On Saturday, William E. May will be buried. [www.legacy.com/obituaries/washingtonpost/obituary.aspx?page=lifestory&pid=173463827] The Catholic universe is grieving his passing, but those in the pro-life movement who are not Catholic have reason to grieve as well. He taught the pro-life movement how to refute its philosophical opponents.
In 1968, Pope Paul VI asserted Rome’s moral authority on sexual ethics and issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae. But it was the 60’s and nobody wanted to accept any restrictions on the sexual revolution then in its heady first days.
Charles E. Curran, at the time a tenured professor at Catholic University of America (CUA), organized Catholic theologians around the world to sign a public letter dissenting from the encyclical. Graduate students in theology and philosophy departments were pressured by their professors to sign the document.
William E. May was a PhD candidate in philosophy at Marquette University. As he later said, “It took courage not to sign the statement, and it took special courage in those who lacked secure employment.” Lay theologians were a novelty at the time, and he was supporting his family by working as an editor.
In his publishing job, May had been assigned to edit Germain Grisez’s landmark volume, Contraception and the Natural Law (1965). May admired Grisez’s scholarship and ethical theory. Years later, when he had long been a friend and collaborator with Grisez, he told my husband that it was Grisez’s work that prompted him to quietly remove his name from the statement of Humanae Vitae dissent.
Quietly, because he still had to survive the Reign of Dissent.
When his publisher-employer went out of business, May, whose seventh child was on the way, sent out over 800 job applications. In desperation, he was about to take a Civil Service job when his friend Jude Dougherty, Dean of the School of Philosophy at CUA, told him of an opening in the Department of Religion. A priest on the faculty was leaving to marry a nun.
God can write straight with crooked lines: The academic climate of 1971 was such that because Bill May had signed that dissent against Humanae Vitae, and had never publicized his repenting of it, he got the job.
Five years later, however, when he refused to stop teaching in support of Humanae Vitae, the department fired him.
Fortunately, by then some dissent from Dissent was beginning to appear. CUA had begun to feel the first bit of pressure to “balance” Curran’s outright heresies. So the Graduate School of Theology offered May a position, and in 1977, through the grace of God expressed in a tiebreaking vote, he won tenure.
Through the ensuing decades, Bill May quietly taught Moral Theology at CUA. Few professors anywhere in those Decades of Dissent defended Humanae Vitae and endured the derision of their colleagues. But he was a persuasive teacher, and his students went on to become priests and bishops and leaders of the pro-life movement.
He quietly kept on writing, responding to the need for clear thinking on increasingly complicated ethical issues. Jennifer Kimball, Director of the Culture of Life Foundation, says that he “led the way in the beginning of what now is understood as bioethics.” He made comprehensible the foundational principles of good ethics and applied them to emerging problems.
He published wherever he could: in the 70’s, articles in the few journals that would publish orthodox authors, such as Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Christendom College’s Faith and Reason, Linacre Quarterly; contributions to anthologies, and, when the tide had turned enough, books: An Introduction to Moral Theology (1991); Marriage, The Rock on Which the Family is Built (1995); Catholic Sexual Ethics (1998); Theology of the Body (2010), and more . . . 237 items before he set down his pen. [www.twotlj.org/May.html]
By the time he left CUA to teach at the fledgling John Paul II Institute on Marriage and Family, he was recognized as the pre-eminent demolisher of the arguments of proportionalism and consequentialism.
What are proportionalism and consequentialism? In a word, they are the isms behind situation ethics in the 60’s and the Culture of Death today.
Inconvenient to have a baby? No problem, the sense of well-being that comes from your career is such that it’s OK to have an abortion or hire a surrogate.
Did you get a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome? No problem, having that baby will cause the rest of your family to suffer, and that baby’s life will have less value than theirs, so abortion is the loving thing to do.
Granny’s bills are too high at the nursing home? That lowers your quality of life, and hers isn’t that great anyhow, so it’s OK to encourage her to request VSE (“voluntary stopping eating and drinking”).
Those are examples of proportionalist and consequentialist thinking at work in our society. Decades of “progressive” education have rendered most Americans incapable of recognizing its tricks or refuting its arguments. William May provided the intellectual ammunition the pro-life movement needed to refute those arguments. Did he invent them? Probably not. But he got them into the hands (or, literally, the minds) of those who needed them and were in a position to use them.
And for this Bill May deserves the thanks of the pro-life movement around the world. May his memory be eternal.