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What do U.S. Catholics think of the pope? Survey reveals views of the faithful ahead of Francis' visit

With Pope Francis visiting the United States this week, TODAY's Maria Shriver takes a look into the beliefs of American Catholics with an in-depth survey.
/ Source: TODAY

With Pope Francis making his first visit to the United States this week, a Shriver Report survey takes a look at the views of American Catholics as they try to incorporate progressive ideals while also preserving church traditions.

As part of the "Do You Believe?" series on TODAY, NBC's Maria Shriver delved into what U.S. Catholics believe as they get set to welcome Pope Francis, who has steered the church in what many say is a more progressive direction.

Forty-eight percent of respondents saw him as a political leader as well, and they tended to project their own political views onto him.

"In the poll, people who are liberal say he's liberal, moderates say he's moderate, conservatives say he's kind of moderate to conservative,'' Shriver told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Monday.

"I think people of all faiths and (political) leanings will be watching what he says when he speaks to Congress this week. Most people who have watched him, they think he's going to make everybody feel a little uncomfortable."

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American Catholics look for political leaders with religion in their lives, as 71 percent said they would be uncomfortable with a presidential candidate who did not believe in God, the poll found.

The survey also touched on the intersection between faith and politics.TODAY

And one-third of those polled said that if the next U.S. president is Catholic, they believe that he or she would be beholden to the Vatican.

"I thought that was fascinating, and it was even more so amongst younger Catholics,'' Shriver said.

"We see people discussing people's faith, thinking that they would be beholden to whoever the head of that religion is. We saw that again with (Mitt) Romney the last time, so this still is something that people aren't that informed about.''

The survey found that 77 percent of the respondents felt the teachings of Pope Francis matched their own beliefs, while 44 percent said he made them feel closer to the church.

"He has definitely shown himself as the pope of the people,'' Patrice Morace, a parishioner at Annunciation Catholic Church in Washington, D.C., said on TODAY.

Francis has spoken out on progressive topics like welcoming divorced Catholics back to the church and allowing priests to forgive abortion.

The results of a Shriver Report survey show how American Catholics feel about the direction Pope Francis has taken the church so far.TODAY

His comments have received a mixed reception from Catholics seeking to balance progress with tradition.

"Of course as a Catholic, I go along with the church teaching, but it's great to see that the pope is embracing modern society and the struggles we're seeing today,'' Georgetown University student Sean Viscount told Shriver.

While 76 percent of respondents said a good Catholic could support gay marriage, only 54 percent would be comfortable with it if their own child was in one.

Also, while 71 percent believed a good Catholic could be pro-choice, only 16 percent said they would be comfortable supporting their own child's choice to have an abortion.

As far as allowing women in the priesthood, 88 percent supported it, yet only 44 percent said they would attend a church with a female priest.

One area where there was some consensus was views on wealth.

Sixty-three percent of respondents said you could not be a good Catholic if you placed your own financial gain over the well-being of others, echoing Pope Francis's focus on economic inequality.

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.