The central theme of The Shoes of the Fisherman is the human and priestly struggle to understand and implement God’s will. Kyril writes, “And here is the shape of another mystery: that I who am called to spend so much find myself so poor in the things that are of God. . . .” Even in the absence of explicit divine guidance, Kyril believes that his choices will forward God’s aims. However, at every turning there are sound institutional or political reasons not to act. The Church has put authority ahead of charity. Ministering to simple human love and need, which are in accordance with the simple heart of Christian doctrine, seem to be dangerous to the health of the Church as an institution. Both Kyril and the senior Vatican hierarchy recognize the tension between pastoral and organizational needs—a tension that exists in the real Church just as much as it does in West’s fictional Roman Curia.
Kyril’s instincts are to side with the human or individual needs. His decisions do bring some personal peace and understanding to Faber and Lewin. Some amelioration of international strains does come about through his intervention. However, Kyril is unable to vanquish the bureaucracy altogether. His patronage and support of Télémonde end with the latter’s death, to Kyril’s grief and anger. As the story concludes, Kyril finally persuades the hierarchy to support his plan to travel to spread the Gospel. The Church will attempt to recover the faith of the masses by reintroducing itself into private and public life through works of practical charity. Kyril, although hopeful that the Church can be rebuilt to serve humanity, doubts whether he has been given the light to do so by God. He is alone, facing what West calls “his long Calvary.”
West—who remained a believer and communicant until his death—was not sanguine about the prospects for reform of the Church in the real world. Several of his Vatican books hint at his personal views: an end to celibacy for the clergy, an end to the ban on birth control, and the admission of women to the priesthood.