Pope John Paul II

Focus On: A History of Polling on Pope John Paul II

Tuesday, April 5, 2005

by Joseph Carroll

Since Pope John Paul II became the head of the Catholic Church in late 1978, Gallup has asked Americans a variety of questions about the late pontiff. The following is a summary of public opinion of Pope John Paul II over the past 26 years.

1. How did Americans rate Pope John Paul II from 1978 to 1987?

On several occasions in the late 1970s and 1980s, Gallup asked Americans to rate Pope John Paul II on a 10-point scale, where minus five (-5) meant the respondent disliked him very much and plus five (+5) meant the respondent liked him very much.

Pope John Paul II rated highly in each survey. In December 1978, more than 8 in 10 Americans (85%) rated the pope positively (from +1 to +5 on the scale). Only 4% of adults nationwide rated him in the negative range (from -1 to -5 on the scale). Pope John Paul II's lowest positive rating using this 10-point scale was 81% in September 1979; his highest was 93% in June 1981, about a month after he was shot in St. Peter's Square.

2. How have Americans rated the pope more recently?

In 1993, Gallup replaced the 10-point scale question and simply asked Americans whether they had a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Pope John Paul II. At that time, nearly two in three Americans (64%) said they had a favorable view of the pontiff. Several years later, in late 1998, 86% of Americans rated the pope favorably. The pope's favorable rating decreased in the spring of 2002, to 61%, amid news reports of instances of child sexual abuse by priests in the United States. In 2003, the pope's ratings increased to 73%.

Gallup's last favorability rating of Pope John Paul II came at the end of February of this year. In that poll, 78% of Americans rated the pope favorably. Among Catholics, 93% had a favorable opinion of him, and among non-Catholics, 73% rated him this way.

3. Did Catholics approve of Pope John Paul II's leadership of the church?

There were two instances over the past six years when Gallup asked Catholics to assess the job Pope John Paul II was doing as leader of the Catholic Church. In January 1999, 85% of U.S. Catholics approved of the job the pope was doing, while 10% disapproved. In October 2003, 63% approved and 33% disapproved. This latter asking of the question came as the church continued to deal with the priest abuse scandal.

4. Did Catholics view Pope John Paul II as too conservative or too liberal?

In 1987, Gallup started asking Catholics whether Pope John Paul II was too conservative, too liberal, or about right in his positions on issues. At that time, 27% of U.S. Catholics said he was too conservative, while only 8% said he was too liberal. The plurality of Catholics, 48%, said he was about right.

In 2003, when this question was asked again, 38% of Catholics said the pope was too conservative on issues, while 9% said he was too liberal and 49% said he was about right. And at the end of February of this year, a third of Catholics said he was too conservative, 2% said too liberal, and more than 6 in 10 said he was about right.

Even now, when asked about the next pope, 34% of U.S. Catholics say he should be more liberal than Pope John Paul II, while only 4% say he should be more conservative.

5. How will Pope John Paul II go down in history?

This past weekend, Gallup asked U.S. Catholics several questions to determine what they think about how Pope John Paul II will go down in history.

  • Nearly 9 in 10 Catholics say Pope John Paul II will go down in history as either a "great" pope (21%) or one of the greatest ever (67%).
  • Seven in 10 Catholics say Pope John Paul II will be made a saint by the Catholic Church, up from 51% in October 2003.
  • A slight majority of Catholics, 51%, say they have found inspiration in the way Pope John Paul II has handled his health problems, while 48% say they have not been that strongly affected.


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