In collaboration with Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS), the Archdiocese of Melbourne has hosted a virtual lecture series by Professor John Haldane, one of the most prominent Catholic philosophers in the world today. The Catholic Contribution explores the nature of Catholic identity and what it is that Catholicism has contributed to the world as we know it.

In the opening lecture, Professor Haldane discussed the set of problems that currently face the Church. Firstly, there is the problem of the Church’s reputation in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals. Secondly, there is the problem of deep ignorance, both outside and inside the Church, as to the history and contributions of Catholicism over the centuries. Thirdly, there is the modern preoccupation with the present moment which prevents us from thinking objectively about things of value. And fourthly, he said that ‘we suffer from a shallow and weaponised notion of identity.’

It is to this question of identity that Haldane turned.

What does identity mean?

Haldane took great hope from the Australian Plenary Council. After reviewing the Plenary Council documents, Haldane found that the word “identity” emerged some fifty times, giving rise to his intuition that there was something here that needed to be addressed. ‘Where people speak so much about identity,’ he said, ‘that’s probably an indication about an uncertainty about what it is they’re talking about.’

Haldane broke open two different conceptions of the term identity. The first notion, a prevalent one in the twenty-first century, is what he calls the ‘subjective perspective on identity.’ This is a form of identity that is based upon certain psychological experiences, introspection, and a desire to differentiate oneself from others whilst at the same time connecting with those under the same identity.

‘According to this,’ he explained, ‘you are what you say you are. The person or institution that speaks about identity in this way has a kind of first-person authority. It’s not for somebody else to dispute their identity.’ It is something avowed. It is something claimed and proclaimed.

The second notion of identity is what he calls the ‘objective’ one. A basic question of philosophical and scientific inquiry is the question: ‘What is it?’ In Latin this question reads: Quid est? As a result, the medieval philosophers of Christendom would inquire as to the ‘quiddity’ of a thing – its essence or nature. This essence is something to be discovered through inquiry. Human experience and introspection play their role but people are not infallible authorities even when it comes to their own identity. Asking about the nature of a thing allows us to investigate it more deeply using methods that are appropriate to the thing itself. This second, more objective approach to identity is more helpful when it comes to understanding the nature of a specifically Roman Catholic identity, Haldane said.

It requires us to think more deeply, particularly historically, more extensively, about what it means to be Catholic, to get away from the perspective of the present moment, but also to get away from our own preoccupations, to get away from that subjective notion of identity.’
Jesus Hagia Sophia cropped

One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic

As his platform, Haldane used the fourth century Nicene Creed which identifies the Church as One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

To say that the Church is one is to say that despite the many local and particular churches that exist around the world, they form part of a single, overarching Church. There is a bond between them, and one element of that bond is apostolic. To say that the Church is holy is to say that it is ‘set apart’. It does not mean to say that the Church is sinless but only that it has been set apart and consecrated for a purpose. It was set apart from the world for the world.

To say that the Church is Catholic is to say that the Church is a universal reality and that in any given local church there is ‘all that is required for salvation, through the preaching of the Scriptures and through the sacraments.’ To say that the Church is apostolic is to say that each of these particular churches has a bond with their bishop, and these bishops, if they are in communion with the Bishop of Rome, can be traced all the way back to the original apostles themselves. There is a chain of ordination connecting them through history.

The Catholic-Jewish Synthesis

To understand in a deeper way this Catholic and universal reality of faith, Haldane then went back into the Scriptures, to God’s covenant with Abraham. When God first called Abraham, he told him that ‘all the tribes of the earth shall bless themselves by you’ (Genesis 12:3). The ultimate purpose of Abraham’s call was to one day be a vehicle of universal blessing, to be, as the prophet Isaiah later put it, ‘a light unto the Gentiles’ (49:6). There was always a question among the Jews, however, as to how exactly they would be that light to the nations. Would it be by their example, or something else?

Christians would read this through the light of Christ, Haldane said: ‘Because it is through you [the Jewish people] that God will enter the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This is a cosmic event of unparalleled significance and importance.’

Jesus’ life brings revelation to the world. It brings teaching to the world. It brings mission to the world. And it brings powers and authority to the world.’

Jesus Christ was the answer to this question of universality and how exactly the nations would come to be blessed through Abraham.

In a specifically Catholic understanding, this revelation of Christ was complete with the death of the last apostle. Nothing can be added after that. Even if there are personal revelations and mystical experiences of God, none of that is necessary for salvation. All that is necessary is this revelation, this ‘deposit of faith’ that is handed down to us by the successors of the apostles.

Haldane said:

This idea of the deposit of faith is an extremely important one. The task of the apostles and their successors is to receive the faith. Their responsibility is to hand it on. And because of that responsibility there needs to be some means of assurance that indeed what is handed on is the faith, and this is where the authority of the Church arises.’

A Catholic identity

In looking historically at the question of what it means to be a Catholic, Haldane was able to offer a more ‘objective’ account of what defines Catholicity. To be a Catholic ‘is to be part of that apostolic tradition in which the deposit of faith is received and has been handed on and is protected through the Holy Spirit operating through the Councils of the Church, those gatherings in which the successors of the apostles come together to resolve [certain] questions . . .’

In later lectures, Haldane covers topics such as the Church and society, Catholic anthropology, the Western tradition, Catholic education, and the four-fold Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman synthesis that has formed the foundation of the Church.

You can watch the full virtual lecture series at The Catholic Contribution website.

Prof John Haldane

Professor Haldane is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Chair of the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London, and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life in Rome. He has written for a number of newspapers and appeared on radio and TV in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia, including on The Drum and Q+A. Professor Haldane is leading an important Catholic educational, cultural and societal project in partnership with the Archdiocese of Melbourne and Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS).