Professors Discuss Fr. Mark Massa's New Book on Humanae Vitae

by Amanda Judah


On November 5th, The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted their last panel event of the semester in Stokes Hall. The panelists were responding to Father Mark Massa,S.J.,’s new book, The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism. Fr. Massa is well-known among theological circles at Boston College, serving as the director of the Boisi Center and is a former Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry. Fr. Massa stated that his work was “not a history of birth control”, but focused on how “Catholics played a major role on both sides of this debate”. Instead, Fr. Massa focused on “a history of different models of natural law that come out of the debate surrounding Humanae Vitae and the birth control crisis”. In addition to Fr. Massa, the panelists were Professor Lisa Sowle Cahill, Father James Keenan, S.J., Professor Meghan Clark from St. John’s University, and moderator Richard Gaillardetz.

Professor Clark spoke first, elaborating on the history of Humanae Vitae. She suggested that today’s generation of college students may assume they know enough about the encyclical, incorrectly believing that it only focuses on birth control. She commented, “Our parents grappled with the issues and then raised us accordingly… it’s a history that we need to know, and that we neglect at our own peril.” She encouraged the audience to critically reflect on the philosophical tenets of Humanae Vitae, specifically natural law, which is “still operating around issues of Catholic theology.” She therefore suggested that sexual ethics and social ethics could combine into an “integrated moral theology” that could change how Catholics view the world.


Fr. Keenan spoke up next, calling his colleague’s book “sensational… an important contribution.” The aspect of the work that Fr. Keenan found most compelling was a discussion of Thomas Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions: in order to have a true revolution, the existing theory must be declared invalid and then replaced with an entirely new paradigm. Fr. Keenan argued that the Church’s “highly authoritarian centric structure guaranteed that paradigm stayed in place regardless of the arguments that were given.” Therefore, although laypeople may form another “moral judgement”, their ideas may not change the official response about birth control. Fr. Keenan closed his remarks by musing about a “future paradigm” that the Church would create as they are now forced to cope with a changing popular climate. While not providing a specific vision, he stated, “conscience seeking moral objectivity brings you to truth.”


Following these remarks, Professor Cahill was able to respond as a subject of Fr. Massa’s book. Her scholarship focused on creating a greater gender balance that wasn’t in place when Humanae Vitae was published, since the authorities were “men, and most of them were priests.” She urged the audience to consider the social context surrounding the debate on birth control, which encompasses issues of family and interpersonal love. Cahill additionally suggested that this reaction was unique to America because of its unique culture. Citizens of other countries did not have the same response because their societies were set up differently. Like the other panelists, she looked toward the future, suggesting that in the “the 21st century” the faithful won’t agree to “any of the ideas” that Fr. Massa presented in his book. She concluded that Humanae Vitae “tried to use a new model to arrive at the classicist perspective,” and its reasoning was therefore not convincing for a younger generation.


Afterwards, Fr. Massa himself addressed the audience, remarking that Pope Paul VI’s approach towards birth control was a “tragedy” because he otherwise wrote “very progressive and forward-thinking social encyclicals.” However, the Pope believed he was merely following the scriptures, and was “astonished” that Humanae Vitae “convinced none of the American moral theologians.” Massa stated that liberation theology and virtue ethics were two newer components of theology that would inform the contemporary response to debates about birth control, although such discussions have “caused a rift that we’re still in today.”


Ultimately, the panel's discussion about the future of the Church and the laity’s philosophical response left participants feeling empowered to formulate their own position surrounding the issue of birth control. 


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