*** DEBUG END ***

Paul Vallely: Pope Francis’s seismic first five years

16 March 2018

His pontificate is proving revolutionary, says Paul Vallely


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.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Intercultural Church for a Multicultural World

28 May 2024

A Church Times/Church House Publishing webinar

Tickets are FREE


Church Times/Modern Church:

A Political Faith?

Monday 3 June 2024

This panel will explore where Christians have come to in terms of political power and ask, where should we go next?

Online tickets available


Church Times/Modern Church:

Participating in Democracy

Monday 10 June 2024

This panel will explore the power of voting, and power beyond voting.

Online tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)