Nearly Half of US Catholics Want the Next Pope to 'Move the Church in New Directions'

As the pontificate of Benedict XVI winds down, many American Catholics express a desire for change. For example, most U.S. Catholics say it would be good if the next pope allows priests to marry. And fully six-in-ten Catholics say it would be good if the next pope hails from a developing region like South America, Asia or Africa.

At the same time, many Catholics also express appreciation for the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. While about half of U.S. Catholics (46 percent) say the next pope should “move the church in new directions,” the other half (51 percent) say the new pope should “maintain the traditional positions of the church.” And among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) want the next pope to maintain the church’s traditional positions.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted February 13-18 among 1,504 adults (including 304 Catholics) also finds that nine-in-ten U.S. Catholics have heard a lot (60 percent) or at least a little (30 percent) about Benedict’s resignation. Just one-in-ten Catholics say they have heard nothing at all about his resignation.

In a separate national survey conducted February 14-17 among 1,003 adults (including 212 Catholics), three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (74 percent) express a favorable view of the pope. Benedict’s ratings among Catholics now stand about where they were in March 2008 (just before his U.S. visit) and are lower than they were in April 2008, when 83 percent of U.S. Catholics expressed favorable views of him. Benedict’s predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was rated favorably by upwards of 90 percent of U.S. Catholics in three separate Pew Research polls in the 1980s and 1990s.

U.S. Catholics voice dissatisfaction with Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal in the church. Among Catholics who say they followed news of the pontiff’s resignation, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) think he has done a poor or “only fair” job of addressing the sex abuse scandal, while 33 percent give him excellent or good ratings for his handling of the issue. Benedict gets better marks for his handling of interfaith relations; 55 percent of Catholics say he has done a good or excellent job promoting relations with other religions, while 37 percent say he has done a poor or “only fair” job in this area.

But the public is more negative now than in 2008 in its views both on Benedict’s handling of the sex abuse scandal and on his handling of interfaith relations. Immediately following his 2008 visit to the U.S., 49 percent of American Catholics gave the pope good or excellent ratings for his handling of the sex abuse scandal, and 70 percent said he was doing a good or excellent job promoting interfaith relations.

A Look Ahead to the Next Pope 

Half of U.S. Catholics (51 percent) say the next pope should maintain the traditional teachings of the church, while about the same number say the next pope should move the church in new directions (46 percent).

But among Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week, nearly two-thirds (63 percent) say the new pope should maintain the traditional positions of the church, while about one-third (35 percent) say the new pope should move the church in new directions. By contrast, among those who attend Mass less often, 54 percent say the next pope should move in new directions while 42 percent prefer to maintain the church’s traditional positions.

Six-in-ten Catholics who are college graduates say the next pope should move the church in new directions, compared with 38 percent who say the pope should maintain the church’s traditional positions. This balance of opinion is reversed among Catholics with some college or less education, among whom 56 percent want the church to maintain its traditional positions and 41 percent would like it to move in new directions.

There is little evidence of a generation gap on this question. Among Catholics under age 50 and those ages 50 and older, opinion is closely divided as to whether the new pope should move in new directions or maintain the church’s traditional positions.

Catholics who say the next pope should move the church in new directions were asked to describe, in their own words, in what new directions they would like to see the church go.

About one-in-five Catholics who think the next pope should move the church in new directions say simply that the church should become more modern (19 percent). And 15 percent want the next pope to do more to end sex abuse in the church and punish the priests involved.

In addition, upwards of one-in-five mention issues regarding the priesthood, including 14 percent who say priests should be allowed to marry and 9 percent who say women should be allowed to serve in the priesthood.

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