Some (basically) positive suggestions on the Papacy in Ecumenical Dialogue

John Allen reports in NCR on a speech given by Margaret O’Gara of the University of St. Michael’s College (and the outgoing president of the Catholic Theological Society of America) on the future of the papacy in ecumenical dialogue.

I think her talk is basically positive, and I certainly agree with some of her statements, such as her acknowledgement of

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.

Some problems facing the ecumenical dialogue that need to be overcome include

what she called a confusion between papal infallibility and papal primacy, with the latter referring to the pope’s regular business of governance

and the fact 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.”

She also points, very realistically, to the

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. …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.

And, on a humourous note that rather appeals to me, I do approve her citation of Karl Rahner’s quip about occasionally sensing a “neurotic fear that we may be in agreement.”

But she does cite a list of issues that she sees as ecumenically problematical and basically negative outcomes over the last decade or so that she believes indicates areas for reformation in the exercise of papal primacy:

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

It is hard to see how any of these except for 1 and 2 actually relate to the exercise of papal primacy. Issues 3-7 directly relate to the Church’s understanding of her essential nature rather than to the way in which the primacy is itself is exercised. No. 8 partly arises out of the fact that in this information age, the papacy is able to exercise its regular teaching office far more effectively than at any time in the past and the fact that we have had, in the last three popes (Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI) outstanding teachers of the faith sitting on the chair of Peter. But this list is really an example of the way in which the Petrine ministry of unity involves

“keeping watch” (episkopein), like a sentinel, so that, through the efforts of the Pastors, the true voice of Christ the Shepherd may be heard in all the particular Churches. (Ut Unum Sint, 94)

And so it is apparent that if the papal office did not have “the power and the authority” that belong to it by its very nature “such an office [of maintaining unity in the Church] would be illusory.” (UUS 94) The power and the authority of Papal Office exists precisely so that, presiding

in truth and love…the ship—that beautiful symbol which the World Council of Churches has chosen as its emblem— will not be buffeted by the storms and will one day reach its haven.

I would suggest too that O’Gara could have done well to cite the example of how the papal primacy is exercised in the 21 non-Roman rites in communion with the Holy See. At the same time, she should have pointed to John Paul II’s own invitation to our separated brethren and sistern

that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned. This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. 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 on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)? (Ut Unum Sint, 96)

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4 Responses to Some (basically) positive suggestions on the Papacy in Ecumenical Dialogue

  1. Past Elder says:

    Which we cannot refuse?

    What is this, The Godfather?

    Pig’s. We most certainly can refuse as Petrine in any way an office once held by the Emperor of Rome and now held by the Bishop of Rome.

    And when the Bishop of Rome refuses it, we’ll have something to talk about.

  2. Schütz says:

    Tempting though it was, I have chosen not to delete your most gracious and erudite comment upon O’Gara’s serious and thoughtful speech…

    Because I assume you are referring to the title “Pontifex Maximus”?

    I have heard many good sermons (even while a Lutheran) pointing out the appropriateness of a title such as “Pontifex” — bridgebuilder — for one in the office of the Holy Ministry.

    One surely should not prejudice any title by judging it according to those who held that title before hand? Why, many people (some not entirely honourable) held the title “Pastor” before Our Lord claimed to be the “Good Pastor”. And just because our Lord is the only true Lord and pastor, doesn’t stop us from addressing our own fathers in the faith as “Herr Pastor”.

    And what about the title “Lord”? Was that not an office “once held by the Emperor of Rome”? And yet another came to fill its place.

    The ancient Church Fathers were keenly aware that prophecy was not restricted to the Jewish or Christian faiths. They believed that God sometimes spoke (for eg.) through the Sybill also. For instance the “Dies irae, dies illa” was foretold by “David cum Sibylla”. So also, that there was an office called “Pontifex Maximus” was no less prophetic than that there was an office in Judaism called “High Priest”.

    Further to that, is there not a sense in which every bishop is not only “high priest”, but “pontifex maximus” among his clergy and in his diocese?

    And why are we dismayed that the pagan priesthood has been superceded by the Christian priesthood? Only irrational fundamentalists would argue we shouldn’t put up Christmas Trees because they were originally pagan, or have Easter Eggs for the same reason. For the old has gone, and the new has come. The new is not like the old, but is entirely a new creation. Nevertheless it hatches out of the shell that was there before it.

    Your problem in this area speaks more to me of what kind of Christianity you want than any other protestation you have formerly brought to bear. You want a Christianity detached from all religion that preceded it, from all natural human feeling, which denies that anything good or wholesome might exist except for your Christianity.

    Sorry, now I am rambling. I will stop.

  3. Past Elder says:

    There’s just one small difference. God established the office of High Priest in Judaism; he did not establish the office of pontifex maximus in the Roman state religion. So yes, it is considerably less prophetic, in fact, not prophetic at all, but rather one of the many ways in which Man sought what Man cannot attain but only God grant. That is the universal spiritual insight of Man — there is something greater than we, and we are not fully in synch with it. Prophecy is that by which God led Man to the salvation in Jesus, not Man’s doomed to fail efforts to attain it on his own, or apart from Christ. What did Paul do? Recast Christ in terms of Greek religion (well, yes, some allege) but rather point out their natural aspirations and then deliver the Good News they never suspected.

    When I was a Catholic, I thought it one of the major signs of the truth of Christianity that the earthly power by which Christ was crucified, the Emperor of Rome, was now supplanted by the godly power proclaiming his resurrection, the Bishop of Rome. That the language is which his death sentence was pronounced legally, Latin, was now the language in which the sacrament of his body and blood was celebrated all over the world.

    Now it appears that gradually the Roman church simply took on the forms and attitude of the state religion it replaced, the Roman Empire having the last laugh, not Christianity, until the Reformation which began as it had to outside the former secure boundaries of the Empire and among the “Huns”.

    I don’t believe I said a word about Christmas Trees or Easter Eggs. It appears the urge to “doctrinally develop” attaches to everything the Roman mind encounters!

  4. M. M. Regan says:

    “Further to that, is there not a sense in which every bishop is not only “high priest”, but “pontifex maximus” among his clergy and in his diocese?”

    A Bishop is a Pontiff, the Pope is the Supreme Pontiff.

    “the Roman church simply took on the forms and attitude of the state religion it replaced”

    ‘took on’ (or conquered) some of the ‘forms’, yes. But so what?

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