February 25, 2013
R.I.P. Benedict Ashley O.P. (1915-2013)
Raised in Blackwell, Oklahoma, Fr. Ashley attended the University of Chicago where he studied the great books under Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins; studied literature under Thornton Wilder; and studied grammar under Gertrude Stein. In Cloth Bound: How the Great Books seminar turned a radical poet into a philosopher and priest, the biographer says: "Stein liked Ashley’s poetry and encouraged him to write more. As for the verse novel he had written in high school, she told Wilder that she enjoyed it but advised Ashley to 'leave out the fleshy stuff.'"
As for his conversion:
Chicago had exposed him to religion in its many varieties; in the beginning of his first year, his close Jewish friend had taken him to Yom Kippur services at a synagogue, and a Catholic friend occasionally brought him to mass. But it was only after reading Aquinas that he found an intellectual challenge to his Marxism and atheism. “I was gradually convinced by my own reflections that Aquinas had provided a better case for theism than Marx or Darwin had provided against it,” he says. Then faith entered: as he recovered with difficulty from an appendectomy at the University of Chicago Hospitals in 1937, he started to pray. ...
Ashley started studying Catholicism in River Forest with a priest of the Dominican Order, the same order Aquinas belonged to. He attended daily mass at St. Thomas the Apostle church in Hyde Park and in 1938 was baptized. “The Socialist Workers’ Party expelled me as a scandal,” he recalls, “and I was forced to rethink my Marxism.” He still sympathized with the movement’s call to equality and social justice, but its dogmas and party commitments were incompatible with his new religious path. Ashley transferred to the University of Notre Dame to finish his studies; in 1941, he took vows as a Dominican, adopted the name Benedict, and commenced studies to become a priest.
Although I never met Fr. Ashley, I am grateful for our correspondence and for his contribution to Recovering Self-Evident-Truths: Catholic Perspectives on American Law. His chapter is titled "A Philosphical Anthropology of the Human Person: Can We Know the Nature of Human Persons?"