THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD: Essays Catholic and Contemporary, by John Haldane

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD: Essays Catholic and Contemporary, by John Haldane

Tracey Rowland

The collected writings of one of today's UK Catholic heroes

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD:
Essays Catholic and Contemporary
by John Haldane
(Gracewing, 2008, 215pp, $30.00. Available from Freedom Publishing)

Professor John Haldane is a leading British philosopher and broadcaster and a member of a Scottish aristocratic family that has included Elizabeth Haldane, the first female justice of the peace, Lord Haldane, the founder of the Territorial Army, Admiral Adam Duncan, the naval hero and compatriot to Lord Nelson and Andy Haldane, the rock star.

Professor Haldane's mother was a cradle Catholic while his father converted to Catholicism after his marriage. His paternal grandfather was resolutely Protestant.

In his formative years, Haldane attended the renowned St Aloysius College, a Jesuit School in Glasgow. His grandfather never complained about this, but he did explain to his grandson that the reason why the pope wears dresses is to hide his cloven hooves.

Professor Haldane studied at the Kent Institute of Art and Design in Rochester and the Wimbledon School of Art in London. He also received a BA in Philosophy from Birkbeck College of the University of London in 1980 and a PhD in 1984. His academic interests have thus been in art and philosophy.

He is credited with coining the term "analytical Thomism" and he is himself a Thomist in the analytic tradition. This term refers to those philosophers, mostly in American and British universities, who apply the methodology of analytical philosophy to the study of the works of St Thomas Aquinas.

Haldane's promotion of analytical Thomism has opened a space for the serious study of the ideas of St Thomas in some of the greatest universities in the world. As an atheist student influenced by this school once said to me, "Aquinas is alright, he had some interesting ideas, he probably joined the Dominicans because it was the only way to gain access to books in the 13th century".

Such a judgment may not be ideal, but without Haldane's work the same student may never have heard of Aquinas.

Haldane has also lectured at the prestigious Thomistic Institute at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and edited the Journal of Medieval Philosophy and Theology as well as acting as the editor of the six-volume Modern Writings on Thomism.

Since 2000 he has been at the University of St Andrews as a professor and director of the graduate program, director of teaching in philosophy and director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs. In 2003-4 he was invited to deliver the Gifford Lectures at the University of Aberdeen which is one of the greatest honours available in British academic life.

Catholic hero

Thus Haldane is something of a Catholic hero in the United Kingdom and given his stature he is often invited to publish short opinion pieces in newspapers and magazines that are not pitched at a high academic level. The present book, The Church and the World, brings together a number of those pieces which any reasonably educated person can follow. The essays cover such themes as Catholicism in the age of liberalism, sectarianism and culture, popes and other mortals, religious art and architecture, and Catholic schools.

My favourite essay was number 14 which carries the title: "The Church cannot do without intellectuals". There needs to be an engagement between the Church and the world and this cannot occur if the intellectual life of the Church is dead or boring, if it appears to have nothing to offer the world. In order to be able to engage the world, Catholics need to know who the cultural elites of the world are, what they are thinking, what books they are reading and with whom they are having breakfast.

Haldane is an example of someone who can "cut it" in the most elite cultural centres of the Anglophone world and in many of the essays in this work he is clearly imploring others to join him.

I imagine it is rather lonely being the only Catholic intellectual at St Andrews. Francesca Murphy is some 165 miles north at Aberdeen and Fergus Kerr is 100 miles south at Edinburgh. Otherwise most of the barracking for the Catholic Church in Scotland goes on at football matches by Celtics fans and their intellectual arguments are not very strong.

Since Haldane makes reference to the social trouble engendered by fans of the Catholic and Protestant football teams, I thought I should do some googling on this subject. I found a page of the Celtics' songs and the following lyrics are typical of the genre:

Bless them all, bless them all,
The pope and St Vincent de Paul

(Expletive) your King Billy 'cos he's down in hell
(Expletive) your John Knox, 'cos he's down there as well
For we won't be mastered by no Orange bastard
Bless them all, bless them all.

Against such a cultural background Haldane acknowledges the Church's limitations in this area of intellectual service to the world at this time. He concedes that "Ill-formed in faith, un-rigorous in thought, and socially conformist in disposition, the new Catholic middle classes have little interest in intellectual inquiry or in confronting serious challenges, especially ones directed at their own faith". Like so many others they simply want to get on in society, to be upwardly mobile.

Haldane also concedes that the Catholic education system has itself contributed to this state of affairs: "In earlier times training towards teaching had no particular tendency to weaken students' faith, and they viewed it, quite properly, as a form of preparation for entry to an important profession through which they could also serve communities. With the ambition of former teacher training colleges to attain university status, however, came a corresponding ambition to provide additional degree programs and these tended to be in line with current secular fashions in social and cultural studies".

Those who attend such institutions become imbued with the secular ideologies and then they graduate to become teachers at Catholic schools and the whole destructive cycle repeats itself.

In this context Haldane writes: "The result of this situation is that Catholics know little about the history of their faith, its distinctive content, its theological, philosophical, literary and artistic products, its traditions of spirituality, the nature and modes of grace, the gravity of sin, and so on. Some of these matters should be known about as part of Catholic cultural literacy, some for the intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual treasures they offer, and others as matters of practical religion, truths necessary for salvation".

Cultural landscape

Readers will also enjoy Haldane's snapshots of the Calvinist and Catholic character dispositions which have been perennial features of the Scottish cultural landscape since the time of the Reformation.

The Scottish Catholic temperament is passionate and romantic in the sense of idealistic and willing to give everything for an idea. The Calvinists by contrast are practical types - they are renowned throughout the world for their feats of engineering. If you want to build a bridge they are the people to consult - but they are dour and unromantic. The concept of Calvinist poetry is like that of a square circle.

Significantly, these differences don't only play out in professional choices, more fundamentally they affect one's whole approach to sacramentality and to the transcendental of beauty. In this context Haldane argues that Catholics by nature have an artistic and intellectual sensibility - they engage the world with their whole souls, their intellects, memories, imaginations and wills. The Calvinist disposition, however, is mis- trustful of the heart, of memory and the imagination.

Haldane is grateful to have been brought up in a family where it was quite okay for a boy to take an interest in art. He writes: "Since childhood I was brought up to deal with reflective abstract concepts like the metaphorical, the metaphysical and the sacramental. In later life there was a thankfully smooth transition of these concepts from the purely religious sphere to the artistic sphere, although these two things are the one and the same for me ... The Catholic and the artist, at a fundamental level, can understand each other because the origins of their most precious metaphorical concepts are the same".

Many of these themes resonate with statements of Pope Benedict XVI who is often in trouble for suggesting that beauty is an important part of the Christian order. He has to contend with his own internal brand of Calvinism which is Jansenism - the Belgian heresy that got exported to France, then to Ireland and countries of the new world like Australia and the United States, by Irish missionaries who got infected with the heresy by French priests fleeing from the French Revolution.

Jansenism is a Catholic version of Calvinism which is hostile to beauty and sensuality in general. It was in part against the Jansenist attitude to sexuality that John Paul II composed his series of lectures known as the theology of the body, and the Jansenist attitude to liturgy - that the more mundane it is the better - continues to plague the Church in countries like Australia and the United States where Jansenist Irish clergy were influential.

It is well known that in early Australian colonial history there was almost a riot among the Irish faithful in Sydney when an English Benedictine bishop tried to promote Gregorian chant.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis (2007) Pope Benedict wrote that everything related to the Eucharist should be marked by beauty. He has also written that he is convinced that the true apologetics for the Christian message, the most persuasive proof of its truth, offsetting everything that may appear negative, are the saints, on the one hand, and the beauty that the faith has generated, on the other.

Professor Haldane's essays could thus be said to cover themes central to the concerns of the last two papacies: there is an affirmation of the indispensability of the intellectual apostolate in the life of the Church and there is an affirmation of the significance of the arts and the transcendental of beauty which is particularly associated with the papacy of Benedict XVI.

One could say that in his own work Haldane combines the Thomist quest for truth associated with John Paul II with the Augustinian love of beauty associated with Benedict XVI and that he unites the true and the beautiful with the good in his various essays on moral topics.

The French poet Paul Claudel wrote that the "crisis [of European Catholicism] which reached its most acute phase in the 19th century, was not primarily an intellectual crisis ... [he] would prefer to say that it was the tragedy of a starved imagination".

In other words, Catholics stopped being passionate, idealistic and romantic - they lost interest in the world of ideas, and in art and music and great literature because they narrowed their imaginations. They started to think more like Scottish Calvinists and became pragmatic, shallow and boring.

The essays in this work by Haldane are thus an antidote to a dour Catholicism pared down to concerns about morals and the performance of one's duties. They are fun to read and provide insights into the impoverished state of Catholic educational institutions and our intellectual life in general.

If you have friends who are persecuted Catholic intellectuals, or thwarted and unappreciated Catholic artists, then this book will cheer them up; and if you have friends who seem to be sinking into a pit of Protestant pragmatism or need to be liberated from the bog of Jansenism, then this book should also find its way into their next birthday basket or Christmas stocking.

Professor Tracey Rowland is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and author of Ratzinger's Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI. The above is the text of Dr Rowland's recent address to launch Dr Haldane's book in the Melbourne Archdiocese.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.