Milestones in Papal Ecumenism: Part Five

From June 1st-11th, 1989 Pope John Paul II made a whirlwind tour of the Scandinavian countries: Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden. Although there was formal contact with the Lutheran Church of Finland since 1985, and there was a network of contact between the Lutheran Churches of Scandanavia for similarly long times, this was the first tour of a pope to these predominately Lutheran nations, and one that was billed not only as a pastoral visit to the tiny Roman Catholic community, who, as a percentage of the population, numbered in the single digits in Scandinavia, but also as a chance to have ecumenical encounters with the Lutheran Christians there.

The ecumenical aspect of the trip, unfortunately, largely fell flat. Although he began his time in Norway by recalling the bitterness that has divided Christians and reiterating the fact that unity was possible, he stressed that dialogue needed to be continued to restore eucharistic communion. This was not well received by the Lutheran Bishops. Bishop Andreas Aarflot, the bishop of the Lutheran Diocese of Oslo, stated this in clear ters: ”We look forward to the day when Your Holiness clearly and unequivocally expresses the recognition of the ecclesiastical character of the Lutheran and other Protestant churches.” Seven of the eleven Lutheran bishops did not attend the ecumenical service in Nidaros Cathedral located in Trondheim, in the north of Norway.

The response was similarly cold in Denmark. The crowds throughout the tour was small. Undeterred, John Paul reiterated in his remarks to Iceland’s 1,800 Roman Catholics that he was there to be a pilgrim along with them and all the people of Scandinavia and to share the Gospel of Christ.

Ten years later, the situation could not be more different. On the anniversary of the Reformation, October 31, 1999, on the brink of the Millennium, the decades of Lutheran-Catholic Dialogue had paid off, and the Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification was signed between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. The importance of this breakthrough is hard to overstate. Since the 1970’s the LWF and the Roman Catholic Church had been in dialogue over this central question of the Reformation, leading to two preceding documents: the 1972 Joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic Study Commission’s The Gospel and the Church and the 1994 Church and Justification. With the ratification of this document, the two churches stated that although they hold two ways of expressing the doctrine of justification, the central truth of the doctrine is held by the both constituent parties and the ways it is expressed are not mutually exclusive. The two-year long ratification process is detailed here by Card. Edward Cassidy.

The 1990’s also saw the publication of John Paul’s encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint, on May 25, 1995. This document stressed that journeying together toward deeper understandings of revelation, eucharist, ordination, the role of the magisterium, and Mary ecumenical relations can continue and grow stronger.

ecc-020-580Although the relations with the Anglican Communion were growing quite warm in the pontificate of Paul VI and the 1980s, under John Paul, the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England in 1994 led to a slowing of development, evidenced by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most. Rev. George Carey’s official visit to the Vatican in 1996, the New York Times noted. This issue was the central theme of the Common Declaration that was issued on December 5, following this meeting. Though this happened, it did not stop John Paul from opening and entering the Holy Door of St Paul’s Outside the Walls with Carey and with a representative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Athanasios on January 18th, 2000. The three of them along with the President of the LWF and representatives of over 25 major denominations “concelebrated,” as Bishop Piero Marini was quoted, in this ecumenical celebration. 2538227The homily focused on the shared identity all Christians have in baptism. It should be noted, though, that some evangelical groups boycotted the event because the Reformation, they stated, was a result of indulgence abuse and this event was so closely tied to the practice of indulgences.


Although John Paul’s pontificate was hallmarked by a commitment to ecumenism, it was most hallmarked by an uncompromising view of Roman Catholic doctrine. This uncompromising belief in doctrine was most clear in the August 8, 2000 document Dominus Iesus, published by the CDF, headed by the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. This document elaborated the Roman Catholic belief that the Church of Christ subsists in the Roman Catholic Church and stated that although churches that have preserved the episcopate and the Eucharist are true churches, those that have not are not rightly called so but are ecclesial communities. This document was taken by many ecumenical partners and the media as a step back for ecumenism in that it was perceived as Roman Catholic triumphalism over ecumenical relations and had even less respect for non-Christian faiths.


  1. Thanks so much for this fascinating series. I appreciate the balance of conciseness and inclusion of interesting details and illuminating pictures.

  2. ” With the ratification of this document, the two churches stated that although they hold two ways of expressing the doctrine of justification, the central truth of the doctrine is held by the both constituent parties and the ways it is expressed are not mutually exclusive. ”

    So the Pope recognizes that non-Catholics may well be justified. Do I understand this right? Surely for Lutherans and other Protestants, this is crucial. And if this is true, a bedrock exists for ecumenical relations. I mean, who are you gonna believe, the Holy Spirit or your own lyin’ eyes?**

    Rahner’s notion of the ‘anonymous Christian’ goes even further, I suppose. And Rahner has yet to be ex-communicated.

    **the Marx Brothers, for anyone who’s puzzled.

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