Catholic Education and Life Down Under

An interview with Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Tracey Rowland is Dean and Associate Professor of Political Philosophy and Continental Theology at the John Paul II Institute (Melbourne), a member of the Centre for Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, and a member of the editorial board of the English-language edition of Communio, founded, among others, by Joseph Ratzinger. She is the author of Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (2003), Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Benedict XVI (2008), and, most recently, Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010). Catholic World Report interviewed her recently about the John Paul II Institute, the writings and thought of Blessed John Paul II, and the state of Catholicism in Australia.

CWR: Thirty years ago this October, Blessed John Paul II issued the apostolic constitution Magnum Matrimonii Sacramentum, promulgating the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, which today has campuses all over the world. What specific hopes and goals did he have for the institute?

Tracey Rowland: Blessed John Paul II hoped that the institute could undertake the academic work needed to defend marriage and family life. Most dioceses have pastoral agencies to help struggling families, but in the post-1968 intellectual climate it was no longer a simple case of providing pastoral support, but of intellectually defending the whole notion of marriage as something worthwhile in itself. 

Extensive research also needed to be undertaken in the ancillary fields of bioethics, sexuality education, natural family planning, taxation policies, and secularism. One could say that the mission of the institute was to undertake the intellectual work needed to promote a culture of life and a civilization of love.

CWR: This past summer marked the 10th anniversary of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Melbourne. How did the institute come to be established in Australia? What has been your involvement with the school? 

Rowland: As far back as the 1980s there were Australian Catholics who hoped that an institute would be founded in Australia as one had been founded in Washington, DC.  Monsignor (now Bishop) Peter Elliott was then working for the Pontifical Council for the Family and doing his best to encourage the idea in Rome. Dr. Joseph Santamaria, a Melbourne Catholic doctor, Dr. Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a Melbourne-based bioethicist, and Father Anthony Fisher, OP (now the bishop of the Diocese of Parramatta) were also promoting the idea. 

After he was appointed the archbishop of Melbourne in 1996, Dr. George Pell made the establishment of an Australian session a major priority. He sent Father Fisher and Dr. Hayden Ramsay to Rome to liaise with the then-Rector Magnificus of the Lateran University, Bishop Angelo Scola. Bishop Scola made a feasibility visit to Melbourne, and Archbishop Pell rounded up young Catholic scholars (potential faculty members) to present to him. The meeting took the form of a discussion around an academic paper. Bishop Scola concluded that we were worth the risk and the institute was established.

I was appointed to the position of dean since I was one of the few people about who could speak Scola’s theological dialect. When I was working on my doctorate I read quite a lot of von Balthasar and Ratzinger (who of course were intellectual heroes of Scola), and I was thus able to decode Scola and transpose his ideas into something close to plain English. It was thought that we needed someone on the faculty who could do this, given that Scola would be our superior in Rome.

Now, a decade later, Angelo Scola is the cardinal archbishop of Milan and former patriarch of Venice. He is also, according to the London Tablet, the “Crown Prince of Catholicism.” Certainly he is close to the top of any short list of papabile

Apart from dealing with the typical “dean’s desk” range of issues, my work for the institute has focused on the theology of culture area—that is, on analyzing trends in contemporary culture from a theological perspective—and on issues in theological anthropology. I have also written two books on the theology of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI in which I have sought to outline his key theological interests and relate them to the central objectives of the pontificate of John Paul II.

The most important books in the field of theological anthropology for the work of the institute are Angelo Scola’s The Nuptial Mystery, Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s Divine Likeness: Towards a Trinitarian Anthropology of the Family, the Trinitarian encyclicals of John Paul II, the Wednesday audience Catechesis on Human Love of John Paul II (popularly marketed as his “theology of the body”), and Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est, in which he deals with the relationship between eros and agape.

CWR: What programs and degrees are available through the institute? And what are some of the essential characteristics—intellectual, theological, spiritual—of the education received from the institute?

Rowland: The curriculum of the institute has three inter-related streams: a marriage and family stream, a bioethics stream, and a religious education stream. There are graduate certificates, graduate diplomas, and master’s degrees available in the marriage and family and the bioethics streams, the graduate certificate and the graduate diploma are available in the religious education stream, and the master’s of sacred theology (the civil equivalent of the S.T.L.) is available in the marriage and family stream. The Ph.D. degree is offered in any area of theology, philosophy, or the social sciences which has some connection to the defense of the institution of the family or the sanctity of human life. These courses are all accredited by the civil authorities.

One aspect of the curriculum which has proven to be highly popular with students is that attention is given to the historical background of theological disputes. For example, when examining the Church’s teaching on contraception, attention is paid to the whole history of the debate in the 1960s, including the so-called Majority and Minority Reports, the response of various prominent theologians of the time, the sociological changes of the 1960s (especially the improvement in educational opportunities for women), the Latin quarter riots in Paris, and the effect of the Vietnam War on attitudes to authority. In short, doctrines are never plucked out of encyclicals and served up cold.

Dr. Gerard O’Shea is in charge of the religious education stream and is a leading authority on the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. His project has been described as one of synthesizing elements of Montessori teaching methodology with Thomistic epistemology and an interest in the role that the transcendentals of truth, beauty, and goodness play in the spiritual formation of children. This approach to catechesis in the 3-9 age-group requires classrooms to have model cities of Jerusalem and model altars where children can play with sheep, camels, donkeys, palm trees, chalices, ciboria, and figurines of biblical characters. Children who have been through this course tend to have a map of Jerusalem with all the sacred places etched into their memory and a good knowledge of what happens at each moment of the Eucharistic Rite. The methodology follows the sequence of first interest the senses, then inflame the heart with wonder and love, and then fit it altogether intellectually with the Church’s teaching. Many parents are coming to the institute to learn about the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.

Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini manages the suite of bioethics subjects. He is a leading Australian public intellectual, which means that he is the “rabbit” who has to go on television and field questions about IVF technologies, gay marriages, and the usual list of difficult-to-handle topics. One special feature of his classes is that he teaches students how to work as members of bioethics committees in circumstances where they will be a minority voice. 

Our students represent quite a broad range of spiritual traditions and new ecclesial movements. At any given time around 90 percent of the student body is made up of lay students in the 25-40 age bracket. 

We have a number of international students, mostly from countries in Southeast Asia, but we also attract students from other British Commonwealth countries, particularly Canada and Singapore. We try to prevent them from feeling homesick by making sure that we have celebrations on their national feast days. 

Blessed John Paul II decreed that Our Lady of Fatima was to be the patroness of the institute, so May 13 is always a day of student celebrations.

CWR: There is, as you well know, quite a bit of interest among Catholics about Blessed John Paul II’s theology of the body. What are some teachings by John Paul II that might not have yet received much attention and have yet to be explored and “unpacked” for wider audiences? 

Rowland: The theology of the body teaching is one aspect of his overall plan for the promotion of a civilization of love. It’s an important plank in the ship, but the whole corpus of his pontifical encyclicals contains fresh theological insights across a range of fronts. My personal favorites are the Trinitarian encyclicals: Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia, and Dominum et Vivificantem. They each deal with the relationship between the human person and one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. People often speak of the Trinitarian Christocentrism of John Paul II. Whereas Immanuel Kant claimed that whether there are three persons in the Trinity or 10 makes no difference to the practice of the Christian faith, John Paul II clearly had a different outlook.

The encyclicals Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae are also at the core of the renewal of moral theology. They offer a very different understanding of goodness from what my colleague Professor Tonti-Filippini calls “tax lawyer moralism”—the practice of treating morality as a set of rules to be lived around and thus implicitly denying the commandment to love that creates the moral obligations in the first place.

CWR: To put things rather broadly, it seems that Catholicism in Europe is fatigued and fading, while Catholicism in the US is conflicted and in conflict. How would you describe the state of Catholicism in Australia? What do you think the next five to 10 years hold for the Church there? 

Rowland: Catholicism in Australia is in much the same state as Catholicism in America. Over the next two years there will be a large number of new bishops appointed to replace the retiring Vatican II generation. The future of the Church in Australia strongly depends on the quality of those appointments. One recent appointment was to the rural diocese of Armidale. Bishop Michael Kennedy had only been consecrated a week when he contacted the institute to see if we could deploy a member of our faculty to give some professional development seminars to the teachers in his schools. 

In some Australian dioceses there is a flourishing youth movement. It is not uncommon in Sydney for lectures organized by university student chaplains to attract crowds of up to 800 undergraduates and young professionals. 

In addition to the extensive network of student chaplaincies staffed by people who actually support the teachings of the Church, there is also Campion Liberal Arts College, which offers the B.A. degree, and there is the presence of a large number of young religious at the Sydney campus of the University of Notre Dame. 

Thus, while Church attendance numbers are still very bleak, and the Catholic schools’ curricula still in need of major reforms, at least at the level of Catholic tertiary education there have been significant improvements in the past decade which should start to bear fruit over the next. As a result of initiatives like the foundation of the institute in Melbourne, and of Campion College and the University of Notre Dame, the new generation of bishops should find that they have a pool of professional laity upon whom to draw support. 

There is also a movement in some dioceses to revive parochial life by having communities of religious move into the moribund suburban parishes. Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne recently moved the Capuchin Friars into such an inner-city parish with great success, and Bishop Fisher’s Diocese of Parramatta (which takes in the population growth corridor of Western Sydney) is booming with young religious. Meanwhile the rural Diocese of Wagga Wagga continues to produce healthy numbers of priests. It was the first diocese to attempt seminary reform in the 1980s. Archbishop Coleridge has recently been moved from Canberra-Goulburn to Brisbane to sort out the pastoral disaster zone of South-East Queensland, and Bishop Timothy Costelloe, SDB has been deployed from Melbourne to the Archdiocese of Perth to continue Archbishop Hickey’s heroic stewardship in the West. 

The Diocese of Lismore has been in the hands of Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett, an Anglican convert and one of the most urbane members of the entire Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. He has also encouraged a healthy number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. For those from a similar background, the Anglican Ordinariate will be established in Australia in June this year. It is hoped that at least one “gift” which these Catholics of Anglican heritage will bring is improved liturgical standards. Many suburban parishes still offer no alternative to 1970s-style sacro-pop.  

In the crocodile-infested wetlands of the Northern Territory the task of dealing with the problems of people living in remote communities falls to Bishop Eugene Hurley. If anyone could come up with creative, non-bureaucratic and Christ-centered solutions to their problems, Bishop Hurley could. In an area that requires some lateral thinking and an ability to liaise directly with the people at the coal-face, his appointment was an inspired choice.

Overall the situation is improving, but in some states, such as Queensland and Tasmania, the devastation (judged by practicing rates and clergy numbers) has been extensive. The vibrant orders of religious and new ecclesial communities will need to be invited into these areas to lead the work of renewal and rekindle hope.

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