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Approval ratings remain high for the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the Vatican City State, Servant of the servants of God, according to Pew:

A new Pew Research Center  analysis  shows eight-in-ten U.S. Catholics (79%) rate the new pope favorably. Just 4% of Catholics say they have an unfavorable view of the pope, while 17% express no opinion or say they have not heard enough about Francis to have an opinion . . . . The new survey, conducted Sept. 4-8, 2013, finds that U.S. Catholics’ views of Pope Francis are largely unchanged since the days immediately following his ascension to the papacy in March. Additionally, roughly six-in-ten Americans overall rate Francis favorably, also unchanged since March.

When George Gallup conducted the first presidential approval rating in the late 1930s, the purpose was straightforward: In a democracy, approval of the populace matters. Not only because politicians will have to answer to voters on the next election day, but because each day the will of the majority is the warrant of their authority.

But what point is there in an approval rating of a pope? What point would there be in an approval rating for one’s father, mother, brother?

The first survey of American Catholic attitudes on their church and pope was conducted in 1966, the year after the closing of the Second Vatican Council, by Louis Harris and Associates on behalf of Newsweek. Ken Woodward, Newsweek's former religion editor, recalls that “the American bishops were opposed on principle to Church-sponsored surveys of the faithful.”

When I was an undergraduate, some meddlesome friends of mine and I started a polling group that would issue yearly approval ratings for the university president and other top administrators. Our goal, even more than collecting data, was to make students think of administrators like political leaders—as figures who can be challenged and even given the heave-ho. In loco parentis was long dead, so better to treat university officials like politicians than like parents.

Or so we thought. Princeton’s administration disagreed and blocked our effort. Both sides recognized that approval ratings have an ideological function. Not only do they measure reality, they suggest a way of thinking about the world. A way of thinking not terribly appropriate to the body of Christ.

Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things. 

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