December 6th 2014

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Articles from this issue:

SOCIETY The wealth of nations depends on the health of families

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Latest federal push for same-sex 'marriage'

MARRIAGE LAW Can state parliaments legislate for same-sex marriage?

TRIBUTE Famed Australian bioethicist who never sought public honours

CANBERRA OBSERVED Palmer party Senate split stymies government agenda

EDITORIAL Behind Obama's unfriendly behaviour at G20

ENVIRONMENT US-China climate agreement a cynical political ploy

AGRICULTURE Hope Dairies' big export venture to China

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS Lesson of Japan's debt-free economic stimulus

EUROPE Will Ireland be the next European nation to ban surrogacy?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Cross-strait ties remain Taiwan's biggest challenge

OPINION Has 'quality' education for girls rally come to this?

CULTURE Visual media crucial for conveying truth

BOOK REVIEW A battle between titans

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Famed Australian bioethicist who never sought public honours

by Tracey Rowland

News Weekly, December 6, 2014

In memory of Nicholas Tonti-Filippini (1956-2014).

I first met Nicholas Toni-Filippini at his engagement party in Brisbane in the early 1980s. 

Nicholas Tonti-Filippini


Our paths were to cross many times over the next 20 years and we eventually ended up working together in Melbourne at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, an institution of higher education, personally founded by Saint Pope John Paul II with a view to fostering a culture of life and love. Nicholas became the Institute’s second professor of bioethics. Anthony Fisher, OP, the new Catholic archbishop of Sydney, was the first.

Nicholas was sui generis. He had an unshakeable belief in the power of dialectics. He thought that if people’s ideas were subjected to rigorous analysis and shown to be flawed, they would have to see the error of their ways. 

He thrived on debate. He once told us that when he was growing up in a family of 10 children his father would turn the evening meal into a debating contest by taking the opposite opinion to that of his children and seeing if they could argue their case. 

Nicholas would look quite genuinely baffled if we tried to explain to him that some people support ideas for non-intellectual reasons — for example, for political reasons, or for reasons of upward social mobility, or reasons relating to envy, resentment, jealousy or whatever.

Because he so strongly believed that a good argument could uncover the truth, he would often invite the most notoriously anti-Catholic intellectuals to present papers at his annual Catholic bioethics conference. This would often result in a flurry of phone calls to my office from people wanting to know which side Nick was really on.

Toward the end of his life, he did start to appreciate the persuasive power of beauty. He was very proud of his daughters. He thought them to be beautiful and started to understand that the Church’s teachings might be more acceptable to people if they could appreciate that they are beautiful as well as true. He became a convert to the idea that beauty is very important for the work of evangelisation.

As a father of two sons and two daughters, he was always quite fascinated by the difference between the way that men and women look at issues. 

He had no trouble whatsoever in working with women in a professional capacity. He was never remotely male-chauvinistic, and in fact on more than one occasion he defended me from what he regarded as bullying by men of more limited intelligence. 

However, he did appreciate the fact that men and women sometimes have a different reaction to a trip to Bunnings. He had no trouble imagining that a woman could be a competent brain surgeon, or an air traffic controller, but he had observed that some of us were at sea in bays of hardware.

He was also fond of telling the story about how he was once delegated the job of making a birthday cake for one of his daughters because Mary, his wife, was in hospital having another baby. The daughter wanted a Mickey Mouse cake and Nicholas proudly presented her with a Minnie Mouse cake (it might have been the other way around). 

Nicholas couldn’t really see that there is a huge difference between the two — both were mouse-shaped cakes with mouse ears, only one had a bow-tie and one had a dress. From the female point of view, however, the difference between a bow-tie and a dress is a very big difference, and he learned this truth the hard way.

His classes were often the academic equivalent of SAS training camps in the sense of the level of intellectual rigour that was expected. He was particularly fond of scheduling class debates on topics like euthanasia and evolution. He would bring a bishop along and invite fellow faculty members to turn up in their academic bonnets and gowns to lend solemnity to the occasion. 

The debates were often quite comical as people who had taken religious vows stood up to deliver a passionate defence of some atheistic position. After I declared the pro-euthanasia team to be the winners for three years in a row, he said, with mock sternness, “Tracey, we had better hope that The Age doesn’t hear about this!”

John Henry Newman wrote that “an academical system without the personal influence of teachers upon pupils, is an arctic winter; it will create an ice-bound, petrified, cast-iron University, and nothing else”. 

Anyone who ever encountered Nicholas knows that he was not into the creation of petrified bureaucratic institutions where the Holy Spirit cannot breathe. He never wanted to be a part of any bureaucratic sausage factory. He was part of an international network of Catholic bioethicists and his research was always cutting edge.

Towards the end of his life, he would tell students that they shouldn’t be ashamed to own their Christianity in the public domain. In his own experience he found that people were much more comfortable with him and respectful of his positions when he freely acknowledged that he was operating within a Judeo-Christian framework. He thought it was disingenuous for Catholic intellectuals to stand up in public and say that their positions were founded on nothing but “pure reason”.

Earlier in his public intellectual life, he had tried to argue a “pure reason” position, thinking that his interlocutors would reject anything that was faith-related; but he came to the conclusion that everyone has some kind of faith, some underlying presumption that cannot be scientifically proven; and he found that people got along a whole lot better on committees when they were allowed to bring their faith to the table, rather than pretending not to have any. No adult is a cultural tabula rasa

This is not to say that he thought that in the public domain one can simply assert something to be true because the Catholic Church claims that it is. But he did think it was quite acceptable to say that, as a Christian, he believed that human life is sacred and is not just a complex blob of biochemical matter.

I worked with Nicholas closely for 14 years and I never once knew him to ask the question: what will be the effect of this action or this statement on my social standing? He never tacked to and fro with the ecclesial and social breezes. He never buttered people up or sought to manipulate a person’s judgment. He never sought public honours.

He lived life at full throttle because he was conscious of the fact that his days were more limited than others, and he lived each day from the perspective of eternity. 

He was utterly aristocratic in the sense that he used his talents in the service of others and wasn’t side-tracked by social climbing. The last thing he wanted to be was one of those boring bourgeois Catholic worthy-types who sit on numerous committees but achieve nothing because they are worried about how they will be perceived by “the world”.

As James McAuley wrote in his New Jerusalem:

Those who have quenched the heart, who do not dare
For any cause to set life on a throw,
Who never walked with failure, death, despair
In long familiar converse: how can they know
What the world looks like in a blaze of glory?
They end as they began and have no story;
With life unused they dwindle as they go.

Having entered eternal life, I hope that Nicholas now sees the world in a blaze of glory.

Tracey Rowland, PhD, is dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, and adjunct professor of the Centre for Faith, Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. 

This tribute of Dr Rowland’s first appeared at the weblog of ABC Radio National’s Religion and Ethics Report

A public funeral for Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini was held on November 18 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, East Melbourne. 


Books by Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

The following books by Nicholas Tonti-Filippini are available through News Weekly Books: 

About Bioethics (4 volumes): 

Vol. 1: Philosophical and Theological Approaches (2011).
Paperback: 200 pages. ISBN: 9781921421914 Price: $29.95

Vol. 2: Caring for People Who are Sick and Dying (2012).
Paperback: 215 pages. ISBN: 9781921421785 Price: $29.95

Vol. 3: Transplantation, Biobanks and the Human Body (2012).
Paperback: 200 pages. ISBN: 9781922168030 Price: $29.95

Vol. 4: Motherhood, Embodied Love and Culture (2013).
Paperback: 480 pages. ISBN: 9781922168603 Price: $39.95


All you need to know about
the wider impact of transgenderism on society.
TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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