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Papal Popularity | Commentary

By Robert Sirico When Pope Francis visits the United States in September it will be first time Jorge Bergoglio will visit these shores. But on the return flight from Latin America last month, the pope already gave some insight into themes he is likely to address during his visit to Cuba and the U.S.  

The pontiff confirmed an observation that a number of commentators have made (myself included) regarding his lack of economic clarity. “I have a great allergy to economic things,” he said, “and I didn’t understand it very well.”  

Aware that some in the U.S. are concerned about this, he replied with remarkable openness. “I heard that there were some criticisms from the United States,” but he hasn’t had much time to “study this well, because every criticism must be received, studied, and then dialogue must ensue.”  

Nonetheless, mixed reaction remains.  

Shortly after visiting Latin America a poll conducted by the Gallup organization indicated Pope Francis’s popularity has dipped from 76 percent to 59 percent, which brings his level of popularity to about where it was when he was elected two years ago. The data further indicates that the pope is viewed less favorably among what might be considered his “base” — among conservative Catholics and lower among evangelicals. Even among liberals the numbers demonstrate somewhat of a drop.  

When compared to the popularity of his immediate predecessors, Francis comes out in the middle. Benedict XVI and John Paul II were different personalities who lived in different circumstances. Benedict’s favorable ratings never went above 63 percent and John Paul’s never went under 61 percent and even reached a high of 86 percent (the year before the fall of Communism).  

Popularity ratings may be important for politicians but not for a pope believed to be the successor to St. Peter and the Vicar of Christ on earth.  

His job is to preserve the truths of the Faith, not put them up for a vote.  

The Church is not a democracy, whereby some polling data could alter the content of the Church’s doctrine the way McDonald’s might alter the ingredients in a Big Mac.  

Still, this poll comes two months before the pope’s scheduled visit to the U.S., and even if the head of the world’s largest Christian church cannot alter his message, he may wish to consider the mode in which that message is delivered.  

Several commentators have been quick to point out that the polling data comes on the heels of the promulgation of the pope’s environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ and his visit to Latin America, both of which contained highly critical observations about the effect of the market economy on the poor and the planet.  

How can a faithful Catholic, who also believes that freer markets make for less poverty, put together a disconnect between what the pope wants for the poor and the proven means of getting them out of poverty? No doubt these kinds of controversies have their role to play in how favorably Americans view the pope, but it does not explain the loss in his favorable ratings on the part of progressives who would cheer on his broadsides against an “economy that kills.” Perhaps they have worked out that Pope Francis is, after all, a Catholic.  

Of course the pope is going to speak out about the protection of the environment and the need for proper stewardship. His predecessors have done the same. And any follower of Christ must be adamant in defending the poor and voiceless. But when people begin to get the impression that matters they take seriously are ignored or superficially dismissed — or when a variety of legitimate views are not invited into the conversation about the economy and poverty — it is hard to have any meaningful dialogue.  

Let’s hope that what appears to be a bias against free markets on Francis’s part can be shaped into a message that there is a greater meaning to life than profits and comforts; that technology can be employed to ease the plight of the poor and help to clean the environment; that the solution to poverty is creativity in and freeing of the market rather than suggesting that “[t]he alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”  

Isn’t it precisely the combination of a free economy, rooted in a moral culture that takes truth seriously, the rule of law, and technology that is in good part responsible for a much cleaner environment, safer births, and longer life spans?  

Let the dialogue really begin.  

Father Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute


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