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Theologian explores the role of the laity in modern Catholic Church


Internationally renowned theologian Dr Tracey Rowland (centre) recently delivered a lecture at The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Fremantle Campus titled ‘Laity in the life of the Church since Vatican II’. At right is Notre Dame Acting Dean of the School of Philosophy & Theology Dr Philip Matthews together with Vice Chancellor Celia Hammond. PHOTO: Jamie O'Brien

By Marco Ceccarelli

Internationally renowned theologian and Dean of Melbourne’s John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Professor Tracey Rowland recently gave an illuminating talk on post-Vatican II Catholicism and its relationship with the laity.

In a lecture entitled Laity in the Life of the Church since Vatican II, delivered at The University of Notre Dame Australia’s Fremantle Campus on Thursday, 4 June 2015,

Dr Rowland masterfully traced the development of the role of the laity in the Church since it was invited to take a more active position.

Dr Rowland began by identifying a key Vatican II document, entitled Lumen Gentium, as the breakthrough dogmatic constitution that released the laity from previously held assumptions that relegated it to a passive role.

“The fifth chapter of Lumen Gentium, entitled ‘The Universal call to Holiness in the Church’, pointed out that all Catholics are called to be saints,” said Dr Rowland.

“While this was not a new idea, it needed to be reiterated as there was a tendency in pre-Conciliar culture for people to think of priests, nuns, and religious brothers as the only members of the Church called to sainthood, while the same levels of spirituality could not be expected of the laity,” she explained.

Dr Rowland historically contextualised what can be labelled as Lumen Gentium’s breakthrough vision, pointing out key figures such as Pope Pius XI who, in 1922, wrote that “holiness concerns not only small numbers of people endowed with exceptional elevations of the soul, but also the common run of the faithful”.

This approach, Dr Rowland explained, was later taken up by Pope Pius XII who, in his 1943 encyclical Mystici Croporis Cristi, stated that there existed no dichotomy between active (clerical) and passive (lay) elements of the Church, and that all members are called to work on the perfection of the body of Christ.

“This was to be seen as a mystical body, not a collection of bureaucratic elements,” Dr Rowland emphasised.

With Pius XII’s 1947 apostolic constitution Provida Mater Ecclesia, which allowed lay people to form their own communities within a newly established canon law framework, Dr Rowland spoke of how the first ecclesial movements began to rise.

She mentioned the Focolare Movement, the Neocatechumenal Way, Opus Dei and Communion Liberation as some of the fruits of this new vision of Catholic Church towards the laity.

Dr Rowland went on to define the ecclesiology of important 20th-century theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) as a “communio ecclesiology”, since it viewed the mystical body of Christ as a communion, or symphony, of different spiritual missions, all reliant on one another.

“As St Paul asserted and Pope Francis has now emphasised,” she said, “the Holy Spirit enriches the Church with different charisms. The people of God are blessed with different gifts and entrusted with different missions.

“If these missions are authentically the work of the Holy Spirit, they will contribute to the work of evangelisation in a symphonic manner.”

Within this new framework, consolidated by John Paul II’s new approach that saw priests and laity participate in the threefold ministry of Christ as Priest, Prophet and King, Dr Rowland highlighted the challenges faced by the Church soon after Vatican II.

Chief among these was the rise in secularism and a “split in culture and Gospel” within society.

This was also a time which saw the Church under considerable pressure to adapt and reform its thinking to the customs and fashions of the modern secular world.

Using John Paul II’s own labels, Dr Rowland spoke of an emerging “culture of death” that could only be offset by a “culture of love”.

According to Dr Rowland, the former is stoic, pragmatic, sees life and relationships as mere accidents of biology and history and became a shorthand expression for the abortion industry and euthanasia lobby.

The latter, on the other hand, is built on the recognition that Jesus Christ is the centre and purpose of human history.

The lay faithful, in Dr Rowland’s view, find themselves on the front lines of this struggle between the culture of death and civilisation of life.

“John Paul II drew attention to the Catholic family in this struggle,” Dr Rowland noted.

“He described the family, consisting of a husband, wife and their children, as the basic cell of society and added that the sexual differentiation constitutes the very identity of the person.

“Today, it is popular that one’s biological differentiation in male and female is of no significance for anything but the mechanics of human reproduction. One of the reasons for the Church’s lack of popularity is because She holds Her teachings that masculinity and femininity are not social constructs but something linked to natural order.”

Explaining that John Paul II’s vision has been supported by Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, Dr Rowland concluded by emphasising that, today, lay people are called to be agents of evangelisation in ways related to their own spiritual gifts and charisms.

“They should not assume that evangelisation is a job to be undertaken by Church bureaucracy… being an evangelist is about being authentically Catholic.”

Professor Rowland has published three books and more than 100 articles on contemporary Catholic theology and political philosophy.

She is well known for exploring and presenting the theology of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, especially in her works Ratzinger’s Faith and Pope Benedict XVI for the Perplexed. A fourth book, titled Catholic Theology, is due to be published later in 2015.

In 2014, Pope Francis appointed Professor Rowland to be one of five women on the 30-member International Theological Commission, which assists the Holy See as part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith.