Pope Francis began this year as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, an Argentine archbishop. He finishes it as Time magazine’s Person of the Year, beating out contenders such as Edward Snowden after a whirlwind of activity that included news-making comments about homosexuality and other social issues, as well as an apostolic exhortation that focused on caring for the poor and inveighed against the “idolatry of money.”

Polls show Francis to be highly popular, especially among U.S. Catholics. A Washington Post-ABC poll, released today, finds that 92% of American Catholics have a favorable impression of him, including 63% who have a “strongly favorable” view. Similarly, 85% of Catholics in the United States say they approve of the direction in which Francis is leading the Catholic Church, including 54% who strongly approve.

More broadly, the Post-ABC poll finds that 69% of all U.S. adults (including non-Catholics) have a favorable impression of Francis. And a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll, also released today, shows that 57% of Americans say they have “positive” feelings toward the pope, up from 35% in July. By comparison, just 42% of the poll’s respondents express positive feelings toward Barack Obama.

Though Francis now tops the most-talked about topics list on Facebook, not all the comments about him on social media and in the mainstream press are positive. Some conservative Catholics, for example, have expressed general concerns about his papacy, and some other Catholics have questioned his response to the clergy sex abuse scandal. The church announced a new commission on the scandal last week.

And despite Pope Francis’ popularity, there’s no evidence in Pew Research data that he has sparked a discernible increase in the number of self-identifying Catholics or those who report attending Mass at least once a week.

Our most recent poll on views of the pope was conducted in September, when eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics (79%) said they viewed Francis favorably, about the same as shortly after his election in March. That’s similar to the high-water mark for his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who was seen favorably by 83% of American Catholics in April 2008. By comparison, Pope John Paul II surpassed the 90% favorability mark in multiple polls among U.S. Catholics in the 1980s and 1990s.

The new Post-ABC poll finds Francis to be more popular than Benedict was: Francis gets a 92% favorability rating among U.S. Catholics in that poll, compared with 76% who had a favorable impression of Benedict in February 2013 and 74% who viewed Benedict favorably in April 2008.

Pope John Paul II – who was Time’s Man of the Year in 1994 – was seen favorably by 87% of American Catholics a few weeks before his death in 2005, his highest rating in Post-ABC polls. Given the poll’s margin of error, that is effectively a statistical tie with Francis’ 92% rating today.

Pope Francis
Michael Lipka  is an associate director focusing on news and information research at Pew Research Center.