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Why Americans are cooling on Pope Francis

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Tony Gentile/Reuters

(Read caption) Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the 'Modern Slavery and Climate Change' conference at the Vatican on Tuesday. Francis urged the United Nations to take a 'very strong stand' on climate change at a landmark summit this year in Paris on global warming.

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When Pope Francis makes his first trip to the US this September, fewer Americans may be tuning in to hear him speak.

That's because the pope's popularity is plummeting, according to a new Gallup poll. Today, 59 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Pope Francis, down from 76 percent in February 2014.

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The stark drop in his popularity is driven by a decline among Catholics and political conservatives, the latter of which appear to be turning away from the pope in droves.

Some 45 percent of conservatives now view the pope favorably, down sharply from 72 percent last year. Catholics are less enamored too, with 71 percent viewing the pope favorably, down from 89 percent last year.

When he swept in to the papacy, Francis charmed the world. As an archbishop, he was known for living in a simple apartment, taking the bus to work, and cooking his own meals. He carried that humility into his papacy and became a champion for the poor. He has won the admiration of Christians and non-Christians around the world by focusing more on engaging with other faiths and protecting the environment.

That goodwill was reflected in a 2014 Gallup poll that pegged his favorability at 76 percent.

What went wrong?

As the Monitor explained earlier this year, the Pope's plummeting popularity is emblematic of a rift that's opened between him and some conservatives over divisive issues in the culture wars.

Since he entered the papacy, Pope Francis has welcomed gays and lesbians, attributed climate change to human activity, and has said the Big Bang and evolution are not incompatible with religion.

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"If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them?" Francis once said of gays and lesbians.

"I don't know if it [human activity] is the only cause, but mostly, in great part, it is man who has slapped nature in the face," the pope said about climate change during a trip to the Philippines, as quoted by the Associated Press. "We have, in a sense, taken over nature."

It was enough to set some conservatives teeth on edge.

“You demean the office that you hold and you demean the church whom it is your sworn duty to protect and defend and advance,” Christopher Monckton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and a prominent climate change denier, said earlier this year in a Rome press conference warning Pope Francis against speaking on climate change. “Stand back and listen to both sides," said Mr. Monckton, who is Catholic, "and do not take sides in politics."

Like his environmentalism, Francis's passionate denunciations of income inequality, trickle-down economics, and overconsumption in the developed world, are unlikely to win the affection of conservatives.

“I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” GOP presidential contender Jeb Bush told supporters after a draft of the pope's letter on climate change leaked in June.

The pope's stance on these issues "can alienate conservatives," commentator and practicing Catholic Ed Morrissey, who writes for Hot Air, a conservative blog, told the Washington Post. “I’m not sure it’s a great idea for him to be involving himself into micro-economics and the same with climate change."

If conservatives are backing away from the pope, one would expect liberals to flock to him. But the pope is getting less love from the left, too. For them, the grievances are different: Francis has not changed church teachings on issues like abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he has not sanctioned the ordination of women as priests, or allowed priests to marry.

Which is why Francis' favorable rating among liberals fell 14 percentage points, from 82 percent in 2014 to 68 percent this year.

That said, Francis is more popular than the previous pope, Pope Benedict XVI. But he is less popular than Benedict's predecessor, Pope John Paul II, whose favorability never dipped under 60 percent during his 26 years as pontiff.

Pope Benedict received his greatest favorability rating in 2008, when he visited the US. Pope John Paul II also received a boost from his 1993 and 1999 visits to the US. Perhaps when Francis visits this September, when he will become the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, his popularity may rebound.