This is an excellent interview from Catholic World Report with a great Catholic scholar about her new book of that name.
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 two International 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.