John C. Ford, S.J., (1902-89) has the rather dubious distinction of being one of the most eminent theologians of the 20th century and one of the least remembered in the 21st. Writing in the year of Father Ford’s death, Richard McCormick, S.J., could still vividly recall a time when Father Ford enjoyed such a “towering” reputation that his verdict on a disputed case almost automatically qualified as “solidly probable opinion”—that is, as counsel well-founded enough to resolve a doubtful conscience.
Twenty-five years later, not only has Father Ford’s heyday faded, but so has the recollection of that heyday. His name is remembered now—if it is remembered at all—almost exclusively in connection with the controversies surrounding Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” published in 1968. The final report of the papal commission on birth control, of which Father Ford was a member and which preceded publication of the encyclical, had called for a change in the church’s prohibition against artificial birth control. Father Ford, however, strongly argued in favor of church teaching, helped write the paper that became known as the “minority position” and later argued for the infallibility of the encyclical. To the dismay of many of his fellow Jesuits, he also collaborated with Cardinal Patrick O’Boyle of Washington in the censure of priests who, in one way or another, resisted the implementation of “Humanae Vitae.” As a result, and despite his lasting and varied contributions to Catholic moral theology in the United States during his career, Father Ford is now best remembered for his position on the encyclical.
It is regrettable that the recollection of Father Ford’s career is so narrow. This is true not because his positions in the field of reproductive morality are unrepresentative of his broader work. They are. Nor is it too bad merely because he came down on the “wrong side of history,” at least according to Gallup polls. It is a shame because there are probably some who, knowing little else about him, may imagine he was a hidebound rigorist or, at best, a loyal but unimaginative civil servant of a bygone era. In my view, however, nearer acquaintance with his thought brings to light a far more complex figure: one of the more farsighted moral theologians in the United States and a consistent advocate for the invisible victims of fashionable ideas.
Protecting the Vulnerable
Father Ford’s concern for these hidden casualties was particularly evident during the years of the Second World War. His popular article “Totalitarian Justice Holmes,” published in Catholic World magazine in May 1944, may serve as one example among many. Father Ford, who had a law degree from Boston College and a doctorate in moral theology from the Gregorian University in Rome, sought to alert readers to the shadow side of the legal positivism of the late Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Justice Holmes’s strict exclusion of conscience and natural morality from legal consideration, argued Father Ford, tended to undermine legal protections for vulnerable parties like conscientious objectors, the unborn and persons with disabilities.
Given his later engagement with reproductive ethics, Father Ford’s misgivings about the ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Buck v. Bell (1927) are of particular interest. The case turned on the decision of the State of Virginia to sterilize Carrie Buck, who had a mental age of about 9, had one child (the result of rape) and was institutionalized. Ms. Buck’s mother also had severe mental limitations. In the majority opinion, Justice Holmes praised Virginia’s decision, opining, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” He famously added, “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” I will return to this point later. For now, it is enough to observe that for Justice Holmes the value of physical integrity can yield to state interests, but for Father Ford it was an inalienable right.
Such vigilance in the legal sphere notwithstanding, Father Ford’s most famous intervention on behalf of the forgotten remains his article on “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing,” published in Theological Studies in September 1944. The burden of this essay was to demonstrate that targeting whole cities for annihilation was a crime against humanity, because the tactic could not respect the distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Father Ford deftly took aim against those who, citing the broader participation of the civilian population in modern warfare, denied the validity of the distinction. Eric M. Genilo, S.J., author of the book John Cuthbert Ford, S.J. (2007), remarks that Father Ford not only deployed rigorous logic in the article but also rhetorical skill in offering a list of over 100 categories of people—like tradesmen, housewives, children—who by this flawed logic would qualify as targetable “combatants.”
Neither Father Ford’s logic nor his rhetoric proved sufficient to forestall the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His article, however, did make an important contribution to the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” of the Second Vatican Council, which stated, “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” In 1989 John P. Langan, S.J., a Christian ethicist at Georgetown University, called it the “most widely influential article ever to appear in Theological Studies.” The U.S. Army still uses the article in its leadership training.
Ethics of Alcoholism
During the transition to the peacetime of the 1950s, Father Ford balanced his insistence on moral objectivity with a nuanced exploration of the limitations on human freedom. The remote preparation for this investigation doubtlessly began in the young John Ford’s experiences of physical and moral frailty. Twice during his Jesuit formation, he was confined to bed with tuberculosis: once in the novitiate, which almost led to him being dismissed from the Jesuits, and again a few years later, which ended his brief career as a high school Latin teacher. Happily, the Boston native eventually recovered enough to oversee the formation of young Jesuits, and in 1937 he began teaching moral theology to Jesuit students in Weston, Mass. In the early 1940s Father Ford experienced not only physical frailty but moral helplessness. Remembered by his friends as gregarious and a talented musician, he began to lose control over his “social” drinking. Realizing his problem, he sought treatment from Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, an early pioneer in the treatment of alcoholism, and regained sobriety. Though Father Ford nowhere elaborates upon the spiritual drama of these years, his subsequent writings suggest that the experience afforded him the occasion to ponder deeply the realities of human limitation.
Perhaps the most obvious example of Father Ford’s sensitivity to human frailty is his pioneering work on the moral questions related to alcoholism. As both a recovering alcoholic and a leading moral theologian, Father Ford was uniquely situated to begin applying the categories of Catholic moral theology to the phenomenon of addiction. In 1951 Father Ford published the fruits of his reflection as Depth Psychology, Morality and Alcoholism. Mary C. Darrah, a historian of Alcoholics Anonymous, referred to Father Ford as “the first prominent Catholic theologian to speak out on the morality of alcohol use” and a “pioneer” in helping to prevent alcoholism through education.
Father Ford argued that alcoholism can rightly be characterized as a disease, but not only as that. Alcoholism typically diminishes human freedom and responsibility without erasing it altogether. In view of the complexity of the pathology, Father Ford encouraged new pastoral approaches. Confessional manuals of the day focused largely on helping priests to identify “theological drunkenness,” the level of intoxication that suspended the exercise of reason and will and was thus considered mortally sinful. Father Ford found this doubly inadequate. The confessor, relying on his manuals, may fail to confront the alcoholic who, though in the grip of addiction, stops short of “theological drunkenness.” On the other hand, the confessor may judge too harshly the alcoholic who becomes “theologically drunk” as the manuals define it but, subjectively speaking, lacks the freedom required to commit mortal sin. Such a penitent would be eligible for the sacraments even before confession. Father Ford’s take-home message for the confessor was to proceed on a case-by-case basis, urge cooperation with Alcoholics Anonymous and try not to exacerbate anxiety through too much talk of mortal sin.
By that time Father Ford was already familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous through the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies, where, starting in late 1940s, he served as a summer instructor. There he came to know Bill W. (Wilson), Dr. Bob (Smith) and other charter members of A.A. Though these friendships soon convinced him that the “12 suggested steps” represented the best hope for alcoholics, he also foresaw that the Protestant tone of A.A. and its vague appeals to a “higher power” might present obstacles to Catholic participation. He therefore accepted Bill Wilson’s invitation to help edit two books, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (1952) and Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age (1957), with a view to rendering them inoffensive to Catholic sensibilities. Mr. Wilson, who accepted the proposed edits almost without exception, has described Father Ford as “one of our very best undercover agents” in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Finding a Balance
Father Ford soon took the more nuanced model of subjective responsibility he had developed to account for alcoholism and applied it to other areas, especially sexual morality. He numbers among the mitigating factors of alcohol addiction, for instance, the darkening of the evaluative judgment, a “monoideistic narrowing of consciousness” that prevents contrary motives from becoming effective. In the first volume of Contemporary Moral Theology (1958), which he co-authored with Gerald Kelly, S.J., he applies the same principle to the knotty problem of adolescent masturbation, noting that the “fascinated narrowing of consciousness to one all-absorbing object of desire can exclude any realistic appraisal of the alternatives to that desire, and thus reduce psychological liberty beyond the point where mortal guilt is possible.” Here again, however, his summary judgment counsels a middle course between rigorism and laxism. He writes: “Subjective disabilities and impediments excuse the average man and woman from mortal guilt much more frequently than a reading of moral theology manuals might lead one to suppose,” but “each case has to be decided on its own merits.” The upshot of his analysis: a good confessor might still encourage a penitent to receive Communion—even without prior confession—who had masturbated in a moment of diminished freedom.
Father Ford’s evaluation of homosexual acts likewise attempts to strike a balance. Against some of his contemporaries who wanted to pronounce the homosexual personality so damaged as to make the person constitutionally incapable of mortal sin, Father Ford, in a typewritten manuscript recovered by Father Genilo, insists that “there is no more presumption of compulsive sex behavior in the case of homosexual than there is in the case of heterosexuals.” It is notable that his harder line on the culpability of those experiencing same-sex attraction follows upon a higher estimation of their psychological health. He observes in his concluding remarks: “So often clerical advisers feel a natural aversion or repugnance toward homosexuals. As pastors we have to overcome it. All sinners deserve our understanding and sympathy; not just the ones who commit the same sins that we are inclined to.” Compassion without indulgence typified Father Ford’s theological style.
Viewed through the admittedly superficial categories of the culture wars, John Ford comes across as an erratic moral theologian. One after another, he championed causes dear to Catholics of different theological orientations. His compassion toward human frailty suggests the temperament of a “bleeding heart,” yet he stands firmly in the tradition of unchanging natural law and exceptionless norms. In my view, such equal-opportunity provocation is a sign that, beneath the surface, Father Ford was a highly consistent thinker.
Father Ford’s consistency, in fact, poses a quandary to those who would like to cherry-pick among his judgments. The moral theologians writing around the time of “Humanae Vitae,” for example, tended to criticize his view of sexual morality as naively “physicalist”—that is, too quick to derive a moral obligation from a biological function. Worth pondering, however, is the fact that the same “physicalism” grounds his condemnation of the sterilization of the mentally “unfit.” Those advocating a more permissive stance toward contraception tended to appeal, as “Humanae Vitae” itself notes, to some version of the “principle of totality.” Classically illustrated by the act of amputation, the principle acknowledged that a part could sometimes be legitimately sacrificed for the good of the whole. Applying the principle to the case of contraception, moral theologians reasoned that one could suppress the partial good of reproduction to promote the flourishing of the whole person or of the marriage in its totality. This solution was, for obvious reasons, attractive. It is nonetheless clear how the abandonment of “physicalism” would play into the eugenicist logic of Justice Holmes: If appeal to a more comprehensive personal or social benefit can justify a temporary sterilization, can it not also justify the permanent sterilization of an “imbecile” like Carrie Buck? The historical path from totality to totalitarianism may be long but, as Father Ford saw clearly, the logical path is fairly short.
Twenty-five years after his death, then, John Ford may continue to serve as a stimulus for the Catholic imagination. Besides witnessing to the power of the Catholic moral tradition to unmask ideology and shield the vulnerable, his life suggests how the task of the theologian may be a service of humility. The person of ordinary empathy, bracketing his or her personal feelings on “Humanae Vitae,” can see Father Ford’s dogged support for the encyclical in the twilight of his career as a thankless task, one that cost him dearly in terms of time and reputation. When he returned to the classroom, he found the antipathy of his students so palpable that he retired the year after the publication of the encyclical. For a personable man who formerly enjoyed a “towering” reputation, this must have galled him. That Father Ford accepted this situation without rancor, dedicating his later years to the pastoral care of alcoholics, intimates something of his spiritual depth. It reveals a conviction—forged in the experience of his own frailty—that he owed absolutely everything to a “higher power.”
Read selections from Father Ford's writings for America.