Tracey Rowland’s Guide Through the Catholic Academic “Zoo”

“Theology is important because it is all about reasoning about the highest things. It is the one thing a person doesn’t want to get wrong in life because it affects one’s eternal destiny.”

Theologian, professor, and author Tracey Rowland holds two doctorates in theology, one from the Divinity School of Cambridge University (the civil PhD) and one from the John Paul II Institute at the Pontifical Lateran University (the pontifical STD) in addition to degrees in law and philosophy. After studies at the University of Queensland, she lectured in Soviet and Central European Politics at Monash University while completing a Masters degree in contemporary Central European political theory. From 1994-1996 she was a Research Fellow in the Faculty of Law at Griffith University with a focus on jurisprudence and Constitutional and Administrative Law. In 1996 she won a Commonwealth Scholarship to Cambridge University to work on her doctorate. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Notre Dame (Australia), she was the Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne for sixteen years. In 2014 she was appointed to the International Theological Commission and she is currently a member of the ITC’s sub-commission on religious freedom.

Her books include Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II (London: Routledge, 2003), Ratzinger’s Faith (Oxford University Press, 2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury, 2010), the recently published Catholic Theology(London: Bloomsbury, 2017), and the forthcoming The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (Ohio: Emmaus Academic, 2017). She recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about her book Catholic Theology, the various (and often competing) schools of Catholic theology today, the crisis since Vatican II, and why theology is so important.

CWR: There are many different ways to approach writing a book titled Catholic Theology. What criteria did you use? Did the publisher have a specific expectation?

Tracey Rowland: I imagined that I was giving a young theology student a guide through the Catholic academic “zoo”, explaining the natures of the different intellectual species commonly found in Catholic academies today. I also wanted to summarise the twoInternational Theological Commission documents on the methodology of Catholic theology because they represent the latest statements about this topic by the most senior body of Catholic theologians. At the end I included appendices that list all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the papal encyclicals of the modern era, the names and descriptions of all the Christological heresies and all the Doctors of the Church because I thought it would be useful for students to have access to these reference points in one location.

The publisher wanted an introductory text but beyond that I was free to tackle the subject as I thought best. Archbishop Fisher, who launched the book in Sydney, described me as a geneticist in the world of Catholic ideas. I think that it is a good description of what I attempted with this book. I tried to unravel the intellectual DNA of the various clusters of theological species.

CWR: The book unfolds like a roadmap, a guide to the past several decades of theological controversies, explorations, reflections, and debates. Do you think that is an apt description? Did you see a pressing need for such a work?

Tracey Rowland: The roadmap metaphor combines well with the zoology metaphor. It’s like a roadmap through a safari park where the animals are all different species of Catholic theologians.

One of my favourite television programmes is the BBC’s “Great British Rail Journeys” hosted by Michael Portillo. Portillo travels on stretches of rail track and gives the viewer a cultural history tour along the way. My book is a bit like this. One cannot teach theology well by merely presenting students with a series of dogmatic statements and helping them to understand how the statements can be built into a system. They need to know the history behind the dogmas and there needs to be room left for the mystery which always exceeds any system. They also need to know something about the personal life histories of the theologians they are studying including who were their mentors, heroes and villains.

Before the Second Vatican Council the intellectual presentation of the faith was so systematic many experienced this formation as a kind of intellectual straight-jacket. After the Council there was a back-lash response to this. Now theology students are often quite ignorant about the way that one false idea in one area of theology can have disastrous repercussions across the entire theological field. It is therefore important to get the foundations right and that demands at the very least a thorough knowledge of scriptural hermeneutics and dogmatic history among other things.

CWR: The first of the five chapters focuses on “fundamental issues and building blocks”. Do you find, in teaching theology, that this sort of focus is given short shrift? What are some of the issues and building blocks that you think are particularly important today? Why?

Tracey Rowland: Yes, the fundamentals are often not given the attention they deserve. The relationships between faith and reason and between nature and grace are foundational for so many fields of theology, so too is the understanding of revelation, of the principles for interpreting the scriptures and dogmatic statements, the magisterial teaching about Christology and the Trinity found in the decrees of the Early Church Councils, the principles to be applied for analysing whether some idea is consistent with previous teaching and more recently the relationship between history and ontology and between logos and ethos. The reason that we have so many different species of academic animals in the Catholic academies today is precisely because of differences over these foundational building blocks. What I hoped to achieve in the first chapter was to offer students advice on where they can go to find the most recent material on these foundational subjects.

CWR: Is it accurate to say that the past fifty or so years have featured a running battle between two differing approaches to “doing theology”—featuring conflicting hermeneutics about the Council, the Church, and modernity—with each of the approaches having two branches?

Tracey Rowland: As a generalisation I believe this is true. There are definitely two branches of theologians who start from different approaches to principles in fundamental theology, different hermeneutical frameworks for interpreting the Conciliar documents and different judgments about the cultural phenomenon we call modernity. They have different understandings of the relationship between revelation and history, nature and grace, faith and reason and different approaches to scriptural hermeneutics. These base-line differences lead to different attitudes to ecclesiology, eschatology, soteriology, spirituality, moral theology, sacramental theology, just about everything! The branches have their ‘trunk’ in the debates of the Second Vatican Council and the split in the trunk occurs almost the second the Council is over.

By the early 1970s the academic theologians who attended the Council had divided into two quite definite camps, known in academic short-hand by the names of their flagship journals: Concilium and Communio. I agree with Philip Trower that these two groups have been engaged in a ‘theological star-wars’ over the heads of the faithful. The fall-out from the stellar battles lands in parishes but Catholics who have not studied theology are unable to identify the origins of the bits of “space-junk” they encounter. By writing about the intellectual DNA of the two groups it was my hope that readers would be helped to identify the intellectual pedigree of the ideas with which they are presented in homilies, lectures, retreat addresses, etc.

Today, of course, in the midst of so much turmoil, there are scholars who want to return to the pre-Conciliar era when Thomism was regarded as the most authoritative form of Catholic theology. The Thomists could be said to represent a third branch and within this branch there are several significant sub-sections. The most significant division is between those who accept the criticisms of pre-Conciliar Thomism and are seeking to offer a Thomism free of the encrustations of the pre-Conciliar period and those who describe themselves as “Thomists of the Strict Observance” who want to warm up the pre-Conciliar brew without adding any new ingredients or removing some of the more unpalatable ones. This second type is often found in Traditionalist circles where people want to reboot the entire system to 1960 while the first type is usually found in Catholic academies where the mission of the institution is to offer students a theological education consistent with magisterial teaching.

Many boutique academies, funded by lay Catholics, have mushroomed in the past two decades because of the belief that the older prestigious Catholic universities have allowed themselves to become thoroughly secularised. Usually this occurs because they become dependent upon government funding and end up promoting curricula which are even more politically correct than the non-Catholic academies.

CWR: You clearly align with the Thomist/Communio approach(es) to theology. Do you consider yourself a Communio theologian with Thomistic sympathies? In what ways do the two agree and support one another?

Tracey Rowland: The founders of the Communio approach (Henri de Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Urs von Balthasar) were all hostile to Suárezian Thomism which is also called “baroque Thomism” but they were not hostile to what is commonly called existential Thomism. Incidentally, Karl Rahner, one of the leaders of the Concilium camp, was also hostile to Suárezian Thomism. He described Francisco Suárez as the person who committed both the original and mortal sin of Jesuit theology. Suárez is regarded as a very serious “bad influence” by both Communio and Concilium types and thus the mutual opposition to Suárezian Thomism is a significant element in the Vatican II “trunk” out of which these two branches grew. De Lubac accused baroque era Thomism of opening the door to secularism, Balthasar found it so disagreeable he wore ear-plugs to his classes on this subject and Ratzinger almost failed his Habilitationsschrift (the thesis in European universities which is required for accreditation as a university lecturer) because he argued against the Suárezian account of revelation.

Nonetheless, baroque era Thomism is only one of the many appropriations of the work of St Thomas. Communio scholars usually have a strong affinity for the Thomism of Josef Pieper, Etienne Gilson, Alasdair MacIntyre, Karol Wojtyła, Servais Pinckaers and Olivier-Thomas Venard, among others. They regard St Thomas as a great Church doctor but not the last word on everything.

Balthasar strongly endorsed the metaphysics of Aquinas but when it came to the issue of the best way to evangelise people he was of the view that it is counter-productive to start with metaphysics. Balthasar’s magnum opus addresses themes in theology from the perspective of the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, but significantly he starts with beauty and ends with truth. He was of the view that most people are first attracted to the beauty of the faith and it is only when they become immersed in its beauty that they are able to appreciate that it is true as well. Conversely, Thomists like to start with truth, which is fine if one is relating to people who are by nature intensely intellectually inclined, but the research of educationalists suggests that this is at best about 18% of any given population. It is therefore a typical trait of Communio types to be interested in beauty, aesthetics, liturgy, the human imagination and memory as well as mythopoesis in addition to issues like dogmatic history and metaphysics.

I see myself as a scholar in the Communio tradition who regards the Thomist section in the Catholic symphony as absolutely indispensable, but the Thomism of Pieper, Gilson, Pinckaers etc, not the typical neo-Thomism of the pre-Conciliar era or what is today called “Strict Observer” or “Rad Trad” Thomism. My absolute favourite contemporary Thomist is Alasdair MacIntyre.

CWR: What are the essential differences between the Communio and Concilium movements? And how has the debate, or clash, between the two shaped the current theological landscape?

Tracey Rowland: First of all they have a totally different understanding of Christ’s exhortation to his apostles to read the signs of the times. Embedded within this is a different understanding of revelation. As a caricature one could say that the Communio theologians look at contemporary cultural movements from the perspective of the magisterial teaching of the Church while the Concilium types look at the magisterial teaching of the Church from the perspective of contemporary cultural movements. The Communio types believe that when Christ told his disciples to read the signs of the times he was telling them that he, Christ, was the sign of the time. He was making an eschatological point. He was saying to his disciples understand that you are now living in the Christian era, understand that the Incarnation has happened, understand that God has assumed human nature. He was not saying it is important that you keep abreast of changing social currents and correlate the Christian faith to them.

Secondly, while the Communio and Concilium style theologians agree that Catholic theology represents a synthesis of faith and reason, they prefer different philosophical partners for theology. Karl Rahner predicted that given there are so many different philosophies currently in play Catholic scholars would be tempted by what he called a ‘gnoseological concupiescence’ – the desire to hook up Catholic theology to all manner of fashionable philosophies. A very significant difference between the Communio and Concilium scholars is thus found in their choice of philosophical partners. For example, the Communio types are not remotely attracted to cultural Marxism.

Thirdly, as you indicated above, the two groups have a different attitude towards the cultures of modernity and post-modernity. While not eschewing every single aspect of these cultures, the Communio theologians (like the Radical Orthodoxy theologians with whom they overlap on a number of fronts) are much more critical of these cultures than the Concilium style theologians.

Fourthly, the two groups have different attitudes toward magisterial authority and other issues in ecclesiology such as the nature of the Petrine office and the priestly ministry.

CWR: You are quite frank, in places, about some of the problems and crises in the Church. Is it fair to say that, unlike some, you don’t locate the origin of these problems in Vatican II, but much earlier? And if so, how so?

Tracey Rowland: Certainly I am one of those who believe that our current woes began in the 14th century with the rise of Franciscan nominalism which fed into the theology of late scholasticism which in turn fuelled the crises of the sixteenth century. As the narrative goes, nominalism led to a decadent scholasticism, a decadent scholasticism led to the Reformation, the Reformation led to baroque scholasticism, baroque scholasticism fostered a rationalist current in Catholic theology, romanticism (of which post-modernism is a development) was a reaction against rationalism and could take either a Catholic or a nihilist direction. Prior to the Second Vatican Council we had a theology that was focused on a response to the Reformation and a response to the rationalism of the 18th century. It could not contend with the romantic interest in history which had been driving the non-Catholic theological world for at least a century. Vatican II can be accused of opening a very large can of worms but the worms were about a long time before the Council.

I sometimes think that the best way forward would have been to have had Vatican sponsored symposia on key issues in fundamental theology where the theologians could debate the issues in a situation of complete academic freedom without the political factors of votes and solemn decrees of the magisterium. Once we get into the territory of synods and Councils we get into the politics of compromise and horse-trading. Documents represent the lowest common denominator points of agreement and as many of the Conciliar periti have acknowledged, documents end up containing paragraphs which seem to be saying opposite things because this was the way conflict was managed. In other words, the practice becomes “I will allow your paragraph in, if you allow my paragraph in, never mind the fact that the two paragraphs are hard to reconcile”. After a Council or Synod the representatives of the different factions go home and continue the political campaigns by appealing to one particular paragraph rather than another. We then have more political battles over the interpretation of documents.

Right now we have a major conflict over the meaning of a footnote in the last apostolic exhortation. The footnote is being interpreted one way in Valletta and another way in Warsaw. I am not sure that the best way to proceed is to have Synods where so called “stake-holders” each get three minutes to make a statement about some significant theological issue. This forces the debate to take the form of emotive sound-bites. Rhetoric rather than reason prevails. The people who are significant in these contests are those who are the smartest politicians and rhetoricians.

CWR: Your chapter on liberation theology includes Pope Francis in the title. What is liberation theology? And is Francis, to some degree or another, either a liberation theologian or a thinker who uses many elements of liberation theology?

Tracey Rowland: I argued that Pope Francis is very sympathetic to what is called “People’s Theology”. This is the claim made by Argentinian theologians who are close to the pope and I think there is enough empirical data to support the judgment. “People’s Theology” is often described in short-hand terms as a form of liberation theology which is Peronist rather than Marxist. This means that it is intensely popularist and nationalist. The Peronists prefer the judgments of the “Juan Pablos” (common Joe’s) to those of the educated classes.

CWR: Liberation theology is associated with Latin America, but you point out that its origins are elsewhere. Where were the foundations of liberation theology developed? And what might that suggest or indicate about the relationship between liberation theology and the Concilium movement?

Tracey Rowland: Liberation theology is very much a product of Catholic institutions in Germany and Belgium. Catholic intellectuals in these institutions got hooked on Marxism in the 1960s and fed it to graduate students from third world countries who then took it home after they graduated. I regard liberation theology as a more radical form of the Concilium style theology with the political theology of Johann-Baptist Metz forming a bridge between the two.

The missing piece of the historical jig-saw I am yet to find is a satisfactory explanation for why Catholic intellectuals in Western Europe in the 1960s were attracted to Marxism. The late Emile Perreau-Saussine, a French political philosopher, offered the theory that Marxists and Catholics share an aversion to the mediocrity of bourgeois values and especially to the mentality of the nouveaux riches. He further suggested that the 1960s generation of Catholic leaders thought that they could baptise Marx in the way that St. Thomas allegedly baptised Aristotle. I agree that the comparison of Marx with Aristotle was often made as a defence for the Catholic embrace of Marxism. However I still don’t see why a mutual opposition to the banality of bourgeois values should be a sufficient inducement for a sizeable proportion of the Catholic intelligentsia of a generation to get into bed with Marxist ideologues who are usually members of bourgeois families motivated by the pathetically bourgeois vice of resentment. What is clear however is that the clerical leaders of Latin America become enchanted with different varieties of liberation theology in circumstances where their countries endured the most unstable governments and economic systems of almost any region in the world with the possible exception of places like Uganda and Rwanda. Some of these varieties have been disinfected of hard core Marxism but they retain many elements of the softer cultural Marxism which is less doctrinal, less metaphysical, while retaining the animosity toward hierarchies and notions of gradations in moral, intellectual and cultural excellence.

CWR: Why is theology important? And what aspects of theology are especially important right now?

Tracey Rowland: Theology is important because it is all about reasoning about the highest things. It is the one thing a person doesn’t want to get wrong in life because it affects one’s eternal destiny.

Right now the most important aspects are in the field of fundamental theology. The hottest contemporary battles are mere epiphenomena of the foundational disagreements. When people say that in theology 2 + 2 can equal 5, or that we can’t rely on Christ’s statements as they are recorded in the Gospels because no one followed him about with a dicta-phone, we have a very foundational problem. If we can’t trust scripture and tradition and we can’t trust reason, what have we left? The subjective hunches or prejudices of the local ordinary?? Without the strong foundations the whole system crumbles and we are left with a crude voluntarism. Within such an order brutish power trumps reason and the sheep become confused and scatter.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. It is interesting that despite Rowland’s apparent distaste for aspects of pre-Vatican 2 Thomism, she espouses the 19th century strict observance Thomist historigraphy, according to which everything went wrong in the 14th century when people did not simply bow the knee to Thomas’ authority. The Thomists of course developed this “genealogy” to use the contemporary term to avoid having to deal with the arguments of Scotus. Now he can be simply dismissed as a symptom of rot and decline.

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