- No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism by Margaret O’Gara
Margaret O’Gara was passionately ecumenical. She was also deeply and faithfully Roman Catholic; the second assertion explains the first. O’Gara came by her particular brand of humane and socially progressive Catholicism honestly, being the daughter of Joan Smith and James O’Gara, the latter serving for many years as editor of Commonweal. Around Margaret, you felt you were never far from the church of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. She carried on that great tradition somewhat ‘‘in exile’’ by moving to Toronto, where she enjoyed a distinguished thirty-six-year teaching career at St. Michael’s College until her death from cancer in 2012. She was an indefatigable soldier in the ecumenical cause, serving on major national or international dialogues between the Roman Catholic Church and Anglicans, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, evangelicals, and Mennonites.
Margaret was one of the real leaders within the (systematic) theological faculty of the Toronto School of Theology. During her tenure as department chair she ran meetings crisply, efficiently, but also graciously. There was a no-nonsense character to Margaret that we all appreciated. Her attitude to jobs was that they should get done. I had the rare privilege of co-teaching a doctoral seminar with her on the theologies of Karl Barth, on whom I’d written my dissertation, and Margaret’s beloved Karl Rahner. She demanded a great deal from students, insisting that they back up their claims with arguments from the texts, and that they read their authors charitably and generously. I sometimes felt Margaret’s generosity extended too far: I had to work hard to convince her that Barth’s and Rahner’s positions on some matters were simply incompatible, whereas—ever the ecumenist—she was inclined to see mere variation within a common Christocentric faith. There was also a scholastic side to her (as there is in Rahner) that could never quite ‘‘get’’ the Protestant penchant for writing theology that sounds so much like first-order proclamation and, at times, polemics. One day in class she turned to me and said, ‘‘Why is he [Barth] always so angry?’’ Barth is not always angry, of course, but she had correctly put her finger on a potential weakness in his thought. [End Page 282]
O’Gara’s virtues as a thinker and writer are on full display in No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism, edited by her husband and St. Michael’s colleague Michael Vertin. The first part of the book, ‘‘Introducing the Ecumenical Perspective,’’ consists of essays and addresses of a more popular nature, which show the true professional’s ability to speak in a serious yet accessible way to non-specialists. Several of these pieces deal with what may be called the spirituality of ecumenism: ‘‘Pray without Ceasing’’ and ‘‘Friendship in the Ecumenical Movement: Its Theological Significance.’’ The short essay ‘‘Christ’s Church Local and Global’’ neatly summarizes basic issues swirling around this perennial ecclesiological question. It also shows O’Gara in her dual role as both faithful critic of her own church and interpreter of its positions to others. Why, for instance, did the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issue a document in 2007 insisting once again that Protestant and Anglican communities are not really ‘‘churches’’? O’Gara notes the needless difficulties and obscurities of this text, while also calling attention to its unexpectedly generous reading of Vatican ii’s subsistit in: despite Protestants and Anglicans not being churches per se, they participate in the one church subsisting in Rome. The document, then, was more complex than a first reading might lead one to think. O’Gara’s careful situating of the text helps us be better readers. She was always teaching, even when not in the classroom.
The book’s second part, ‘‘Deepening the Ecumenical Perspective,’’ consists of essays written for a scholarly audience. The essay ‘‘Understanding Vatican i on Papal Primacy’’ shows O’Gara returning to ground she explored in...