Margaret O’Gara. No Turning Back


Margaret O’Gara. No Turning Back: The Future of Ecumenism.  Edit. By Michael Vertin.  Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014. (Kindle edition).


Margaret O'Gara

Margaret O’Gara

Those who are familiar with the ecumenical movement and the international dialogues sponsored by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity as well as the national bilateral dialogues in the United States and Canada usually know Margaret O’Gara. Her mother Joan and father James were active in the Catholic Worker movement in Chicago and James was the managing editor and later, editor-in-chief of Commonweal. Margaret and her sister Monica were raised in a household rich in dialogue, discussion and exchange of ideas.


At the age of eighteen Margaret decided she wanted to be a theologian and began her studies at Yale Divinity School. She earned her doctorate at Catholic University of America exploring the “minority bishops of France during the First Vatican Council”.[1] This study of the history and theology of the First Vatican Council provided her with the working tools for her eventual major area of theological work in ecumenism. Her book The Ecumenical Gift Exchange is a great contribution to the theological foundation and pastoral attitudes required by all Christians if the goal of full communion of all Christians is to be achieved.


The title for No Turning Back is taken from a hymn in the Mennonite tradition which originated in mid-nineteenth-century India with each stanza ending:

I have decided to follow Jesus.

No turning back, no turning back.


Michael Vertin

Michael Vertin

“Ecumenism is the collaborative effort of Christians to foster the visible unity of Jesus’ church. During Margaret’s more than three decades as a Roman Catholic ecumenical theologian she became convinced that there is no turning back from ecumenism for those who would follow Jesus today. Her conviction came from conclusions about Jesus’ desire for his church, fidelity of Christians to that desire thus far, and what fidelity requires of them going forward.” (M. Vertin. Editor’s Introduction)




Margaret O’Gara chose the content for this book which includes some of her most recent writing of which several were not yet published. She had organized the book some years earlier. She continued to work on its publication until she was unable to do so because of her illness with cancer during the last two years of her life. Her husband, Michael Vertin edited the work and updated some of the references.


Part One “Introducing the Ecumenical Perspective” introduces the reader to the broad picture of the ecumenical scene. The Church in today’s world and specifically in Canada begins the discussion. It is followed by the relationship between peacemaking and ecumenical progress. The discussion of the global and local church suggests the need for greater collegiality and subsidiarity in the Catholic Church together with the importance of a global view of things for churches that tend to be national or more locally focused. O’Gara particularly holds up what she has learned from the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in this matter. While Catholic theology has a well developed ecclesiology of the universal church, Lutheran theology focuses on the local parish and national scene.


The chapter on “Praying without Ceasing” emphasizes spiritual theology and the crucial role of prayer for ecumenical spirituality. Christian unity is God’s gift to receive. Our task is to gratefully receive that gift with open hearts and minds. We do not create Christian unity. God gives it to us when we pray.


The theological significance of friendship in ecumenical dialogue is the subject of the sixth chapter of the first part. Eucharistic sharing  follows and states that rather than a canonical or legal approach to the question, a generous and pastoral one would be more productive.


Part Two “Deepening the Ecumenical Perspective” of the work explores a deeper level than the first part. It uses the method of receptive ecumenism and the “gift exchange” which characterize O’Gara’s writing. Because her work on several international dialogues are quite different in their history, theology and focus, she sees these strengths and differences as gifts and involve complementary realities rather than conflicting theologies.


O’Gara explores the two great questions about papacy treated in Vatican I. Her doctoral dissertation specifically studied the minority bishops of France and their concern about infallible statements. Their effort and that of other Council fathers stressed the conditions under which such statements could be made. She noted on the other hand that little was said in the First Vatican Council about papal primacy and the conditions for its exercise.


In the chapter on Anglican Orders, O’Gara refers to recent studies on the intention of those ordaining and receiving orders in the Anglican Communion since the sixteenth century. The Final Report of ARCIC I shows a common understanding of ordination in the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion at this time.


O’Gara shows that she keeps abreast of developments “from the sidelines”, e.g. by examining the Lutheran-Anglican dialogues in the United States (Apostolic Succession) and Europe (Porvoo Agreement granting sharing of altar and pulpit). She does a fine job with scripture and tradition, divine law and teaching authority in the final chapters.




Margaret O’Gara’s contribution to the ecumenical movement over the past three decades has been deep and extensive. She has been committed to the Catholic Church and its efforts to promote Christian unity as well as a faithful lay person, theologian and ecumenist. Her standards in the classroom and lecture hall were very high. She was invited to international dialogues with Lutherans, Mennonites, Christian Church Disciples, and In Canada she was a consultant to the Canadian Bishops and in that capacity was invited to represent theologians at the Synod of Bishops at the Vatican. She  also served for a number of years on the Canadian Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue. She has spent her entire life teaching theology at St. Michael University in Toronto which encouraged her participation in these ecumenical conversations. O’Gara is past president of the North American Academy of Ecumenists and of the Catholic Theological Society of America.


O’Gara has an excellent theological grasp of the issues involved in the ecumenical dialogue. She is a careful listener and thoroughly enjoys the challenge of ecumenical theology. She is prayerful and deeply spiritual in her approach to the resolution of difficulties to Christian unity. She sees Christian unity as a gift of God, yet requiring a response which is honest, true and the result of open discussion and respect for those involved in the dialogue process. Spiritual ecumenism, she repeats with Vatican II, is  the soul of the ecumenical movement.[2]



[1] Margaret O’Gara. Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I and the French Minority Bishops. Washington: The Catholic University of America, 1988.

[2] “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name, “spiritual ecumenism.”  Vatican II. Unitatis Redintegratio #8.