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Tonti-Filippini's intellectual quest undaunted by physical pain


Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

The French Dominican philosopher Antonin Sertillanges wrote of the intellectual life that ‘the the man of vocation should put away and deliberately forget his everyday man … the whole complicated entanglement of impediments which block the road to the True and hinder its victorious conquest’.

This noble aim is a struggle for most of us at the best of times, let alone when we are sick, discomforted or in pain. Which is why the work of Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, the prominent and pioneering Australian Bioethicist who died last Friday, was always doubly impressive. 

I first met him some years ago when, as a neophyte in the Bioethics world, I attended an annual conference at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, where he was Associate Dean and Head of Bioethics. Tonti-Filippini came across as serious, thoughtful and reserved, not uncommon traits in such a complex and controversial field of research. 

But over time it became clear that his work in the field was exemplary of Bioethics in general and of Catholic Bioethics in particular. His writing was reliably measured, considered, and objective – qualities that may not sound impressive and should indeed be ubiquitous in an ideal world, but are in fact the product of painstaking and rigorous intellectual work. 

The fact that he accomplished such quiet feats despite the continual pain and discomfort of chronic auto-immune disease, renal failure, and ischaemic heart disease, is an achievement not lost on those who understand both the fragility of intellectual work and the debilitating force of physical pain. A 2011 report in The Age revealed that he slept upright and wore an oxygen mask at night to control pain. His pain had became so bad that he even considered giving up dialysis. 

Tonti-Filippini had much more to put away and deliberately forget than most, and he did so more consistently than many. Even when he finally brought personal experience to bear in his contribution to the euthanasia debate, he did so with characteristic objectivity, describing the details of his terminal illness, pain and suffering with impartial care, as though anxious to establish the precise and limited relevance of his personal circumstances to the overall ethical debate.    

Whether or not one agreed with his conclusions on a whole range of controversial ethical and bioethical issues, it would be difficult to find a more fair or measured exponent of Catholic intellectual opposition to abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage and the like. In fact, he received his Master’s degree from Monash University under the supervision of Professor Peter Singer, the (in)famous utilitarian philosopher and Australian Greens Party founding member who was often associated with his intellectual defences of bestiality, incest, and infanticide. 

Yet despite coming from opposite ends of the bioethics spectrum, the two had a mutual respect, with Tonti-Filippini noting that 'Peter has a great sense of humour. He’s quite unlike his public image, where he’s always looking for an argument'. Singer paid tribute to Tonti-Filippini this week, suggesting that debates in bioethics ‘have lost a distinctive voice’, adding that ‘Nick and I respected each other and our differences were intellectual, never personal’. 

Much of Tonti-Filippini’s influence on bioethics in Australia took place out of the public spotlight, whether it be through his work as Chair of the National Health and Medical Research Council Working Committee on the care of people in an unresponsive or minimally responsive state, or through the many difficult and complex situations that characterise the work of an ethics consultant and hospital ethicist, of which  Tonti-Filippini was Australia’s first. Again, regardless of one’s ethical or philosophical views, anyone interested in truth, measure, and rigour could be heartened at the knowledge that an intellectual of such fairness and calibre as  Tonti-Filippini had been hard at work on such important tasks.

For me, the most significant of Tonti-Filippini’s recent work was his 2013 paper titled ‘The Catholic Church and paedophilia: Learning from failures’. It showed a man willing to turn his intellectual abilities to an issue that would surely raise very difficult and painful questions for a devout and faithful Catholic. 

Yet even in this domain, he applied his typically measured and cautious approach, with insights and observations that are fair, yet in their fairness far more critical of the Church than many in his position might wish to be. His honesty and integrity proved that we can be critical of the things we love, putting aside partisanship and fears for the sake of truth.

Most of us don’t face anything like the daily challenges of illness and pain that Tonti-Filippini endured for many years. His achievements and his intellectual character are exemplary of the kind of strength we all should strive for, to do our part in the difficult and often painstaking pursuit of truth. 

Zac Alstin headshot

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer and PhD student in Philosophy of Religion who lives in Adelaide. He blogs at zacalstin.com

Image credit: Catholic Leader

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, Peter Singer, bioethics, health, obituary



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Existing comments

To paraphrase the author's quote above re Peter Singer "Nick had a great sense of humour. He was quite unlike his public image, where he was always looking for an argument to illustrate how his point of view was the only one that could be accepted.' I worked with Nick on the Board of Siena College and thoroughly enjoyed his sense of humour and the process of coming to some agreement with regard to whatever his position was. It was not always easy for us to have a common view but the exchanges were always good humoured and whichever position prevailed there was no ill will. I was privileged to be a friend.

Joan Winter OP | 12 November 2014  

Might I suggest Mr Alstin, that Nick Tonti-Filippini was far from Australia's first "ethics consultant and hospital ethicist". He was preceded by thousands of ethical, dedicated doctors and nurses, priests and nuns, all true professionals, over some hundreds of years, not only in this country but around the Christian world. Indeed, his widely proclaimed views in the public domain regarding organ transplant surgery were wrong, refuted by Pope John Paul II in an address to the International Transplant Society in Rome in 2002, and responsible in this country for denying many terminally sick patients a transplant by adversely influencing the organ donor rate, reducing it by up to some 40% from the rate prior to his broadcast 'ethical' deliberations. However, he was nevertheless a good man and almost certainly held in God's favour (unlike me, perhaps). We can all be wrong sometimes - more's the pity.

john frawley | 13 November 2014  

A a young nurse at St.Vincent's hospital Melbourne I was privileged to have listened to this wise and insightful man in a number of bioethical forums. Nick shed great ethical insights and light on various debates around life events and new medical technologies. These debates had to be had as technology moves ahead so rapidly. He rightly questioned and challenged all including his own beloved church at times.There was so much depth,decency and honesty within this man who will be sadly missed. Though I was but just a distant ear I learnt much from him. When I heard of his death I was truly saddened. We have truly lost a treasure and a very special man of truth. This is a better world because of him. I look forward to reading his more recent papers.Thank you Zac

Georgina Gartland | 13 November 2014  

John, Professor Tonti-Filippini is widely credited as Australia's first hospital ethicist. I do not know whether he was the first ethics consultant. That implication was inadvertent. However, a hospital ethicist is not the same as an ethical health professional. It is a distinct profession, and as such does not diminish the ethical integrity of any associated profession. Regarding your claim that Tonti-Filippini's views on organ transplant surgery "were wrong", in light of JPII's 2002 address: it is unclear whether you mean that his views prior to 2002 were wrong and that he subsequently amended them, or that his more recent, consistently held views were wrong. This 2009 paper suggests that Tonti-Filippini was conversant with the 2002 address, and argues instead that: "The determination of death by the brain criterion has collapsed due to there being a lack of consensus about the medical criteria which determines that there is loss of all brain function" www.bioethics.org.au/Resources/Online%20Articles/Opinion%20Pieces/2104%20Has%20the%20definition%20of%20Death%20Collapsed.pdf This may not be the best venue for a continued debate over the issue of organ transplantation surgery.

Zac | 13 November 2014  

Zac, You are quite correct in that this is not the best place to enter a debate on organ transplantation. Surfice it to say that Mr Fiippini's views both prior to and after 2002 were equally wrong. After 2002 he relied on his belief that we transplant surgeons and physicians could not unequivocally diagnose brain death. Pope John Paul defined it very clearly for us in his address mentioned here. Mr Tonti-Filippini, however, conveniently eliminated the second part of the story which was that all such patients were maintained on ventilators and only became donors after successive trials, 24 hours apart, of turning off the ventilators and finding that breathing ceased and life thus could not be sustained. If the patient could breathe without the ventilator, he/she did not become a donor. In this situation life was maintained in full with intensive care treatment in the hope that the patient might eventually recover. Filippini's public views were a gross insult to many good Christian doctors and adversely affected organ donation in a disastrous way for many deserving patients. But as I said, he was a good man, well-intentioned, but on this matter sadly and appallingly wrong. Incidently, he was aware of my views on his position over many years and we traded public debate on a number of occasions in the pages of the Catholic Weekly. In context, I was the earliest of and one of the very few practising Catholic transplant surgeons in Australia.

john frawley | 13 November 2014  

I was saddened to hear of Nick's death. I met him on the Monash Bioethics Intensive at Mount Buffalo in 1990 and was amazed at how different the private person was from the public persona (as indeed was the case with Peter Singer). I enjoyed discussing ethics with him, but even more did I enjoy singing Gilbert and Sullivan in the wee small hours. I extend my sympathy to his family and friends who must feel his loss deeply, even as they rejoice that he is now free from pain and struggle.

Susanna Gorman | 14 November 2014  

Unlike most other commentators here I never met nor knew the man but he impressed me. The only other Catholic intellectual from this country in a field related to his I would consider of his calibre would be the late, great philosopher Max Charlesworth. Nick was a wise man. I am glad Nick didn't demonise Peter Singer, who, I believe, is perfectly ethical and looks after his infirm mother extremely well. Nick by his "silent witness" refused all opportunities for self pity. He did not wish his life to be terminated. He had faith and something to live for. My late father, who died at 94, was extremely infirm towards the end of his life. Not once did he mention euthanasia. I think there would be as many people in my father and Nick's position who do not wish to have their lives voluntarily or involuntarily terminated as those on the other side who do. We need to ensure euthanasia, especially involuntary euthanasia, does not sneak into this country by stealth . Given events in the Benelux countries they could. I find this quite practical possibility disturbing. The debate on the matter has moved beyond discussion. The Philip Nitschskes of this world are deadly serious.

Edward Fido | 14 November 2014  

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