The Structure of Theological Revolutions

How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism

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Mark S. Massa
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this book, Mark Massa uses Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (University of Chicago Press, 1970) as a narrative framing tool for discussing the important 1968 papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, with a view toward explaining why that document was so widely rejected by both Catholic laity and scholars. Against the hermeneutic of continuity view, which views Catholic doctrine as capable of change, but only very slowly and always in the direction of an improved understanding of natural law, Massa posits that the encyclical spurred a leap into a different worldview; in other words, a revolution or a paradigm shift. 

Massa argues that in the years leading up to 1968, many Catholic theologians and intellectuals in other fields had already rejected the manualist neo-scholastic view of natural law because they viewed it as rigid, ahistorical, and out-of-touch with modern understandings of psychology and marital life. Thinkers in this camp had hoped that Pope Paul VI would accept the recommendations of the commission that had been set up to study the issue of contraception and move in the direction of liberalizing church teaching. They were thus shocked and appalled when the encyclical was published, viewing it as a reactionary attempt to maintain a rigid tradition that most modern Catholics had already grown out of. Massa extensively presents the views of moral theologians such as Richard McCormick and Charles Curran, who were key leaders in organizing dissent from the teaching of the encyclical. These thinkers represented, in Kuhn’s terms, something analogous to a Copernican or Darwinian paradigm shift, away from a static, classicist worldview to a modern, historicist worldview that is more open to fluid change in the Church’s teaching, particularly on moral issues. Curran, who was teaching at the Catholic University of America in 1968, was very outspoken in his rejection of Humanae Vitae, arguing that the concept of “natural law” was much more ambiguous than the Pope allowed for, and he critiqued what he saw as the Pope’s naïve understanding of “nature” as being tied to “the physical structure of acts,” rather than to a more complex and nuanced understanding of marital intimacy and responsible parenting as they unfold over time in the lives of actual Catholic laypersons.

Massa includes a chapter on Germain Grisez as a representative of the “new natural law” perspective that sought to defend the encyclical against the liberalizing critiques by presenting a more philosophically sophisticated understanding of the concept of natural law than one finds in the manualist tradition. Grisez admitted that the manualist view was weak and could be legitimately criticized at various points, but he blamed that on the manualist pattern of misinterpreting and subtly betraying the vision of Aquinas rather than on defects in Aquinas’s thought. Massa mentions John Finnis as a parallel collaborator with Grisez’s project, but he oddly makes no mention of Alasdair MacIntyre or Servais Pinckaers, two other prominent defenders of neo-Thomism in the wake of modernity in general and the 1960s revolution in particular. He does summarize the critique of Grisez mounted by Russell Hittinger and the defense of him by Robert George.

The following chapter turns to Jean Porter, a long-time professor at the University of Notre Dame, and one of the leading voices in the contemporary interpretation of Aquinas and natural law. For Porter, the words “nature” and “law” do not mean the same thing now that they meant to Aquinas; careful study of history is therefore necessary to understand Aquinas clearly in his own context and to think creatively about how the trajectory of his insights can be adapted to our own age. In the wake of Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers, there is a widespread acknowledgement that “nature” is not simply observed, it is always in some sense “constructed” by human beings. This sea change in epistemology cannot be undone or nostalgically ignored. Porter calls her revised Thomist worldview a “robust realism” that seeks to recognize and maintain the wisdom that is present in Aquinas while also thinking within a changed horizon of vision. For Porter, a rethinking of the goods and purposes of marriage not only allows for the prudent use of contraception in some circumstances but also provides an opening for the affirmation of same-sex marriage, a move of which Massa approves. 

The next chapter turns to Lisa Sowle Cahill, and Massa finds the main difference between her and Porter to be Cahill’s broadening out of natural law thinking into the sphere of interreligious dialogue. Cahill seeks to articulate a “global ethics” that would allow people of all religions (or none) to enter into conversation regarding the concept of “natural law” and the basic ethical principles that ought to govern human interactions. The very odd element of this chapter, however, is that it says nothing at all about contraception. 

Massa’s conclusion asserts that in the wake of Aquinas there was a “theological explosion.” In the following seven centuries the tradition of natural law thinking did not evolve in a linear and coherent fashion; rather, different thinkers took different fragments of the tradition and ran with them in various directions. Broad changes in Western intellectual history also occurred, which entailed that phrases such as “the common good” and “human flourishing” could continue to be used but with different meanings in new and changed contexts. New paradigms replaced old ones, and the result is that Catholic thought, like human thought in general, is always a “grab bag,” a “messy and chaotic” enterprise.

The odd lack of a discussion of contraception in the Cahill chapter is amplified by a lack of engagement with the “theology of the body” articulated by Pope John Paul II and also with the voices gathered in Janet Smith’s 1993 anthology, Why Humanae Vitae Was Right: A Reader, which is nearly six hundred pages long (Ignatius Press). One of the basic principles of Aquinas’s method is that one must first gather all of the relevant arguments before one expresses one’s own take on a question, and Massa seems to have missed the memo on that point.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles K. Bellinger is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics at Brite Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark S. Massa, SJ is Professor of Church History and Director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His most recent book is The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties Changed the Church Forever (OUP, 2010).


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