On Christmas Eve 2019, while on holiday in Spain with his family, Prof John Haldane received an unexpected phone call. To his surprise, the voice on the other end of the line was Archbishop of Melbourne Peter A Comensoli, who was calling to propose what would become a rather unique arrangement.

Prof Haldane’s surprise partly derived from his sense that ‘surely an archbishop would have more important things to do on Christmas Eve.’ But the timing of the call also intrigued him.

Prof Haldane had spent the last five years as a visiting professor at Baylor University in Texas, a role that required a lot of ‘hopping’ across the ocean with his wife, Hilda, and sometimes his children. As much as he enjoyed his time with Baylor and believed in the importance of its work, he had also indicated to the university’s president that he would be concluding his time with them in the early months of 2020, a fact not known outside a closed circle.

The timing of the call was something Prof Haldane considered ‘providential’, especially since he had not yet committed to any new projects.

Archbishop Comensoli’s proposal was for Prof Haldane to work with Melbourne Archdiocese Catholic Schools (MACS), not in an executive or administrative role—whatever his talents, ‘I’m not that,’ Haldane assured him—but to review and investigate what it means for Catholic schools to be actually Catholic. His task was to work alongside teachers, formators, principals and other leading educators to review various religious education curriculums and engage in ‘formation, formation, formation’.

Prof Haldane is a well known and internationally respected philosopher. He is a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, as well as Professor of Philosophy of Education at Australian Catholic University (ACU). He is also the first Catholic professor of philosophy in Scotland since 1560—and given the cultural headwinds blowing throughout the West, he says, maybe the last.

Having an abiding interest in education, particularly Catholic education, Haldane agreed to the proposition.

Although the world’s response to COVID-19 meant that he couldn’t travel to Australia right away, from the beginning of 2020 he began working remotely from his homeland of Scotland—not something he enjoyed, since he much prefers to work with people face to face.

The fruits of his labours are, among other things, a major review of Melbourne’s religious education curriculum, a substantial document that not only investigates the nature of Catholic identity in a deep way, but also proposes recommendations for how to proceed.

From the outset of his work, Haldane says there were some ‘obvious’ problems when it came to people’s understanding of Catholic identity.

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Professor John Haldane delivers his valedictory address at ACU on Tuesday 31 October. (Photo courtesy of ACU.)

The apostolicity of faith

One way to view the situation, Prof Haldane says, is from a ‘market’ perspective. ‘Catholic schools, and education in general, now exist in a marketplace. What Catholic schools are trying to do is have their “unique selling point”, their USP, and that is their “Catholic add-on”.’

‘For a lot of parents, Catholic schools in Melbourne are where [you can] hope to escape the worst of public government schooling, and get a kind of cheaper private education, and maybe with an add-on. And what is that add-on? It’s the “Catholic ethos”. And what’s the Catholic ethos? It [differs] from one school to another, but it will be posters about the environment or it will be social justice or whatever it is … But it will be anything but apostolic Catholicism.’

In Prof Haldane’s view, the apostolicity of the Catholic Church, while one of its four chief marks —one, holy, catholic and apostolic—is rarely a core tenet of Catholic identity. Instead, many Catholics tend to think in terms that are more modern, where a church is little more than a voluntary association of like-minded people.

‘I have spent a bit of time here trying to distinguish between a body of people who’ve come together around commonly shared beliefs,’ he explains, ‘and a church as an historically extended institution that has an apostolic foundation.’

This is an idea he explored in some depth during a series of virtual lectures called The Catholic Contribution, exploring the nature and history of Catholic identity and its implication for education.

The lack of a sense of apostolicity in the West is in stark contrast to his encounters with eastern Christian traditions. Whether it’s Russians or Greeks, Ethiopians or Antiochians, ‘they all have a very, very, very strong sense of their own history and their apostolicity,’ he says. ‘They don’t think that they are Christians in the way that somebody might be a member of a fan club … If you talk to southern Indians, they’ll emphasise that their church was founded by Thomas the Apostle.’

Catholicism inherits a very ‘Judaic sense’ of being a people with whom God establishes a covenant. ‘And of course, with the new covenant, it’s a universal covenant, but nonetheless these people [the Church] see themselves as part of an historical peoples called to Christ by an apostle.’

As he said to staff and students of the University of Notre Dame Australia in October 2021:

At the end of the day, I believe what I believe as a Christian not because of some fancy argument and deductive theology, but because I was taught by somebody who was taught by somebody, who was taught by somebody, who was taught by one of the apostles, and that the revelation was given to the apostles. The apostolic deposit of faith is the thing that has come down through human beings, over the centuries.

There have been some attempts to argue for the Christian faith purely on the basis of philosophical reflection. ‘That’s mad,’ Prof Haldane says. What matters for Catholicism is not just the content of the faith, what it is we believe—given the sheer number of Church councils defining various articles of faith, that obviously matters very much—but also the ‘source’ of truth.

To illustrate the distinction, he points to the Old Testament account of Abraham’s faith. In Genesis, when God made his promises to the father of the Jewish people, it says, ‘Abram put his faith in the Lord and this was reckoned to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6). Some translations say that Abram ‘believed in’ or ‘trusted in’ the Lord.

‘The point about belief here,’ Prof Haldane explains, ‘is that it’s not believing that; it’s believing in. Abraham believed in God in the way a child might believe in their mother. And not believe that she exists but believe in her, trust her.’

The point about belief here is that it’s not believing that; it’s believing in.

What is important here is a sense of tradition. Not ‘traditionalism’, he clarifies, but tradition: the handing on of the faith that originated from a trustworthy source. (In the case of Catholicism, the source is Christ, the son of the living God.) If this sense of the apostolic foundations of faith are not central to Catholic identity, he believes, then Catholic schools will never fully live out their mission in the world.

‘Recovering that understanding opens the door to a deeper appreciation of Catholic culture and faith,’ he says.

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Professor John Haldane delivers his valedictory address at ACU on Tuesday 31 October. (Photo courtesy of ACU.)

The challenges surrounding Catholic education

Engaging in these kinds of reflections has been a central part of Prof Haldane’s work in Melbourne. Throughout his time here, he has often been invited to give talks to staff, students and other educators on topics like this, trying to improve not only people’s conceptual literacy in general, but also their sense of what it means to be Catholic.

His time in Melbourne has now concluded, and on Tuesday 31 October he gave a valedictory address entitled, ‘Challenges and Opportunities surrounding Catholic Education’. He was not shy about the challenges facing Catholic education in that lecture and detailed a number of them, saying it was no use offering ‘glib’ advice about how ‘every challenge is an opportunity and chance to grow’.

‘Some challenges precisely derive from diminishment,’ he said, ‘and threaten further withering. It is thoughtless to suggest otherwise, but discouraging and even disabling not to look for ways forward.’

Instead, what he offered was something drawn from the very apostolic faith he encourages people to embrace.

‘For the Christian, faith and joy do not depend on human estimations of how things are going, but are religious responses of trust in God, and joy at the prospect of salvation. It is these that must be brought into the work of meeting the challenges and seeking the opportunities surrounding Catholic education.’

For the Christian, faith and joy do not depend on human estimations of how things are going, but are religious responses of trust in God, and joy at the prospect of salvation.

Prof Haldane says he is looking forward to returning to Scotland and reconnecting with his home university of St Andrew’s. He is also looking forward to some gardening before delving into his next big project with Stanford University in California, looking at the ‘boundaries of humanity’. This is a project that will look not only at human versus animal intelligence, but human versus robotic, machine and artificial intelligence.