I WENT on the radio on Tuesday, which was the fifth anniversary of the election of Pope Francis, and was struck by an assertion that the presenter made, and two questions that he asked. The assertion was that the Pope was a liberal. The questions were about the lack of progress made over sex abuse and over the part played by women in the Church.
The interviewer was not alone. Many of the recent articles in the mainstream media have been in thrall to this same agenda. Most people seem to miss what have been the seismic shifts of the five Francis years.
Let’s get the clichés out of the way first. This Pope is not a liberal: on all the key doctrinal issues, he holds the same views as his two towering predecessors, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — a fact that was pointedly asserted by the retired Pope Benedict in a letter this week in which he defended Francis and insisted that “there is an internal continuity between the two pontificates.”
The Francis revolution comes in putting people before doctrine. The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; or, as Francis would put it, “realities are greater than ideas.” This is an important shift of emphasis. John Paul was a philosopher, and Benedict was a theologian. Francis is a pastor. The Church needs theology, philosophy, and pastoral warmth. The great insight of Francis has been to say that it has offered too much of the former and not enough of the latter in recent times. He has swung the pendulum. He thinks that a pope should not have his finger out to wag, but his arms open to embrace.
Francis has undoubtedly made a disappointing progress on tackling sex abuse and its cover-ups. He is bewildered over the issue of women. He repeatedly admits that “we need a new theology of women,” but, beyond setting up a commission on women and the diaconate, he does not seem to know what else to do.
Yet to focus on his blind spots, as the pessimists and cynics of the media habitually do, fails to explain why, in the latest Pew poll in the United States, an extraordinary 84 per cent of Roman Catholics declared themselves Francis fans, and only nine per cent were unfavourable.
Pope Francis has demonstrated a different way of being a Catholic. He called one of his key documents The Joy of the Gospel. He smiles constantly, and radiates avuncular warmth. He has begun a massive reform of Vatican finances. He has changed the way in which the Church makes decisions: re-empowering synods, which were once rubber-stamping bodies, and decentralising power to national conferences of bishops. He has reasserted the priority of personal conscience, spiritual discernment, and the need for priests to “smell of their sheep” by accompanying lay people through the difficulties of daily life.
A noisy minority of ideological conservatives object to this, and accuse Francis of being “confusing”, and, even, heretical. Yet even that is a tribute to this Pope: under his predecessors, such papal critics would have been investigated, scolded, and silenced.
Today, disagreement is not dissent, but healthy debate. Francis has changed a huge amount in his first five years.
Listen to Paul Vallely reflect on Pope Francis’s first five years, on the Church Times Podcast
Paul Vallely’s Pope Francis: Untying the Knots: The struggle for the soul of Catholicism is published by Bloomsbury.