William May, Catholic Moral Theologian and Defender of 'Humanae Vitae,' Dies at 86

May clarified Catholic doctrine through his scholarship and challenged efforts to change Church teaching on human life and sexuality issues.

WASHINGTON — William May, a leading Catholic moral theologian and a stalwart defender of Church doctrine on the most contested moral teachings of the past half century, died Dec. 13, after an extended illness; he was 86.

The Mass of Christian burial for William May will be held on Dec. 20 at Holy Redeemer Church in Kensington, Md., at 10am.

A key player in the moral debates that roiled theology departments at Catholic universities in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, May clarified Catholic doctrine through his scholarship and challenged efforts to modify and reorient Church teaching on contraception, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual relations and assisted reproduction.

Like many theologians of his generation, May’s academic trajectory was shaped by the crucible of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth), Pope Paul VI’s prescient but controversial defense of Catholic teaching on contraception.

“Many moral theologians in the late 1960s expected the Church to change its teachings on contraception,” recalled Jesuit Father Joseph Koterski, an associate professor of philosophy at Fordham University and the president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.

“With the re-affirmation of the Church's teachings by Paul VI in Humanae Vitae, however, there began a great movement of dissent — not just on the question of contraception, but widely across the board,” Father Koterski told the Register.

“Bill May recognized the prophetic witness contained in Paul’s encyclical and began to speak and write very publicly in favor of Humanae Vitae. In the course of the decades after that, he developed a compelling case for the Church’s position and influenced countless others to do the same.”


Inspirational Textbooks

May’s textbooks on moral theology, Catholic sexual ethics and bioethics prepared future scholars and teachers to deconstruct arguments that justified intrinsically immoral actions, like direct abortion, as “the lesser evil” in a particular scenario. Such moral theories, known as proportionalism or consequentialism, sought to weigh the benefits and costs of taking a specific action, but this calculation often tolerated the use of evil means to achieve the desired end.

As moral relativism established a beachhead in Catholic theology departments, May contended that moral absolutes secured human dignity and must be retained.

“He inspired a generation of younger moralists, including myself, to follow his courageous example in defending and explicating Catholic moral teaching in its entirety, including in its more unpopular dimensions,” Christian Brugger, professor of moral theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, told the Register.

“He never tired of repeating the maxim that our actions determine the kind of people we become.”

Back in the 1970s,William May launched his campaign to build support for Humanae Vitae after he had initially opposed the teaching. He signed a public letter dissenting from the encyclical while he was a doctoral student in philosophy at Marquette University but later changed his mind, as Connie Marshner, a close friend, recalled in a post on The Human Life Review.

Once he embraced Humanae Vitae, the father of seven children would face a daunting career path, as dissent became the litmus test for job security in certain Catholic universities.

Five years after he accepted his first academic post, he was fired “when he refused to stop teaching in support of Humanae Vitae,” said Marshner. But he finally secured another position at The Catholic University of America’s Graduate School of Theology — even as that institution emerged as a hotbed of post-conciliar dissent.


John Paul II Institute

Later, he joined the faculty of the nascent Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, located near The Catholic University of America.

Mary Shivanandan — a colleague of May’s at the John Paul II Institute who first met him while completing her doctoral studies — said his influence was felt well beyond the classroom.

“The natural-family planning field, in which I was involved at the time as a writer and researcher, was starved for good moral theology books in support of orthodox Catholic teaching. Dr. May came to our rescue,” said Shivanandan.

As then-Pope John Paul lI sought to strengthen the foundation of Catholic moral teaching and respond to new problems in bioethics, May was part of a small but dynamic group of theologians and philosophers who remained faithful to the magisterium and continued to publish and participate in academic conferences.

“Perhaps our first meeting was at the conference at Catholic University that he organized with Cardinal [William] Baum, and that became the book he edited, Principles of Christian Moral Life — the first organized, critical pushback against proportionalism, 15 years before Veritatis Splendor,” said Notre Dame law professor John Finnis, a longtime collaborator, in a reference to John Paul II’s groundbreaking 1993 encyclical, The Splendor of Truth.

May and Finnis were appointed to the International Theological Commission in 1986 and were asked to assist then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the president of the commission, with his efforts to explain the Church’s position on the morality of assisted reproduction, as outlined in Donum Vitae, the 1987 CDF instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.

“Bill took the lead, with vigor, when the two of us, at the request of the commission’s president, Cardinal Ratzinger, were at short notice put in to bat as Rome’s representatives at a private meeting with a posse of French theologians who had come to Rome to protest against Donum Vitae,” said Finnis.

May was bestowed with the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal, the highest honor a member of the laity can receive from the pope.


‘A Spiritual Father’

Yet, as Finnis and other former colleagues and students remember May’s extraordinary legacy of courageous scholarship, there is an equal appreciation for his personal virtues, which augmented his influence across generations.

“Frankness, energy, quickness of uptake, hard work and more hard work, zeal for the Lord, courtesy to all – these have been some of the strengths and virtues at the heart of Bill’s quite remarkable labor for the kingdom’s harvest,” said Finnis.

Christian Brugger, who spoke with May almost daily, recalled his trust in God amid great physical suffering endured over the past seven years.

“I can still hear his voice saying: ‘God is so good to me,’” said Brugger.

Father Joseph Rogers, pastor of St. John Neumann Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and a former student of May’s at the John Paul II Institute, said May was “not simply a teacher, but a spiritual father. He loved his students and continued to pray for us daily, often by name, if he knew we had particular challenges.”

During his tenure at the John Paul II Institute, May also developed an expertise in the theology of the body and taught courses on marriage and the Tradition of the Church. Thus, as Father Rogers mourned the loss of his friend and mentor, his thoughts centered on May’s witness to Christian married love, as exemplified by a striking devotion to his wife, Pat, and their children and grandchildren.

“At the end of one class, he read the letter that was given, in the former Roman ritual, to couples on the day of their marriage,” Father Rogers remembered.

“The letter says that marriage is an ‘exalted vocation that calls one to attain the arduous good of sanctity by embracing the cross through good times and bad, in sickness and health, for richer and poorer, all the days of your life.’

“But he couldn’t finish the words. He started to tear up in front of us and had to recollect himself.

“All of us students were silent before this great theologian … who had embraced his vocation to holiness as a husband, father and teacher.”

Joan Frawley Desmond , the Register’s senior editor, is a former student of William May.