Defending the Family on the Front Lines

“Basically the world is in the grip of a militant secularist ideology because of internal problems within the Church and her poor presentation of her own teaching to her faithful.“

– Professor Tracey Rowland

The stakes couldn’t be higher. It is perhaps the greatest challenge that Christian civilization has ever faced. How can the Church defend its 2,000 year old teaching on marriage and the family in the face of government and corporate antagonism across the West?

Answer: With big intellectual guns. Professor Tracey Rowland has two doctorates in theology, one from Cambridge University in England and one from the John Paul II Institute in Rome. She also holds a Licentiate in Theology from the Lateran University, two Bachelor’s degrees, two Masters degrees and a law degree.

Today, she’s on the front lines, so to speak, training theologians and religious education instructors at the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia. REGINA Magazine recently sat down with her for this candid interview.

REGINA: Wow, that is some academic background you have!

TRACEY: Yes, well, I acquired my first degrees from non-Catholic institutions, including the doctorate from Cambridge, but I then found myself in a position of having to acquire pontifical degrees, that is, the Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) and the Doctorate in Sacred Theology (STD), in order to satisfy certain requirements of canon law for teaching in a pontifical university. 

REGINA: Just amazing.

TRACEY: It is something of a joke among my friends and family that my Cambridge doctorate wasn’t deemed to be acceptable because it came from an institution that has not been Catholic since the time of the Reformation.  This was notwithstanding the fact that both my doctoral examiners were Dominicans.  I suspect, in fact, that I was the first Cambridge student since the Reformation to have two Dominican examiners.

REGINA: About the JPII Institute — many people have heard of these Institutes, but are unclear about their origin and their relationship to the Holy See.

TRACEY: St. John Paul II personally founded the Institutes which have their central session at the Lateran University in Rome.  He was actually on his way to the opening ceremony of the Roman session of the Institute when the assassination attempt took place. 

REGINA: That is incredible. Almost like the Devil didn’t want them to get started. And today?

TRACEY: There are some 10 sessions of the Institute world-wide.  They each share a common core curriculum with a focus on the theological anthropology and moral theology of St. John Paul II and their development in subsequent papal teaching and in the works of Catholic scholars generally.  In addition to the core curriculum each of the sessions has areas of specialisation, depending on the needs of the Church in their region. 

REGINA: With all of the great concerns about marriage and the family today, founding the Institute seems particularly prophetic.

TRACEY: The Institutes are an unusual academic animal in the sense that they are the only academic institution, of which I am aware, where the core curriculum has actually been personally devised by a pope.  The oldest of the sessions, for example, the Roman and Washington DC sessions, all have full pontifical status, which means that they can confer degrees in the name of the pontiff, such as the Licentiate of Sacred Theology, while some of the younger sessions are still in the process of jumping through the canonical hoops to acquire full pontifical status.

Once a year the Directors of the sessions and other faculty members travel to Rome to meet with each other and discuss research priorities for the coming year and to report to the International President of the Institute who is Monsignor Livio Melina.  His most famous book is called Sharing in Christ’s Virtues.  The former Presidents are Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna and Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.  Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who is the Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, is also a former Professor of the Institute.

REGINA: Why is it so very difficult to convey the Church’s position on sexuality, morality and marriage these days, do you think?

TRACEY: I think the biggest problem is that sacramental theology has been so poorly taught for centuries.  Even today it is common to find people who want to defend the Church’s teachings on sexuality, morality and marriage, not by reference to sacramental theology, but by reference to economic or medical factors. St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, which also forms part of the core curriculum of the Institute’s world-wide, does exactly the opposite.  He situated sexuality within the couple’s relationship to the Trinity. 

REGINA: When was the Institute in Melbourne founded?

TRACEY: The Institute was founded in Melbourne in 2001.  The Pope’s vision was to have an Institute in every major region of the world, so Melbourne was chosen as the site of the Institute which would serve the needs of the Church in South-East Asia and Oceania. 

REGINA: Why Melbourne?

TRACEY: Melbourne was initially chosen for two reasons: first Melbourne has tended to be the intellectual capital of Australia, and secondly, and most significantly, when the decisions were being made, George Pell was the Archbishop of Melbourne.  Cardinal Pell as he now is, is a very entrepreneurial type who likes to get big projects off the ground and he is very interested in the intellectual life of the Church.  He understands that in our present times, more than ever, the Church desperately needs well-educated lay people.  He is not the type of prelate who likes to keep his sheep dumb and docile.

REGINA: But Cardinal Pell is in Sydney now, right?

TRACEY: Soon after the foundation of the Institute in Melbourne, Cardinal Pell was moved to Sydney which is the Primatial See in Australia and the largest Australian city.  In 2013 he was called to Rome by Pope Francis to sort out the financial problems within the Curia as ‘Prefect for the Economy of the Holy See.’  He has been replaced as Archbishop of Sydney by Anthony Fisher, an Oxford educated Dominican who shares the Cardinal’s interests in Catholic higher education.

REGINA: For non-Australians, can you explain the difference between these cities?

TRACEY: There is enormous rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne.  In the nineteenth century Melbourne boomed and was regarded as the most glamourous city in the British Commonwealth.  In more recent times however it has been left behind by Sydney in a commercial sense.  It is said that Sydney represents new money while Melbourne represents old money. Sydney is compared to San Francisco, Melbourne is compared to Boston.  Cardinal Pell once said publicly that Sydney is like a pair of hot pants, and Melbourne is more like a cashmere cardigan. 

REGINA: That’s pretty funny! What is Melbourne like, as a place for students?

TRACEY: Melbourne was voted the most liveable city in the world in 2015.  It regularly gets into the top five most liveable cities list.  Its middle class and student suburbs are more affordable than the equivalent in Sydney and crime rates are low.  For summer there are beaches and in winter snow fields are only 90 minutes away.  Students from Sydney and other parts of Australia fly into Melbourne to take subjects at the Institute in the intensive two week mode. 

REGINA: What are your course offerings?

TRACEY: We offer Graduate Certificates, Graduate Diplomas, Masters degrees and the Doctorate.  The areas of specialisation include: religious education, bioethics, Christian psychology, theology of culture and marriage and family related subjects which include a strong emphasis on theological anthropology and moral theology.

REGINA: Do you offer courses online?

TRACEY: The Graduate Certificate in Religious Education, which consists of four subjects, is available on-line to students anywhere in the world.  It is under the direction of Dr Gerard O’Shea who is an expert in the field of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.  This is an approach to religious education which addresses the formation of the heart, the intellect and the imagination.  There is a strong link between liturgy and the formation of the heart and the imagination. 

Religious Education programmes often fail because they are focused on one faculty of the soul only.  Before the Second Vatican Council it was the intellect, after the Council the emphasis turned to the heart, but the approach of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is to address the body, heart and mind of the child through participation in the liturgy, the reading of scripture, and the presentation of the Church’s doctrinal teachings, with the personalising of this formation in prayer.

REGINA: What do people generally do with your degrees?

TRACEY: Our graduates fall into a number of categories.  Those who complete their doctorates with us end up as professional academics teaching in Catholic universities.  Those who take the religious education suite of subjects usually find places as Religious Education Co-Ordinators in Catholic Schools. 

Others in the bioethical field are either Catholic nurses or doctors who want to study bioethics in order to be able to make good decisions in their chosen fields of medical practice, or they are people who find employment as Mission and Identity Managers in Catholic hospitals and aged-care facilities. 

Still others work in various Church agencies such as Marriage, Family and Life offices which are funded by dioceses.  About 90% of our graduates are lay people.  We have had two students join female Religious Orders and one graduate has been ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Perth.  One graduate is now the Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Sydney.  Another is the President of Campion Liberal Arts College in Sydney.

“Our graduates find it easy to obtain employment in particular dioceses and archdioceses where there are bishops who know about the curriculum of the Institute and actively seek to employ the Institute’s graduates.  I am often called by recruiters asking if we have anyone about to graduate who would be interested in a position which is going in their diocese.”

PICTURED: Kate Anderson, 2014, Master of Theological Studies (Marriage & Family (Photo credit: Casamento Photography)

REGINA: How easy is it for your graduates to obtain employment?

TRACEY: There are however many people, bishops included, who do not seem to know about the curriculum of the Institute and think that it must be about marriage counselling.  There are some subjects on this topic in the psychology area, but they are electives and not part of the core curriculum.

To deal with this problem the faculty of the Melbourne Institute has recently written a book which show-cases the Institute’s curriculum and the faculty’s research interests.  It is called God and Eros and will be published by Wipf and Stock in time for Christmas.

“St. John Paul II believed that the world is currently at a cross roads.  He believed that the choice was between a civilisation of love or a culture of death.  At the root of the problem is a crisis over what it means to be a human being.”

PICTURED: Colin Ong, 2011, Master of Bioethics (Photo credit: Casamento Photography)

REGINA: What is it about educating people about marriage and the family that the Church feels is so crucial to its mission today?

TRACEY: At the root of the problem is a crisis over what it means to be a human being.  It is for this reason that he wanted to establish an Institute which would focus on theological anthropology and moral theology but he understood that these dimensions of theology cannot be studied in isolation, so the curriculum ends up being broader than these two sub-disciplines.  In short, marriage and family is important because it is in this particular human institution that cultures are formed, either for or against Christ, either for or against truth and goodness and beauty.

PICTURED: James McDonald, 2014, Master of Theological Studies (Marriage and Family) PHOTO CREDIT: Hannah Hladik

REGINA:  The Church’s teachings fly directly in the face of a modern morality which sees sex as purely recreational, and an even more recent morphing of that idea into a political position known as the ‘Sexual Left.’ Does the Institute attract criticism from these quarters?

TRACEY: We attract a little bit of criticism but so far we have not been subjected to any kind of systematic persecution from what you call the Sexual Left.  Most of the opposition (and it is at times intense) comes from within the Catholic community itself, from people who are intellectually opposed to St. John Paul II’s teaching on moral theology.  The Institute defends Humanae Vitae and runs subjects on the theology and practice of natural family planning. This attracts opposition from clergy whom I describe as ‘children of the 1960s’.  We have, conversely, a lot of support from younger clergy and lay people.

REGINA: For the world at large, do you think that the Church’s credibility is damaged?

TRACEY: Basically the world is in the grip of a militant secularist ideology because of internal problems within the Church and her poor presentation of her own teaching to her faithful.  Until we sort out that mess we are not going to have the strength to successfully defeat the Leftist intelligentsia.  This is not a battle that can be fought with clever syllogisms and apologetics.  It will require a thorough internal purification of the Church and the work of re-evangelising human hearts and minds, one by one.

Since this story was published, the school has closed.

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