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Poll: Pope Influences Politics, Policy Among U.S. Catholics

Pope Francis blesses a boy as arrives in Saint Peter's square for his weekly audience at the Vatican on September 2. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

UPDATE: 11:40 a.m. | Support for Pope Francis' message and the direction in which he is leading the church among American Catholic voters — especially Latinos — should make everyone "pause for a moment of awe," an expert said of poll results released Wednesday.  

The survey — from Faith In Public Life and The Catholic University of America in advance of Francis' first visit to the U.S. next week — found that Latino Catholic voters are the most responsive to the pope's messages that the government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, as well as a bigger government that provides more services.  

"Latinos are the future for politics in the U.S., and also the future of the church in the U.S," said Stephen Schneck, the director of the Institute of Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America, during a forum at the National Press Club. He said that Francis' sway left him and others in "awe."  

The country's population of Latino voters is only growing , according to a Pew Research Survey , and more than half of them identify as Catholic.  

Following their loss in the 2012 presidential election, national Republicans made attracting Latino voters a priority . But income inequality — an issue where the pope's message resonates among Latinos, according to the survey —  has emerged as an issue in the presidential race, which, coupled with Republican front-runner Donald Trump's sometimes anti-Latino immigrant message, could make it tough for the party trying to make inroads in that bloc of voters.  

Overall, 83 percent of Catholic likely voters had a favorable opinion of the pope, while only 11 percent had an unfavorable view. When asked about whether the pope is moving the church in the right direction, Catholic voters overall supported him, 82-18 percent.  

TITLE TK (CQ Roll Call Graphic/TK) Support for the pope is nearly as high among Catholic Latinos regardless of party identity, who approve of the direction he is taking the church — 90-10 percent — as it is among Catholic Democrats, who approve, 92-8 percent. Catholic Republicans approve of the direction Francis has taken the church, 70-30 percent, while white Catholics overall approve 77-23 percent.  

David Buckley, a professor of politics and religion at the University of Louisville who led the study, said the polling is consistent with how the vote divides among the larger population.  

“The Latino Catholic vote trends Democrat, and the white Catholic vote trends Republican,” he said.  

Buckley said Catholics — who make up at least 47 percent of the country — are a diverse group and should not be looked at as a monolithic voting bloc that will always march together. In turn, he said the different messages pushed by the pope, “seem to matter differently to different slices of the electorate.”  

“The diversity of the American Catholic community is essential if you’re going to understand Catholic politics,” he said. “It’s clearly an internally divided community.”  

To gauge the impact of the pope's messages among voters, YouGov presented voters with a series of fictionalized news stories. One set saw real quotes that were attributed to Pope Francis. The other was shown the same quotes, but they were attributed instead to Catholic leaders, religious leaders and experts.  

In one instance, the survey found that Catholics, both Democrats and Republicans, were more likely to agree that humans have a “moral duty” to act on climate change when presented with the pope's message. In another, it found that Democrats and Latinos were more likely to support liberal economic policies when presented by Francis in his own words.  

In the top 10 battleground states — including Florida, Ohio, Iowa and New Hampshire — more voters had heard Pope Francis’ political messages. There, his support was four points less than nationally.  

John Gehring, the Catholic Program director at Faith in Public Life and author of The Francis Effect, said while the pope is in no way a politician, he does want to have a political impact.  

"This is a pope shaking up church politics," he said. "At the same time, he has an impact on the policy world."  

This pope, Gehring said, is offering "a different kind of vision of the church in public life," offering Catholics freedom to get beyond a few controversial issues like abortion and marriage to other ones like climate change and economics.  

For conservatives who might want to resist the pope's challenge, brushing off liberals and environmentalists is one thing, Gehring said. "Brushing off the Pope is another thing, all together," he added.  

When the Pope comes to Washington and delivers his historical address to a joint session of Congress, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby, said she hopes the pope's message there has similar sway to what the poll suggests it has on American Catholics.  

"Faith matters. Pope Francis' message matters," she said. "What we are about is bridging the divides. Pope Francis is going to challenge us to bridge our divides and heal our nation."  

Faith in Public Life and The Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America commissioned the poll from YouGov, which surveyed 1,400 Catholic likely voters from July 22-21.

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