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Margaret O'Gara and ecumenism.

Ecumenical dialogue has three stages. To begin with, Christians stop calling one another names. Then there is a sympathetic study of one another's forms of belief, worship, and practice in order to discover areas of agreement. In the final stage the participants recognize that in the various Christian traditions there are barriers to union that can be overcome only by compromise and radical change on the part of one or other of the parties, or both. Full union, therefore, can be accomplished only by a church or a denomination recognizing that it has been in error and moving to embrace the truth. The title of Margaret O'Gara's collection of talks and articles, The Ecumenical Gift Exchange, (Collegeville [MN], The Liturgical Press, 1998, 180 pages; soft cover; $14.95, US), indicates that she represents stage two, and she communicates her joy at discovering the extent to which Anglicans and Lutherans, her principal colleagues in dialogue, appreciate her Catholic understanding of Christianity, and she theirs.

O'Gara's broad sympathies make her perfect for stage two but weak, I think, for where we are now, stage three. Thus she does not point out that Catholicism is the ultimate criterion by which all other forms of Christianity are to be evaluated. Despite her abundant use of conciliar documents she bypasses one important phrase from Vatican II's Constitution on the Church: "[M]any elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside [the Catholic Church's] confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity" (Vatican II, 8). Hence her unspecified references to the Church of Christ could mislead an inattentive reader. It almost sounds as if she views this super-Church as equally and therefore only partially present in all denominations, Catholicism being regarded as one among many: ".... the gifts exchanged in ecumenical dialogue are more like a mosaic, where every piece is valuable and every piece is needed for the full picture of the one Churc h of Christ" (p.viii); "the one and unique Church finds her identity in the koinonia of the churches" (p. 10).

Nevertheless, her allegiance to Catholicism is never in doubt. It is presupposed even in her willingness to criticize the hierarchy of the (Catholic) Church, much like a someone whose exasperation with the behaviour of her family in no way indicates a lack of love. These criticisms, however, are based on a misconception: Rome's interest is in real union-stage three-while she continues to act at stage two. She accuses Cardinal Ratzinger, incredibly, of not understanding the meaning of "reception" as the term is used in the final agreed statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) even though, by her own account, he understands it precisely and furthermore sees the flaw in it.

For O'Gara, influenced perhaps by the agreeable but empty rhetoric of her Anglican associates, "reception" describes the role of the faithful in the authoritative teachings of the Church. A solemn teaching of the magisterium, she says, is true, but it still needs some sort of ratification by the "Church of Christ": "'The assent of the faithful is the ultimate indication that the Church's authoritative decision in a matter of faith has been truly preserved from error by the Holy Spirit'" (p. 139, quoting from The Final Report of ARCIC). There is nothing wrong with the implication that the faith of the Church as a whole--"the assent of the faithful"--is a necessary part of any authoritative teaching by the hierarchy; where ARCIC goes wrong, and O'Gara with them, is in not recognizing the Catholic principle that the assent of the faith precedes the solemn definition.

Unlike theologians, the hierarchy does not to teach on their own; their commission is to articulate the universal faith of the entire Church. Her own example of the canon of Scripture (p. 83) illustrates the point, in that the Church as a whole gradually formed, recognized, and interpreted the sacred text. Only with the assault on Scripture launched by the Protestant Reformation did the hierarchy intervene: the canon of Scripture became defined doctrine for the first time in 1546, at a time when both the consensus of belief and the teaching authority were necessary to preserve Catholic truth.

Successors of Apostles

The basis of this error about "reception" is a neglect of the fundamental Catholic teaching that the bishops are successors of the Apostles, with the pope occupying a special place as Peter's successor. All the rhetoric--and there's lots of it in this book--about the importance of a teaching authority, of a centre for Christian unity, and even some recognition of the Bishop of Rome as that centre glosses over the fact that none of the agreed statements recognizes the apostolic succession of the bishops. But without that doctrine Catholicism would degenerate into the superficial unity and fragmented reality of Anglicanism and Lutheranism. The events and the aftermath of last summer's Lambeth Conference (1998) indicate that there is no effective teaching authority in Anglicanism, where each bishop, each vicar acts as his own pope. There has not been an authoritative teaching in Anglicanism or Lutheranism since the Reformation, nearly five hundred years ago. And yet they presume to lecture the Church on the pro per use of authority!

What Protestants, including Anglicans, want is a symbol of unity without any substance. That is why they complain about the "injustice" of Rome's gentle rebukes of Charles Curran, Agnes Mary Mansour, Hans Kung, and Bishop Hunthausen. But Catholicism sees unity as an essential mark of Christ's Church, and one that has never been lost. Where Protestantism claims that the fullness of truth is more important than unity, Catholicism knows that there can be no fullness of truth without unity. To this immediate and necessary implication of the Catholic understanding of the Church as sacramental O'Gara seems oblivious: "In fact, the ecumenical movement itself is a form of reception in which the divided communions within the one Church of Christ seek to receive gifts from each other in order to restore full visible unity" (p. 78).

O'Gara's book is an eloquent appeal for the Church to move into stage two when the current task is to move on to stage three. Without that final step there is a real danger that the relativism she decries but which is found in the Church and is endemic in her "Church of Christ" will prevent any significant union of Christians because real differences will be put aside as disturbing and irrelevant. The time has come for the bishops of Canada to reassign O'Gara to other work, allotting her place on ecumenical commissions to someone who is willing to argue as well as agree with his non-Catholic colleagues.

Where to go from here?

Where would O'Gara's skills and learning most benefit ecumenism? Hitherto her labours have been largely with liberal Protestantism. Strange as it may seem, however, her own principles are more in tune with those of Evangelical Protestantism, as she half recognizes herself by citing the success of her dialogue with the Disciples of Christ. She frequently states, for example, that the central doctrines of Christianity are not negotiable--the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the Trinity, and so forth--while the bans on contraception and the ordination of women are not binding because they have not been "received." Although she's too polite to do it, to be logical she would have to repudiate Anglicanism, e.g., for its harbouring clergy and theologians who reject doctrines high in the "hierarchy of truths" (a phrase from Vatican II she likes to invoke but, I would say, misapplies). Like her, Evangelical Protestants have maintained full allegiance to these truths, the "mere" Christianity of C.S. Lewis, at the same time as they tolerate a wide variety of opinion on matters outside the central core of belief; they also recognize the need for an authority to preserve these truths in the Church.

She would benefit in another way from continuing and expanding her contact with that vital sector of Protestantism. Her sources show a heavy reliance on liberal theologians. The narrowness and unadverted to intolerance of the liberal approach would be balanced if she were to focus her efforts on this other sector of "the Church of Christ." There her demonstrated skill in stage-two ecumenism would allow her to participate in a fruitful dialogue where a harvest much richer than anything in Anglicanism or Lutheranism stands unreaped because labourers are few.

Margaret O'Gara teaches theology at the Faculty of Theology, St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. The reviewer, Father Dan Callam, teaches theology at St. Thomas University, Houston, Texas. He is a priest of the Congregation of St. Basil, and an associate editor of Catholic Insight.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1999
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