American Catholics overwhelmingly approve of the direction in which Pope Francis is leading the Roman Catholic Church and express a favorable opinion of him personally, a new poll shows.

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In advance of Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, American Catholics overwhelmingly approve of the direction in which he is leading the Roman Catholic Church and express a favorable opinion of him personally. Most now say the church is in touch with the needs of Catholics today, far more than said so at the end of the papacy of his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll finds.

A large majority of Catholics say the direction of the church has changed at least somewhat under the leadership of Pope Francis. And overall, eight in 10 Catholics approve of the direction Francis is leading it, including a majority who approve strongly. Approval is higher still, at nine in 10, among Catholics who attend Mass at least once a week. And it ranges from 74 percent among political conservatives to 87 percent among moderates.

More than six in 10 Catholics, moreover, view him favorably; a mere 3 percent view him unfavorably, while the rest have no opinion. That is a far higher level of favorability than expressed for Benedict at the end of his papacy, and is more similar to Pope John Paul II’s rating at points in his time leading the church.

Notably, the poll finds a substantial increase in perceptions that the church is in touch with the needs of today’s Catholics — 53 percent now say so, compared with 39 percent in February 2013, after Benedict’s announcement that he was resigning. Frequent churchgoers are far more apt to say so than are other Catholics, but among those who attend Mass less than weekly there has been a double-digit increase in the percentage who say the church is in touch.

Most Catholics — 53 percent — say Francis has the same priorities for the church as they have. That rises to 62 percent among political moderates, compared with 50 percent among liberals and 44 percent among conservatives.

The poll finds huge support for two of the pope’s recent announcements. Nearly nine in 10 Catholics favor allowing priests to grant forgiveness to women who have had an abortion and have repented for it. About as many favor changes to the marriage-annulment process that would speed it up and make it free in most cases. In another issue, more than six in 10 Catholics say they favor allowing divorced and remarried Catholics who have not had their previous marriages annulled to receive communion.

Broad approval of Francis’ leadership extends to his work on specific issues. About six in 10 Catholics approve of the job he is doing on the concerns of women in the church, immigration issues, the distribution of wealth in the world, and social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. Even more, nearly seven in 10, approve of his work on environmental issues. And more than eight in 10 approve of his work addressing the needs of the poor.

However, just under half, 48 percent, say the pope and the Vatican have done a good job handling reports of past sexual abuse of children by priests — but that compares with just 19 percent who said so in February 2013 about Benedict.

Fewer than two in 10 Catholics now cite child sex abuse and the church’s handling of it as the most important problem facing the church today, down from three in 10 in 2013 and six in 10 in 2002. Nevertheless, it remains the most oft-cited problem confronting the church.

A plurality of Catholics, 43 percent, say the pope’s opinions are pretty much like theirs on the environment, immigration and the distribution of wealth, while 24 percent say Francis is more liberal and 22 percent say he is more conservative.

On abortion, birth control and divorce, 40 percent say his opinions are like theirs, but 43 percent say he is more conservative and just 10 percent say he is more liberal. Regardless, about eight in 10 Catholics say it is possible to disagree with the pope on these issues and still be a good Catholic.

Wide majorities of Catholics continue to favor artificial methods of birth control, allowing priests to marry and ordaining women as priests.

The nationwide poll was conducted Sep. 8-15 on landlines and cellphones with 513 Catholics. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 6 percentage points for all Catholics. SSRS of Media, Pa., conducted sampling, interviewing and tabulation.