiff’s approval rating in America continues to soar.

Church-going Catholics give him the highest scores with a whopping 95% favorable rating, but even among Americans of the most diverse stripes and belief systems the Pope garnered an overall 70% approval rating.

At just over six months from his September visit to the United States, Pope Francis’ popularity is higher now than at any point since his March 2013 election.

A particularly remarkable aspect of Francis’ celebrity is that it seems to eschew partisan polarization, with only “minimal differences” among Catholics by age, race, gender, ethnicity or political affiliation. The Pew Center found that the Pope’s undifferentiated fan club extends to whites and Hispanics, men and women, Republicans and Democrats, young and old.

Even among “nones”—people who describe themselves as religiously unaffiliated or nonbelieving—Francis is widely admired, with 68% expressing a favorable view of the pope, as opposed to the mere 39% of this group who approved of him right after his election. Perhaps more significantly, the percentage of “nones” who have an unfavorable impression of the Pope has decreased dramatically, from 27% in 2013 to 16% two years later.

The only dip in the Pope’s popularity in the United States came after his notorious “Who am I to judge?” comment, when asked about the presence of active homosexuals working in the halls of the Vatican. He made this comment at the end of July 2013, and two months later, his approval rating had sunk to its lowest point ever among U.S. Catholics, at 79%. By February 2014, however, Francis was back to enjoying the admiration of 85% of American Catholics.

Protestants, too, followed a similar pattern, with approval of the Pope dropping off in the late summer of 2013 only to rebound by early 2014. Among Catholics and Protestants alike, Francis now enjoys his most favorable ratings ever.

A clear conclusion from the latest survey is that people have come to a more settled opinion of the Pope and his positions. Both his approval and disapproval ratings have increased among Catholics and white evangelical Protestants as people have gathered a better idea of who the man is and what he stands for.

The numbers of U.S. Catholics favorable to Pope Francis surpass anything Pope Benedict saw during his 7-year pontificate, and rivals even the early years of Pope John Paul II, one of the most popular popes in modern history.

Francis’ upcoming visit to the U.S. in September will give Americans their first chance to observe the Pontiff first hand, and could either cool their admiration or further fuel it.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.

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