Dr. William E. May : “Standing With Peter: Reflections of a Lay Moral Theologian on God’s Loving Providence”

William E. May
Standing With Peter:
Reflections of a Lay Moral Theologian on God’s Loving Providence
Requiem Press:  Bethune,  South Carolina,  2006
ISBN-10: 0-97-88687-0-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-9788687-0-3
92 pages, paperback
by Reverend Brian Van Hove,  S.J., Ph.D.
Alma, Michigan

Dr. William E. May was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He celebrated his 80th birthday on 27 May 2008. In Chapter One of these autobiographical reminiscences he wrote about his early years in St. Louis where he had a happy childhood. He loved the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who taught him, and the diocesan priests who served at St. Margaret of Scotland and at St. Luke the Evangelist. He tells about his early dream to become a Maryknoll missionary in China, a dream never realized. May definitely had a positive childhood in “Catholic St. Louis” and his memories of Catholic institutions were a source of joy for him.

In Standing With Peter we also learn about seminary life in Washington, D.C. Archbishop Ritter in 1948 sent William May to the Sulpician Seminary or Theological College as a Basselin Foundation scholar. The foundation had been set up by Theodore Basselin decades earlier to train seminarians in philosophy, English and public speaking. During those fine years May met a number of fellow students who went on to become well known in the story of American ecclesiastical life ― among them were Joseph Bernardin, Christopher Huntington and Jude Patrick Dougherty.

In 1954 May left the seminary and subsequently worked for two Catholic publishing houses, first the Newman Press in Westminster, Maryland, and then for the Bruce Publishing Company in Milwaukee; Bruce (formerly “Bruss”) was the largest Catholic publishing house of the era.

He left Maryland for Milwaukee in the hope of finding a young Catholic woman, and met Patricia Ann Keck, a St. Louisan, on 13 December 1957. They met at a pre-Christmas dance sponsored by the Catholic Alumni of Milwaukee, a group of graduates from Catholic colleges around the country. Bill and “Pat”, as he called her, married on 4 October 1958 at St. Mary’s Church in Mount Vernon, Illinois. Eventually they had seven children. William May earned a doctorate in philosophy from Marquette University in 1968, but continued in the profession of book editor until entering academic life at The Catholic University of American in the fall of 1971.

Since then May has been professor of “Christian ethics” or moral theology. To his regret, in a moment of weakness in 1968 he signed the protest against Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae vitae”. Though he inwardly repented of this act, by 1971 he had not yet made a formal public retraction, and he wrote that this probably made him a more favorable candidate to be hired at CUA. Charles Curran, the mastermind of the dissent movement among the American Catholic academics, was then teaching in the CUA Theology Department.

William E. May spent the rest of his academic career after 1971 promoting and defending the morality of the Church, with special reference to the teaching on contraception and abortion. In 1978 he was instrumental in founding The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. In 1986 Pope John Paul II appointed him to the International Theological Commission, and in 1991 to the present he has taught moral theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family inWashington, D.C. In 2008 he directed the successful doctoral dissertation of Father James G. Knapp, S.J., a faculty member of Saint Louis University High School.

Given his defense of “Humanae vitae” over a long career, and his high profile position at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, St. Louisan Dr. “Bill” May was pleased at the announcement that in 2008 a symposium entitled “The Legacy of Humanae Vitae: 40 Years”, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University’s School of Nursing and the Office of Natural Family Planning of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, was held on July 25 and 26.

The final chapter and the concluding reflections of Standing with Peter carry the title “The Battle Over Contraception and Its Significance”. May succinctly explained the dualistic understanding of the human person which is explicit in the contraceptive act, and how it is philosophically incompatible with a Catholic theology of the body.

Published in the St. Louis Review, vol. 67, no. 22 (30 May 2008): 14.

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