The Real Papal Audience: The “Nones”

Pope Francis is a beloved figure. In the March 2015 WSJ/NBC News poll 74{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of Catholics reported a positive opinion of him, with just 3{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} holding a negative view.  Comparatively, he has a similar standing among his flock as Pope John Paul II did in 1998 (76{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Positive – 6{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Negative) and much better than Pope Benedict in 2013 (53{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Positive – 13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} Negative).

Many have attributed Pope Francis’ popularity to his unique human touch, which many compare to Pope John Paul II, and his deep concern for and service to the poor. More controversial are his strong stances on social issues like income inequality and the latest position he has staked out on climate change in his papal document, known as an encyclical.

Pope Francis’ latest addition to his encyclical, the Washington Post reports, reflect his long-held beliefs that stem from his life experience in Argentina, “where as a bishop in Buenos Aires, officials say, Francis was struck by the effects of floods and unsanitary conditions on Argentine shantytowns known as ‘misery villages.’”

No doubt that is the source, but who is the audience?

The latest WSJ/NBC poll suggests the most receptive to these messages in America are not Catholics but “Nones,” that is, the growing slice of American adults that claim no religion.

In the latest WSJ/NBC poll “Nones” account for 18{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of all adults equal to the share of respondents who are an “other” religion, meaning not the main Christian categories – Protestant (42{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}) or Catholic (21{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222}).

The chart below shows responses to a close-ended question that asked U.S. adults what alarms them most about America today. Six answers were read and respondents were asked to choose the top two most alarming to them. The table below highlights the two most often selected responses among all adults and by four religious sub-groups, Protestants, Catholics, Other Religions, and None.

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  • Protestants are most alarmed by declining moral values and the possibility of terrorist attacks.
  • Catholics are most alarmed by a shrinking middle class and the decline in moral values.
  • Adherents of “other” religions are concerned about the wealthy having too much control and the decline in moral values.
  • The wealthy having too much control and influence and the impact of global climate change are the most alarming things about America to the “Nones.” And, notably, of nearly 100 different sub-groups, climate change was in the top two choices ONLY among “Nones” (it was the third choice among Liberals and Strong Democrats).

Since his Papal inauguration when he elected to stand to receive his cardinals’ congratulations instead of accepting them while seated on the Papal Throne, Pope Francis has taken a non-traditional approach to his role as leader of the Catholic Church.

And, as part of that role, of course, he is charged with growing the flock. Be it by providence or polling, the Pope’s message most directly answers the concerns, not of American Catholics, but of those Americans who say “none” when asked about their religious beliefs.

Public Opinion Strategies