(USA TODAY) -- While the world waits to find out when the Catholic Church will choose the next pope and who it will be, a new survey shows that U.S. Catholics are divided on the direction the church should take.
Pope Benedict XVI made a shocking announcement Feb. 11 that, because of age and declining health, he would be the first pope in 600 years to step down.
Fifty-one percent of U.S. Catholics think the next pope should maintain the traditional positions of the church, according to a Pew Research Center poll. About 46% are hoping for change, and top requests include that the church become more modern (19%), get tougher on sex abuse (15%), allow priests to marry (14%), accept homosexuality (9%), allow women to be priests (9%), and lessen the church's opposition to the use of contraception (7%).
"It's striking to me that Catholics in the United States really do express a desire for the church to move forward in specific ways," said Greg Smith, senior researcher for Pew Research Center. "You've got this openness to change accompanied by a real appreciation for the traditions of the Catholic Church."
Pope Benedict's resignation, effective Feb. 28, means the Conclave of Cardinals will meet in Rome to elect a successor.
A majority of Catholics, 60%, say it would be a good thing if the next pope is from a developing region of the world, such as parts of South America, Asia or Africa.
Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said he expects a new pope to be picked before Easter.
Looking back over Benedict's papacy, U.S. Catholics are overall pleased with the work he has done. However, his favorability rating isn't as high as its peak of 83% right after his papal visit to the United States in April 2008.
About 74% of U.S. Catholics polled express a favorable view of Benedict, 85, who served eight years as pope. Benedict was a staunch conservative when it came to church teachings, but brought about many technology changes to modernize the church. He tweets from an iPad, has a Facebook page and provides Vatican news from a YouTube channel.
Pope Benedict's ratings have never soared as high as his predecessor Pope John Paul II, who was rated favorably by 90% of U.S. Catholics in three separate Pew Research polls in the 1980s and 1990s.
U.S. Catholics are united on some fronts. Most give Benedict negative ratings for his handling of the sex-abuse scandal in the church. Among Catholics who say they followed news of the pontiff's resignation, 63% are displeased with how he addressed the sex-abuse scandal, while 33% give him positive ratings. These ratings are significantly more negative than in April 2008.
"I'll be very interested to see how Catholics in the United States and elsewhere react to the new pope," Smith said. "There really is a division."
The poll conducted Feb. 13-18 has a margin of error of +/-6.5 percentage points.