In this candid interview, veteran Vatican observer Tracey Rowland shares her rare insights with Regina Magazine. An eminent theologian in her own right, Dr Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, Australia and author of Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (Oxford University Press).
The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI brings to an end an era. What was your reaction to the secular media coverage? In Australia we were hearing reports that some 5,000 journalists were in Rome waiting for the news. My impression was generally one of amusement – for an organisation that is supposed to be irrelevant, the Church gets an enormous amount of front page publicity. The papal conclave dominated the news for two weeks.
Can you comment on the presumption that the secular media shows regarding the ‘necessity’ of modernizing the Church? I did four radio interviews in Montreal a few days after the resignation of Pope Benedict. People were very excited that Cardinal Marc Ouellet from Quebec was being discussed as a front runner. The Mayor of Montreal joked on TV that if Cardinal Ouellet was elected, the Vatican would be moved to Montreal. In every one of my interviews I was asked whether a new pope might change the Church’s teaching on contraception, the ordination of women and abortion. I had to calmly explain that the pope is not an absolute monarch, he is a constitutional monarch. Constitutional monarchs can’t do whatever they like, they can exercise power only within certain limits. In the constitutional monarchies of the world these limits are set out in a constitution, or in the case of the United Kingdom, in constitutional conventions. In the case of the papacy these limits are prescribed by revelation or what we call the ‘deposit of the faith’. I referred to Pope Benedict’s final homily in which he said that the Church belonged not to him or to the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, but to Christ. If Christ didn’t ordain women then the Pope can’t either. The secular media find this very hard to understand but I think the constitutional monarchy idea helps. Of course, when 1960s generation nuns get interviewed on television and say that they are in favour of the ordination of women, it causes an enormous amount of confusion.
Do you think that Pope Francis has a bigger challenge inside the Church than outside? Every Pope faces challenges from outside the Church. The devil will cause trouble until the end of time. But some Popes enjoy more internal unity. Pope Francis has inherited a situation where there is very little unity, so much so that Pope Benedict believed that only a younger, stronger man, could handle the problem. While both John Paul II and Benedict XVI produced wonderful documents and homilies, their teaching was often blocked at various ‘middle management’ levels and never made it to grass roots or parish level. There is still an enormous amount of confusion about Vatican II. In some countries like Australia Catholic children spent 12 years at schools administered by the Church but unless they happen to be fortunate to be taught by someone who actually practices his or her faith and understands it, they are unlikely to be catechised. They leave 12 years of “Catholic education” quite ignorant of what the faith is about. This is often explained by the word ‘secularisation’. Some people think that secularism is some kind of nasty force external to the Church which attacks it from without. However secularism is a kind of heresy which arose within Christian countries when people within the Church thought that they could sever the ‘fruits of Christianity’ from actual belief in the Trinity and participation in the sacramental life of the Church. As Cardinal Angelo Scola has written, only Christians can make the anti-Christ possible. The anti-Christ is always parasitic about Christianity. When Christianity becomes decadent, then all kinds of diabolical actions and people can flourish. Pope Francis has inherited a Church weakened by decadence and disunity within and by several centuries of oppression from without.
Some note Francis’ simplicity and dedication to prayer with approval. Others fear that he will not support the Extraordinary Rite. What is your take on this? I don’t know what to predict because, unlike our previous two popes who were world class scholars with mountains of publications people could read their way through, this Pope rarely ever gives interviews and he has not published very much at all. So one can’t trawl through public statements and scholarly articles to get an insight into the way he approaches theological issues. There is also an old saying “as lost as a Jesuit in Holy Week”, meaning that Jesuits are not renowned for their deep liturgical sensibilities. They are not Benedictines. My intuition is that he is not someone who shares Pope Benedict’s liturgical sensibilities, but he might nonetheless take the view that so long as people attending the Extraordinary Rite are otherwise faithful Catholics, that he doesn’t really care about their ritual preferences. Quite a few members of the hierarchy adopt Mao Tse-Tung’s maxim of “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom”. In other words, while they may have no personal preference for the Extraordinary Rite, they acknowledge the sociological fact that significant numbers of people do prefer this Rite, and their attitude is that so long as people are actually going to Mass, their ritual preferences are a matter of legitimate choice. The more bureaucratic types however don’t like pluralism, don’t like choice, because choice increases the demands of education and administration. For example, when there are two Rites, seminarians need to be trained to say both. I think that people who prefer the Extraordinary Rite need to make it very obvious to their local Ordinaries that they are on board with the Church’s official teachings, that they are otherwise involved in the life of the Church and that they are not insisting on attending the Extraordinary Rite in order to make a political statement about their opposition to the Second Vatican Council. In short, they need to send a message that it is all about beauty and transcendence, not political resistance.
OUT-POSITIONED AND OUT-CLASSED: Secular media coverage of the 2013 conclave was outshone by upstart US network EWTN – founded by Mother Angelica, a ‘nun with nerve’– and anchored by Raymond Arroyo and Colleen Carroll Campbell.
I recently saw a meme on Facebook that said, “Why is it that the Catholic Church doesn’t go crazy when they change heads of the International Society of Atheists?” Why IS it, do you think, that the Church seems a source of endless fascination for the secular media? I think that pop culture is extremely banal and as such it lacks pathos. Drama doesn’t work well as drama unless the events which take place are of eternal significance. Catholics believe that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth. They believe that he holds the keys of St. Peter – to forgive sin in Christ’s name, no less. The secular journalists find it fascinating because whatever it is, it is not boring. It also satisfies the human need for tradition. Modernity has been described as a culture of forced forgetting. The memory of the Church however stretches back not only to the Incarnation, but to Creation, and her imagination reaches forward to the consummation of the world. The Christian approach to time is liturgical. As Cardinal Scola says, Christianity is the moment when the now meets the forever.
We are living through a period in time when our general culture is really awful, really low, and we have to use our imaginations to think of a different way of being, to make friends with people who are not trapped in the culture of death, and to look after one another. As the world becomes more and more ugly, Christians will start to stand out precisely because of their personal dignity and the beauty of their family life and then the task of re-evangelisation will become much easier.
I think that initiatives like Regina Magazine are precisely what are needed.
The first time I attended an Extraordinary Rite Mass, I was struck by the drama of the moment of consecration. I was at the Church of St. Eugene in Paris in the late 1990s. It was before Summorum Pontificum but the priests were in Communion with the Pope and their local bishop. It was not a Lefebrvist service. The choir chanted the Sanctus which went on for some minutes over the voice of the priest who continued silently saying the Eucharistic Prayer. Towards the end of the Sanctus the music became more and more dramatic, more like a fugue and then the priest held up the host, every single altar server fell completely prostrate on the floor of the sanctuary and the bells of the Church were peeled. The figure of the priest was in part blurred by a curtain of incense and one could simply see a blotch of colour created by his vestments. The only way this moment of consecration could have been any more dramatic would have been if an honour guard of officers had presented arms – something which was a tradition at Corpus Christi Masses. No journalist watching this could have found it boring. In Sacramentum Caritatis Pope Benedict wrote that at the moment of consecration there occurs a kind of nuclear fission when the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ. Sometimes there are moments when the Church makes this nuclear fission palpable, and grace triumphs over despair.
In short, my answer is, the world craves an encounter with eternity, the world craves transcendence and this is what the Church has to offer when her officer class has not been overrun by philistines or people with psychological disorders in league with the devil. Secular journalists are often people who yearn for transcendence and an experience of the infinite as much as anyone and they can see glimpses of it in the Church, notwithstanding all the blemishes.
“Pop culture is extremely banal and as such it lacks pathos. Drama doesn’t work well unless the events which take place are of eternal significance. Catholics believe that the Pope is Christ’s vicar on earth. They believe that he holds the keys of St. Peter – to forgive sin in Christ’s name, no less. Secular journalists find it fascinating because whatever it is, it is not boring.”
What do you see as the greatest source of hope? The many sources of hope include the numbers of younger women entering religious life, often in new religious Orders that are seeking to re-evangelise the countries of the Christian West. If one thinks, for example, of the Sisters of Life in New York or the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville or the Sisters of the Immaculata in Sydney, in every case the order is teeming with vocations and the young women are all highly educated, gracious in manner and otherwise highly marriageable. They are not entering religious life to escape poverty and acquire an education. They are not people with limited social options. They are entering religious life because they really do want to be in a spousal relationship with Christ and spend their lives leading others to Christ. Then there are the young Catholic families where both parents are fully across the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on marriage and family life and are doing their best to turn their families into domestic churches, notwithstanding the fact that most government economic and educational policies are stacked against them. When I go to Mass and see a young family with several children, and see that the little girls look pretty with ribbons in their hair, and the little boys are made to stand back and allow their sisters into the pew ahead of them, then I think that the culture of death will not be victorious. We are just living through a period in time when our general culture is really awful, really low, and we have to use our imaginations to think of a different way of being, to make friends with people who are not trapped in the culture of death, and to look after one another. As the world becomes more and more ugly, Christians will start to stand out precisely because of their personal dignity and the beauty of their family life and then the task of re-evangelisation will become much easier. I think that initiatives like Regina are precisely what is needed.
A GREAT SOURCE OF HOPE ARE THE NEW TRADITIONAL RELIGIOUS ORDERS, teeming with vocations — and the young women are all highly educated, gracious in manner and otherwise marriageable. They are not entering religious life to escape poverty and acquire an education. They are not people with limited social options. They have a spousal love for Jesus.
‘Australian Catholic children spend 12 years at schools administered by the Church, but unless they happen to be fortunate to be taught by someone who actually practices his or her faith and understands it, they are unlikely to be catechized. They leave 12 years of “Catholic education” quite ignorant of what the Faith is about…” Dr. Tracey Rowland
Featured Pope Benedict picture Osservatore Romano with permission
Photo of Pope Francis by Stefano Spaziani with permission