ROME — Oh, how the mighty fall. Is it possible that Pope Francis—the man who graced the covers of Time, Rolling Stone, and The Advocate in the first year of his papacy—is losing some of his star power?
Indeed it is, according to a Gallup poll that found that the pontiff’s popularity has dropped from 76 percent in 2014 to just 59 percent in a survey conducted July 8-12. But the decline is apparently not because the Francis is too Catholic in his views on women, divorced Catholics or gays; it appears to be because he is not Catholic enough for American conservatives.
“The drop in the pope’s favorable rating is driven by a decline among Catholics and political conservatives,” the poll results found. “Pope Francis’ drop in favorability is even starker among Americans who identify as conservative—45 percent of whom view him favorably, down sharply from 72 percent last year.”
The poll found that some of those surveyed were impressed with the pope’s focus on the poor and the environment, so as long as they weren’t being directly blamed for it. The pope has spoken out against capitalism and what he calls the “idolatry of money,” which he says has contributed greatly to both the decline of society and the destruction of the planet. “A year ago, Pope Francis was seen by most Americans as a plain-spoken reformer taking aim at Vatican power brokers,” Vatican expert and author of The Vatican Diaries John Thavis told The Daily Beast. “Today we have a much broader picture of the pope, and it’s clear that he is challenging some of the fundamental aspects of the American way of life.”
Thavis is talking specifically about the pope’s condemnation of the “throwaway” culture and an economy fueled by “compulsive consumerism”—themes Francis has fixated on over the last year, and values that are in stark contrast to how many Americans think. “During his recent trip to Latin America, with his strong indictment of economic disparity, the pope sounded like a spokesman for the global South, which no doubt frightened U.S. conservatives,” Thavis says. “The fact that the Vatican helped broker the recent U.S.-Cuba rapprochement also lost him some fans in the United States.”
But his popularity is also dropping among liberals in the United States, among whom his approval rating fell 14 percentage points, according to the Gallup survey. “Many liberals have criticized the pope for not embracing ordination of women as priests or allowing priests to marry,” the Gallup pollsters reported. Stunningly, the pollster also reported that a quarter of Americans had never heard of Pope Francis, up from 16 percent who had never heard of him in 2014.
Still, Francis’ popularity is well above his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who fell to a 40 percent approval rating in 2010, and only ever reached 63 percent. Francis has never hit the level of John Paul II’s popularity, which soared to an 86 percent approval rating in 1998.
It will remain to be seen whether the pope’s September trip to Cuba and the United States will give him a boost or cause his popularity to plummet further. He will be addressing Congress in Washington and the United Nations in New York, where he will celebrate Mass in Madison Square Garden on September 26 before heading to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. According to the Gallup pollsters, both John Paul II and Benedict reached their highest approval ratings after official visits to the United States.
Still, he is undoubtedly facing a tough crowd when he comes to America. Of the six Roman Catholics running for the Republican nomination, none have openly sought the pope’s endorsement. Some, including both Jeb Bush and Rick Santorum, have openly criticized the pontiff for weighing in on economic and environmental policies.
“It’s probably inevitable that as the pope becomes more politically outspoken, his approval numbers will go down,” Thavis told The Daily Beast. “The world is learning that the ‘Who am I to judge’ pope can be pretty judgmental, and capable of making people uncomfortable.”