Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, philosopher who sought to follow law of love

Ethicist and commentator Nicholas Tonti-Filippini. Photo: Julian Kingma/Fairfax Media
Ethicist and commentator Nicholas Tonti-Filippini. Photo: Julian Kingma/Fairfax Media

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul [and mind] and strength,” as John read to us from Deuteronomy today and as Jesus paraphrased, adding the cognate command to “love your neighbour as yourself” (Dt 6:4-6; Lk 10:27). What does it mean to love God with all your strength?

Google the name ‘Nicholas Tonti-Filippini’ and 12,600 results instantly appear. The ABC’s Religion and Ethics webpage has tributes from Churchmen and intellectuals headed “Fierce Humanity, Faithful Witness”. Newspapers, journals and blogs name him “Great defender of human life”, “One of Australia’s most renowned ethicists”, a “painstaking and rigorous intellectual” who had won the respect even of opponents like Peter Singer. Even the Morning Herald from that alien city to the north lauded the contributions of this great public intellectual and the sheer fortitude it required of him.

Fortitude, patience, perseverance – these are virtues of fighters, of those who champion a person or cause when doing so is hard. And hard it undoubtedly was. For nearly forty years Nicholas suffered a rheumatoid auto-immune disease, damage to his kidneys and heart, dialysis, surgeries and chronic pain. Many a time I’d email him with a question and get back advice of extraordinary quality in double quick time – only later to discover he’d been on dialysis at home or bedridden in hospital at the time. He seemed indomitable.

Even when pained, exhausted or vilified, he remained courteous, humorous and focused on the ball rather than the player. He didn’t want the cheap thrills of academic victory, but genuine progress toward a civilisation of life and love.

That long-sightedness and sheer determination always inspired me – and made it easy to forgive him when occasionally uric acid build-up made him sharp with his friends or bishops!

Love the Lord your God with all your strength – but also with all your mind. I first met Nick while I was still a Dominican student. I had an interest in bioethics and he was then unique in Australia as an institutional bioethicist.

His St Vincent’s Bioethics Centre was becoming famous around the world and Nick a household name and well-recognised talking head as a series of bioethical waves hit our shores. Whatever the issue, Nick was the go-to guy. I remember well attending and learning so much at his St Vincent’s Bioethics Conferences – as water-boy, microphone porter and general dogsbody, he let me attend for free. His National Colloquia for Catholic Bioethicists restarted that tradition – though by then I could afford to enrol.

Nicholas was for decades a leading light among moral philosophers and bioethicists and by far the best known Catholic voice in that space in Australia. He contributed to academic circles through his papers and dialogues; took part in public debate that helped form ordinary people’s ideas in this area; helped inform scholars by gathering them through the St Vincent’s Centre, the ACBC or the Catholic Bioethicists’ Association; gave wise counsel to church leaders and laity; served on government working parties; and advised on legislation and regulation.

By applying his considerable strength to matters of the mind, Nicholas made our city, country, world a better place. “Glory be to Him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more” than we could do ourselves, more than we could even ask for or imagine! (Eph 3:16-21)

Love the Lord your God with all your strength, your mind – but also your soul. Today we commend to the divine mercy a man whose contributions to the public square were enormous, but a loyal son, indeed knight of the Church, a man who’d want Mass more than memorials on his anniversary. Yet Bl John Henry Newman once observed: “those who love the barque of Peter should keep clear of the engine room”; or as Los Angeles Bishop Robert Barron recently put it: “those who enjoy sausage should never watch how it’s made”!

Somehow Nicholas managed to maintain his faith and composure despite getting “up close and personal” with Church leaders and bureaucrats some of whom disappointed him from time to time. For some years he worked in the Australian engine room of the barque of Peter – the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference. Before, during and after that he regularly gave advice to bishops, solicited or not! He also served his Church and community through Matercare, his daughters’ school board, the Order of Malta, the Billings group and more.

Even as his faith must have been challenged by hardship and disappointment, by living in a culture sliding in some directions which must have appalled him, having a restless mind always probing and adolescent children goading him further – all the while his faith seemed to deepen rather than be deflected.

I remember young Nick telling me theology was just philosophy for those who couldn’t be bothered doing the hard thinking or were afraid of its hard conclusions; but for the older Nicholas it was theology more than philosophy that interested him, as he drew closer to the God who was calling him to Himself.
Nicholas’ stubborn endurance in Catholicism was probably partly a result of his Italian genes – though he would have resisted any attempt at genetically engineered piety. And if it was inherited, it was never merely tribal: Nick’s faith was a thoughtful faith.

There are perennial temptations for Christians to either accommodate the surrounding culture as convenient or write it off as irredeemable, to go with the revealed will of God or the best human reasoning but not both. Nicholas the Catholic resisted these either-or approaches to life. Fides and ratio were both exciting and enlightening for him, and each needed, shaped and qualified the other.

The wisdom of Jesus Christ and His Church was not for an elite remnant but for the world God loved so much He gave His only Son. So Nick applied his mind and strength to matters of the soul, to seeking and grasping, articulating and sharing a higher truth, indeed a Person who is Truth.

Love the Lord your God with all your soul, mind and strength – but first with all your heart. It was fitting that in his later years Nick invested himself in the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family.

He was genuinely loved and revered by the staff and students there. They appreciated the intelligence and hard work, his courtesy and availability, his passion for the subject matters and methodologies of the Institute. And what he knew about marriage and the family he knew above all from his life with Dr Mary Walsh his truly beloved wife, and his children Claire, Lucianne, Justin and John.

They enjoyed and sometimes perhaps suffered his attempts to fulfil the Prophet command today to teach God’s words diligently to your children. They shared his ups and downs, and some of the ‘downs’ would not have been easy on them. Their affection and pride in each other makes them a real example of what St John Paul had in mind when calling the family to be a school in deeper humanity and a domestic church. So Nick applied his soul and mind and strength to matters of the heart.

Today we remember and intercede for Nicholas the public man who loved with all his strength, the academic who loved with all his mind, the churchman who loved with all his soul and the family man who loved with all his heart.

He loved God in all these ways, and his neighbour as himself. I knew Nick for more than half my life and am deeply grateful for his and Mary’s friendship and support for my vocation. I know I speak for many here when I say that friendship with Nicholas made us better at being what God is calling us to be. Such friendships can be our most tangible experience of divine grace; they sustain and enlarge us; they are, in a sense, sacramental. Now my friend Nicholas has gone before us, with Christ, to the new Galilee (cf. Mt 28:1-8). And with Paul he prays his All Souls prayer that we might all be saints: “May Christ live in your hearts through faith, so that planted and built on love you will with all the saints… be filled with the utter fullness of God!”

This is the edited text of the tribute and homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP on the first anniversary of the death of Nicholas Tonti-Filippini at the church of St Gregory the Great, Doncaster, on 7 November.