Personal memories of Frans Vosman (1952-2020)

On June 18, 2020 during an international Zoomsession, Professor Andries Baart spoke the words as quoted below.
In due course the editorial board will publish her own views.

Frans got cancer in 2015. From the very start this radically affected his life and ruined it in many ways. Eventually, when the disease returned in 2019, it killed him. Frans knew his chances of survival were slim, but this didn’t stop him from fighting the disease. He never accepted it, he loved life and had pressing reasons to hold on to it. Whenever he managed to regain a little strength and hope, he was ready to try a new form of treatment, a new attempt, to continue. Only a fortnight ago, his doctors told him that the disease had outpaced the therapy: they had no further treatment to offer, his body was worn out and emaciated.

Even though he was very ill, this news came as a huge blow – his mind never gave up and he remained as clear and sharp as ever. His ‘form of life’ for survival was hope – against hope. He received the Sacrament of the Sick on 6 June and when the minister asked him if he was ready to let go of life, his reply was a resounding no! The thread of his life broke on 10 June, and to our great sadness Frans is dead. We are left with our grief: we have lost a good human being, a beloved friend and a gifted colleague.

I had the privilege of being his friend and of working with him very closely for 36 years, and I have therefore been given the opportunity to pronounce a short eulogy. I do this on the day he would have turned 68.

Person

If you ask students, fellow teachers, field workers, or managers who Frans was, the replies are likely to agree on a few traits in particular: Frans was extraordinarily warm and gentle, and approachable and attentive if you had something to say to him or to ask him. He had not a trace of professorial aloofness or arrogance. On the contrary. But his warmth went hand in hand with acuity and discernment: gentleness for Frans didn’t mean docility. He could utter the word ‘empathy’ as if he had taken a bite of something that had gone off.

Frans had boundless interest, first and foremost in people: whether it was a former student who came to see him or a taxi driver who took him to some meeting or other, an elderly lady walking with difficulty down the street, a sick colleague abroad or a young gay man struggling to find his way – Frans talked to them. When he talked to people, he was often serious, sometimes light-hearted and always disarming – he called this effe beppen, taking time for a chat. And, typically, he offered help: he gave the taxi driver directions to the trade union, the former student to a therapist, he sent the fellow lecturer cuttings from the Frankfurter Allgemeine or Le Monde, he tipped off someone looking for a new home about a nice little street in Utrecht, and his friends about a restaurant that had just opened somewhere or about what handywoman to engage. Was there anything Frans didn’t know? It must have been his unrivalled erudition and his wide-ranging curiosity, as well as his excellent memory, that enabled him to help people like he did.

We also remember Frans as a practising Catholic – we may well ask what on earth inspired a young gay man from Brabant to want to become, of all things, a moral theologian in the Roman Catholic Church. Surely that combination is bound to come to grief – and so it did, dramatically, and he paid a high price for it. He never hid his homosexuality and long looked for all kinds of subtle possibilities to stay within the church as a gay person. This is the point where his deepest longings, his critical mind, his childlike piety, and his loyalty to tradition and to the people he loved were at cross-purposes with each other, and his friends often found it difficult to make sense of his choices. Who was the real Frans? Part of him was that he was conflicted, a man full of contradictions. This was both his strength and a cross he had to bear, a source of cheerful absurdity and of constant pain. Frans was all these things at once.

Others will fondly remember Frans as the rotund guy who wore baggy pants, threadbare shirts and always carried a plastic bag full of paper. Or as the man sitting at his dining table at home reading piles of newspapers in many languages, who read all his books pencil and ruler in hand, who could be spotted slowly peddling his old-fashioned roadster bicycle through Utrecht, and who covered the walls of his study with artwork ranging from Saint Therese of Lisieux to mildly obscene homoerotic pieces. Frans’s artistic taste was for the heavy and the dark: he was interested in how power works, in the primeval force of sex, the raw, ragged edges of society, the art of survival, a mixture of highbrow and lowbrow art. None of it was sweet or lovely. He had a few little altars at home, for his parents and his sister who died young, and whom he adored, and for friends he had lost to AIDS. Frans was at home in so many worlds, he straddled boundaries.

Work

But above all Frans was a politically-oriented ethicist, a moral theologian who gradually developed into a brilliant care ethicist of international acclaim and renown. We can see how this happened by looking a little more closely at his career.

He acquired certain crucial orientations in his thinking during his time as a student in Nijmegen: ethical arguments must always be linked to the social and cultural sciences. Even at the time that Frans still operated within a classically Catholic framework, he had an open eye for the wider contexts in which moral questions appear and can be – or can’t be – resolved. He loved to study classical texts from his discipline, philosophical, ethical and religious, but eventually he began to focus increasingly on disciplines such as sociology, economics, politics and public administration – to such an extent even that some observers wondered where the ethicist had gone. And in all of this he had a clear preference for the critique of ideology. Apart from the church, Frans didn’t believe many things!

The fields he worked in were correspondingly wide, ranging from all kinds of theological (dogmatic, catechetical, practical theological and moral) issues to the body, youth culture, educational and healthcare policy, sex, social marginalisation, multiculturalism, tolerance and indifference etc. Frans had broad interests. When he became professor of moral theology in 2000, he announced – and this was nothing new for many people – that he was not interested in judging what is good in moral issues by looking at them from the perspective of doctrine, but that he wanted to work in the opposite direction, talking back to official doctrine on the basis of ‘what manifests itself as good in practice’.

He and I began working together as far back as 1984, but it was in early 2000 that Frans started to take an interest in the kind of qualitative-empirical research from which my presence theory also emerged. This became an important turn in his development: connecting ethics intensely and substantially with a very specific kind of empirical research. This began, as I said, around 2000, and it lasted in varying forms and intensity until 2019. He increasingly confronted the conundrums involved in this together with me and with Guus Timmerman.

It was through presence theory that he first encountered and became interested in care ethics, and when he was compelled to move to the Faculty of Humanities in Tilburg in 2006, the newly-formed department also included the care ethicist Annelies van Heijst – who had, like Frans, been educated in Nijmegen. His years in Tilburg (2006-2013) were among the best of his life, also because he was out of reach of the church authorities. He helped create of the first, and so far the only, Master’s programme in Care Ethics in the world; and was involved in setting up a wide-ranging research group on care ethics, a series called Ethics of Care published by Peeters in Leuven, and of a website on care ethics. We launched a 5-year-long care ethical field project in the local hospital and were able to appoint PhD students who connected empirical research with the ethics of care.

It was an exceptionally vibrant and creative time, and Frans was at the heart of all of this. He gradually developed a myriad international contacts, putting his fabled language skills and his charm to good use. Intensive interaction with the field constantly led to the identification of new issues that could be connected with care ethics. Frans read frenetically and stimulated his colleagues in their work.

Changing faculty policies in Tilburg necessitated the transfer, between 2011 and 2013, of this whole emerging care ethical scene to the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht, where Frans was appointed to the chair of Care Ethics. But he was no longer in charge. The new structure and culture, the new style of management and the loss of independence were difficult for him to endure. For many years he lamented the fact that in the new setting, the ethics of care was no longer being nourished, reinvigorated and expanded by study, but that it was being adulterated by alien elements that threatened to turn it into a toothless lapdog. He was without a doubt the most popular lecturer, the expert par excellence on care ethics, the man who studied day and night to develop the discipline, but he was sidelined. To make matters worse, he fell ill for the first time in 2015 and it took more than a year before he was able to return to work.

But by then he was much weakened and was disappointed at the direction chosen, and he became increasingly isolated. He chose to concentrate on what he could do outside the confines of the department: he designed and edited – often together with colleagues abroad – seven important and, in many respects, innovative books in the field of care ethics. Two were soon published and three further volumes appeared this year, shortly before his death. Two more books are forthcoming and will be published shortly. He also continued to work on European care ethical networks and focused on his remaining PhD students. He put in incredible effort, and has left an astonishing legacy.

He felt he had been badly treated at the theological university in 2006 and ultimately also at the University of Humanistic Studies in 2014/5. He always said that, as a gay man, he had a sixth sense for danger and threats and had eyes in the back of his head. This was true, but what he didn’t say was that he rarely defended himself and never really engaged his adversary head-on (except perhaps his cancer). I always found this hard and, frankly, it was awful to see how this allowed evil forces to gain ground. After all, he had a great talent that fully deserved to be cherished.

Conclusion

Frans’s death means that care ethics must now do without a great scholar, a pacesetter, an innovator, a networker across the frontiers of countries and disciplines, a voracious reader who pointed out new directions, and above all a valued colleague who was sometimes a little strange, not always easy to understand, but extraordinarily kind and gentle. It is almost unbearable to think that we are commemorating him today, precisely two years after his valedictory address, which dealt, of all possible subjects, with the art of survival.

Andries Baart
18 June 2020

About the author: Andries Baart

Andries Baart (1952) is Professor (emeritus) Presence and Care, now Visiting Professor to Utrecht Medical Centre, department of psychiatry (The Netherlands) as well as attached to North-West University (South Africa).

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