Sweden’s seedling Church

Catholics are making an increasing mark in traditionally Lutheran Sweden. But they have not yet settled on the role they should play in this secular society

ON 12 October this year the Catholic diocese of Stockholm celebrated its fiftieth birthday. Sweden, despite being a big country, has fewer than nine million inhabitants, of whom about 150,000 identify themselves as Catholics. The festive Mass was attended by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, as papal legate, and other church leaders. The King of Sweden was also there, showing by his presence that the Catholic Church is now fully accepted among the significant religious movements in the country. This was not always so, for post-Reformation hatred and persecution of Catholics have left deep wounds and suspicions. Today, however, many Swedes look to the Catholic Church for guidance in spiritual matters, although the same people mostly ignore its views on sexual morality.

The contribution of Catholic religious orders and congregations has been of great importance for the development of Christian spirituality in Sweden. Christians from different denominations and spiritual searchers without church links have been benefiting from the resources of these orders and congregations. Courses in further education offered by the newly founded Newman Institute in Stockholm have been well attended, for example, while intellectual initiatives such as the Jesuit-managed journal Signum, and the flourishing retreat movement have allowed Catholic theology and spirituality to spread far beyond the Church’s boundaries.

In recent decades a number of Swedish intellectuals, artists and writers have converted to Catholicism. Four of the 18 chairs in the prestigious Swedish Academy that chooses the yearly winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature are today filled by Catholics.

Some of the converts left the Lutheran Church (which until three years ago was the established Church in Sweden) because they found its doctrinal stance or liturgical practice inadequate, or because they felt spiritual aliens amid its bureaucratic concerns, or because they wanted to belong to a global Christian culture; at the same time, they were convinced that only a hierarchically structured Communion could guarantee the true proclamation of Christian faith and adequate administration of the sacraments. Some converts are understandably very eager to contribute actively to the life of their new Church and therefore tend to be well represented on church committees.

The Catholic Bishop of Stockholm, Anders Arborelius, appointed five years ago, is himself a convert. For nearly 30 years as a Carmelite monk, he had gained a great reputation as a gifted pastor and spiritual counsellor. Hence, many people in Sweden, including non-Catholics, welcomed his appointment. Although there has since been some disappointment with his clericalist approach to church life, nobody questions his honesty, personal goodness and commitment to the Church. The only auxiliary Bishop in Sweden, the English-born William Kenny, lives in Gothenburg. A former university teacher, he radiates an openness for theological debate, although in recent years he has participated less frequently in public intellectual life.

The ranks of Catholics in Sweden have also been swelled by an influx of thousands of immigrants. Sweden has absorbed sizeable numbers of refugees from Hungary, Poland, Latin America, the former Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iraq, in addition to a great number of workers from Mediterranean countries. Many immigrants have adjusted well to their new cultural context, others have drifted into the criminal scene and eventually ended up in prison. As the former Bishop of Stockholm, Hubertus Brandenburg, has said, half seriously, “Catholics are over-represented in two institutions in Sweden: the Swedish Academy and the prisons.”

In the parish to which I belong in the southern Swedish university town of Lund, the Catholics come from more than 50 nations. Such a global mix of people makes great demands on pastoral care and parish structures. Parish life, despite all efforts to widen its scope, orbits chiefly around the Sunday Mass. Catholic immigrants tend to be conservative, expecting the Church to offer them stability after lives unsettled by experiences of war, terror and an often traumatic move to Sweden. Regular Masses celebrated in some of the native languages help to comfort immigrants, but promote at the same time a reductionist view of the Church, suggesting that its primary function through its sacramental life is to provide cultural and linguistic protection for uprooted individuals.

The common view in Sweden that the Catholic Church is a monolithic institution is strengthened by official statements from local Catholic authorities. When a leading newspaper, Expressen, questioned the mysterious role of Opus Dei in Church and society in Sweden, the bishop wholeheartedly defended the organisation. Any critique of Opus Dei was interpreted as an attack on the entire Catholic Church.

Moreover, a recent debate on what constitutes orthodox Christian faith once more confirmed the impression that the Catholic leadership in Sweden has not yet fully accepted the role of an intellectually serious participant in public debate. Rather than welcoming the exciting new interest in religious questions, Catholic spokesmen always appear to have all the answers already. Hence, important issues in Sweden such as institutional openness, affirmation of the equal status of women, constructive humility in inter-church relationships, and the role of homosexuals in Church and society are treated with ready-made answers and references to Vatican decisions.

While such wholesale approaches are welcomed by some, others regret them deeply. When a leading spokesman for the Catholic Church argued in one of the national newspapers, Svenska Dagbladet, that the Virgin Birth was the precondition for Jesus Christ’s divinity, many thinking Catholics sighed. When the Catholic diocesan magazine begun to print critical views on such issues in addition to the more usual acclamatory statements, there was an outcry of conservative sentiment demanding the firm reorganisation of this national Catholic medium in Sweden. The general editor has since resigned and a reorganisation of the publication has been announced.

The clerical image of a Church utterly dependent on a male celibate clergy unavoidably lowers esteem for the Catholic laity. As elsewhere in Europe, the Swedish Catholic Church is short of vocations to the priesthood. Today 155 Catholic priests (including those from religious orders) work in Sweden, but only five men are preparing for ordination in the diocese of Stockholm that comprises the whole country. Bishop Arborelius tries desperately hard to persuade priests from other parts of the world to move to Sweden. Some of the newcomers have never been to Europe before and are not at all acquainted with the secular culture of Scandinavia, which stretches to the limit not only their linguistic abilities but also their cultural adaptation. This image of a Church built around priests is further supported by countless sermons on the need for vocations – suggesting to lay people and especially women that their participation is of lesser importance. The Catholic laity in Sweden is not yet as organised as in other European countries, and suffers from the enormous differences of view as to what the mission of the Catholic Church ought to be in secular Scandinavia.

Catholicism in Sweden clearly suffers from the current centralism and clericalism of its leadership. But it also enjoys the rich variety of a world Church. A convincing form of Swedish Catholicism, enriched by the diversity of traditions that come together in the diocese of Stockholm, should surely be able to emerge. In that case, Swedish Catholicism could become an inspiring model for the Catholic Church in this global age.

Werner Jeanrond, a native of Saarbrücken in Germany, is professor of systematic theology in the University of Lund. He is the first Catholic in Sweden to hold such a post.

(This article has been published in The Tablet 08/11/2003.)