Margaret O’Gara

Being a Global Church: Strengths and Challenges

July 12, 2002

I was asked to say something about the strengths and weaknesses of the Roman Catholic Church as it looks at the world today, but first let me introduce myself. I’m Margaret O’Gara. I teach theology at the Faculty of Theology at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto, which is a Roman Catholic faculty offering theological education to students who will be teaching, preaching or ministering within the Church. But I also do a lot of ecumenical work. I delight in doing official ecumenical work at the international and national levels. For many years I have been a member of both national and international Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogues, officially representing the Roman Catholic communion in them, and I am also a member of the Disciples of Christ-Roman Catholic international dialogue. So I’m delighted to be here and to learn about the Mennonite tradition and enter into a deeper understanding of how we can learn from each other and also bring each other gifts that I think we have to exchange.

I did something last fall which I’ve never done before: I served as a theological advisor to the delegation of the Canadian bishops attending the world Synod of bishops at the international level. They were in Rome for a month and they invited two theologians to assist them with advice as they met together to talk about their ministry, the ministry of the Bishops. Now, some of you know that the American bishops didn’t have any theological advisors with them; perhaps they thought they didn’t need them. But the Canadian bishops pride themselves on being consultative, so they proudly invited people to advise them and I was one of them. It was a very interesting and dramatic experience of communion at the world-wide level. So my first point is to say something about how that functions in the Roman Catholic Church and how I think it is a strength in linking the sacramental communion within the Roman Catholic Church with a commitment to peace and justice.

Of course, the time of the Synod made our stay in Rome very unusual. The Synod began 29 September 2001, right after the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center. We began the Synod with a beautiful liturgical celebration of the Eucharist in St. Peter’s Basilica; but a week after our arrival, the war in Afghanistan started. The Synod was held all during October, then, in the first weeks of the war activities.

After the bishops had given their speeches at the Synod, they were put into small dialogue group. Bishops from all over the world, in groups of ten or twelve, sat and talked together about what it means to be a bishop. It was a dramatic experience of communion and confrontation with the seriousness of the world situation. Here were all these bishops in one Church, celebrating the Eucharist together, but at the same time their countries were increasingly threatening to be at war with each other.

You remember how at the start of that war it seemed as though many nations perhaps would become increasingly involved, and all were being asked to choose: you’re either with the United States or against it. The bishops from the many countries found they were in communion together, but they realized that the countries of some were threatening to kill the children that others might be baptizing, to bomb the cities in another land where their brother bishops might be preaching to their congregations. It was a dramatic sense of the ambivalence, the preposterousness of their situation. The bishops were all in communion in one Church, but these bishops from many countries were also facing the possibility of their countries at war. In the middle of the Synod the cardinal from New York went home for a time to attend the liturgical service in memory of the victims of the World Trade Center disaster and shortly afterward the bishop from Islamabad, Pakistan, left permanently because it was feared that people from his diocese would be killed by random bombs or mistakes that might be made in Afghanistan. So the absurdity of the situation was very dramatic.

The Bishops were under tremendous pressure to condemn terrorism and they did that, but because of their recognition that the violence which led to terrorism had a deeper basis in injustice, they also spoke out against the injustices that lead to violence. I think that’s a classic Catholic teaching in our time: “If you want peace, work for justice.” In their Message, the bishops said that “some endemic evils, when they are too long ignored, can produce despair in entire populations.” They spoke against the injustice that leads to such despair and they spoke in detail about the poverty and structures of poverty with which the rich nations are complicit. I think that’s a good first example of a strength in the way the Roman Catholic communion links sacramental communion with its witness to justice and peace.

My second example is maybe a more difficult one and it is an example of a weakness in the Roman Catholic tradition, the one we’ve heard so much about for the past year: the sexual abuse crisis. We’ve been hearing a lot about the bishops. Now it’s not so surprising, perhaps, that some clergy have sinned, since lay people regularly sin as well. What’s perhaps more surprising is the lack of accountability that we saw in the way those sins were handled.

I think a serious problem in the Roman Catholic tradition does show itself in this crisis: a kind of lack of accountability by the bishops first of all to their own local church. Christopher Ruddy speaks about the lack of synodality, i.e., the lack of relationship within and among the local churches, which contributes to the sense of the bishop’s not really being called to account by members of the laity in his own church communion (America, 3-10 June 2002, pp. 9-10). Of course now lay people will be more involved; they will be required to be more involved in accountability, but the structures of accountability that should have been in place were lacking. Also lacking is a kind of accountability even among the bishops to each other. The Vatican sometimes makes such mutual accountability–which Catholics have discussed under the term “collegiality”–more difficult. It often in fact isolates the bishops from each other so that they operate as lone rangers. Lots of people say the Roman Catholic Church has too many structures, but in fact, it often has not enough structures, or it has the wrong structures. It needs more structures of accountability and I think that’s what came out, somewhat dramatically, in this sad crisis.

The lack of accountability structures has then forced the Bishops, as they’ve responded, to go almost to another extreme, sort of from laxity to harshness. But I think this response highlights a more basic difficulty in the Roman Catholic tradition and so it is one weakness that I lift out. That’s where Roman Catholics have something to learn from the Mennonite tradition of greater responsibility shared by the whole church together. Lack of accountability can mean that while we Roman Catholics commit ourselves to justice, Roman Catholic structures are sometimes unable to serve justice within our own church communion, thus putting us in a position of inner contradiction.

I have mentioned both a strength and a weakness in the Roman Catholic Church and its contemporary view of the world. I am convinced that Roman Catholics have gifts to offer and to receive in our dialogue with the Mennonite tradition.