Pope Francis gets "astoundingly high" favorability ratings from Long Islanders in a new poll, though fewer than half of the respondents said they agree with all or most of his stances on political and social issues.
Seventy-nine percent of Long Island residents responding to the Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll had a "favorable" opinion of Francis. That rose to 89 percent when those surveyed also were Catholics, pollster Donald P. Levy said.
"It's an interesting figure that can inspire this almost unheard-of favorability while still having and espousing views that only about half of people say they tend to agree with," Levy said.
Pollsters usually consider a favorability rating of around 60 percent "an enormous number," he said, and Francis' rating in this survey is "an astoundingly high number."
Levy is director of the Siena College Research Institute, which conducted the telephone poll of 505 Long Islanders from Aug. 30 through Tuesday. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points.
Pope Francis, 78, plans to make his first trip to the United States from Sept. 22 through Sept. 27, visiting Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, where the World Meeting of Families is being held.
While in New York, he will attend an evening vespers service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, address the United Nations General Assembly, visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, meet with schoolchildren and immigrants, ride in a motorcade through Central Park and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden.
Forty-six percent of the Long Islanders surveyed said they agreed with "almost all" or "most but not all" of Francis' positions on social and political issues in general.
Another 28 percent of Long Islanders said they agreed with some of the positions the pontiff has taken, while 8 percent said they agreed with very few and 9 percent said they agreed with none of his positions.
On specific issues, 75 percent of residents strongly or somewhat agreed with the pope's view that "every human is sacred from conception to natural death" and 68 percent backed Francis' stance that climate change is man-made.
Just 44 percent of respondents agreed with the pope that "unbridled capitalism is a tyranny that must be addressed."
The pope drew phenomenally positive responses when those surveyed were asked about his effect on the Catholic Church, with 93 percent of Long Island respondents saying he is bringing "mainly a change for the better." And 60 percent think Francis will "bring major change" to the church.
Carol Tavitian, a poll respondent from North Babylon, is one of them.
'Let fresh air in'
"I just think that he's opened up a window and let fresh air into the Vatican," Tavitian, 64, who is Catholic, said in an interview. "I like the fact that he takes in all nationalities . . . and that he seems to be able to forgive sins [on issues] the church was never able to come to terms with before."
Like many of the poll respondents and those interviewed, Tavitian, a retired nursing assistant, is impressed with the pope's modest lifestyle and his compassion toward others.
"Our society has changed, and I think that Jesus would've wanted everybody to be forgiven who's asked for forgiveness," she said. "If you think about the companions that he kept, none of them were rich or powerful or without sin. I think the pope represents that here on Earth, more so than I have ever seen in my lifetime."
Connie Lasher, an associate professor in Molloy College's Theology and Religious Studies Department, said the poll illustrates people's connection to Pope Francis as "a person of good will" no matter what their political opinions.
Francis, she said, is "transparent in his authenticity. And what people see in him is his deep humanity and his compassion. I think that's one reason his popularity cuts across demographics."
That dichotomy is reflected in the view of poll respondent Stanley Nielsen of Coram, a retired Suffolk County police officer. Nielsen, 72, said he has a favorable opinion of Francis even though he doesn't agree with all of the pope's pronouncements.
For example, Nielsen said he "strongly disagreed" with the pontiff's position "that every human life is sacred from conception to natural death."
"I think abortion has its place," he said. "It's not for everybody, but it has its place."
Levy described that poll question as "pope-speak" for opposition to abortion. Poll respondents, he added, understood what that meant even though the word "abortion" was not used in the survey.
Forty-five percent of Long Island respondents "strongly agree" and another 30 percent "somewhat agree" with the pope's position. Ten percent "somewhat disagree" and 7 percent "strongly disagree."
Julie Byrne, who holds the Msgr. Thomas J. Hartman Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, said Francis, in the weeks before his visit to the United States, has "tried to split the difference by making approaches to women who have had abortions" and show compassion toward them. "On the eve of coming here, he's trying not to increase divisions," Byrne said.
On Sept. 1, Francis announced that during the upcoming Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, all priests in the Catholic Church will have authority to absolve women who have had abortions. The move, which expands a granting of forgiveness traditionally performed by bishops, does not reflect any change in the church's stance against abortion.
Nielsen, who said he was reared as a Lutheran and is not now affiliated with any religion, agreed with Pope Francis on other issues, such as climate change and on problems with "unbridled capitalism."
Overall, he said what he likes most about Francis is that "he wants to get the church back to being what a church should be," including taking care of the poor.
The Newsday/News 12/Siena poll found 43 percent of Long Islanders "strongly agreed" with the pope that climate change is man-made, and another 25 percent "somewhat agreed." Nine percent "strongly disagreed" and 10 percent "somewhat disagreed."
Some support on right
Levy said it was notable that 25 percent of poll respondents on the Island who identified themselves politically as conservative said they "strongly agreed" with Francis' pronouncement that climate change is man-made.
"That's a relatively low number, but it's high among conservatives," he said. The poll found that another 23 percent of conservatives said they "somewhat agree" with the pope on climate change, while 24 percent said they "strongly disagree" and 15 percent of them "somewhat disagree."
Conservatives in New York City, where Siena surveyed 496 residents on behalf of Newsday, showed much higher support for the pope's climate change position -- with 39 percent strongly agreeing and 23 percent somewhat agreeing.
The pope's high favorability rating among Long Island respondents is in contrast to a recent Gallup poll that found Francis' favorability rating in the United States had fallen from a high of 76 percent in 2014 -- a year after his papacy began -- to 59 percent this year. Gallup, in its poll conducted July 8-12, said the pope's rating was similar to the 58 percent he received in April 2013, soon after he was elected pope.
Gallup attributed the drop in its favorability percentages to the decline among Catholics and political conservatives. Gallup found that 71 percent of Catholics say they have a favorable image of the pope, down from 89 percent last year. Its poll also found that conservatives' favorable rating of the pope dropped from 72 percent in 2014 to 45 percent this year.
A separate poll of American voters by Quinnipiac University last month focused largely on voters' views of the decisions of President Barack Obama and Congress and political issues in the United States. That survey asked respondents about the pope's climate-change message, though not whether they had a favorable opinion of the pontiff.
The Quinnipiac poll found that American voters, by a margin of 65 percent to 27 percent, agreed with the pope's call for action to address climate change. A breakdown by political affiliation showed Democrats supporting it 84 percent to 9 percent and independents by 67 percent to 27 percent. Republicans disagreed with the pope's call to action on climate change, 48 percent to 40 percent.
More than two-thirds of the Quinnipiac poll's respondents -- 68 percent -- said climate change was caused by human activity.
The Newsday/News 12/Siena College poll also found that three-quarters of Long Islanders surveyed thought Pope Francis would have a "significant positive effect" or "some positive effect" on the people of the world.
Poll respondent Patricia Woods, 50, a home health aide who lives in Hempstead, said in an interview that Francis "has the power to influence a certain amount of people."
She said she hopes his powers of persuasion can help people who are "losing their faith in their religions and [are] looking to sustain their spirituality."