William E. May, who died Dec. 13 at the age of 86, was many things to many people. One of the most prominent moral theologians of his day, he was a forthright defender of orthodox Catholic faith; the prolific author of a steady stream of books and articles, scholarly and popular alike; and a dedicated teacher, who helped prepare hundreds of young men and women for academic careers and pastoral service in and to the Church.
To people who knew him well, he was all these things and more — a devoted husband and father and a faithful, big-hearted friend of extraordinary generosity who was never happier than when giving others the praise he thought they deserved.
In his long and distinguished career, May taught at The Catholic University of America and the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C., the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, along with several other institutions. Since 2008 he had been a senior fellow of the Culture of Life Foundation.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II appointed him a member of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, a position he held through 1997. He was a theological expert at the 1987 world Synod of Bishops on the vocation and mission of the laity, and in 2003 became a consultor of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy. Among his many awards and honors were the Cardinal Wright Award of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, the St. Dominic Medal of the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice Medal, which was presented to him by the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington.
May was born on May 27, 1928 in St. Louis, the second of three children of Robert and Katherine May. His father was a Presbyterian who later became a Catholic, and the boy was raised Catholic by his mother. Starting in the fourth grade, he believed he had a calling to be a priest and a missionary to China.
After entering the seminary, May studied philosophy and theology at Catholic University. He had received minor orders when, in 1952, he was diagnosed with petit mal epilepsy. Although it was later determined that in fact he did not have epilepsy, he took the diagnosis as a sign that God did not mean for him to be a priest, and, leaving the seminary, commenced working out his vocation as a layman.
May held B.A. and M.A. degrees in philosophy from Catholic University and a Ph.D. from Marquette University in Milwaukee, and from 1954 to 1970 worked as an editor for several book publishers. In 1971, he began his teaching career at Catholic University, continuing there for 20 years until he joined the faculty of the John Paul II Institute in 1991.
He was the author of more than a dozen books, including “Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, and Defense,” “Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life,” “An Introduction to Moral Theology,” and “Marriage: The Rock on Which the Family Is Built.” He contributed articles to journals that included The Thomist, Theological Studies and American Catholic Philosophical Journal. Along with thinkers like Germain Grisez, John Finnis and Joseph Boyle, he was a leading figure in the contemporary philosophical school widely known as the New Natural Law Ethics.
In 1968, after Pope Paul VI published his encyclical Humanae Vitae (“On Human Life”) reaffirming the Church’s condemnation of contraception, May added his name to a statement by some theologians and others dissenting from the encyclical. It was a decision he bitterly regretted after becoming a stalwart defender of the encyclical and its teaching.
A few years later, he was principal drafter of a U.S. bishops’ collective pastoral letter on moral values. Although some staff members at the bishops’ conference in Washington worked behind the scenes to sabotage the project because of its forthright rejection of contraception, the bishops voted to make the letter, called “To Live in Christ Jesus,” their own at their general meeting in November 1976.
May married Patricia Ann Keck in 1958. He is survived by his wife of 56 years, their seven children and 16 grandchildren.
Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.