Page 7, 4th July 2008

4th July 2008
Page 7
Page 7, 4th July 2008 — M The shy professor

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Anna Arco meets the author of an acclaimed study of the Pope Admirers of Tracey Rowland say that the Australian professor of political philosophy and continental theology is "on the side of the angels" and even her detractors who do not like the substance of her arguments begrudgingly admit her academic ability. Her most recent book, Ratzinger 'S Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, geared at educated but non-academic readers, was an enthusiastic exploration of Pope Benedict's thought through the prism of the Second Vatican Council and 20th-century strands of Thomist thought. With Sydney's Cardinal George Pell, who wrote a glowing introduction to the book, she is one of the strongest Catholic voices coming from Down Under.

The dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marliage and Family in Melbourne, Dr Rowland is also on the editorial board of the north American edition of Communio, the academic journal founded by Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac and Joseph Ratzinger, and a member of the Centre of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Nottingham. Her academic credentials, which include a doctorate from the Faculty of Divinity of Cambridge University, form a long string of letters after her name. Impressive too, though she plays it down, is her success in an academic world still dominated by men.

Carefully dressed in a pea-green cardigan.and summery skirt, a strand of hair from her auburn bob clipped to the side with a pretty flowery pin, Dr Rowland gives the impression of a shy but friendly neighbour coming over to introduce herself. In person, during a 24-hour stopover in London on her way to Rome, she is very different from the picture of the impressive-looking begowned academic on the John Paul II Institute website. Through the din of the Waterstone's cafe in Piccadilly she first comes across as quietly spoken, but as the interview progresses it becomes clear she doesn't need to raise her voice to be heard. She is eloquent, firm and speaks with the conviction that years of study have lent her.

Dr Rowland did not begin her academic career as a theologian, but came to it through her study of political science. She enrolled in a joint Arts and Law Bachelors degree at the University of Queensland although she knew that she did not want to be a lawyer. At the time it was considered the "done" course for promising young undergraduates. and although it wasn't Dr Rowland's chosen subject, the law, she says, helped sharpen her analytical skills.

At Queensland she came under the tutelage of Dr Vendulka Kubalkova, a Czechoslovakian emigre in exile after the Prague Spring. Dr Kubalkova, despite her strong opposition to the Communist regimes, taught Marxist political philosophy, a course which Dr Rowland describes as "Marxist catechism class". It was here that Dr Rowland developed an interest in central European political philosophy and in 1989 she found herself in Poland. She was gathering material for her Masters dissertation on the political and philosophical ideas of the anti-Communist intelligentsia in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and soon found that she needed an extensive knowledge of Catholic theology and social teaching in order to understand many of the anti-Communist movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

'The people who most interested me were those people who said that after they got rid of the Communist state, they didn't want western-style liberalism, they wanted some kind of Christian democratic system. So they wanted Christian democracy rather than liberal democracy. In that context I also studied the thoughts of Pope John Paul II as someone who was representative of the central European Catholic intellectual," she says.

After receiving her Masters from the University of Melbourne in 1992 she went to Cambridge to begin a doctorate in Political Philosophy, focusing on Alasdair Macintyre's critique of modernity and his concept of tradition-dependent rationality, but found little sympathy for her academic interests in the intensely secularist ethos of the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences. "They were really stuck in the 18th century," says Dr Rowland, relating how Professor John Dunn took her aside and told her that he didn't believe in God and he didn't know anyone in Cambridge who believed in God, although he had heard that this phenomenon was common in certain parts of the United States. A day later Dr Dunn suffered a massive, though nonfatal, stroke and Dr Rowland transferred to the Divinity School.

Here she studied under John Milbank among others. He, with Catherine Pickstock, is one of the main minds behind the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which developed Anglo-Catholic constructive theology. She also encountered the leading English Dominican scholars Fr Allan White and Fr Aidan Nichols.

Both Mandsm and Anglicanism have been recurring themes in Dr Rowland's life. She is technically a convert to Catholicism. Her father was a Marxist atheist, her mother a practising high-church Anglican. When her father wanted to send his daughter to a state school for ideological reasons her mother settled on a compromise and the young Tracey Rowland was sent to a Catholic convent school which was deemed acceptable to her father as he did not consider it part of the establishment. Taught mainly by nuns, Dr Rowland converted to Catholicism in primary school, where she discovered her love of liturgy, something which is not an academic field she has pursued, but the mainstay of her spiritual life.

Although she tends to take a "pluralistic view of liturgy"— she prefers the Missal of Paul VI done well over the 1962 Missal but defends those who prefer the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite — nothing upsets her more than "appalling 1970s liturgy". It was her profound sense of the importance of liturgy that first attracted her to Joseph Ratzinger. Dr Rowland says that she thinks that last year's Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum. which liberalised the use of the 1962 Missal, served as a jolt to many priests "who had to confront the fact that they had been presuming for a couple of decades that what lay people want is a kind of populist liturgy — a kind of pop culture liturgy".

"I think they've had to confront the sociological reality that this is not actually the case." she says. "There are some people who will still want it but there is a huge number of Catholics who do not, and for a couple of decades they were completely marginalised. The main criticism levelled against them was that they hadn't accepted the teaching of the Council."

Pope Benedict, she says, has made it clear that being critical of bad liturgy does not signal opposition to the Second Vatican Council. Dr Rowland is herself a defender of the Council even if she is wary of the some of the ways in which it has been interpreted and has played out in the life of the Church in the last 40 years.

"I think we are at a stage in the life of the Church when my generation and your generation need to do a great deal of synthetic work, picking up the pieces of the puzzle and putting them back together again but in a way that was better than was the case before the Council," she says.

"I envy your generation because I think you are, coming of age at a time when things are really healing in the Church and the trauma of the Council is starting to bear fruit whereas I belong to the generation of intermission."

After completing her doctorate in 2002 she was recruited by Cardinal Pell to help with the newly established John Paul 11 Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. The school is one of 11 worldwide which were founded by Pope John Paul,II to focus on the importance of marriage and family, Dr Rowland was awarded her Licentiate in Sacred Theology in 2007, for which she did a correspondence course in 2007 and is currently working on a doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD). What has it been like being a woman in a world that is still predominately male? She smiles and says that she has had an overwhelmingly positive experience. In Rome she is treated with the greatest respect and addressed as professoressa, she says.

"Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul 11 were highly intellectual men who had mixed with highly educated women and there was an understanding that there were absolutely no barriers to women engaging in the administrative and intellectual life of the Church," she says before she launches into a defense of the male priesthood.

"It is only when it comes to priesthood that there are barriers and that's because they don't see priesthood as something that requires certain skills, but is an anthropological issue about the nature of the priest who stands in the place of Christ. Pope Benedict also says of all the tribes of the Middle East in the biblical era, most had priestesses, but not the Jews, and he thinks there is a theological significance in this as well." Before the interview we had been talking about Hans Kiing's recent visit to London. The controversial Swiss theologian is seen in certain circles as the "leader of the opposition" to the Pope. What does she make. I ask, of the criticism that Pope Benedict's pontificate is malting the Church smaller?

"I think that people who leave the Church are not leaving the Church because they are rejecting the teachings of John Paul LI or Pope Benedict," she answers. "Most of them who leave do so because they go to Catholic schools and they think that the kind of warm secular humanism with Christian gloss that they get in Catholic schools is in fact the Catholic faith and it hasn't captured their imagination, their love or their intellect so they are walking away from something that they do not know. It's not like a love affair where you reject a person you have learnt to love and know. They've never been in love with the Church. They've never known it."

Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI is published by Oxford University Press priced £12.99

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