Fr. Benedict M. Ashley, OP, was major voice in Thomism, health care ethics

April 1, 2013

The influential Dominican theologian and philosopher Fr. Benedict M. Ashley died Feb. 23 at age 97. An atheist and Communist in his youth, he converted to Catholicism after studying the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and went on to become a major voice in modern-day Thomism, the school of thought that arose from Aquinas' works.

Colleagues remember Fr. Ashley for his exceptional ability to integrate spirituality and morality with contemporary science and philosophy. He authored more than 20 books, including his well-known Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian. His Health Care Ethics: A Catholic Theological Analysis remains a fundamental Catholic bioethics text. Fr. Ashley coauthored that book with Fr. Kevin O'Rourke, OP, who died in March 2012, and Sr. Jean de Blois, CSJ,a professor of moral theology at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis.

Dan O'Brien, senior vice president for ethics and church relations at St. Louis-based Ascension Health, explained one of Fr. Ashley's significant contributions to Catholic health ministry. "St. Thomas Aquinas did not view morality and spirituality as two distinct disciplines, but saw them as a whole. Benedict Ashley wanted to retrieve this original Thomistic synthesis, which had been largely lost by subsequent writers, and integrate it into a renewed moral theology with greater appreciation for the historical and spiritual nature of the human person," O'Brien said. Fr. Ashley was part of the "River Forest School" of Thomism, which takes its name from the Chicago suburb where he and other Thomists were thinking and writing.

He was born Winston Norman Ashley in 1915, moving from Kansas to Blackwell, Okla., in his youth. He attended the University of Chicago during the Great Depression after winning a scholarship competition to the school. There, he studied under Mortimer Adler, known for cocreating the Great Books of the Western World seminar, as well as famed writers Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein.

Fr. Ashley was a member of the campus Communist Party for a time, but became increasingly interested in religion, and ultimately went on to religious life. He earned his master's degree in comparative literature from the University of Chicago and his doctorate in political science from the University of Notre Dame. He became a Dominican friar in 1942.

Fr. Ashley taught at several institutions, including the Aquinas Institute, a Dominican graduate school where he served as president from 1962 to 1969. He was an associate professor at the Albert Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics at Saint Louis University.

Those who knew Fr. Ashley describe a man who remained interested throughout his life in everything from art to physics to the daily news. Provincial of the Dominican Province of St. Albert the Great, Fr. Charles E. Bouchard, OP, said Fr. Ashley had an impish quality. Fr. Ashley helped Fr. Bouchard and others explore theological issues and moral questions related to health care, but in addition to his scholarly abilities, heis remembered for his sense of humor, Fr. Bouchard said.

Fr. Ashley received several awards, including the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal conferred by Pope John Paul II and a postdoctoral master's degreein sacred theology from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome.

In 2004, he was among six ethicists who received CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award for their outstanding contributions to health care ethics.

Fr. Ashley recounted his life in Barefoot Journeying — An Autobiography of a Begging Friar, published earlier this year.

A funeral Mass for Fr. Ashley was held March 2 at St. Vincent Ferrer Catholic Church in River Forest, Ill. Memorial gifts may be directed to the Ashley-O'Rourke Faculty Chair Fund in Health Care Mission at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. More information is available online or by calling (312) 243-0011.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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