Tracey Rowland, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia, has won the Ratzinger Prize for theology, often described as the field's equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize.

The award is a stunning win for the Melbourne, Australia-based academic, who is the first Australian and only the third woman to receive the prestigious award.

The Ratzinger Prize is awarded to two individuals each year regardless of their religious denomination.

Pope Francis announced Oct. 1 that Rowland would share this year's award with Jean-Luc Marion, a French philosopher and Catholic theologian.

The prize is awarded in three areas: the study of sacred Scripture, patristics and theology.

It is presented by the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Foundation, which was established in 2010 to support theological research and to promote studies on the theology and teaching of the retired pope.

Rowland told The Catholic Weekly, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Sydney, she was "surprised but not totally shocked" to find she had been chosen for the award given that she has published much about the theology of Joseph Ratzinger, including two books that have been translated into other languages.

She was unsure of the reasons for the committee's decision but suspected it was because of her contributions to the theology of culture.

"Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi (president of the Pontifical Council for Culture) was on the selection committee and he is very interested in this subject," she said.

"I also gave a lecture at Santa Croce University (Pontifical University of the Holy Cross) last November on Ratzinger/Benedict's ideas on the theology of culture and the auditorium was filled to capacity. It is possible that someone on the selection committee or closely associated with the committee was present at that lecture," Rowland said.

The theologian said her greatest theological interests are in the relationships between nature and grace, faith and reason, history and ontology and faith and culture.

The dean of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family in Melbourne until its closure by Archbishop Denis Hart in December 2018, Rowland has long been recognized as a leading scholar specializing in the thought and writing of Joseph Ratzinger who served as Pope Benedict from 2005 to 2013.

She also is recognized as a leading expert on the Second Vatican Council.