A “Down Under” Perspective on the International Theological Commission

The Australian theologian and author Tracey Rowland discusses synods, cardinals, popes, theological issues—and being called a “strawberry” by Pope Francis.

Professor Tracey Rowland is the Dean and Permanent Fellow of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia. In 2003, she published Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II, establishing herself as a bold, fresh voice in international Catholic theological circles. A member of the editorial board of the North American edition of Communio: International Catholic Review, she is also the author of Ratzinger’s Faith and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed. Last September, Pope Francis appointed her to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s International Theological Commission.

Recently, she spoke with CWR about her recent appointment and her work with Australia’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. She also shared her thoughts about the forthcoming 2015 Synod of Bishops, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, Cardinal Pell, the Church in Australia, and other topics.

CWR: In September, Pope Francis made new appointments to the International Theological Commission (ITC). Could you tell us about the ITC and its current projects?

Professor Tracey Rowland: The International Theological Commission was created after the Second Vatican Council in the late 1960s. It comprises 30 members all of whom are professional theologians. The appointments are for 5 years and during those 5 years the theologians work on producing 3 documents covering topics of current theological significance. The three topics for the next 5 years are: (1), synodality, (2) faith and sacraments and (3) religious freedom.

CWR: Synodality seems to be very important to Pope Francis. Already, he has called two Synods of Bishops. And, he has asked the Orthodox to help us understand better the role of syodality in the life of the Church. Was the topic of synodality proposed by Pope Francis himself? As a theologian, what do you make of his sense of synodality? Why do you think it is an important issue for the ITC to discuss?

Rowland: Synods of Bishops are nothing new in the life of the Church. They were held during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI as well. None of the topics was proposed by Pope Francis. The topics were chosen by the members of the ITC themselves.

I really haven’t any insightful comments to make about the pope’s sense of synodality. There has been a lot of media interest in it, and people blogging about it, but papal commentary in the present era reminds me very much of Kremlin commentary during the Cold War. Instead of referring to documents or books where people spell out their ideas, in this instance there is no body of work from which to quote. All one can do is to draw inferences from actions and reactions and social data like who the Pope invited to lunch. That’s shaky ground and I would rather remain on the more solid ground of academic work.

CWR: Five women were among the September appointments, including you and Sister Prudence Allen (USA). Was this the first time women were appointed to the ITC?

Rowland: No, it was not the first time, it just got a lot of publicity, especially after the pope referred to us as the ‘strawberries on the cake’ of the Commission. My in-box almost melted down after that.

CWR: What do the newly appointed female members of the ITC have in common? What distinguishes them? Did Pope Francis choose women with identical theological outlooks and perspectives?

Rowland: Pope Francis signs off on the appointments, so they are made by his authority and under his name, but I am quite sure he didn’t sit around his office pawing through CV’s. Some secretary or secretaries would have done this and presented him with a list of recommendations and options. The five of us women all love the Church and share the same faith but we have different areas of academic expertise. Moira McQueen is a bioethicist with a strong background in law, Sr Alenka Arko is a patristics scholar, Sr Prudence Allen is a world class authority on the philosophy of gender, Marianne Schlosser lectures in spirituality and my areas are theological anthropology and political theory. Three of us are consecrated women and two of us are married. Moira has seven children and Pope Francis gave her a separate set of rosary beads for each of them.

One of the most delightful aspects of being a Commission member is that I have an opportunity to make new friends from all over the world and collaborate with people of extraordinary intellectual ability and spiritual depth. I have also been introduced to the Vatican cat. His name is Zoro because he has a black patch across one eye. I was told by Archbishop Gänswein that while Zoro does not live with Pope Benedict he is nonetheless a frequent visitor to Pope Benedict’s monastery in the Vatican gardens.

CWR: In 2003, you authored Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II. Upon its publication, your book was widely discussed among theologians and philosophers alike. Do you think that Thomism, the philosophy and theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, has a role today in the discussions of the ITC? Does the thought of the Church’s Common Doctor factor into the pontificate of Pope Francis?

Rowland: In the discussions of the ITC the entire intellectual treasury of the Church is brought into play. The thought of St. Thomas is a part of that treasury. I think the general approach is to take a deep look at contemporary theological problems, consider them in the context of the whole intellectual treasury of the Church, and then offer some advice drawn from a number of different sources, which may or may not include the thought of St. Thomas, depending on the topic. For example, I am currently working on the religious freedom sub-committee. The history of Thomist political theory is relevant here but it is not the only relevant consideration.

CWR: According to some, religious freedom is under attack here in the United States. In 2010, Francis Cardinal George of the Archdiocese of Chicago told his priests that “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” Are there American theologians involved in the work of the sub-committee on religious freedom? And, aside from the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, what other treasures of the Church’s intellectual patrimony are being brought into the purview of the sub-committee?

Rowland: The sub-committee has just begun its work so it is too soon to talk about intellectual sources but of course one needs to understand the theology underpinning documents like Dignitatis Humanae in order to do any work on religious freedom. One also needs a very extensive knowledge of the history of Liberal political theory.

There are no Americans on this sub-committee though there are two of us who live in English speaking countries and we are very much aware of Cardinal George’s concerns. I have had the privilege of meeting Cardinal George on a number of occasions and each time I have been in awe of his depth of understanding of issues which lie at the intersection of political philosophy and theology.

CWR: In addition to your work with the ITC, you are the Dean and Permanent Fellow of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Melbourne, Australia. Were you involved in Australia’s experience of the Third Extraordinary Synod on the Family? Will you be involved in the forthcoming Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops next autumn?

Rowland: The Institute in Melbourne made a submission to the Synod of 2014 and will do so again for 2015.

CWR: Could you tell us more about the 2014 submission of the Institute in Melbourne? How was it structured? Was it well received?

Rowland: We just answered the questions one by one. I have no idea of how it was received because, of course, there is no feed-back mechanism.

CWR: You are a scholar of the thought of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI. Recently, there was a lot of discussion about the Pope Emeritus’ position on the admission of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to sacramental communion. Some argue that a recent edition of his sacramental writings suggest his opposition to a change in current Church practice. Could you comment on this issue?

Rowland: In 1972 Fr Ratzinger as he was made a few short comments about this issue and thought that there might be some situations where exceptions could be found to the general principles. He did not analyze the issue in any depth. However as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith he opposed ideas which now go under the banner of the ‘Kasper project’ and was supported in this judgment by St. John Paul II. I understand from media reports that these comments of 1972 were not included in his recent official collected works publications.

CWR: Do you take these editions as a clear sign that the Pope Emeritus would be opposed to any change in the Church’s practice? Is there evidence in this theological output that he considers a change in the practice impossible?

Rowland: I don’t like to speak on behalf of popes or put words into their mouths. All I can say from the point of view of someone who knows something about the history of theological ideas in the 20th century is that Joseph Ratzinger and Walter Kasper generally live on different theological planets. Over the decades they have often been in intellectual dispute, especially in the territory of ecclesiology.

CWR: In your opinion, what do you think will be Pope Benedict XVI’s lasting contribution to the intellectual life of the Church?

Rowland: I have written thousands of words on that topic and to do it justice one really needs at least 10,000 words. However, in brief, I think he will eventually be declared a Doctor of the Church. I think he and St John Paul II are two of the best educated pontiffs in history. He held professorial chairs in theology at the Universities of Bonn, Münster, Tübingen and Regensburg. He was fluent in five modern languages and could read classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew. In 1992 he was appointed as an associate member of the prestigious Academie francaise in the section for moral and political sciences. Membership of this august academic body is of such significance that the French refer to its members as les immortals – the academic gods as it were.

Joseph Razinger also attended the Second Vatican Council as an expert theological advisor, or peritus, to Cardinal Frings of Cologne. He made a highly significant contribution to the drafting of the document Dei Verbum. He has published over 60 books and numerous documents during his term of office as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, and President of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission. He did not produce a systematic theology of his own, in the manner of Karl Rahner, but rather wrote about various theological ‘trouble spots’. Already scholars are mining his publications for insights on how to tackle contemporary intellectual problems such as the relationship between logos and ethos.

CWR: Wasn’t he involved in the founding of the journal Communio, as well? What was the mission of that journal? Does it have a voice at the discussion table of the ITC?

Rowland: Yes, Joseph Ratzinger was one of the founders of the Communio journal. The other two ‘big name’ founders were Henri de Lubac and Hans Urs von Balthasar. The Mission was to undertake theological research with reference to the Conciliar documents applying what Ratzinger called a ‘hermeneutic of reform’ rather than a ‘hermeneutic of rupture’. The hermeneutic of reform acknowledges that there were areas in the theological life of the Church that were in need of reform. For example, one desire of the Council fathers was that the Church’s presentation of moral teaching be placed on solid Christological foundations. That has been a reform, reflected in documents like Veritatis Splendor. The hermeneutic of rupture, in contrast, tends to read the year 1965 as a kind of theological Year 0. Of course, scholars debate whether particular theological proposals represent a legitimate reform or an illegitimate revolution.

I think there are many ITC members who would be broadly sympathetic to the work undertaken by scholars associated with the Communio journal, but I can’t claim to have taken any kind of poll.

CWR: During your time at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, did you collaborate closely with Cardinal George Pell? What do you think he will bring to his new role as the Prefect of the Vatican’s Secretariat of the Economy?

Rowland: Cardinal Pell was only in Melbourne for about the first month of my employment at the Institute. He was moved to Sydney which is the Primatial See in Australia, although Melbourne is the larger archdiocese and for much of our history it has been the center of Catholic intellectual life in Australia. The rivalry between the two cities is intense. Cardinal Pell once publicly said that Melbourne was like a cashmere cardigan and that Sydney was more like a pair of hot pants. Other people have suggested that Melbourne is more like Boston and Sydney is more like San Francisco.

When Cardinal Pell moved to Sydney there was a significant brain drain from Melbourne. At last count some 21 Catholic scholars moved from Melbourne to Sydney to take employment in his many projects to revitalize Catholic intellectual life in Sydney. He is a prelate who understands the social power of ideas and he put a lot of money and energy into the Catholic youth of Sydney, knowing that the future of the Church in Australia rests to a high degree on their shoulders. If they don’t know enough about their faith to even articulate what it is, let alone be able to defend it in public, we are sunk. He understood this and after a decade of his leadership in Sydney there is a vibrant new generation of Catholic leaders, both lay and clerical. There are also many young vocations coming from the ranks of the university educated. In fact, in some cases such people were not practicing Catholics until they went to university and came across one of the many Catholic intellectual formation networks the Cardinal had put into position.

Cardinal Pell has been succeeded by Archbishop Anthony Fisher, a Dominican with a doctorate from Oxford, so Cardinal Pell’s work on the various intellectual and higher education fronts will continue full speed ahead. +Fisher has a very different personality from Cardinal Pell but he is just as passionate about the importance of Catholic higher education. In one of his early statements as Archbishop he said he was interested in quality education. Many people cheered when reading the adjective ‘quality’.

As I understand it Cardinal Pell’s job is to clean up financial corruption in the curia. I think he is a good choice for the position. Australians have a reputation for being hard to fool. We are very realistic types who are not over-awed by people in authority. Sociologists suggest that this national character trait comes from the fact that Australia was founded as a penal colony, a jail, in other words. We don’t take well to being conned or manipulated and we can out-fox villains once we identify them. Some people get depressed when they come across so much evil at work in the Church. The horror of it saps them of energy. I suspect that Pope Benedict had this type of personality, but Cardinal Pell is different. His alternative career option was to play A-grade football.

CWR: As a theologian who also has knowledge of Cardinal Pell, do you have a sense about how he gets on with Cardinal Burke? Are they cut from the same ecclesiastical mold, so to speak?

Rowland: I have not met Cardinal Burke and I don’t know anything about his relationship with Cardinal Pell, but I would say that they are both men who lead from the front and are not driven by popularity polls. Cardinal Pell has visited the States many times, he knows the whole Anglosphere very well, and while the problems that the Church faces in Australia are not exactly the same as those in the States, the UK or Canada, there are many overlapping similarities.

CWR: Many are bracing themselves for the promulgation of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment and human ecology. Were these themes on which Pope Benedict XVI commented? Do you foresee a difference between the two pontiffs’ teaching on these issues? Will there be points of contact?

Rowland: Pope Benedict made a few general comments of a theological nature about our responsibilities toward God’s creation, but as far as I am aware he didn’t weigh into the scientific disputes which were beyond his academic expertise. The last thing the Church needs is another Galileo fiasco and Pope Benedict, probably aware of this, kept to his theological brief.

What ends up making it into Pope Francis’s encyclical will depend upon who he chooses as his intellectual advisors. I am not privy to this kind of knowledge and even if I were, I would be barred from making it public. The general etiquette is that when one is asked to advise the Holy See about an issue, this is privileged professional correspondence and one doesn’t go around bragging, ‘the pope asked for my advice about a or b’. So, I don’t know who the Pope has helping to prepare drafts and without that knowledge it is very hard to predict how it will turn out.

In the United States some excellent academic work is being done in this field by Mary Taylor from the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut. It would be great if some of her theological work was to make it into the document. At the Institute in Melbourne we run a whole subject on environmental ethics and we highly value Mary Taylor’s contributions. The works of the late Stratford Caldecott in this field are also highly valuable, but as far as I am aware they are only available in English.

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About John Paul Shimek 0 Articles
John Paul Shimek is a Roman Catholic theologian and a specialist on Vatican affairs. In March 2013, he reported from Rome on the election of Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope in the history of the Catholic Church.