Pope John Paul II, in issuing a fresh initiative to promote Christian unity, has provided Protestants and Catholics a rare opportunity to work through long-standing theological differences in a modern context.

In North America, evangelicals and Catholic leaders say the pope's invitation to examine together the role of the papal office is historic and significant. But there is disagreement on whether meaningful unity is achievable, even with the pope's endorsement in the May 30 encyclical on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint ("That They May Be One"). A common concern that Orthodox and Protestant believers share is opposition to the pope's claim to a unique role in Christendom.

"The Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved … the visible sign and guarantor of unity constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians, whose memory is marked by certain painful recollections," the pope acknowledges. "To the extent that we are responsible for these, I join my predecessor Paul VI in asking forgiveness."

Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and former Lutheran, now with the New York-based organization Religion and Public Life, says the statement is "historic" and "unprecedented."

Neuhaus has formed an important link to the evangelical movement through working with Prison Fellowship's Charles Colson. From this coalition emerged the controversial "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" (CT, March 6, 1995, p. 52).

In the encyclical, the pope entreats Christians to act now, asking, "Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue?"

STUMBLING BLOCKS: Yet, for most Protestants, ...

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