Pope Francis’ decision to impose new restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass in July drew a strong reaction from Catholics in the United States. While some Catholics welcomed the news, others criticized the pontiff, saying the revival of the Latin Mass in recent years has been key to rejuvenating the faith of younger Catholics.
Despite the controversy, most U.S. Catholics are unaware of Pope Francis’ recent actions, with roughly two-thirds saying they have heard “nothing at all” about the new restrictions, according to a Pew Research Center survey of adults conducted Sept. 20-26, 2021. But there are pockets of opposition to the new rules, with weekly Mass-goers and Catholic Republicans expressing higher levels of disapproval than those who do not go to Mass regularly and Catholic Democrats. Nevertheless, Francis remains a very popular figure among American Catholics, with about eight-in-ten continuing to express a favorable view of the pope, little changed since March.
How we did this
Most Catholics around the world attend Masses conducted in the vernacular (or local language), but some prefer the traditional Latin version that was used for centuries prior to the Second Vatican Council. In 2007, Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, expanded access to the traditional Latin Mass by allowing priests to use the older form “without any further permission from the Vatican” or their bishop, according to Catholic News Service. Francis said in July that the new limitations, which reverse Benedict’s move, are designed to promote unity within the Church.
Francis’ decision requires priests currently using the traditional Latin rite to “request authorization from their bishop to continue doing so,” according to Catholic News Service. The new rules also require bishops to “determine if the current groups of faithful attached to the old Mass accept Vatican II,” and forbid bishops from authorizing “the formation of any new pro-Latin Mass groups in their dioceses,” The Associated Press reported.
Overall, 65% of U.S. Catholics say they have heard “nothing at all” about the pope’s decision to impose new limits on the use of the traditional Latin Mass. About three-in-ten of those surveyed (28%) have heard “a little” about the change, and 7% say they have heard “a lot” about it.
All the survey respondents who indicated they have heard at least a little about the new limitations received a follow-up question asking whether they approve or disapprove of the pope’s decision. Their opinions are divided about evenly between those who approve (9% of all Catholics) and those who disapprove (12% of all Catholics) of Francis’ actions. An additional 14% of U.S. Catholics say they have heard at least a little about the change, but either have no opinion on it or declined to give their opinion.
Catholics who attend Mass weekly are both more likely to be aware of the new restrictions and more inclined to oppose them than Catholics who attend less frequently, the survey finds.
Nearly six-in-ten Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more often have heard at least a little about the new restrictions, and roughly three-in-ten say they disapprove of them. By contrast, just 7% of Catholics who attend Mass once or twice a month or a few times a year disapprove of the pope’s decision, as do 6% of Catholics who rarely or never go to church. Majorities in both of these groups say they have not even heard about the new rules.
Political affiliation also is tied to views about the new Mass guidelines. Catholics who identify with or lean toward the Republican Party are roughly three times as likely as Catholic Democrats or Catholics who lean toward the Democratic Party to oppose the new rules (20% vs. 6%), though majorities in both groups say they are unfamiliar with the issue.
There is little difference on these questions by age, although Catholics ages 50 and older are slightly more likely than younger Catholics to have heard about the issue, and to say they have no opinion about it.
Meanwhile, views of Pope Francis have remained fairly steady among U.S. Catholics recently, even within segments of the Catholic community that express higher-than-average disapproval of the new rules about the traditional Latin Mass.
Overall, 83% of U.S. Catholics say they have a favorable view of Pope Francis, compared with just 14% who express an unfavorable view of him. That’s little changed from March 2021 (82% vs. 14%, respectively.)
Surveys prior to February 2020 were conducted by telephone, while later ones used a representative sample of Americans conducted on the Center’s online American Trends Panel. (For a discussion of the impact of switching from telephone survey administration to web surveys for measuring attitudes about Pope Francis, see “Americans, including Catholics, continue to have favorable views of Pope Francis.”)
Among U.S. Catholics who say they attend Mass at least weekly, 83% express a favorable view of Pope Francis, virtually indistinguishable from the 84% who said this in March. And among Catholic Republicans, 71% now express a favorable view of him, little changed from the 73% who said the same in March.
The study continues to find political polarization in the way Catholics view the pope: The share of Catholic Democrats who have a favorable view of Francis is 20 percentage points higher than it is among Catholic Republicans.
Political polarization also extends to views about Pope Francis’ personal characteristics.
Catholic Republicans are less inclined than Catholic Democrats to say “yes” when asked whether positive words like “compassionate,” “humble” and “open-minded” describe Pope Francis – though majorities of Catholics in both parties say the pope does embody these traits.
And Catholic Republicans are more likely than Catholic Democrats to ascribe certain negative attributes, including “out of touch” and “naive,” to Pope Francis. Nearly half of Catholic Republicans say Pope Francis is “too liberal” (49%), while just 16% of Catholic Democrats say this. There is also a difference in how Catholic Republicans and Democrats view the state of the pope’s health. In July, before Francis announced the new rules about the traditional Latin Mass, he underwent surgery to remove half his colon and spent 10 days in the hospital.
By a 57% to 34% margin, the majority of Catholic Democrats say they think Francis is “in good physical health.” But Catholic Republicans are divided on this question, with 45% saying they think the pope is in good health and 49% saying they don’t think so.