ARUN RATH, HOST:
Pope Francis arrives in the U.S. later this month. The upcoming visit is of course drawing huge interest from American Catholics. But as NPR's Joel Rose reports, the pope's statements on the environment, gays and lesbians and abortion have engaged non-Catholics, too.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The words papal encyclical do not generally grab headlines in the secular world, but that's exactly what Pope Francis did in June when he wrote that humans are responsible for changing the climate and urged all people to do a better job of caring for the environment.
SAMI HUSSAIN: As a scientist myself, I was really impressed.
ROSE: Sami Hussain is a biologist in San Francisco. He read the pope's let letter on climate change, all 192 pages of it. Hussain, who is raised Muslim, was already paying close attention of Francis because of something he said to reporters in 2013.
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POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).
ROSE: "Who am I to judge priests for their sexual orientation?" Francis said. That was a major shift in tone from past popes. Gay and transgender Catholics still can't take communion, but for Sami Hussain, who is gay, the pope's words represent a welcome change.
HUSSAIN: Obviously, he's not going to, like, march in a Pride parade in San Francisco, but, you know, I think taking baby steps towards, like, acknowledging gay people, you know, I think that's pretty bold coming from, you know, that sort of conservative background.
ROSE: Bold statements like these have made Francis a lot of fans outside the Catholic Church. NPR conducted an informal, nonscientific poll about the pope on Facebook. We got thousands of replies from mainline Protestants, Jews, atheists, agnostics. They praise the first non-European pope for talking about the problems of the world's poor and for living in a modest apartment, as opposed to the usual Vatican splendor. A lot of them said some version of this.
JOHN WILLIAMSON: For the first time, I care about the pope.
ROSE: John Williamson is a Protestant from Grand Rapids, Mich. In some cases, the affection non-Catholics have for Pope Francis can almost sound like a crush. Elise Overcash is a self-described evangelical Christian in Seattle. She was so moved by His Holiness that she decided to name her car after him.
ELISE OVERCASH: Yeah, it's 2014 Subaru Outback, green. Its name is Pope Francis. We like to take it up to the mounts and drive it around in the environment. And who better to name it after than the pope?
ROSE: It's not just our survey that shows Francis is popular with non-Catholics. In February, a proper poll by the Pew Research Center put his approval rating at 74 percent among white mainline Protestants and 68 percent among people with no religious affiliation at all. Even people who have distrusted the papacy are changing their minds.
MELANIE WINKLER: Past Pope's have been actually really scary to me.
ROSE: Melanie Winkler was raised Jewish. Winkler says she and her friends near Hartford, Conn., have found a lot to like in Pope Francis.
WINKLER: This is a new - very new generation of Pope, and hopefully there will be, you know, a lot more kind of interfaith cooperation and, you know, just a more welcoming vibe overall.
ROSE: But not everybody is feeling the vibe. According to Gallup, Francis's overall approval ratings dropped after his letter on climate change, led by a 27 percent decline among people who describe themselves as conservative. Richard Land is the president of the Southern Evangelical Seminary in North Carolina.
RICHARD LAND: Among Evangelicals, I think this pope is probably less popular than John Paul II.
ROSE: Land says many Evangelicals are turned off by what Francis has said about climate change and the pope's criticism of unfettered capitalism.
LAND: When he talks about capitalism as an evil, I think most Evangelicals don't believe that.
ROSE: There's another criticism of Francis that turned up in our informal survey of non-Catholics, from skeptics who say Francis's positions are only a shift in tone rather than a fundamental change in the doctrine of the church.
LISA COLLETTI: When Francis first appeared on the horizon, I think it looked kind of hopeful, but it's looking like now it's more talk than action.
ROSE: Lisa Colletti is a former Catholic who now attends Quaker services. She likes what Francis has said about gays and lesbians, but she'd like to see him back it up.
COLLETTI: Well, he says who am I to judge, but, like, he's the one who can do something to change doctrine and to change the way that the church carries out the things that it does. So he kind of is the one to judge and to change the way the things are done.
ROSE: And you don't see that happening?
COLLETTI: Not in action, no.
ROSE: Colletti also hopes that Francis will do more to reform the way women are treated in the Catholic Church. She's encouraged by the pope's announcement giving priests the discretion to forgive women who've had abortions, though, only during the upcoming holy year. But like so much of what Francis does, Colletti says this is just a small step toward fixing a bigger problem. Joel Rose, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In an early audio version of this story, we described Pope Francis as the first non-European pope. He is the first non-European pope in the modern era, but not the first ever.]
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