Fr Francis Harman RIP: bioethicist of distinction

Fr Francis Harman RIP: bioethicist of distinction

Dr Joseph Santamaria

Dr Joseph Santamaria, who knew Father Frank Harman personally for over 30 years, shared many of his interests and worked closely with him in the fields of bio-ethics and health care, pays tribute to an outstanding Catholic priest who died late last September. Dr Santamaria has recently had published 'Drugs Dilemma: a Way Forward', available through AD Books.

In his panegyric during the Requiem Mass for the late Fr Francis Harman, Archbishop George Pell noted that "Father Harman became internationally known and respected as a church lawyer - he combined an unusually clear grasp of first principles with a formidable legal dexterity and capacity for lateral thinking. He had a keen eye for the salvation of souls, which is always the supreme law in the Church, and an equally acute understanding that this could be achieved in more than one way."

Fr Francis Harman (1917-2000) entered Corpus Christi Seminary in 1934, and in September 1937 was sent to Rome to pursue his studies at Propaganda Fide College, where he established enduring friendships with students from 40 countries. At the outbreak of the Second World War, he chose to complete his studies in Rome and graduated with a doctorate in divinity and a bachelor's degree in canon law, being ordained at Propaganda College in February 1941, returning to Australia in May 1944.

Then followed a long career in parish life, culminating in his appointment as parish priest in 1972 of Clifton Hill (an inner-Melbourne suburb), a position he held until his retirement in May 2000.

Clifton Hill, with its proximity to St Patrick's Cathedral, was a perfect geographical focal point for Fr Harman's wide-ranging interests and activities. He held the highest office in the Melbourne Marriage Tribunal and the Tribunal of Australia and New Zealand. His skills as a canon lawyer and his compassion for those in distress earned him a high reputation at a professional and pastoral level.

He was a member of the team which translated the new 1983 Code of Canon Law into English, a demanding exercise for a person already involved in many diverse activities. Among these tasks was a heavy involvement in the development of Catholic education in Australia. Here he worked closely with Cardinal Knox, Archbishop D'Arcy and Sir Bernard Callinan. The outcome was the establishment of the Australian Catholic University which, among other faculties, now awards tertiary qualifications in teaching and nursing. Eventually Father Harman was awarded the Order of Australia for his contributions to education and to the formulation of ethical principles in the field of health care.

I first leaned on Fr Harman's generosity in the early 1970s. At this stage, there was a furious debate within the Church over the issue of birth control, which had its origins in the dissent which followed the promulgation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae.

At the same time, there were strong pressures being exerted within the medical profession to depart from the Geneva Convention on the question of abortion. I learned that Father Harman was a highly regarded consultant on medico-moral issues within the Church in Australia.

Reproductive technology

He proved to be a repository of information on relevant Church documents, on the fallacies of dissident theologians and on the important sources that one should consult in preparing submissions to a multitude of government committees inquiring into bioethical issues. He was a member of the medico-moral committee of St Vincent's Hospital and a trusted confidant of a succession of archbishops in Melbourne.

By the end of the 1970s, modern reproductive technology posed grave ethical problems for the Church, which went far beyond the issues espoused by the pro-life movement. The establishment of the St Vincent's Bioethics Centre resulted from discussions between the Sisters of Charity, some members of the senior medical staff and the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Such discussions included Father Harman who strongly advocated the formation of a Catholic Bioethics Centre as a counterforce to the prevailing utilitarian philosophy being promoted by the high profile Monash University Bioethics Centre. Father Harman became a member of the management committee of the St Vincent's Centre, where he played a critical role in the development of the centre, as a canon lawyer, a bioethicist and an expert on Christian anthropology.

Meanwhile, he was appointed to the newly formed government committee as required by the Victorian Infertility Act. This involvement with the world of secular ideas revealed the great strength of the personality of Father Harman, who possessed the enviable ability to work harmoniously on committees whose members did not share his religious beliefs or his basic philosophical position.

He was always able to argue against ideas and values that he could not support, without prejudicing his friendly relationship with those who advocated such positions. His whimsical humour was always near the surface of any intellectual engagement but his sharp legal mind would never relax nor be caught off guard.

I always felt that I could approach him for advice whenever a difficulty arose and this feeling was shared by many from all walks of life - parishioners, politicians, lawyers, doctors, bishops and priests, ethicists, scientists and many others.

He was veritably a man for all seasons, but above all he was a Catholic priest charged with responsibility of administering to his flock wherever he might meet them. For this, "He will find happiness and a crown of joy. He will inherit an everlasting name."

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.