COPENHAGEN, Denmark – If you’re looking for new ways to confirm that Denmark, where only four percent of the population is believed to go to church regularly, is one of the world’s most thoroughly secularized societies, here’s one: The country’s lone Catholic bishop says that Danes like Pope Francis so much, many people here are actually willing to “forgive him” for being Catholic!

“I think many Danes like his relaxed style, his readiness for dialogue and openness to all sorts of people,” said Bishop Czeslaw Kozon of Copenhagen, a native Dane and the son of Polish immigrants to the country.

“Many people forgive Pope Francis when he speaks on some doctrinal point” that bucks the secular tide here, Kozon said. “It’s not much talked about when he stresses Catholic doctrine. Even if he strongly talks about abortion, for instance, sometimes it’s ignored.”

Asked if that means they “forgive him for being Catholic,” Kozon laughingly agreed that’s about it.

Despite the pontiff’s popularity, however, Kozon said the challenges of trying to lead a small church, estimated at just 45,000 souls or .7 percent of the national population, in a culture that was once overwhelmingly Lutheran and now is staunchly secular, haven’t disappeared.

Kozon cited a draft law on civil registration of religious denominations in Denmark, up for consideration this fall, which would require all religious bodies to be governed by a democratically elected board. It’s a stipulation with which the Catholic Church couldn’t comply, theoretically meaning it could lose financial benefits, the right to perform civilly valid weddings, and exemptions from immigration laws for foreign-born clergy and religious.

Right now, Kozon said, the draft law explicitly states that the Catholic Church wouldn’t be compelled to ordain women or to perform same-sex marriages, but he worries that tolerance may not endure much longer.

“I could easily imagine that in some years, these teachings could be seen as incompatible with so-called ‘Danish values’,” he said. It would be a short step from there in some people’s minds, he suggested, to criminalize the church’s positions on those issues.

Kozon also discussed the difficulties of presenting Francis’s message on immigration in a country that’s moving towards a steadily more restrictive line on the issue, that’s basically shared by both left and right.

“Many will disagree with the pope, saying he’s being naïve and even dangerous,” Kozon said. “A permanent phrase among Danish politicians is that we have to ‘take care of Denmark,’ which means protecting our own interests.

We’ve discussed that among the bishops of the European Union, and it was mentioned that any country has the right to defend its own interests, but that right can never be absolute,” he said. “There can be situations where you have to loosen up on some points to help people in need.”

On other matters, Kozon said Francis’s eco-encyclical Laudato Si’ was highly popular among the keenly green Danes, and said that Catholics in all the Nordic countries will celebrate later this month when Bishop Anders Aborelius of Stockholm in Sweden becomes Scandinavia’s first-ever cardinal.

“This put us a little more on the Catholic map of the world, that we have a cardinal,” Kozon said. That’s very important for us. Many people wouldn’t consider us the ‘periphery,’ but in Catholic terms we are.”

Kozon will be in Rome for the June 28 consistory ceremony.

Kozon spoke to Crux on June 15 in his bishops’ office in downtown Copenhagen, located near the city’s famed Tivoli Gardens. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: From the outside, the first thing that strikes you about the Catholic Church in Denmark is just how small it is. It’s about 40,000 people, isn’t it, which would make Catholics about .7 percent of the national population?

Kozon: Well, now we’re at about 45,000 …

So you’ve had a growth spurt!

Anyway, we’re still a tiny minority.

What are the pastoral challenges of leading a church that’s so small, in a country that’s officially overwhelmingly Lutheran and in reality is overwhelmingly secular?

The challenges are obvious, because it means that Catholics are very scattered and much influenced by the surrounding society. It’s more difficult than normal to keep people, especially young people, in the church. We have to set up some solid efforts [to keep people involved], because you can’t create a strong Catholic environment in which everybody is Catholic. Even in our Catholic schools, only a minority of the students would be Catholic.

Another challenge is that we are a very multi-ethnic church, because more than 50 percent of Catholics in Denmark, and in all the Nordic countries, are foreign-born. There are very few native Danish Catholics. Denmark used to be the country in Scandinavia with the most native-born Catholics, but we’ve been surpassed in recent years by immigrants.

Where are your immigrants from?

The largest group is from Poland, and they’ve been coming to Denmark for a long time for various reasons. More recently, we’ve seen Catholic immigrants from Vietnam, from Sri Lanka, from the Middle East, from other Eastern European countries …

Lots of Filipinos too, right?

Yes, very much, their numbers are increasing.

What’s the experience of those Catholic immigrants here?

It depends on the attitude of the people. Many Catholics born abroad are very keen on finding the Church in Denmark, to join the community. But many will also drop out because they don’t see the Catholic Church nearby, and they don’t have the opportunity to have the Mass in their own language. That means many Catholics will forget about the church when they’re here.

However, we do a lot to provide Masses in foreign languages, especially in the larger cities. There’s no excuse, I would say, for a foreign-born Catholic not to come to church and not to find a Mass in his or her own language.

Is being small sometimes an advantage? Are Catholics, conscious of being a minority, sometimes more committed to the church?

That’s partially true. The percentage of church-goers in our diocese is around 23 percent, which, compared to some of the Catholic countries in Europe, isn’t bad.

National statistics show that only about 4 percent of Danes generally go to church regularly, so in comparison to the rest of the country, that’s also fairly healthy, isn’t it?

Yes, although everything is relative. In that sense, there’s a stronger sense of belonging. Nevertheless, that’s also challenged very much by secularization and by being scattered. A young Catholic here might be the only Catholic in their classroom, or, for that matter, on their block where he or she lives. It really takes some effort and consciousness to say, ‘I’m a Catholic, I want to remain a Catholic.’

That’s one of our largest challenges, and it’s not just regarding the young but also their parents. Some parents, especially the foreign-born, are very keen on keeping their children in the church, but they sometimes have to fight against the influences from the outside environment. Even some parents themselves aren’t that interested in the faith … they may send their children for instruction, but they don’t give an example of what it means to be Catholic.

We’re also a poor church, even if we’re living in a very rich country. For instance, we don’t have any state system for taking in contributions from people the way they now have in Sweden, or, still more, in Germany. For some reason, large groups of Catholics aren’t conscious of having to contribute to the church. We’re very dependent on support from Germany, which is many years standing. Large associations of German Catholics originally supported the non-Catholic portions of Germany, but they’ve extended their support to Scandinavia and we’re very grateful for the help. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to maintain what we have.

We think of Scandinavia as among the most thoroughly secularized places on earth. What kind of pastoral challenge does it create to defend Catholic teaching on sexual morality, for instance, in a culture like this? I’m thinking, for instance, of the small controversy that broke out three years ago here over a church musician here who was living in a registered same-sex partnership, and you approved the appointment, in part because he told you the partners were living in sexual abstinence.

I wouldn’t say these cases are the most frequent ones. They’re part of a larger picture of what a secularized society means. The biggest challenge regarding secularization is the lack of faith, especially conscious faith. You don’t make your faith a priority, you only bring it out for special occasions, and you don’t live according to it. You’re not ready to sacrifice something for it. It has to fit in your other priorities, mostly being materially secure and profiting from a welfare state. That’s our real challenge.

You’re getting ready to go to a major national dialogue tonight, to speak on the subject of ‘Is religion an obstacle to the advancement of women?’ Many Danes presumably would answer ‘yes’ to that question, and you’re probably going to be pressed to defend the Catholic Church’s refusal to ordain women. What’s it like having to defend Church teaching in an environment where the majority reaction ranges from incomprehension to hostility?

Well, I’ve got used to it! I feel okay about it. Anyway, people know that’s the position of the Catholic Church.

One thing I am concerned about, which may be related, is that a new law on non-Lutheran denominations is being planned for the autumn. It says that to be recognized as a religious denomination in Denmark, you have to comply with certain conditions. One is that the governing body of a recognized denomination has to be a democratically elected sort of board, which would be very difficult for us to comply with. We do have parish councils, diocesan councils, and so on, but they’re only advisory. Many other denominations are criticizing this too, saying it’s an exaggeration of democracy.

If this law goes through, could the Catholic Church in Denmark be de-recognized?


What would the consequences of that be?

We would lose some financial advantages that we have now, such as tax advantages. Another point, which many Catholics don’t think is an advantage, is that we can perform religious ceremonies with civil effects, such as marriages, and we would lose that as well. It wouldn’t be a big tragedy, because in many countries you have to go to the registry office before going to church anyway. But the financial aspect would be serious, if we were to be deprived of those advantages.

Another thing that would affect us is that right now, if you’re a recognized religious denomination you’re exempt from some parts of the immigration laws. You can invite in priests and religious if you need them for your work. This privilege would disappear as well if we were de-recognized.

Are you afraid this could drift into active persecution?

No, no, by no means. But apart from the material disadvantages, it would also create a completely new and different climate. Denmark up to now has been very generous, very open, to minority groups. In spite of its long-standing Lutheran tradition, everybody was welcome.

Now, however, all this has changed, in part because of Muslim immigration, but also by more liberal thinking within Christianity, especially on moral issues and the importance of democracy and equality, especially between men and women.

The law does say that even if we have to comply with some proposed rules of organization, it would never, ever mean that the Catholic Church in Denmark would be forced to accept women’s ordination or to perform same-sex marriages. It’s expressly stated we would keep those traditions, the male priesthood and not doing homosexual marriages.

But, I could easily imagine that in some years, these teachings could be seen as incompatible with so-called ‘Danish values.’ Then there would be pressure for introducing women priests and doing homosexual marriages.

That’s already the case, not from the state but from certain parts of the culture, with the Lutheran church. It’s been five years since Lutheran churches were allowed to do homosexual marriages, and now some say it was only partially a success because a given Lutheran church can still say no.

Some people think it’s outrageous that any Lutheran pastor could deny a ceremony for a homosexual couple. I fear that will be a pressure on all denominations.

You mentioned Denmark’s traditional openness to outsiders. Lately that’s shifted strongly. Your current conservative government campaigned on restricting immigration, and your interior minister is currently engulfed in a scandal over an apparently illegal order to split up the families of asylum-seekers … a measure clearly designed to encourage them to go somewhere else. Even the leftist opposition recently announced a policy change on immigration in a more restrictive direction. How do you preach Pope Francis’s message of welcome and compassion in this culture?

It’s very difficult. Pope Francis is very popular here, even among non-Catholics, but there are issues on which his message is not accepted, especially not in governing circles. His stand on immigration is one such subject … many will disagree with the pope, saying he’s being naïve and even dangerous, that you can’t do what he says. A permanent phrase among Danish politicians is that we have to ‘take care of Denmark,’ which means protecting our own interests.

That’s hardly just Denmark … after all, I come from a country whose current president was elected on a platform of ‘America first!’

Yes, right. We’ve discussed that among the bishops of the European Union, and it was mentioned that any country has the right to defend its own interests, but that right can never be absolute. There can be situations where you have to loosen up on some points to help people in need.

Is there any world leader other than Pope Francis who might at least have a chance of changing minds here on immigration?

I can’t think of any … no, I think Denmark is critical of most foreign leaders!

Let’s talk about an issue where many Danes do strongly agree with the pope, which is the environment and climate change. This is a famously ‘green’ society, recently cited by the 2017 Global Cleantech Innovation Index as the world leader in developing renewable energy technology. Copenhagen is also a unique city in that it’s one of the few places where bicycle gridlock is actually worse than your traffic jams sometimes. What was the reaction here to Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’?

People paid attention. When it came out, it was much talked about. It’s not quoted that much anymore, but when these issues come up, people remember it. Now, I don’t think it’s the words of the pope that are mostly influencing the Danes in their attitudes, but …

But if you took a poll in Denmark, would Laudato Si’ probably be one of the more popular recent papal statements?

Oh, yes, indeed.

You said Pope Francis is popular here. Why do Danes like him?

His closeness to people, his talk about mercy … I think many Danes like his relaxed style, his readiness for dialogue and openness to all sorts of people. His option for the poor is popular, even if Denmark is also cutting foreign aid at the moment and things like that.

Many people, I think, also misinterpret Pope Francis. They think he’s getting rid of traditional Catholic doctrine and so on, which actually makes him popular in some circles as well. Many people forgive Pope Francis when he speaks on some doctrinal point …

They forgive him for being Catholic?

Yes! Actually, it’s not much talked about when he stresses some Catholic doctrine. Even if he strongly talks about abortion, sometimes it’s ignored.

Has Francis been good for ecumenical relations here?

The same goes for the Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries, they very much appreciate Pope Francis for his openness.

I think you can talk about ecumenism here on two levels. Generally speaking in Denmark, in the Nordic countries, relations between the Lutheran churches and the Catholic church are very good. There’s dialogue, there are friendships among the bishops and the leaders of the Lutheran churches. Lutheran pastors in our country are very generous in allowing Catholics to use Lutheran churches in areas where there is no Catholic Church.

Also, speaking for Denmark, the Lutheran Church has been supportive on certain questions, such as this proposed law on the registration of religious denominations. In that sense, relations are good.

On the other hand, the Lutheran churches in the Nordic countries are very liberal. It’s not always easy to talk about traditional matters of dogma and morals. But that doesn’t affect the relationship as such. It’s not as if because of these questions, we’re alienated from each other … not at all.

Finally, you’re going to be in Rome in a few days for a consistory in which the Nordic countries will get their first-ever cardinal, Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm in Sweden. What does it mean for the Nordic lands to get a cardinal, and why Sweden?

This put us a little more on the Catholic map of the world, that we have a cardinal. That’s very important for us. Many people wouldn’t consider us the ‘periphery,’ but in Catholic terms we are. It’s enhancing us very much that we have a cardinal.

Sweden is the right country to get the cardinal, because of the dynamism and growth that’s been taking place. Norway has made some of the same progress, but it’s deserved that Sweden gets it. There’s also a question of the person … the Bishop of Stockholm is a very good man, very competent and open, he gets on with everybody. He’ll be a very good representative for the church here.

You were saying at lunch that the church in Sweden over the last 50 years has gone from around 5,000 people to somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000, correct? That growth has also included some prominent Swedes converting, which suggests an impact on the culture, doesn’t it?

In Sweden more than in other countries, the church has tighter contacts with important circles in society, such as academics. Sweden is also the lone Nordic country that has an ambassador exclusively to the Holy See, not one also assigned to other countries. For some time, that ambassador was also resident in Rome, so Sweden itself is interested in the Catholic church.

The nunciature for all of Scandinavia was recently transferred from here to Sweden.

Were you upset about that … sort of a blow to national Catholic pride?

Well, ‘national pride’ would be too much, but we were used to having the nuncio here, having him close by, but we accepted the reasons for moving it to Sweden.