STANDING WITH PETER: REFLECTIONS OF A LAY MORAL THEOLOGIAN ON GOD’S LOVING PROVIDENCE
By William E. May
Requiem Press, 2006 92 pages, $9.95
To order: RequiemPress.com (1-888-708-7675)
(NCRegister.com) Through a series of fortuitous events, William E. May began teaching moral theology at The Catholic University of America in 1971. In 1991 he left CUA and took the position of Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
The author of numerous books on sexuality, marriage, and moral theology, including the popular work, An Introduction to Moral Theology, May was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the International Theological Commission from 1986 to 1997. He has been recognized with numerous awards, including the Cardinal Wright Award from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.
Standing With Peter is May’s pithy and personal account of a productive life in literature and theology, with an emphasis on a key event: his signing of a document dissenting from Pope Paul VI’s encyclical on marriage and sexuality, Humanae Vitae, issued 40 years ago this July.
In the years leading up to the release of the encyclical, he explains, “I began to waver in my conviction that contraception is intrinsically immoral, thinking that some arguments advanced by Catholic theologians, especially that set forth in the so-called ‘Majority Papers’ of the Papal commission on the subject, to justify it had some plausibility.”
He adds, frankly and revealingly, that his action — which he describes as “a cowardly deed” — was ultimately due to his proud desire to be “counted among the illuminati, the bold, courageous thinkers” of the Church that led him to spurn papal teaching. This immediately opened various academic doors for him, including his teaching post at CUA.
But, he notes, he did not tell his wife for quite some time about signing the dissent.
May’s struggle during the 1970s to finally acknowledge his error and become a vocal defender of Humanae Vitae is both cautionary and inspiring. He readily admits the world of academia is filled with politics and the temptation to go along with the latest fads and dissenting perspectives.
Within a few years, May’s love for the truth and the Church’s consistent teaching finally settled the matter of contraception. His embrace of Church teaching cost him, in 1974, his job as professor in CUA’s Department of Religion and Religious Education. Ironically, he was soon hired by the school’s department of theology and was finally able to make tenure, despite the opposition of theologians such as Father Charles Curran, perhaps Humanae Vitae’s best-known dissenter.
During the 1970s, May recounts, “dissent from magisterial teaching was not only widespread but also almost de rigueur on Catholic campuses.” May’s account of his struggles against dissent provides a telling glimpse of the state of Catholic theological education in the 1970s and 1980s.
The tone throughout this book is conversational and informal, with numerous mentions of family friends, childhood acquaintances, teachers, priests and religious. This occasionally interrupts the flow of the larger narrative. And while Humanae Vitae is central to May’s story, details about his intellectual journey from dissent to support of the encyclical are mostly lacking.
But the book does conclude with some specific comments on certain points about contraception; a fuller and more consistent treatment can be found in May’s introduction to moral theology mentioned above.
Standing With Peter affirms that truth and the Author of truth should be the desire of every Catholic, and that the gifts of the papacy and the magisterium are sure guides to grow more deeply and surely in that God-given desire.
Carl Olson is the editor of Ignatius Insight.
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