Where do Catholics and feminists agree? – An interview with Professor Tracey Rowland

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I blogged recently about the republication this year of the late theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand’s 1968 book, The Encyclical Humanae Vitae: a Sign of Contradiction; thus I am keen to ask Professor Tracey Rowland, who wrote its Foreword, some questions about it. From 2001-2017 she was the Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family (Melbourne session). She currently holds the St John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia).

In her Foreword she quotes Cardinal Stafford’s comment that “In 1968 something terrible happened in the Church”. What did he mean? Rowland explains that he was referring to the fact that “after 1968 [the year of the publication of the Encyclical] there was a breakdown in the unity of the Church. It could no longer be assumed that every priest and every bishop shared the same moral vision. He was also referring to the fact that this division was not just some academic difference of opinion; it destroyed friendships, divided siblings, created discord within parish communities.”

Rowland also describes a “widespread culture of dissent”. What does she consider to be its key features? She points out that at the Second Vatican Council “there was a call for a more Christocentric moral theology. Yet a significant element of the culture of dissent was in fact more lawyer-style moral argumentation. Included within this was the argument that one should just follow one’s conscience without attending to the issue of the formation of conscience: how one can still do the wrong thing even if one follows one’s conscience if it has been poorly formed.”

She reflects, “The issue raises questions about the theological foundations of moral theology, the power(s) of the Petrine Office and it requires a very deep understanding of sacramentality, or how God actually relates to the human person through the gift of sacramental graces.” Rowland adds that Catholic scholars dispute the meaning of the natural law: “In short, the question of the morality of contraception is a kind of complex theological cocktail.”

She comments that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI acknowledged that “the decision of Paul VI was not well explained theologically.” The more highly developed defences came over a decade later with John Paul II’s Catechesis on Human Love.

She suggests that during the pontificates of these three popes, the leaders of any of the new ecclesial movements “were strongly supportive of Humanae Vitae and so lay Catholics who were spiritually formed within the new movements tended to follow its teaching – whereas lay Catholics who simply attended parish churches were generally left to make their own choices without any kind of theological or spiritual formation.”

Pointing out that after he became Pope as John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla established a network of Institutes for Marriage and Family throughout the world, dedicated to promoting the teaching of Humanae Vitae, Professor Rowland believes that “many members of the JP II and Benedict XVI generation of Catholics are much more open to this than those who were newly married in the 1960s.” This, she thinks, is partly due to the popularity of St John Paul II’s teaching and “partly because medical knowledge about fertility and conception is much more advanced than it was in 1968.”

She also mentions in her Foreword Sister Lucia of Fatima’s prediction that the battle for the family and the sacredness of human life would be “the last great battle.” How does she interpret this in the light of today’s society?

Rowland says decisively that “We are obviously living through a period of social experimentation that is unprecedented in human history. The concept of a natural way of being or “human ecology” has been rejected by the intellectual elite. Once belief in God is lost, then as a matter of logic nothing is sacred – not human life, not marital fidelity, not human sexual intimacy. The social experimentation is carrying through the logic of this elimination of the sacred.”

She adds soberly, “I don’t know how long the experiment will last. At some time there will be a huge backlash; I imagine there will be lots of children suing their parents for such things as giving them sex change operations and suing the state for allowing this mutilation because of some fashionable theory. It could go on for decades but I don’t think it will last for centuries.”

Rowland reflects, “Sometimes it seems as though there is an almost or perhaps actual diabolical attack on the division of humanity into two different sexes.”

I am curious to know how feminists and Catholics might join forces in their opposition to artificial birth control. Rowland thinks that a certain group of feminists is starting to become critical of the pill. “They see it as an unnecessary technological intervention in a woman’s body. They have no theological problems with the pill; they simply think that it’s not the best option for women.”

She mentions a new “fertility app” which can be worn like a wrist-watch, which monitors body temperature levels and lets the wearer know when ovulation has occurred. Rowland believes this development “is likely to be much more popular with women than other methods of fertility awareness” but cautions that Catholic women who take advantage of this development would still need to have “an understanding of what is called “the theology of the body” so that they have a Catholic spirituality operating in their marriage and simply use the fertility app technology to help them plan their families naturally.”

She thinks that on an intellectual level “Both feminists and Catholics could agree that women should not be treated like farm animals and that natural methods of family planning are much more respectful of a woman’s dignity and of her body’s natural processes” – and if taking the pill goes out of fashion as a common social practice, for pharmaceutical companies “it will be like cigarettes going out of fashion and hurting the tobacco industry.”

Pointing out that natural family planning requires the cooperation of husbands, she adds “I think that the more thoughtful feminists are likely to regard such an approach as one that places equal responsibility on the shoulders of the man and the woman – and thus is a way of relating that is fairer to women.”

Concluding, Rowland comments: “In a Catholic intellectual framework one also has concepts like “chivalry” and “gentlemanly behaviour. These concepts were so ridiculed by the leaders of the sexual revolution in the 1960s that now many people simply don’t know what they mean. But young people who are intellectually engaged with their Catholic faith are interested in these ideas.”