In dark days of confusion great teachers are often sent by God to give clarity and return people to His Gospel. Such was the case with Professor May. While theologians whose grasp of the basic tenets of the Faith was suspect, whose motivations were often impure and egotistical, and who failed to reason in continuity with the great Catholic tradition, dominated the universities, academic journals and the media’s attention in North America, very few could be found capable of offering an intellectually adequate and doctrinally sound perspective on the controversial issues of our time.
I discovered May’s writings within this crazy context in the mid-90s, during my year of seminary training. In those days I found it hard to find anything that I could be sure was actually Catholic. Back then two names could be counted on, though, despite the efforts of seminary libraries to weed out truth: Ratzinger and May.
These were precisely the names that appear in heterodox theologian’s, Charles Curran’s, shameful book, Faithful Dissent, as two of the very few who would not give way to the dissent against the orthodox faith, the ire against which was focused no place more vigorously than on Humane Vitae, Paul’s VI’s encyclical against contraception. Curran was a celebrated leader of dissent in those days, and people – both clergy and university administrators and professors – bent over backwards to accommodate the new spirit of secularism then sweeping through a surprisingly anemic Catholic culture. The most shameful thing was how few were those who had both ‘Catholic sense’ enough and courage to stand against this wave. That’s the most frustrating thing about reading Faithful Dissent: wondering where our Catholic leaders were. As in the days of St. Thomas More, it was in a layman that the necessary unequivocal fidelity was to be found. I know what it costs to go against the grain. It must have been a brave thing for May, a layman with no claim to office to help him to stand against the tide of dissent carried forth by comfortable and secure clergy who would never have to look for bread enough to feed their families, people like Curran.
May was a family man who dedicated his intellectual life to what he lived at home. He raised seven children and wrote many important books on moral theology, upon which he worked, revising and updating, until a very short time ago.
Perhaps the greatest honor a lay Catholic theologian can receive from the Church these days is to serve on the International Theological Commission, which May did for eleven years at St. John Paul’s instance. May also taught moral theology for many years at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Though I never had the privilege of studying under him, from the reports of friends who did have that privilege, I understand that he was a dynamic teacher and, not to mention, quite a character.
In a field that is still developing very quickly, May’s books remain relevant expositions of the Catholic Faith on very touchy and often technical ethical issues. His Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) is a wonderful, approachable, though challenging, work, grounded in the magisterial documents and the principles of the Faith. I hope to review this book soon. I would also mentioned his Introduction to Moral Theology, which was probably the first book of his I came across. Catholic Sexual Ethics, which he wrote with Lawler and Boyle, is also very good. I commend his books to you even as his soul has now been commended to God. RIP, man of God.