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Pope John Paul II Controversial Figure Among U.S. Catholics

by David W. Moore

But most approve of his performance and vast majority think he is a major world leader


PRINCETON, NJ -- As Pope John Paul II celebrates his 25th anniversary in office, a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds American Catholics approving of his performance as leader of the Catholic Church by nearly a two-to-one margin. In addition, the vast majority thinks of him as an important world leader. However, on several other matters, Catholics are divided: whether the pope should resign due to poor health or continue to serve as pope; whether he is infallible on matters of morals and faith; and whether he is out of touch with the modern world.

According to the poll, conducted Oct. 10-12, 63% of Catholics approve of the way Pope John Paul II is handling his role as leader of the Catholic Church, while just 33% disapprove.

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Pope John Paul II is handling his role as leader of the Catholic Church?

The approval rating is down substantially from January 1999, as he made a visit to the United States and Mexico, when 85% approved of his performance. In 1993, shortly before a highly publicized visit to the United States for World Youth Day, 73% approved, still considerably above his current reading.

The most significant change from previous readings is found in the number of Catholics who disapprove of the pope's performance -- 33% in the current poll, three times the percentage found in two previous readings.

While the cause of this decline is not clear from the new poll, a strong possibility is the sexual abuse scandal involving U.S. priests that engulfed the Church in 2002. Gallup polling on that subject found most Catholics saying that the Catholic Church had done a bad job of dealing with the abuse problem, and that the policy put in place to address future sexual misconduct by priests did not go far enough.

The poorer ratings could also reflect the feeling among some Catholics that the pope's illness prevents him from adequately fulfilling his duties and thus he should resign.

Controversy Engendered by the Pope

Many Catholics have criticized Pope John Paul II for his conservative positions on sexuality, especially dealing with abortion and contraception. The poll reflects this controversy among American Catholics.

Almost 4 in 10 Catholics (38%) think the pope is too conservative, while just about half think his position on issues is "about right." Another 9% think he has been too liberal.

The major difference between the results of a poll conducted in July 1987 and now is a decline in the number who express no opinion, and an increase in the number who say the pope is too conservative.

In your opinion, is Pope John Paul II too conservative in his position on issues, too liberal, or about right?



Too conservative

Too liberal

About right

No opinion

2003 Oct 10-12





1987 Jul 10-13





There has been little change in the percentage saying the pope's positions are about right or too liberal.

The view by many Catholics that the pope is too conservative specifically about sexual issues is seen in the results of two other questions. More Catholics believe the pope to be infallible in matters of faith (such as the divinity of Christ) than believe the pope is infallible in matters of morals (such as birth control and abortion).

Do you believe the pope is infallible when he teaches formally on matters of:
Based on a sample of 227 Catholics
Oct. 10-12, 2003

By only a five-point margin, Catholics say the pope can be wrong (is not infallible) on matters of faith, but by an 18-point margin they say he can be wrong on matters of morals.

More broadly, a slight majority (53%) of American Catholics believe the pope is "out of touch with the modern world," while 45% disagree.

Do you think the pope is -- or is not -- out of touch with the modern world?



Yes, is

No, is not

No opinion

2003 Oct 10-12




In general, American Catholics are skeptical about treating the pope's positions on moral issues as sacrosanct. More than 8 in 10 (83%) say that they are more likely to follow their own conscience on difficult moral questions than they are to follow the teachings of the pope.

On difficult moral questions, which are you more likely to follow -- the teachings of the pope, or your conscience?

This emphasis on individual responsibility is about the same now as it was in 1993 and 1987, when measured by similar polls.

Catholics Divided on Whether Pope Should Resign

About half of all Catholics (50%) say the pope should resign for health reasons, while the other half (49%) say he should remain in office until he dies -- the position taken by the pope.

Do you think Pope John Paul II should resign for health reasons or do you think he should remain in office until he dies?

A year and a half ago, when the pope's health also received a great deal of media attention, Catholics were more likely to say the pope should remain in office until death. The recent news stories suggesting the pope is close to dying may account for the shift in attitudes.

Resigning office would be unusual. According to Canon Law, by which the Roman Catholic Church governs itself, a papacy can end in only two ways: when the pope dies, or when he freely resigns. There is no way to remove a pope, even a completely incapacitated one. According to historians, about 10 popes have resigned, but the last to do so was Pope Celestine V in 1294.

Despite the criticisms of the pope, the vast majority of American Catholics (83%) think of him as an important world leader.

Do you think the pope is -- or is not -- an important leader on the world scene?



Yes, is

No, is not

No opinion

2003 Oct 10-12




A bare majority also thinks he will someday be made a saint by the Catholic Church, while 39% think he will not, and another 10% express no opinion on the matter.

Do you think Pope John Paul II will -- or will not -- be made a saint by the Catholic Church?



Yes, will

No, will not

No opinion

2003 Oct 10-12




Survey Methods

The latest results are based on telephone interviews with 1,017 national adults, aged 18+, conducted Oct. 10-12, 2003. This sample includes 227 self-identified Catholics. For results based on the sample of -- 227 -- Catholics, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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