The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed Catholicism

Book Author: Mark S. Massa, S. J. Book Review by Peter K. Fay

Historians have long chronicled the impact of Humanae Vitae upon American Catholicism. The 1968 encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the regulation of birth sparked fierce debates not only within Roman Catholic sex ethics but also (and especially) about the approach to moral theology that undergirded the encyclical’s claims: the natural law. Fifty years after the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, Mark Massa’s The Structure of Theological Revolutions: How the Fight Over Birth Control Transformed American Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 2018) does not simply offer another history of Catholic moral theology or American Catholic approaches to natural law. Rather, the focus and major contribution of this text is: 1) to provide a schema for understanding why and precisely how the story of the natural law tradition—or traditions, to more accurately capture Massa’s argument—has played out in American Catholicism since Humanae Vitae; and 2) to argue that this story is characterized more by “rupture and disjunction” than by a continuous, “linear” development as is often presumed (9).

Massa’s argument unfolds in four parts. Part I recounts how and why the “Catholic Nineteenth Century”—that is, the era in which neo-scholastic natural law functioned as the undisputable reigning paradigm in Catholic moral theology—met its swift demise with the release of Humanae Vitae. Massa contends that the encyclical’s claim, “Each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life” (Paragraph 10), as well as the assertion that there is an “inseparable connection” between the unitive and procreative dimensions of the marriage act that artificial contraception wrongfully violates (Paragraph 12) and that reason confirms the veracity of these claims because they belong to God’s unchanging moral order (Paragraph 12), reflected an approach to the natural law that was no longer convincing to modern-day observers. Indeed, given the rise of historical consciousness and its increased acceptance within Catholic moral theology, the idea that an inwardly-perceived “natural law,” discernable through reason and intuition, was simply no longer practical or viable in today’s world.

Although the rise of historical consciousness may help to explain the critiques that Catholic moral theologians made of Humanae Vitae in the immediate aftermath of its publication, Massa argues that it does not adequately elucidate the debates about natural law that have persisted in the fifty years since 1968. To expound on these debates, Chapter Two provides an overview of Thomas Kuhn’s landmark 1962 work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. There, the historian of science debunked the assumption that scientific insights about the physical world generally build upon each other in a seamless, unified way such that, for example, Isaac Newton’s project developed Galileo’s ideas while Galileo furthered Aristotle’s insights. Kuhn argued that this assumption obscured how humans had, in fact, gained a greater understanding of the physical world, precisely because the relationships between scientific paradigms throughout history are marked more by replacement, discontinuity, and reconstruction than by cumulative progress toward a common objective.

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