Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P.’s Tribute to Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.

Father Benedict-M. Ashley, O.P. (1915-2013) Tribute
Romanus Cessario, O.P.
IPS Graduation, 22 May 2013, Washington, D.C.


The Institute for the Psychological Sciences honors the memory of Dominican Father Benedict Ashley, who died after a brief illness on February 23rd of this year. He was 97 and had worn the Dominican habit since 1941. Early on in its institutional history, Father Ashley brought to IPS a level of theoretical instruction that everyday schools of psychology by and large had neglected for a very long time. What remains the achievement of Father Ashley that IPS today acknowledges? This Dominican philosopher and theologian taught us how to locate the study of psychology, even that instruction ordered to clinical practices, within a comprehensive account of the other learned sciences, both human and divine. To put it differently, Father Ashley helped those who were responsible for formulating the unique vision of the Institute for the Psychological Sciences to ensure that the study of psychology transpire within an authentically Christian context. Father Ashley specifically placed us in conformity with the requirements stipulated in the 1995 Encyclical Letter of Blessed Pope John Paul II, Fides et ratio.

Father Benedict Ashley indeed merits our recognition. The Magisterium of the Church imposes an arduous excellence on those who pursue scientific investigation. The Church does not allow the practical disciplines to divinize data. Blessed John Paul II spells out the unhappy consequences of taking such an option, which, moreover, the Pope recognizes as more than a theoretical possibility. Listen to what he wrote in Fides et ratio:

In the field of scientific research, a positivistic mentality took hold which not only abandoned the Christian vision of the world, but more especially rejected every appeal to a metaphysical or moral vision. It follows that certain scientists, lacking any ethical point of reference, are in danger of putting at the centre of their concerns something other than the human person and the entirety of the person’s life. Further still, some of these, sensing the opportunities of technological progress, seem to succumb not only to a market-based logic, but also to the temptation of a quasi-divine power over nature and even over the human being.[1]

What, from its inception, has distinguished the Institute for the Psychological Sciences among a majority of programs that train students to practice the several psychological disciplines? The Pope clearly identifies that which makes IPS unique: The Institute for the Psychological Sciences stands in firm possession of a “point of reference.” Not, I underscore whatsoever point of reference. The Institute for the Psychological Sciences proceeds from the reference point that Father Ashley, in his 2000 book, Choosing a World-View and Value-System, identifies as religion.

Because of what Saint Thomas Aquinas teaches about the proper division and methods of the sciences, Father Ashley spared IPS the unhappy lot of many religious approaches to psychology. In a word, IPS does not practice fideism. Do not look to the Bible to find specific models of psychological counseling. They are not there! Father Ashley’s “point of reference” allows for a coordinated series of reference points within which each discipline enjoys its own integrity without, at the same time, each one asserting a quasi-divine power over the human person. It was Father Ashley, then, who insisted that the Institute pursue its work of both research and instruction “without abandoning the sapiential horizon within which scientific and technological achievements are wedded to the philosophical and ethical values which are the distinctive and indelible mark of the human person.”[2] To cite another Ashley book title, Father Benedict taught us The Way Toward Wisdom.

Those of you who did not meet Father Ashley can discover a sampling of how he would encourage you to approach the psychological sciences in the newly published Healing for Freedom from the Institute’s own press. In order to see what a sapiential reference point looks like in practice, we are fortunate to have now available for distribution the written record of a three-year research project subsidized by IPS: Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths. Building the Bridge. For an example of what Father Ashley helped us to discover about research in the psychological sciences, I strongly encourage alumni, graduates, and students to avail themselves of these titles. As an act of gratitude to Father Ashley, I ask that you remember him in your Masses and prayers. The Eucharist supplies the point of reference for the whole Church, both living and dead. When Father Ashley described healing for freedom, he knew that he was talking about healing for heaven. Pray that the gracious Lord whom Father Benedict Ashley served for so many decades welcome him into this heaven’s blessed light.

[1] Fides et ratio 46.

[2] Fides et ratio 106.