Papacy is a 'gift' but needs repair, leading ecumenist says


The papacy is a “gift” of the Catholic church to other Christians, a leading Catholic ecumenist said this morning, but it needs “repair” before those other Christians are likely to accept it.

Specifically, Margaret O’Gara of the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto called for a papacy that’s “less centralized, less authoritarian, and more respectful of the diversity of local churches.”

O’Gara, the outgoing president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, delivered the concluding Presidential Address at the CTSA annual convention this morning in Miami. O’Gara is a longtime veteran of ecumenical conversations with a variety of Christian denominations.

O’Gara said she has been struck by the readiness of other Christian churches to embrace the papacy, citing a statement from the Anglican/Roman Catholic dialogue that the papacy is “part of God’s design for the church” and from the Lutheran/Catholic dialogue in the United States that the pope can function as a spokesperson for the gospel at the world level.

Pope John Paul II, O’Gara said, was an “engaging figure” for many Protestants, Orthodox and Anglicans, who admired his strong stands on issues such as abortion and war, his commitment to evangelization, and his capacity to project a Christian voice in global debates. At the same time, she said, John Paul’s pontificate left behind “a mixed heritage” ecumenically.

O’Gara cited eight motives for that ambivalence:

1.tThe Synod of Bishops remained merely advisory to the pope;
2.tThe authority of episcopal conferences was restricted;
3.tA Vatican document on “Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion” asserted that the Petrine ministry is “interior to every fully local church”;
4.tThe Vatican document Dominus Iesus said that some Protestant and Anglican bodies aren’t really “churches”;
5.tCardinals Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper carried out a debate over whether the local or universal church has priority;
6.tThe term from Vatican II that the church “subsists” in Catholicism was understood to mean that it exists fully only in Catholicism;
7.tThe ban on women’s ordination was declared definitive;
8.tThe volume of papal teaching raised questions about its authority, and what role it would play in sister churches if present divisions could be overcome.

In light of all this, O’Gara argued, the papacy must be reformed “in a more pastoral way, in a less centralized way, in a way that defends the diversity of the local churches” before it can serve the cause of Christian unity.

Concretely, O’Gara made two suggestions.

First, she suggested remedying what she called a confusion between papal infallibility and papal primacy, with the latter referring to the pope’s regular business of governance. Quoting the theologian Klaus Schatz, she said that primacy is too often treated as a sort of “ersatz infallibility,” so that even routine administration seems like an exercise of infallibility.

Second, she proposed reconsidering what she called the “classicist” language used buy the First Vatican Council in the 19th century to formulate the dogma of infallibility. Rephrasing the teaching in a more historically-minded fashion, she said, could make it less threatening to other Christians.

“Rather than appearing as an unchanging grasp of the truth, infallibility could be reinterpreted as the process through which, over time, the church discerns core teachings of the gospel for its age and culture,” she said.

Doing this, O’Gara said, will require some generosity on the Catholic side.

“Some Catholics don’t want to reform the papacy so that it can be shared with others,” O’Gara said. “They want it all to themselves, as a sign of their ‘identity.’” She challenged Catholics “to be willing, not just to keep wrapping [the papacy] up and offering it, but to do the hard work of reforming it first.”

O’Gara styled her address as a reflection on “old business” and “new business” in the ecumenical enterprise.

In the first category, O’Gara cited a number of areas where she said ecumenical dialogue over the last half-century has reached surprising breakthroughs: mutual recognition of baptism, the real and unique presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the church as communion, the need for a universal ministry by the pope, and acceptance of different forms of devotion to Mary.

All this, she said, reflects John Paul II’s insight in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint that sometimes “intolerant polemics and controversies have made incompatible assertions out of what was really the result of two different ways of looking at the same reality.”

At the same time, O’Gara complained that many of the agreements worked out in ecumenical dialogues have yet to be officially ratified and implemented by participating churches. Instead, she said, they “remain stacked up on the sidelines, gathering dust, as our churches procrastinate in their next steps.”

Under new business, O’Gara cited a number of areas where the various Christian denominations seem to be growing apart, including moral questions such as homosexuality and same-sex marriage, as well as doctrinal matters such as women’s ordination.

While acknowledging the importance of such questions, O’Gara warned against exaggerating their importance. She cited a tongue-in-cheek comment from the late German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner about occasionally sensing a “neurotic fear that we may be in agreement.”

O’Gara offered two concrete examples of new issues on the ecumenical agenda. First, she said, many Evangelicals are troubled by the Catholic church’s post-Vatican II emphasis on the possibility that non-Catholics and non-Christians can be saved. Second, other Christians disagree with Catholicism’s position on the ordination of women.

Without entering into the merits of those positions, O’Gara simply observed that neither were matters of dispute at the time of the Protestant Reformation. Protestants didn’t call women to ordained ministry in the 16th century, and Luther said that the native peoples of the New World would go to Hell because they had never heard of Christ.

O’Gara also pointed to new difficulties arising from pursuing dialogue in a globalized world, in which fault lines are not merely confessional but often cultural.

She pointed, for example, to her African students, who applaud the way Western Christians oppose abortion but are “scandalized” by the way they abandon their elderly in nursing homes. She said some Hispanic Catholics are ambivalent about ecumenism because their primary experience of Protestants is with fundamentalists whose interest is not dialogue but proselytism.

O’Gara also described her experience more than 20 years ago with her first Protestant student from China. After carefully describing the differences between medieval Catholicism and Luther on the Eucharist, O’Gara said, this student replied: “But in our church in China we hold both of those positions.”

All these questions, she said, will have to be taken up by a new generation of ecumenists. Doing do, she said, is essential “if we are to retain our Catholic identity.”

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here