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

Boisi event

Lisa Sowle Cahill, Boston College

Meghan Clark, St. John's University 

James Keenan, S.J., Boston College

Mark Massa, S.J., Boston College

Richard Gaillardetz, Boston College 

Date: November 5, 2018

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2018 marks the 50th Anniversary of the landmark papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which declared artificial birth control "intrinsically disordered" and marked an ethical line in the sand that has alternatively alienated and energized Catholics for the past 50 years. Mark Massa S.J. argues in his recent book, The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism, that the encyclical gave birth to a series of paradigm shifts in understanding what natural law is, and how it informs the moral life. Further, Massa examines the introduction of Humanae Vitae in order to make a case for how theological development is messy, disjointed, and hardly the result of one, unified, tradition.

In the Boisi Center's Author Meets His Critics panel event, Massa will respond to the comments and critiques of three commentators:  Lisa Sowle Cahill (Boston College), James Keenan, S.J. (Boston College), and Meghan Clark (St. John's University). 

Speaker Bios

Lisa Sowle Cahill, is the J. Donald Monan Professor of theology at Boston College. Cahill has taught at Boston College since 1976 and has also been a visiting professor at Georgetown and Yale Universities. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and is a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Society of Christian Ethics. Her research interests include the history of Christian ethics, New Testament ethics, Catholic social ethics, feminist theology, bioethics, and the ethics of war and peace.

Meghan Clark

Meghan Clark is an associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. John's University in Queens, NY. Her research interests include Catholic social thought, human rights, solidarity, and global development. As a social ethicist, she focuses on questions of global health, economic development, participation, violence against women, and justice in theological ethics. Currently, she serves as a faculty expert for the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations coordinated by St. John’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society. She has conducted fieldwork on human rights and solidarity in Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania. She is author of The Vision of Catholic Social Thought: the Virtue of Solidarity and the Praxis of Human Rights (Fortress Press, 2014) and won first place in Catholic Social Teaching in the 2015 Catholic Press Association Book Awards. Clark received her B.A. from Fordham University and her Ph.D. in Theological Ethics from Boston College. 

James Keenan, S.J.

James Keenan, S.J., is Canisius Professor and director of The Jesuit Institute at Boston College. His work and research focus around theological ethics, including questions of embodiment, sexuality, Thomistic ethics and 20th Century Catholic moral theology. His most recent publications include University Ethics: How Colleges can Build and Benefit from a Culture of Ethics, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), and Paul and Virtue Ethics with Daniel Harrington (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010). Forthcoming work includes, A Brief History of Catholic Ethics, expected from Paulist Press. Keenan received his A.B. from Fordham University, his M.Div. from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and his S.T.L. and S.T.D. from the Gregorian University in Rome. 

Mark Massa, S.J.,

Mark Massa, S.J., (author) is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, where he is also professor of theology. Massa received his Ph.D. in American religion from Harvard University, and is the author of seven books. His most recent book, The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism will be published in fall 2018 by Oxford University Press. His monograph published in 1999, Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team, received the Alpha Sigma Nu Award for Best Work in Theology for 1999-2000. His ongoing area of research is American Catholic faith and culture of the past century. 

Richard Gaillardetz

Richard Gaillardetz (moderator) is the Joseph Professor of Catholic Systematic Theology at Boston College. His research interests center around the Second Vatican Council and the Catholic papacy, especially the papacy of Pope Francis; ecclesiology; sacramental theology; and questions of authority and its effects on spirituality and ministry. Gaillardetz is the current chair of the theology department at Boston College and was president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) in 2013-14. He has received numerous awards from both the Catholic Press Association and the Association of Catholic publishers and is a past recipient of the Sophia Award (2000). Recent publications include, An Unfinished Council: Vatican II, Pope Francis and the Renewal of Catholicism (Liturgical Press, 2015) and A Church with Open Doors: Catholic Ecclesiology for the Third Millennium (co-editor with Edward P. Hahnenberg, Liturgical Press, 2015). Gaillardetz received an A.B. from the University of Texas at Austin and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. 

Event Photos


Rick Gaillardetz, panel moderator and chair of the theology department at Boston College, poses a question to the panel.

Audience Member

Mara Willard, visiting assistant professor in the international studies program and former visiting scholar at the Boisi Center, asks a question for discussion.

Panel answering

Lisa Sowle Cahill, the J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology at Boston College, makes a point while Mark Massa, S.J. (far left), James Keenan, S.J. (right), and Meghan Clark (far right) look on.


Meghan Clark, associate professor of theology and religious studies at St. John's University in Queens, NY, contributes to the panel discussion. Also pictured are Rick Gaillardetz (right), James Keenan, S.J. (left), and Lisa Sowle Cahill. (Photos by MTS Photography)

Event Recap

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.

Read More


Kaiser, Robert Blair. The Encyclical that Never Was: The Story of the Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth, 1964. London: Sheed and Ward, 1985. 

Kuhn, Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. 4th Edition, 1962. 

Massa, Mark. The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 2018. 

Noonan, John. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965. 

Shannon, William H. The Lively Debate: The Response to "Humanae Vitae." New York: Sheed and Ward, 1970. 


Cosacchi, Daniel. Review: Birth control and the Church, 50 years later. America Magazine, October 1, 2018.

Gjelten, Tom. 50 Years Ago, The Pope Called Birth Control 'Intrinsically Wrong'. National Public Radio, July 3, 2018.

Paul VI. Humane Vitae [Encyclical on Human Life]. Vatican Website, July 25, 1965. 

Winters, Michael Sean. In defense of 'Humanae Vitae'. National Catholic Reporter, July 25, 2018.

In the News

2018 marks fifty years since Pope Paul VI released Humanae Vitae. NPR’s Tom Gjelten surveys Catholics on what the encyclical’s teaching means for the U.S. Church today. Gjelten quotes Mark Massa, S.J.: “When people see what they regard as bad law, it breeds contempt for good law.” Gjelten questions whether U.S. Catholics “show in their daily lives that the church's official prohibition of artificial birth control means little in practice, even if it has some value in theory.”