Professor William E. May, who died on 13 Dec. at the age of 87, surely ranked among America’s greatest moral theologians and bioethicists. He was also a personal friend, as well as an informed mentor and guide.
Among my lasting recollections of Dr. May, who completed his career as the Michael J. McGivney Professor at the prestigious Pontifical John Paul II Institute of Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., was a meeting that he, philosopher Francis J. Lescoe and I had during the early 1980s. At that time, he painstakingly led us through the origins and true nature of the popular, yet dangerous moral theory known as proportionalism, a very flimsy and distorted approach that was too quickly endorsed and embraced within segments of academia, and, unfortunately, by too many theologians who should have known better. (One highly respected theological journal suddenly immersed itself in this theory, which had no future.)
Providentially, Dr. May emerged just when Karol Wojtyla, the Ethician of Lublin, was restoring moral theology and bioethics to their proper places in a climate still quite foggy after the intellectual storms following Vatican Council II, when even a few of the brightest minds had lost their way in labyrinths with no exit.
Later, when Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell launched its Bioethics Center (c. 1981-2) – a venture undertaken by the Rector, Father Francis J. Lescoe, physician Leo T. Duffy and me – Dr. May gave the very first lecture to a crowded auditorium at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield. He presented a brilliant thesis on laboratory generation of human life, the main argument being that children are meant to be begotten in love, not made. It is noteworthy here that this talk preceded the Church’s first formal document on artificial reproduction, Donum Dei; Dr. May had presented the very doctrine that the Church would set forth in 1987.
Dr. May’s books on moral theology are all top-shelf guides. His Catholic Sexual Ethics, with Father Lawler and Joseph Boyle (OSV, 2nd ed., 1988) is, I think, the best of its kind in English. His Marriage, the Rock on Which the Family is Built (Ignatius, 1995) is also the best in its field. (I cannot see how a wedding Mass homily today can be written without reference to it.) His Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (OSV, 2000) is, to my mind, essential for priests, medical personnel and informed laity. And his An Introduction to Moral Theology (OSV, 1994) is likewise crucial for an understanding of moral theology. (I have autographed copies of all the above, and have used them in teaching theology to seminarians.)
Dr. May’s considerable intellectual gifts to the sciences of moral theology and bioethics were unquestionably refined by his roles as a husband and a father. Such was especially clear in his book on marriage, cited above. Every time I had to write a homily for a wedding in recent years, I took his book on marriage down from the bookshelf for preliminary referral, along with Karol Wojtyla’s drama, The Jeweler’s Shop, the marriage poetry of Coventry Patmore, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and, of course, Sacred Scripture. For a test, just think of the substance of a marriage sermon based on Dr. May’s four dynamic descriptives of marriage: person-affirming, love-enabling, life-giving and sanctifying.
Within the Church-at-large, Dr. May had long been recognized as among the greatest. He served on the International Theological Commission, and was honored by various Vatican assignments. His global prestige was enormous; I recall listening to him as a principal participant at the Second International Congress on Moral Theology at the Vatican in 1988 (at which I was privileged to present a paper on teaching Humanae Vitae and Familiaris Consortio in the theologate, albeit a secondary talk).
Two very personal recollections of Dr. May are especially memorable. One was a dinner with him and Father Philip Sheridan, a lifelong friend, at the home of Ann Geoghan, once a highly regarded editor at Bruce Publishing, by whom both Dr. May and I had been published. The other was an annual, highly personal Christmas card from Dr. May. This year I shall sadly miss it. He was truly so great, so faithful, so courageous.
As a theologian, Dr. May was a giant, towering over most aspirants in our land.
We are in his debt for so many graces: his faith, his commitment to the Church, his brilliant intellect, his perseverance, his sheer courage during a confused period of history, his publications, his academic accomplishments and, in my case, his enduring friendship.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.