Eric D’Arcy, retired Roman Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, died in Melbourne
on Monday morning at the age of 81. Head of the church in Tasmania from
1988 to 1999, D’Arcy also achieved fame in two contrasting fields.

Firstly, he was a prominent philosopher – he was the first
Australian-born philosopher to earn a PhD at Oxford, and was probably
the most distinguished Catholic philosopher this country has produced.
He was reader in Philosophy and for a time head of department at
Melbourne University, where I was one of his students in the early
1980s.

D’Arcy’s most famous book, Conscience and its Right to Freedom
(Sheed & Ward, 1961), is a careful and considered defence of
freedom of thought, based on a study of Thomas Aquinas. In my view, the
argument is ultimately unsuccessful, but it comes as close to
reconciling religious freedom and traditional Catholic doctrine as
anyone is likely to.

But D’Arcy was also a political player in Melbourne, being for many
years chaplain to BA Santamaria’s “Movement,” later the National
Civic Council. In that role, he was said to have been an early patron of
(now Cardinal) George Pell, and later, while Archbishop of Hobart, he was a guest speaker at the NCC’s 50th anniversary reception in 1991.

As Robert Murray relates in his classic history, The Split,
during the 1955 Victorian election campaign, when the ALP was tearing
itself to pieces, a letter was leaked in which “carefully chosen
Catholics in business and professional spheres” were invited to a
clandestine meeting:

The next few weeks will see either a great victory or a
great defeat for the men working so stoutly to defend the Church in
Australia. Whichever God sends, victory or defeat, it will not be the
end of the fight … At the meeting you will hear the person best
equipped to explain the present crisis.

The unnamed speaker was Santamaria, but the signature on the letter was that of Eric D’Arcy.

Peter Fray

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