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Catholic philosopher reflects on faith, reason and Christianity in Australia


A world-renowned academic and Papal Advisor to the Vatican, Professor Haldane was in Australia to teach a unit within the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Sydney Campus and also gave a public lecture at the university’s Fremantle Campus. Photo: Supplied

By Rachel Curry

Many Christians may feel as if they are currently under attack in Australia but, according to Catholic philosopher, John Haldane, they can take solace in the patterns of history.

A world-renowned academic and Papal Advisor to the Vatican, Professor Haldane was in Australia to teach a unit within the School of Philosophy and Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia’s Sydney Campus.

In an interview with The eRecord journalist Rachel Curry while in Perth, he said history showed us that “what can look extremely important at a given time can turn out to be very superficial over the longer term”.

He believed this applied to the current progressive movement, which is behind the push for same-sex marriage and other reforms.

“By the end of the 19th century, in France and the United Kingdom and Germany, it looked like civilisation had reached an unparalleled peak,” he said.

“And that was represented in Britain by the long reign of Queen Victoria. At one point, two thirds of the population were under British governance; it was the largest empire the world had ever known.

“Within 50 years, you’d had two world wars that had shattered western civilisation and that empire was over. And Britain is now, within a century, an offshore island in Europe that is not currently sure that it even wants to be part of Europe anymore.

“So, I would say to any young person, study history. The so-called ‘right side of history’ tends to collapse very quickly.”

Professor Haldane said the Catholic Church had been around for 2,000 years and was not going to disappear any time soon; the current form of liberalism, on the other hand, would end within a generation.

He added that the reason the progressive moment had taken hold so strongly in Australia was because the country was desperate to forge a new identity independent of its British past.

“In order to show that it’s modern, it has to reject its own past, so there’s a lot of the rejection of more historic images of Australia,” he said.

“Whether that’s from the question of the monarchy or Anzac Day on one side, or whether it’s family relationships or sexual ethics on the other, there’s a very determined effort to attack what it sees as institutions or beliefs or values that represent the older way.

“So, I think that’s one reason or example why the Catholic Church is under increasing attack in Australia.”

Professor Haldane’s own faith journey is a slightly unusual one.

Born in Scotland, he was raised by a Catholic mother and a Presbyterian father, who later converted to Catholicism.

However, as his fiercely anti-Catholic Presbyterian grandfather also lived with the family, he “grew up to some degree with two traditions”.

Professor Haldane said his religiously diverse background provided him with a solid foundation for his faith.

“At quite an early age, seven or eight, by that point I was already steeped in religion but also in philosophical interests and art interests, and I’ve never really since then seriously doubted, I’ve just added layer upon layer upon layer,” he said.

“Of course, one questions and thinks hard and all the rest of it, but I would think having been brought up in a serious religious environment… that, from an early age, I had to think hard about it.”

Educated by the Jesuits, Professor Haldane went on to study visual art, education and philosophy, becoming particularly interested in the Catholic philosophical tradition.

The author of books including Atheism and Theism, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion and Faithful Reason, he has a strong interest in the relationship between faith and reason.

However, he said that he didn’t believe it was necessary for faith to be based on reason, only that faith was rational.

“What I mean by that is I don’t think each person somehow needs to reason themselves into faith – in fact, I don’t think that really can be done, because faith is something beyond reason, it’s a gift – but I think that, when thinking about what one believes, one has to observe certain standards of rationality,” he said.

Referring to weaknesses in faith, Professor Haldane provided the examples of Catholics who believe in magic, such as weeping statues, and Catholics who believe that they can be saved through their good works.

“So, I think those two things are open to criticism by reason, but I think that, at the end of the day, I believe what I believe because it was handed to me by somebody, to whom it was handed, by someone to whom it was handed, going back through the generations all the way back to the apostles, and the apostles themselves receiving it from Jesus Christ,” he said.

“So, in that sense my faith is Biblical, and that revelation has been given to us through the Church over the centuries through the succession of bishops, the successors of the apostles and of Peter.”