A rarity among social commentators: an intelligent, bona fide Catholic layman
THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD:
Essays Catholic and Contemporary
by John Haldane
(Gracewing/Freedom Publishing, 2008, 221pp, $30.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Readers may be familiar with the work of philosopher and social commentator John Haldane, Professor of Philosophy at Scotland's University of St Andrews. Haldane is widely published and highly regarded in the UK, a voice of reasoned, principled ethics in a time when reason and principle have been stripped of the privileged status and authority they once commanded (and which is their due).
Haldane is a rarity among social commentators: an intelligent, bona fide Catholic layman whose opinion receives frequent public exposure, and whose contribution to public debate is highly valued. His academic work has been widely published for some 20 years, and he has authored five volumes on various aspects of philosophy and religion.
In addition, Haldane is a frequent contributor to prominent newspapers in the UK, including The Scotsman, The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Daily Telegraph, as well as Catholic and other religious media, including The Tablet.
Examples of the latter form the basis for Haldane's most recent work, a collection of 25 short essays and articles exploring the relationship between the Catholic Church and the world today. As the author notes in his preface, although the essays presented here originated in articles previously featured in various newspapers and magazines, this volume is more than merely a collection of previously published work. Rather, each essay has been rewritten, and usually expanded, with a view to conforming to the overall dynamic of the book.
Far from purporting to be a comprehensive assessment of the relationship of the Catholic Church to the modern world, this collection reflects the author's considered opinion on what are the major challenges faced by the Church in the present day.
The book is neatly divided into five general sections, which each in turn contain five short essays. Although loosely grouped, the essays are non-sequential; each is intended as a distinct reflection on a particular topic. As such, this is the kind of book a reader may pick up, open to any chapter, and comfortably read and digest without reference to previous chapters.
Although convenient, this style has its disadvantages; the volume essentially consists in a succession of only brief expositions and ruminations, and is bound to leave some readers longing to burrow deeper into one topic or another.
Of course, there is nothing to stop readers from engaging in their own exploration of those issues which they find particularly interesting or attractive, and no doubt Haldane's intention is to stoke the embers in the minds of his readers, so as to encourage a more active engagement with the deeper questions of life, particularly as they relate to our modern existence. The trouble is, Haldane is such an amiable guide, and his elegant prose and delightfully sequential approach make easy what might otherwise be an arduous task.
Turning, then, to the content of the book, Haldane begins with a series of reflections on 'the Church in the world'. Here the author explores the challenges of liberalism (both within and outside of the Church), and notes the responsibility of Catholics to take their faith seriously, paying heed to the formidable temptation to seek fulfilment in worldly things in an age of material prosperity.
Section two, entitled 'Popes and other mortals', features commentaries by the author on both the late Pope John Paul II, and our current Pope, Benedict XVI, considered within the context of the expectations of and challenges facing the modern Church. Haldane reflects on the popes' idiosyncrasies, praising the phenomenal successes of John Paul's evangelistic papacy, and speculating on the possible direction of the Church's mission under the guidance of the gentler, more reserved churchman, Benedict.
This section also features a chapter reflecting on the life and ministry of the late Cardinal Winning of Glasgow, a man and pastor whom the author clearly holds in high regard. An account of the life and times of a Glaswegian Cardinal provides a rare and fascinating insight into the domestic workings of the Church in Scotland, which readers will likely enjoy.
It also reflects the author's distinctly British vantage point, and a British/Eurocentric flavour permeates many of the essays, which again readers will no doubt appreciate. Given that the Church in Australia is faced with many of the same challenges encountered in the UK and Europe (with the notable exception of the still occasionally volatile sectarianism in parts of Great Britain), the author's reflections translate easily to the plight of the antipodean Church.
Sections three, four and five proceed into more traditionally philosophical territory, exploring in turn 'faith and reason', 'ethics, the Church and society', and 'beauty, art and education'. Essays cover a range of issues from evolution to the capacity for architecture to express religious truth, and although some of the territory may appear at first to be familiar, the author invariably proffers original ideas and perspectives so as to provide genuine food for thought.
Indeed, these are weighty issues, and it is a great relief to note that Haldane avoids any occasion of hubris, quite an achievement given his formidable stature in the world of philosophy, and in academia generally. To the contrary, each chapter rings with the humility and goodwill of a man who clearly and earnestly desires to share the riches of the faith, and to awaken Catholics who have become oblivious to the divine treasures and consolations which the Church is yearning to provide.
Haldane is a self-professed Thomist, and he notes in the final chapter the Thomistic notion that by striving to better understand ourselves, the world in which we live, and our place in it, we draw nearer to the divine mind in which all of existence is sustained. The Church and the World is perhaps best characterised as a tool to this very end.
Without relinquishing the ancient wisdom of the Church, Haldane invites the reader to look to the world in its present state; to see that our Creator, our Redeemer, the great Consoler, is here with us; and to answer His call by attending to the world according to its present needs. To the worldly mind, this is a frightening prospect, but as the humble philosopher here shows, it is the simple path to fulfilment.
Tim Cannon is a research officer with the Thomas More Centre.