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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

How the Debate Over Birth Control
Changed Catholic Theology: The Structure of Theological Revolutions by Mark Massa, S.J.


Director of the Boisi Center, Mark Massa, S.J., opens his newest book with Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa: “If we want everything to stay the same, everything has to change.” Change, in Catholic theology more broadly and in natural law specifically, was the subject of a critical panel on Massa’s recent publication The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Catholic Theology Transformed American Catholicism. Introduced and moderated by Richard Gaillardetz (Boston College), the panelists included Meghan Clark (St. John’s University), James Keenan, S.J. (Boston College), and one of the authors profiled in Massa’s book, Lisa Sowle Cahill (Boston College).

The panelists praised Massa’s fair exposition of four competing natural law paradigms, but pressed him with a further question: what will be the next paradigm? Massa offered that there are several ways the conversation on natural law can develop. One may be a new paradigm arising from liberation theology in conversation with global movements of the LGBTQ+ community and the American Latinx and Black Lives Matter movements.

Another conversation, Massa hopes, may be a deeper engagement between academic theologians and the papacy. After Humanae Vitae’s publication, many of the sharpest oppositions to its teachings came from academic theologians who strongly disagreed with the theological assumptions and conclusions as being faithful to natural law. Massa hopes that both sides can take a cue from some of the collaborative relationships found among the medievals, where academic theologians worked closely with the papacy to achieve theologically sound conclusions on religious matters. 

The panel concluded with Clark offering a reminder that what exacerbates the debate on birth control within the Catholic church is the level of misinformation both ideologically and, especially, historically. Massa agrees that the import of historical knowledge is at the heart of the book, pressing that one takeaway is that natural law has developed and evolved over time, and not as one coherent tradition or one linear progression. Gaillardetz concluded the panel discussion by calling attention to the prevailing perception, regarding Pope Paul VI and others, that if the church changes its stance on one issue it risks undermining the authority of the whole institution. Massa’s book, opening up the conversation around natural law to its historicist nature, offers a careful way forward in conceiving of such change without fear.