Melbourne-based theologian Professor Tracey Rowland was awarded the Ratzinger Prize for Theology for her achievements in her work on the theology of Pope Benedict XVI. Professor Rowland is also the first Australian and third woman to have won this prize. As a leading scholar in the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, Professor Rowland spoke to us about her work and the award which will be presented to her by Pope Francis on 14 November.

In terms of your theological work, can you tell us a little about your journey to this award?

Usually, two people receive the award each year and usually one is a theologian and the other one is often a philosopher or someone who has made a significant contribution to Christian culture such as a musical composer.

When I left school I went to the University of Queensland and graduated with degrees in law and government. I enjoyed all of the subjects in my Arts degree and found it hard to decide in which discipline to major. I loved history and literature but I ended up doing a double major in the Government Department simply because I really enjoyed the subjects offered by a brilliant Czech Professor who was located in that Department. She taught political history and philosophy. She came from the milieu of the European intelligentsia. She could read seven languages and she held two doctorates (one in law and one in politics) as well as a degree in music. She was beyond academically rigorous. I wrote my honours thesis under her supervision and then tutored for her.

When it came to writing my Masters thesis I went to Poland for the last six months of 1989. It was an interesting time to be in Central Europe because it was the year that the Berlin Wall fell and with it the Communist governments in that region. My thesis was on the ideas of the anti-Marxist intellectuals in Poland, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia.

On the basis of a First Class Honours result for that thesis and some publications and lecturing experience I managed to win a Commonwealth scholarship to Cambridge. My Cambridge doctorate synthesised the philosophy of culture of Alasdair MacIntyre with the theology of culture of Joseph Ratzinger and some others in Ratzinger’s intellectual circle. I later completed a Licentiate in Sacred Theology and a second doctorate (a Doctorate in Sacred Theology) through the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. That was to satisfy a requirement of the Congregation for Catholic Education that lecturers in theology in pontifical academies hold pontifical degrees. The second (pontifical) doctorate looked at the way that Joseph Ratzinger dealt with history in his theological work.

I also studied German in secondary school and at Melbourne Uni I completed a Graduate Diploma in the German language. I would strongly encourage anyone who wants to be an academic in any of the humanities fields to pick up as many languages as they can as early as they can.

The biggest challenge is that of handing on the faith to younger generations and especially that of explaining to them the difference between secular humanism and Christianity. As Ratzinger would say, Christianity is not a moralism. It is not, fundamentally at least, a moral code. It is about having a personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. The moral framework is derivative from that primary relationship.
Professor Tracey Rowland

You’re a leading scholar in the theology of Pope Benedict XVI, and have authored two books on the topic: Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI; and Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed. What first drew you to the theology of Pope Benedict?

I really like the way that Europeans understand the history of ideas. Ratzinger can talk about what the classical Greeks contributed to Western thought, what a whole raft of scholar-saints in the early Church thought, what the medieval scholars thought and how they differed internally from one another. He has also read the works of the most important of the philosophers of the 18th and 19th century. He was one of the leading theological experts at the Second Vatican Council. When he comes across a pastoral problem he can bring his knowledge of centuries of scholarship to the task of analysing the problem. He is renowned for his knowledge of history, especially intellectual history, and his aptitude for creatively synthesising ideas. He is a product of the most rigorous educational system in the world. His friend, the late Cardinal Joachim Meisner, described him as someone who is as intelligent as twelve professors, but who still retains the piety of a child on his First Communion day. This combination of deep scholarship with deep faith is something like the hallmark of his publications.

For younger readers and readers unfamiliar with various papal theology, what makes Pope Benedict XVI an essential voice for our times?

I think that young people who discover his books find that he can explain to them in clear language how the world came to be the way that it is. He offers them a pathology report on our contemporary culture.

Since young people have been born into this culture, they are well aware of its defects. What they don’t often understand is what a Christian culture looks like when it is fully functional. They are like people who find some artefact of interest in their grandparent’s garage. They need someone to explain the artefact. What is it, what did it do? In other words, many young people will have experiences of the Church and more broadly of Christianity that are in some ways positive and in some ways negative. Often the positive experiences are in one particular area of the Church’s apostolic work. What they have are fragments of the faith, bits of the jigsaw. If they read Ratzinger they can begin to put the fragments together.

Anyone with a basic Arts degree should be able to follow most of what he has written. He doesn’t use complicated academic phrases. He uses the language of the faith itself. He uses biblical language.

Who have been the most influential theologians, writers and thinkers in the Catholic intellectual tradition on your theological formation?

Ratzinger, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, James V Schall, Etienne Gilson, Romano Guardini, Yves Congar, John Henry Newman. Of course behind all of these stand Augustine, Irenaeus, Aquinas, Bonaventure etc. I am currently reading publications from German theologians in the period between the two world wars – people like Erich Przywara and Theodor Steinbüchel. The generation that had to contend with Hitler produced some excellent theological work that is largely unknown in the Anglophone world. I feel like an excavator digging up buried treasure.

You have written extensively on the theology of culture. As we lead up to the Plenary in 2021, what are some of the challenges we face today as a Church and as a society and how should we best meet them?

I think the biggest challenge is that of handing on the faith to younger generations and especially that of explaining to them the difference between secular humanism and Christianity. As Ratzinger would say, Christianity is not a moralism. It is not, fundamentally at least, a moral code. It is about having a personal relationship with the Holy Trinity. The moral framework is derivative from that primary relationship. The Ten Commandments, which is a moral code, begins with the statement “I am the Lord your God”. Everything else stems from that primary relationship. The reason we don’t steal our neighbours’ donkeys is that we are a certain kind of people. We are a people who have been made in the image of God to grow into the likeness of Christ. So we have to start with understanding our relationship to God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. As the late Fr Peter Knowles OP was fond of saying: ‘the Trinity is not an old man, a young man and a bird’.

In short, there is a huge problem at the level of catechesis and with this comes the tendency for people to pick up fragments of the faith and think they have found the whole when they only have a tiny piece of the whole. If they approach the faith as simply a moral framework they completely miss whole levels of it dealing with sacramentality and spirituality. They often miss what makes the faith distinctive and latch on to the bits that Catholics share in common with other people of good will. They often lack a sacramental imagination and are sadly unaware of much of the spiritual treasure that is their baptismal right.

Another issue is that of approaches to evangelisation. I strongly believe that the faith cannot be sold like a commodity. It is really a bad idea to approach the issue of evangelisation as a marketing problem. Against such an approach Ratzinger once remarked that the Church is not a haberdashery shop that updates its windows with each new fashion season.

Today I have received the latest edition of the journal Evangelisation and Culture published by Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire Institute in the United States. It’s not an academic journal in the usual sense. It takes the form of 140 A4 size pages, featuring poems and short articles written at a level that anyone with a year 12 education could follow. Every page carries beautiful illustrations. It has the appearance of an expensive coffee table book and like such books it can be left on a table and later flipped through at leisure. Each article is roughly only 1000 words. It presents the faith in a way that is simultaneously true and beautiful. I think that Bishop Barron has the right approach to culture and evangelisation. As he often remarks: ‘it is Christ who positions culture, not culture that positions Christ’. It would be great if this journal were to be available for teachers and students in our school libraries.

The award ceremony is on 14 November. Being Melbourne-based, do you have any sense as to whether you will be able to travel to the award ceremony at the Vatican with Pope Francis?

I will not be able to travel to Rome to receive the prize but I will be “zoomed into” the ceremony.