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Peter Askonas

Ethicist and Catholic scholar

Peter Francis Askonas, businessman and ethicist: born Vienna 1 November 1919; married 1981 Countess Sylvia Des Fours (one stepson); died Epsom, Surrey 8 January 2007.

Working in his own family business led Peter Askonas to the ethical side of his profession and he became the co-founder, Chairman and later Honorary Vice-President of the Christian Association of Business Executives. For 16 years he was the association's Delegate to Uniapac (International Union of Christian Employers). He was subsequently appointed lecturer and researcher at St John's Seminary, Wonersh, and also as a lecturer and Fellow of Heythrop College, London University.

He was born in Vienna in 1919 of Jewish parents. Leaving Austria in 1937, he came to England and studied at Nottingham University for a Diploma in Textiles and Management. In the early 1940s he emigrated to Canada, where his war job was in aircraft manufacture (production study), some innovative work in analysis of behaviour patterns and statistical forecasting.

From 1943 he undertook part-time studies in philosophy at the Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto. There he was specially influenced by Etienne Gilson, the distinguished medieval scholar and academic expert in ethics and Catholic social teaching, and Jacques Maritain. During this period he converted to Catholicism and, right to the end of his life, pursued an active interest in Catholic social teaching and its potential influence on public policy and business life, and always founded on the principles of Thomas Aquinas inherited from his two mentors.

He returned to England in 1947 and after the death of his father took over the senior executive of the family business Hellasco & Associated Companies, a medium group in textiles, with affiliated units in several European and East-Asian countries. This task occupied most of his working life until the business was taken over in the 1990s. Besides running the business and travelling frequently to the Far East, he continued with philosophy and theology studies.

Peter Askonas was introduced to Heythrop College by Fr Peter Hackett SJ in 1991 and taught courses there from 1991 to 1998 on Theology of Society and Citizenship and initiated series of Inter-collegiate Colloquia in this area. He was elected into the college's Fellowship in 2001.

In the 1980s he co-operated with the Rev Frank McHugh in setting up at St John's Seminary, Wonersh, in Surrey, the Christian Social Ethics Research Unit, which undertook research in Catholic social thought and public policy, with particular interest in finance ethics. This led to a number of joint publications on debt, morals and money. In 1990 this work moved to the Von Hügel Institute at St Edmund's College, Cambridge.

Peter Askonas organised conferences and seminars all over the country, and was instrumental in initiating discussion groups among the laity in the Catholic Church. A book very close to his heart, which he co-edited with Professor Stephen F. Frowen and contributed to, was Welfare and Values: challenging the culture of unconcern (1997). It was a follow-up of a conference held at St George's House, Windsor Castle, in 1991 and deals with the ever-growing gap between escalating costs of welfare to meet a wide range of social needs and available resources.

A further book entitled Social Inclusion: possibilities and tension followed in 2000. Co-edited with Angus Stewart, it examines against the background of globalisation, risk and cultural pluralism the problem of social exclusion and its possible remedies.

Peter Askonas had many interests and passions. His great love was the mountains, and he conquered many of the 4,000m peaks in the Alps. He was a member of the Swiss Alpine Club, section Zermatt, for 50 years.

He was also a music lover and connoisseur and was close friends with the singers Hans Hotter, Sena Jurinac, Hermann Prey and others, whom he knew through his sister Lies Askonas, the impresario and founder in 1955 of the Lies Askonas agency, now Askonas Holt.

Stephen Frowen