Alumni Spotlight: Tyler Ross, J.C.L., ’17

March 22, 2021

Aquinas alumni are all over the world, transforming culture in Truth and Charity. Tyler W. Ross, J.C.L, ’17 currently serves as a canon lawyer in the newly-formed marriage tribunal which he helped establish in the Diocese of Knoxville.

Aquinas: How did you come to attend Aquinas College?

Ross: My journey to Aquinas was a complete act of God! My first two years in college were actually spent at Tennessee Tech University alongside some great high school friends, which included my best friend. During my first year, we connected with a group from a Nashville-area Catholic high school and formed a close-knit bunch; we were the best of friends.

Being deep in the Bible Belt, though, meant some new encounters. I had made the faith my own in high school and entered college on fire for it, but unfortunately was quite underprepared to actually dialogue with people. Lots of Protestant Christians in various student groups, some who had never met a real-life Catholic, soon identified me as “the guy willing to talk.”

In an effort to make sense of my faith both to myself and my interlocutors, I quickly found myself reading lots of pop apologetics – so much so, that I noticed I was dedicating more time to that than I was to my classes! Thankfully, my grades didn’t suffer, but my dad’s career advice from high school kept pestering me: “do what you love and the money will follow.”

Aquinas College was on my radar, as I was by this point long familiar with the Nashville Dominicans, so at the end of my freshman year, I toured Aquinas, which was close enough to my friends at TTU (Cookeville, TN) and to home (Chattanooga, TN) that the transition wouldn’t be too awful, should I end up going there.

Aquinas: Why did you choose Aquinas?

Ross: The thought of transferring made sense, but it meant giving up a lot, including my plans to go into the field of genetics (I was a biology major at the time). And yet, I really loved learning about the faith.

When I broke the news to my parents that I was considering the idea of leaving my friends, moving to a town where I knew no one, studying a completely new subject at a new school that couldn’t possibly be more fulfilling than TTU (or so I thought!), and throwing away future plans for a respectable job and income, they were, of course, not very thrilled. But I had made my case, and I was advised to wait and see if I still felt the same way after my sophomore year.

I took their advice, and when the end of my sophomore year rolled around and my love of learning the faith had not only endured but increased, I knew I needed to transfer. I began in the Fall of 2015 as a theology major and a philosophy minor. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

Aquinas: You found a natural path from theology to the study of canon law. What is the role of canon law?

Ross: The role of canon law is, as canon law itself puts it, the salus animarum, or the salvation of souls. Holy Mother Church exists for this one purpose, so canon law must always be ordered to that goal. But specifically, canon law provides for the well-ordering of the Church. It deals with church governance, the sacraments, and church property; it establishes penalties; it governs Catholic schools, religious congregations, and the laity. Relevant to most people, though, is the section on marriage nullity. Practically speaking, processing marriage annulments is where those in the field of canon law spend almost all of their time. I myself am currently working for the Diocese of Knoxville in the newly-formed marriage tribunal as a full-time canonist, helping to process and judge all of the petitions that come to us.

Listen to Tyler Ross’s podcast on “Inside the Diocese of Knoxville”

Aquinas: How does the work of the marriage tribunal uphold and foster the dignity of the human person, in the domestic church – the family?

Ross: I look at it like this: the dignity of the human person starts in the family. The more we build up a culture of accepting children and not avoiding them, of teaching them to love what is good, true, and beautiful, and of love of God and neighbor, the more we can build a culture of life in all its aspects. It all hinges on the health of the family.

So I see the role of the marriage tribunal as an extension of the Church’s commitment to marriage. In one sense, the work of the tribunal naturally follows from our belief in the indissolubility of marriage. If marriage is indissoluble, then the only way a person can get “re”-married is by submitting their original marriage to the judgment of the Church.

In another sense, we in the tribunal see a great deal of brokenness. But we are also in a unique position to be a place of healing. Oftentimes, people who have gone through the process of petitioning for a declaration of nullity – whether or not the tribunal actually finds evidence of invalidity – find the process itself to be an occasion for self-reflection and prayer. In that way, we can minister to the people of God in a way that they otherwise might not be ministered-to. We can also work with those involved in preparing couples for marriage and share our experience of what some common pitfalls are that lead to divorce. In these ways, the marriage tribunal can contribute to the flourishing of the family and, by extension, the culture of life and dignity of the human person.

Aquinas: How do you see your role as a layman on the tribunal, that is, non-ordained, as particularly suited to this task?

Ross: There are a few ways my role as a layman makes me particularly suited to this task. Firstly, on a practical note, it frees up priests to be back in parishes where they are currently most needed. Secondly, it is often helpful for married people to talk to other married people about their marital problems. Even though we in the Church know that celibate men and women can have deep insights about relationships (I’m thinking specifically of St. John Paul II) sometimes it’s just more helpful to talk to a person who has experienced the same things you have. 

Aquinas: In light of our call to communion with God and with each other, how can we understand the annulment process?

Ross: The annulment process is often misunderstood. We frequently encounter people who think of it as the “Church divorce,” as if the process seeks to determine whether the reasons for separation and civil divorce were justified. Our task is rather to determine whether marriage was truly brought about in the first place, be it from a defect of consent on the part of the one marrying, from a psychological condition, or any number of other things. This is in response to the teaching of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage: once the marriage bond is brought about, death alone does the spouses part. This is the way it was, so we are taught by Our Lord, “from the beginning.” Indeed, we were made for this kind of relationship. Thus, in order to maintain communion with God, we have to respect the way he made us.

On a sacramental level, if marriage is a sign of the permanent love between Christ the bridegroom and His bride the Church, we would do well to strive in fostering happy marriages so that we can be witnesses to the world of the love of God, so desperately needed today.

Aquinas: How does your Aquinas education continue to support you as a man of faith?

Ross: My Aquinas education continues to support me as a man of faith in so many different ways. Almost daily, I interact with my former professors, talking about things ranging from world events, matters of theology and philosophy, canon law, our personal lives, and sometimes internet memes.

My Aquinas education has also equipped me to better understand and articulate my faith, which has in turn led to an increase of hope and charity. The friends I made at Aquinas were second to none. Even though we were few, there wasn’t one man there I wouldn’t have considered a brother. A number of us noted how, had we gone to a bigger school, we would not have learned to be friends with so many different personalities. I carry this with me today.

Perhaps the aspect of my Aquinas experience that has endured the most, however, is to know what authentic Catholic community can look like. In a phrase, it was a real experience of the Body of Christ, seeing different members all oriented towards the same goal.

I wouldn’t be the man I am today without having gone to Aquinas College.

Tyler Ross is pictured with his aunt, Nashville Dominican Sister Scholastica, O.P.

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