Ongoing Public Relations Problems for the Vatican

There are fewer than four months to go to the papal visit to Britain, yet there appears to be no let-up in the public relations problems faced by the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI, which we have already flagged up in our posts of 26 February (‘What do we think of the Pope?’), 15 March (‘Cyber warfare breaks out over the papal visit to Britain’) and 20 April (‘Pope Benedict on the back foot’).

That at least is the implication of two recent Harris Interactive online polls undertaken among representative samples of adults aged 16-64 in France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and the United States. Fieldwork for the first survey was carried out between 31 March and 12 April for France 24 and RFI, with 1,030 Britons interviewed. Fieldwork for the second study (n = 1,124 in Britain) took place between 27 April and 4 May on behalf of the Financial Times (although the relevant questions do not seem to have been reported in that newspaper, as yet). Full data tabulations for both polls will be found at:

In the first survey the proportion of Britons having a very or somewhat good opinion of Benedict XVI stood at just 28%, the lowest figure in all six countries investigated save France (22%) and barely half the level recorded in Italy (52%). This was also the lowest statistic in Britain across the six waves of the world leader rankings carried out by Harris since November 2008, 13 points below the peak rating of 41% and a drop of 8% in under six months. 41% of Britons had a very or somewhat poor opinion of the Pope, with men (48%) and upper-income earners (53%) among his harshest critics.

Somewhat more Britons (42%) considered the Pope to have a great deal or some influence on the international stage than viewed him positively, but this was 9% less than in November 2009. It was also the lowest figure for the six countries apart from France (34%) and fell well short of Italy’s 70%. 31% thought the Pope had no or limited influence (37% for men and 41% for those in the upper-income bracket).

Asked to select from a list of six attributes potentially applicable to the Pope, only a minority of Britons described him as dynamic (19%) or charismatic (26%). Pluralities found him reassuring (44%), close to the people (45%) or honest (47%). But 80% regarded him as serious (second only to the US on 87%); this was presumably often viewed as a negative characteristic. Those who doubted the Pope’s honesty were especially located among the young and northerners.

Doubtless, the fall in papal ratings between November 2009 and the present owes much to renewed revelations about child sex abuse at the hands of Roman Catholic priests, including the apparent failings of the Vatican and national hierarchies to address paedophilia at the heart of the Church. This is the clear inference of the second Harris poll, which focused on allegations about child sex abuse by priests.

In Britain 81% of respondents were aware of these allegations (the same as in Germany but less than in the other four countries). Of these, 45% of Britons agreed that the Pope should resign immediately over the Vatican’s failings in these cases (the highest figure in the six nations apart from Spain), with 25% disagreeing and 29% unsure. Moreover, three-quarters of Britons who were aware of the allegations considered that the Catholic Church had lost its moral credibility over the child-abuse crisis, more than in any other country apart from Germany (81%).

A final question asked how often interviewees attended a place of worship. In Britain, the number of self-reporting non-attenders was 65% (including 72% of northerners and 71% of low-income earners), followed by Germany on 61%, France on 54%, Spain on 50%, the United States on 37% and Italy on 33%. Of Britons who still attended worship, 22% said they did so less frequently than five years previously and 21% more often.

So, the Britain which Pope Benedict XVI will be visiting in September is a country where religious practice is no longer the norm and one where the moral authority of both the Catholic Church and Papacy is being seriously questioned. Perhaps these considerations will impact upon the size of the crowds attending the papal events in England and Scotland. These are already under pressure on account of health and safety and security constraints which will limit the maximum potential numbers well below those that were possible during Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982. It also remains to be seen whether the recent disclosures about the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s planning for the visit will result in some kind of sympathy vote among the public in favour of the Pope.

British Religion in Numbers: All the material published on this website is subject to copyright. We explain further here.

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