Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

More on Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.

I am posting, with permission, an introduction -- written by Mark Latkovic (who was close to Fr. Ashley and wrote his dissertation on him) -- to Fr. Ashley's biography:

A very long life – such as the remarkable one that our author has lived – does not guarantee that the individual has used those many years well.  Benedict M. Ashley, O.P. has used his many years – almost a century now – to advance the Kingdom of God as a priest philosopher-theologian.  But before turning his life to Jesus Christ (he was be baptized in 1938) and entering the Dominican Order in the 1940s (he was ordained in 1948), Ashley was a follower of Marx, not the Master.  His autobiography, Barefoot Journeying, could very well be titled From Socialism to the Savior.  In these pages you will find Ashley’s “conversion story” told in both prose and poetry.  It is good that these many poetic writings are included, because they give us great insight into the mind and heart of a man who started off with the hope of being a novelist and poet while at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s. . . .

I first met Fr. Ashley in August of 1988, when I was assigned to be his graduate research assistant after enrolling at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (Washington, DC), to study for an STL degree.  As the cliché goes, “It seems just like yesterday.”  I was privileged to take six courses with Ashley and, as a Father Michael J. McGivney Fellow, to work with him on various writing projects for two academic years.  What impressed me most about him was his humility, despite the incredible breadth and depth of his learning.  We students would often lament that when Fr. “Benny” passes, a great deal of knowledge and wisdom would pass with him.  Thankfully, our esteemed teacher has lived two plus decades since those early days of the “JPII Institute” – with Ashley the original “pillar” on which it stood – and his nearly two dozen books and hundreds of articles will live on even longer.

To read Fr. Ashley’s intellectual autobiography is to immerse oneself in a virtual “Who’s Who” of Twentieth and early Twenty-First century Catholicism.  From his birth in May 1915, during the First World War, to the second decade of the Third Millennium, we encounter the figures of his teachers Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins in the “Great Books” program at the University of Chicago.  We meet other teachers such as Waldemar Gurian and Yves Simon at the University of Notre Dame (where Ashley received a doctorate in political philosophy in 1941).  We come in contact with his Dominican conferees William H. Kane, William A. Wallace, and James A. Weisheipl in the 1950s (a decade when Ashley would study for a doctorate in philosophy at the Aquinas Institute, earning it in 1951).  From there, we move on to the 1960s and the Second Vatican Council and the events and debates surrounding it, notably the encyclical on birth control, Humanae vitae (1968). Ashley then takes us all the way up to our present day, with its own debates, especially over the foundations of morality, biotechnology, and secularism.

What may impress the reader the most is the deep familiarity with and respect for modern science that is on display in the pages of Ashley’s memoir.  Already, in the early 1950s, Ashley was collaborating with his fellow Dominicans in founding the Albertus Magnus Lyceum (1951-1969) – a think tank of sorts to bring modern science and theology into dialogue.  For these “River Forest School” Thomists, modern science is largely continuous with Aristotelian natural philosophy/natural science.  Further, they argued, St. Thomas’ metaphysics must be grounded in a sound philosophy of nature lest it lack a solid foundation.  Ashley is still thinking about these questions, evidenced by some of his most recent books, The Way toward Wisdom (2006) and How Science Enriches Theology (co-authored with John Deely, 2012).

But Ashley has also taken the thought of St. Thomas and applied it fruitfully in the areas of the body-person, moral theology, bioethics, and psychology to cite just a few areas.  His Theologies of the Body (1985/1995), is a massively learned work that ranges over, from the perspective of many different fields, the different understandings of the human person – in ancient philosophy, Christianity, secular humanism, and modern science among others.  Ashley’s Living the Truth in Love (1996) is what he calls “a biblical introduction to moral theology,” that is organized by the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues, which themselves are coordinated with each other.  Health Care Ethics, now in its fifth edition (2006), is Ashley’s (and his late co-author Kevin O’Rourke) major contribution to theological bioethics. And Healing for Freedom, to be released sometime in 2013, is Fr. Ashley’s effort to bring to bear “a Christian perspective on personhood and psychotherapy.”

Barefoot Journeying will also bring the reader into contact with Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas – Ashley’s two favorite philosophers.  As well, Ashley’s family and many friends such as Herbert Schwartz and Leo Shields are spread out across this autobiography like the Great Plains of Kansas and Oklahoma, from where he was born and raised.  As with all stories of friends and family, there is much joy as well as much heartbreak – the “trials,” as he calls them.  You will read of this and more here.  Many know Ashley only in his many public roles: for example, as priest, author, teacher, lecturer, educator, and administrator.  In the following pages, you will come to know him in a more personal way as he reveals himself decade-by-decade. 

In describing the events of his life, Fr. Ashley is brutally honest about his faults and sins.  He does not hide any of the less-than-noble actions of his life – but not in the fashion of a contemporary “Tell All” book, where every salacious detail is recorded.  As befits his priestly vocation, Ashley wants you to learn about the virtues of his life, to understand his theological thought and Dominican spirituality, to meet his friends and those who have influenced his life, and not get caught up in the peccata that blur the image of God in man.  But more importantly, he wants you to meet our “wisest and best friend” (S.T., I-II, Q. 108, a. 4) that he has come to know these last six and a half decades – the one who has transformed him.  That friend is Jesus Christ.

I hope my revered former teacher and friend takes this introduction as the tribute I intend it to be.  I am honored and blessed to have been asked to write it.  But even more blessed to have known him and studied with him.


Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D.
Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit, MI

December, 2012



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