John Paul II was probably the most popular pope ever among America’s evangelical Protestants, while leaders of more liberal mainline denominations looked upon him more warily than his three papal predecessors.
John Paul inherited a Catholic-Protestant situation that had changed almost instantly with the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 decree on ecumenical involvement with non-Catholics and 1965 declaration endorsing religious freedom.
One sign of the thaw: Protestants had long made it inconceivable for the United States to extend diplomatic recognition to the Holy See but raised little ruckus when President Reagan sent the first U.S. ambassador to John Paul’s Vatican.
After Vatican Two, Rome had launched formal unity talks with the Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans and other non-Catholics. But there were few contacts with the burgeoning evangelical movement, which was highly decentralized, firmly opposed to certain Catholic teachings and strongly resented by Catholic bishops in Latin America.
In the John Paul era, many U.S. evangelicals became much more aware of the papacy – and much more favorable toward it – attracted by his anti-communist background and strong stands against abortion and euthanasia.
The Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision establishing the right to an abortion lit the fuse that sparked evangelical activism on the issue – often coordinated in tandem with Catholics – just at the time John Paul was beginning his pontificate.
In ensuing years, the Polish pope became a key player in ending Europe’s Cold War.
“His strong stand against totalitarianism and communism made him a friendly presence for all freedom-living people,” says the Rev. Timothy George of Alabama’s Beeson Divinity School, the only Southern Baptist on the World Council of Churches theology commission. And on moral issues like abortion and mercy-killing, “he didn’t speak for evangelicals, but he spoke with evangelicals.”
Analyzing John Paul’s pronouncements, Wheaton College historian Mark Noll said Protestants would dissent on matters such as reverence for the Virgin Mary, but “people who’ve taken the time to read these should come away impressed with his classically orthodox Christian stance,” as well as the pope’s intellectual depth and familiarity with the Bible.
Meanwhile, says George, “for some of the same reasons evangelicals liked the pope so much, mainliners were distant and suspicious, more aligned with Roman Catholic progressives who saw the pope as regressive.”
The Rev. William Rusch, former theology director with the National Council of Churches, said that during John Paul’s reign, disagreements over issues like homosexuality and women clergy sharpened the divide between mainline Protestants and Catholicism.
But Rusch says one landmark of John Paul’s leadership was his 1995 encyclical on ecumenism, “Ut Unum Sint.”
He thinks the pope did all Christians a service by candidly defining the issues that divide Catholics and Protestants, especially his own papal office. One notable passage asked non-Catholics to identify papal practices that are obstacles to Christian unity.
Rusch also credits John Paul with the ground-breaking 1998 joint declaration between Catholicism and the Lutheran World Federation on the faith-vs.-works problem that sparked the Reformation.
The nub of the accord said, “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”
By speaking of the 16th century birth of Protestantism, in George’s opinion “John Paul II was the most significant pope since the Reformation, period.”