A Tribute to William E. May: Free Choice – Individual and Communal

william e may

Last Saturday, the pro-life community lost a great friend and defender of Life and Faith, Dr. William E. May. With his exceptional ability to articulate Church teaching on moral theology and bioethics, Dr. May successfully challenged the Culture of Death. He leaves behind a rich legacy of pro-life contributions – hundreds of well-formed students, profound writings, and speeches — which will continue to influence moral and ethical debates for years to come.

In tribute to this great teacher, we are privileged to reprint a portion of Free Choice, a lengthy and challenging article that appeared in Lexicon, an essential volume for those who take the intellectual battle for life seriously, which was co-produced by HLI and the Pontifical Council for the Family in 2004. It was an honor to know Dr. May, but an even greater honor to be inspired by such a truly great and faithful Catholic.

We are grateful to God for the gift of Dr. May’s life — and for his faithful service to the pro-life movement in proclaiming the Gospel of Life. May this wise counselor, teacher, servant, and friend rest in the peace of Jesus Christ, for he has “fought the good fight to the end” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Free Choice: Individual and Communal by Dr. William E. May

lexiconimageSome choices can only be made by two or more people. Marriage is a paradigmatic example. Both the man and the woman must choose to give themselves to one another and to receive one another as spouses. Neither’s choice to marry is effective without the other’s. Marriage, in short, comes into being only through the irrevocable personal consent of both the man and the woman (see Gaudium et spes, 48).

Human persons are naturally inclined to live in society; they need one another to exist and find fulfillment. Among the reasons for this need is the fact that every choice entails self-limitation as well as self-fulfillment. Some possibilities must be set aside if one is to pursue others. One accepts limitations because one realizes that one cannot do and be everything. But genuine community can make up for this limitation. In a true community one becomes united to others in friendship and harmony and is therefore capable of being fulfilled in others in ways in which one can never be fulfilled in oneself. Thus family members rejoice when one of them does something well, players on a team applaud the accomplishments of someone who does what they could not do themselves, etc. A true community is one body with many members (see 1 Cor 12:12-13:13).[1]

Moreover, in any community certain persons can make choices on behalf of the community as a whole. If the persons who do so act within the limits of the authority vested in them, their choices involve every member of the community. Although individual members of the community may resist decisions made by those exercising authority within the community, their resistance to a legitimate authoritative decision of the community alienates them, in whole or in part, from that community. Thus dissent from the authoritative teachings of the Magisterium harms the unity of the Church and alienates dissenters, at least in part, from the ecclesial community (see Veritatis splendor, 26). As one contemporary scholar correctly observes

The social [communal] dimension of choice is very important in moral theology. The story of salvation begins with the promise to Abraham that all nations will find salvation through him, and this promise is fulfilled in the Lord Jesus (see Gn 12:1-3; Acts 3:25; Rom 4:13; Gal 3:8,16). It is by social choices that the relationship between God, the Lord Jesus as man, the Church, and the individual Christian is established and lived. Furthermore, one cannot understand original sin without bearing in mind that in any community someone can and does make the choice which is decisive for the social choice and responsibility of the whole community.[2]

Because some choices are communal, social sin is a reality. The sinful choices of individuals, when tolerated and then accepted by the society in which they live, become the practices of the society. They become embedded in the culture and in the laws and mores of a society, its way of life, its way of mediating meaning to people. Thus today in Western societies a “contraceptive mindset” has developed so that many individuals spontaneously regard it as the “natural” thing to do in order to cope with serious problems and have difficulty in even considering that contraception could be immoral. It is in this way that a “culture of death” can develop and indeed has developed. Pope John Paul II clearly recognized the reality of “social sin” in his Apostolic Exhortation Reconciliatio et penitentia. But he rightly emphasized that all social sin is, ultimately, rooted in the sinful choices of particular persons: “the real responsibility […] lies with individuals” (n. 16).


[1]   Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 96, a. 4; I-II, q. 94, a. 2; II-II, q. 129, a. 6, ad 1.

[2]   GRISEZ, The Way of the Lord Jesus, 1: Christian Moral Principles, 53. On the idea of a “corporate personality,” so central to the Biblical understanding of human community, cf. E. BEST, One Body in Christ: A Study in the Relationship of the Church to Christ in the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, S.P.C.K., London 1955, 184-207; J. DE FRAINE, Adam and the Family of Man, Alba House, Staten Island, N.Y. 1965.

 

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