William May's New Career

Interview With Culture of Life Foundation Senior Fellow

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By C. Jeremy Lagasse and Jacinta Latawiec

WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 26, 2008 (Zenit.org).- After a lifetime of work dedicated to defending life and developing Catholic bioethics, William E. May is embarking on a new career at 80.

This fall, May agreed to be a senior fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation, founded in 1997 to educate the medical and academic community on the latest bioethical and ethical issues threatening the sanctity of human life.

Last month the Washington, D.C.-based foundation hosted its first annual William E. May Award for Promoting Ethics and the Human Person.

In this interview with ZENIT, May discusses his new responsibilities at the foundation, and what he thinks are the major bioethical challenges of today.

Q: What attracted you to the Culture of Life Foundation?

May: Years ago, when Robert Best was director of the Culture of Life Foundation, I did a number of essays for him. Early this year Jennifer Kimball, new executive director, invited me to serve as senior fellow on my own terms, following my retirement at age 80 as the Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America.

I am now attempting to do this. The foundation is seeking to make a greater impact on public policy and I hope that I can in some way be of help in this.

Q: What do you think you will be able to bring to the foundation?

May: I am well-known for my work in fundamental moral theology, marriage and human sexuality, bioethical issues, natural law, etc. I believe that I can contribute solid research in these areas and in articles and other publications of the foundation. I can also assist young interns in learning how to do research.

Q: What are the latest ethical and bioethical issues, both in the United States and Europe?

May: The greatest danger to a culture of life and a civilization of love is the contemporary claim, central to the culture of death, which distinguishes between being a living member of the human species and being a person. This false distinction, along with the claim that we are guilty of "specieism" if we think that members of the human species are all persons and superior by reason of their personhood to other animals, is at the heart of abortion, human embryonic stem cell research, the new reproductive technologies, euthanasia, etc.

It is in turn rooted in a dualistic understanding of the human person that regards the "person" as an entity enjoying exercisable cognitive abilities and at least an incipient autonomy, and the human body as of itself part of the subhuman and subpersonal world over which the "person" has been given dominion.

This view is also linked to the notion that "persons," so conceived, are the measure of all things, including the moral order, and there is no transcendent source of meaning and value that is more than human. This claim is not at all new. It was the hallmark of the sophists of old, whose claim was that "man is the measure of all things." This "sophistic claim" was torn to shreds by Socrates, especially in dialogues such as the "Gorgias."

Modern sophists, and they include our contemporaries who scoff at the idea that God exists and think that human animals do not differ radically in kind from other kinds of animals and that the brain is the mind, should reread and think about Socrates' devastating critique of the sophists of his day. By "transcendent source of meaning and value that is more than human" I am of course referring to the one and only God whose loving plan for human existence is his eternal law in which we can participate.

This entire way of thinking, unfortunately, has taken hold in the minds of many influential dissenting theologians, and those whom they have influenced, something made clear in many documents from Pope John Paul II, including "Veritatis Splendor" and "Evangelium Vitae."

Q: Tell us a little about your latest publication, the second edition of "Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life."

May: The second edition of "Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life" was needed to take into account the many developments in bioethics since publication of the first edition in 2000. In it I take up in much more detail the question, disputed by Catholic authors loyal to the magisterium, of "rescuing" frozen and abandoned embryos, newer scientific evidence relevant to abortion and to coping with ectopic pregnancies, recent developments in stem-cell research both with use of adult stem cells and the ability now to convert adult stem cells to induced pluripotent stem cells, etc.

I thoroughly revised my earlier views regarding proxy consent in the non-therapeutic situation in light of criticism by members of the Pontifical Academy of Life. In the first edition of that work I rejected completely as intrinsically unethical any so-called "proxy consent" by parents or others for infants or other "voiceless patients" to their participation in experiments that were not therapeutic -- i.e., for the benefit of the infants or other voiceless patients" -- but were rather for the sake of gaining knowledge and of perhaps being of benefit to others.

My position, I came to realize, was an overreaction to a very flawed position on this topic championed by Jesuit Father Richard McCormick. In the early 2000s I was invited to give a paper on this subject at a forthcoming meeting of the Pontifical Academy for Life. At a preliminary meeting when speakers presented the papers they would give at the plenary session, members of the Academy for whom I have great respect criticized my position as too restrictive.

I then reread the position developed by Germain Grisez in his treatment of this issue in his "Living a Christian Life" and reworked my paper to the satisfaction of myself and the members of the Pontifical Academy and I delivered the paper at the plenary session in February 2003.

In the second edition I also incorporated Pope John Paul II's teaching on feeding and hydrating persons alleged to be in the "vegetative" state, and defended his teaching from the vicious attacks leveled against it by dissenting Catholic theologians. I integrated into the text the definitive defense of the Pope's teaching by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in August 2007 in a letter with commentary to the bishops of the United States.

I also thoroughly revised and brought up-to-date the final chapter devoted to the question of determining when a person has died and the issue of organ transplants both from the living and those who have died.

Q: Does "Humanae Vitae" still apply to today's world?

May: "Humanae Vitae" certainly applies to today's world. In fact, the chapter devoted to contraception in the second edition of "Catholic Bioethics" argues that contraception is indeed the "gateway" to the culture of death.

John Paul II in "Familiaris Consortio," No. 32, perceptively noted that "difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle: it is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality."

John Paul II did not seek to show that this is true in his document, but that is the burden of that chapter in my book.

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On the Net:

Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life: www.amazon.com/Catholic-Bioethics-Gift-Human-Life/dp/1592763308/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1225047825&sr=8-1

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Both C. Jeremy Lagasse and Jacinta Latawiec are students at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, New Hampshire.