In Defence of Intelligent Religion

Martin O’Brien meets Catholic philosopher John Haldane.
John Haldane

John Haldane


He ranged over everything from the role and responsibility of the public intellectual to the state of higher education to the contemporary relevance of Aquinas. But first up had to be the Cardinal Keith O’Brien scandal in his beloved and battered Church in Scotland.


The catalyst for Keith O’Brien’s fall from grace was a February 23 Observer story alleging inappropriate behaviour with three priests and a former priest in his diocese. Within two days the Ballycastle, Co. Antrim native’s resignation as Archbishop of St Andrew’s and Edinburgh had been brought forward by Pope Benedict. On March 3 he effectively admitted sexual misconduct while a “priest, archbishop and cardinal”.

Judging by what John Haldane said to me a few days before the Vatican statement that “[Cardinal O’Brien] will be leaving Scotland for several months for the purpose of spiritual renewal, prayer, and penance”, he will have been pleased and relieved.

“My own feeling”, he said, “is that [Cardinal O’Brien] would be well advised for his own good, as well as for the good of the Church, to take the opportunity of formal recollection, to spend some time re-making his soul.  Going away from the place of scandal into another setting, into a religious setting, [on] an extended retreat, and an opportunity for spiritual recollection and re-formation, out of the public eye, that would be good.”


Professor Haldane will not be drawn on whether Keith O’Brien should resign from the College of Cardinals: “Resignation as cardinal is a matter for the person in question. What is clear is that the events which have been reported and the surrounding commentary has been very damaging to his own reputation and to the Church and also has occasioned much confusion among the faithful.”

I first heard of John Haldane 10 years ago when he wrote the accessible An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion arguing why religion should not be dismissed by an intelligent person. He has steadily grown in stature as a Catholic apologist and philosopher on the international stage. His Oxford University Veritas Forum debate with the late Christopher Hitchens is a big hit on You Tube. In 2011 Pope Benedict re-appointed him Consultor to the Pontifical Council for Culture.

The public intellectual has an important role, he says, in helping society think about the big issues that confront it “both to advance public discussion but also give testament to the responsibility to think seriously about life”.


As well as a philosophy and public policy professor he is director of the Centre for Ethics at St Andrew’s and his Weltanschauung is grounded in ethics and his Catholic faith.

He says  professional people such as doctors, lawyers and university academics “who do have formation in the fundamental aspects of human life, particularly if it bears  on human good and human welfare, do have responsibility, not all of them, to do some of that thinking in public in ways that are intelligible to the general public”.

“The Catholic intellectual, in particular, has a responsibility in two directions: [Firstly] a responsibility to the society of which they are a member to try to bring to bear in discussions on issues that affect that society the insights of their own tradition. [Secondly] to engage their own tradition, their Church with that society, to be a channel of communication to some extent.”


He adds “I think there is a division of labour within the community, we have different talents, gifts, burdens and responsibilities. We should not keep ourselves isolated in our own problems and our own competences, we need to   communicate upwards and downwards left and right through the community ideas and issues.”

There is “an educational aspect” as well as “giving witness” in engaging with people and helping them to understand issues.

The night before at St Mary’s he called for “a Catholic Enlightenment”. What did he mean?

He was speaking, he says, against the background of the current secularist argument that religion is the enemy of reason representing “superstition and darkness” and that “the forces of reason are the forces of light”.

He calls this “a replaying of the rhetoric of enlightenment as being opposed to religion” stressing “there is no incompatibility in truth between the idea of enlightenment and the idea of religious faith.”

It has “been a recurrent theme of Christian writing from Augustine through to Bonaventure and so on that faith brings enlightenment, that the Holy Spirit illuminates and enlightens the darkness of human life”.

“There is no reason”, he argues, “why the Church should not embrace the idea that reason is a force, God given, so what I am calling for is for Catholics to fully embrace the life of the intellect of reason and use it to advance an understanding of religious themes, to counter the suggestion that reason is in some way the enemy of religion.”

Father Niall Coll, who hosted the lecture introduced John Haldane as the person credited with coining the term ‘Analytical Thomism’.

So what does it mean?

He recalls the term had its origins when the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre invited him to give a series of lectures at Notre Dame University in the United States about 15 years ago and to come up with a title for them. He chose Analytical Thomism which he defines as an attempt “to synthesise and bring together some of the fundamental philosophical insights achieved by Thomas Aquinas, building on the tradition of Aristotle, with the methods and techniques and discoveries that had been achieved within analytical philosophy in the 20th Century”.

Elaborating, he says analytical philosophy is “a very highly engineered form of thinking” but what it doesn’t necessarily possess is a kind of “solid content”. Analytical Thomism is meant to “re-engineer Thomism re-expressing some of its central ideas” making it intelligible to the contemporary philosophical community and at the same time giving contemporary philosophy  “a kind of profundity and mystical outlook” it seems to lack.

Asked to sum up the enduring relevance of Thomas Aquinas today 800 years on he describes the saint philosopher/theologian as “a massively comprehensive thinker who wrote more than any other philosopher who has ever lived, covering the full range of philosophy, there is hardly any part of philosophy that he does not cover”.

Aquinas writes “in a very clear and well organised form that is particularly suited to the present day”.

“He uses the method of the question and then considers various answers to that question and supports for pro and con. That is very suited to the intellectual climate that we inhabit in which people like to focus things in the form of a question just as we are doing now.”

Haldane adds: “Thomas synthesises faith and reason, engages the full range of questions or issues that might be addressed concerning human nature, divine nature, man’s place in the cosmos but does so using a forensic method of posing questions often in a semi-court like format and interrogating answers.”

Yes, it seems very suited to society’s needs today.