A Marxist Atheist Who Became a Dominican Priest

In 14 Book Corner on 2011/08/19 at 9:11 AM

Recently in “The Core” publication, a supplement to the University of Chicago Magazine, I read the fascinating journey of Winston Norman Ashley, a 1937 graduate who is still working for God and is an example of the Catholic Apostolate.

This passionate leftist atheist became an active card-carrying Communist, labelling his formative years beliefs as “humanistic atheist.”  He joined the Great Books of the Western World Seminar started  by President Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler.  Ashley at first saw no problem in pursuing literature and radicalism until Thornton Wilder, the dramatist, pointed the contradiction out to him.

The Seminar reading and discussion of  St. Thomas Aquinas forced Ashley to think about God instead of Marxism and world revolution.  Of further influence was the lecture by Etienne Gilson in which the philosopher stated that one can prove the existence of God without faith but that no one believes in God without faith.  In continuing his study of Aquinas, Ashley found the intellectual challenge to his Marxism and atheist.  ” 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.”

Where he originally sought a doctorate in political science, he now sought one in physics.  He also began to study Catholicism and was baptized in 1938.  The Socialist party expelled him.  He transferred to Notre Dame University, and in 1941 became a Dominican, taking the name of Benedict.  He was ordained in 1948.

As Fr. Benedict, he began his new career, teaching Thomistic philosophy at the Aquinas Institute.  Since 2003 Fr. Benedict has been an advisor to the Institute for Advanced Physics in Baton Rouge.  This institute was founded for the purpose of reconciling science and religion and rejecting a division between natural science and philosophy.  Additionally, Fr. Benedict serves on the advisory board of Lumen Christi Institute for Catholic Thought established by University of Chicago scholars.

Fr. Benedict is a marvelous example of cooperating with God’s grace as He transforms those, whom many would call obdurate.  He also demonstrates that the mind can remain vital and active in spite of an aging body.


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