By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) – As Pope Francis prepares to celebrate his first Christmas at the Vatican, Americans' opinions of the pontiff appear to be as high as the dome on St. Peter's Basilica, according to a new survey.
A CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday found that 88% of American Catholics approve of how Francis is handling his role as head of the 1.2 billion-member church.
The popular pontiff has also made a positive impression among Americans in general: Nearly three in four view Francis favorably. The new survey suggests that the Pope is arguably the most well-regarded religious figure among the American public today, said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.
Nine months into his papacy, the Argentine-born Francis has captured attention with crowd-pleasing acts of compassion, from embracing a severely disfigured man, to washing the feet of juvenile delinquents, to hosting homeless men at his birthday Mass this month.
The Pope has also shown a common touch rare for such a lofty religious leader. He has eschewed the trappings of the papacy in favor of humbler digs, simpler vestments and a cheaper car. He worked as a bar bouncer and a janitor before he was a priest, and is not shy about telling people.
Pope: I was once a bar bouncer
According to one study, Pope Francis was the most talked about person on the Internet this year, and even atheists have professed appreciation for the 77-year-old pontiff.
The breadth of Francis' popularity was on display at American newsstands this month: he was named person of the year by both Time magazine and The Advocate, a gay and lesbian publication.
"While 2013 will be remembered for the work of hundreds in advancing marriage equality, it will also be remembered for the example of one man," The Advocate said. In remarks that rippled across the globe, Pope Francis said in July, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”
Pope Francis on gays: 'Who am I to judge?'
While the Pope has not changed church doctrine, he has urged Catholics to shift their focus from culture war issues to caring for people on society's margins, especially the poor.
"I see the church as a field hospital after battle," Francis said in September.
American Catholics appear to like the new course the Pope has set for their church. Nearly two-thirds agree with him about the amount of attention that should be paid to issues such as abortion and homosexuality, according to the CNN/ORC poll.
More than 85% of American Catholics say Francis is neither too liberal nor too conservative, and 86% say he's in touch with the modern world. By comparison, more than half of American Catholics said Pope John Paul II was out of step with the times in 2003, near the end of his 26-year-long papacy.
But Francis has been a fierce critic of the status quo, especially what calls the "idolatry of money" present in modern-day capitalism. In a papal statement last month, for example, the Pope blasted the theory of trickle-down economics, calling it "crude and naïve."
Conservative critics such as Rush Limbaugh pounced on the Pope's remarks, calling him a closet Marxist. But nearly two in three American Catholics agree with the Pope about capitalism and the free market's effects on the poor, according to the CNN/ORC poll.
Pope: Marxist ideology is 'wrong'
On other key issues for Catholics – the role of women in the church and the sexual abuse crises – Francis gets similarly high ratings from his American flock.
More than six in 10 American Catholics agree with Francis' comments about women in the church, according to the CNN/ORC poll. The Pope has said that women should have a larger role in church governance but cannot be ordained as priests.
Similarly, more than six in 10 American Catholics say Francis is doing a good job handling fallout from the church's sexual abuse scandal, even as most (64%) also say the church overall has done a poor job on the issue.
This month, the Vatican announced the creation of a new commission to care for victims of clergy sexual abuse and to prevent future crimes.
American Catholics had given especially low marks on the sexual abuse scandal to Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, with just 36% saying in 2010 that he had handled the issue well.
CNN's Holland said it's difficult to ascertain exactly how Francis' popularity stacks up against his predecessors, however. "It's a tough question since polling on Popes is pretty sparse," he said.
What's more, like political polling, approval ratings shift depending on the public mood and perception of a Pope's performance.
For example, three-quarters of American Catholics approved of how John Paul was leading the church in 1994; that number rose to 84% in 1999 and dipped to 64% in 2003, at the height of the church's sexual abuse crisis.
It remains to be seen how long the honeymoon will last for Francis, and how long he can continue to build goodwill among American Catholics.
The poll was conducted for CNN by ORC International on December 16 through Thursday, with 1,035 adults nationwide, including 191 Catholics, questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Pope Francis' greatest hits of 2013
I do really hope that the Pope is what he preaches. But who knows?
He's been the Pope for less than a year. How about you give the guy a chance before all the fretting and wondering?
He doesn't just preach humility he lives it. Thats different than most Popes and all GOP politicians. Whenever you talk about humility and helping the poor Republican's immediately shout Socialism. But when you talk about cutting the billions in subsidies the oil industry gets they wax eloquent on the virtues of capitalism. GOP's definition of capitalism is when large multi national corporations getting subsidies from the U. S. Treasury. GOP's definition of socialism is when individuals receive subsidies from the U. S. Treasury.
Leading by example, charity, compassion for his fellow human beings, it is a shame the vast majority of politicians in this country do not share the same character as this man.
it's sad the vatican markets that way,, Then again, this pope and vatican need to deflect away from children suffering today due to the abuse cover ups
not such a fool you are.
My uncle has a farm.
He violates Leviticus 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend).
He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot.
Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them? (Leviticus 24:10-16)
Couldn't we just burn them to death at a private family affair like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Leviticus 20:14)
That's a tough one. Ask the duck man.
are you jewish? if so, you should already know the answer to your question. if you are not, what makes you obsess over jewish laws?
Again, Francis will fail unless he addresses the crumbling historical and theological foundations of the RCC to include the Xmas con. (see p. 1 of the comments for added details)
and is held accountable for the child abuse cover ups
It's nice to see the priests here posting as atheist, single mom, former catholic, baptist,, etc..
they sure know how to deceive. Ever see them wandering nursing homes looking to catch inheritance money.
The pope and vatican train them well.
Please seek psychological help, sir. Good luck to you.
I think you may have some psychological issues... also, an annoying habit of constantly repeating the same thing over and over again.
I too, am a atheist and recovering Catholic. This Pope is amazing. If all the Catholics I know were like this Pope in their beliefs the world would be a better place. And, also, to the person posting about voting, I don't know a single practicing Catholic who votes Democratic. They vote Republican because of the abortion issue. Period.
This Pope is doing what Jesus taught us to do.. visit the sick.. help the poor. Jesus was also hated by the elite for talking to the sinners and trying to teach them the truth about God.. people all have their own ways to try and reach out.. this Pope has his ways others have there's.. no one way is right or wrong..
and destroy children..
I love this Pope. Signed, Atheist.
I'm not Catholic nor a practicing religious person, but I LOVE this man. He makes me want to get back into church if I could find one that mirrored his lead.
It's pretty hard to disapprove of a man who humbles himself before others, leads by the example that was taught to him by reading the New Testament, and attempts to guide his lost church to a new era. I'm not Catholic but it's great to see genuine Christianity in the church's leader.
He's been quite good for the Catholic church thus far.
I might like some of his take on the NT based on his example. But sadly, the NT is used too much for judgment and hate these days.
he sure denies small children abused.
Ole Rush better watch his P's and Q's. The Pope might just perform a (very needed) exorcism on him and his two testicle's Cruz and Palin.
naw,, pope and rush are quite the same,, both con men
I'm with you on the Religion thing but I think the Pope is the far better man.
Go ahead, Neo-Cons, keep bashing an extremely popular Pope who just happens to have a large number of the coveted Latino voting population adoring him.
You do realize that the new testament makes priests obsolete, right?
"88% of American Catholics approve of how Francis is handling his role"
That's like basing Obama's approval rating on a poll of his family. Maybe they should have asked some people who AREN'T weak-minded, brainwashed, irrational, and ignorant.
So you disagree with a Pope living by the 'bible'?
The new testament of the Christian bible makes priests obsolete.
"some people who AREN'T weak-minded, brainwashed, irrational, and ignorant."
Tall order. That's like 90% of the southern United States...
Actually the dumbest people are in the northeast. New Jersey's Motto is "The Inbred State".
New Jersey is almost completely been taken over by Indians... so, not sure what statistics you've been checking
controversial separdic jews meet with ahmedinejad and call for the dismantiling of the jewish state of talmudic jews.
If I was divine and saw a priest abusing a small child, I would intervene. That's the difference between me and your God.
It just demonstrates how dumbed down the world has become.
Here's the thing.
He's done nothing to curb molestation. That's nice that he hosted homeless people, but he still doesn't care about molestation.
And, while he made more moderate comments then his predecessor, he still supports the notion that it is wrong to be gay. In doing so, he is perpetuating the hate against the LGBTQ* community that has plagued the western half of the world for so long. Moderated hate is still hate, and should be treated no differently.
Obama wish's he could have those poll numbers.
Obama's approval rating has fallen so far that it's only about TWICE what Bush's was.
So has Lady Gaga's and she has did the same as him , public stunts !
0% change at Vatican ! POPE GAGA to the PR rescue !
Lady Gaga is popular because she puts her butt in the camera.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.