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Why Lisa Fullam is Wrong About the Synod on the Family’s Working Document

In a recent America symposium, moral theologian Lisa Fullam of the Jesuit School of Theology (Santa Clara) reflects on the working document “Instrumentum Laboris” for the upcoming Synod on the Family.

In her essay, “Listening to the Laity”, she notes that the document early on says, “episcopal conferences assert that the reason for resistance to Church teaching on family-related matters is ‘want of an authentic Christian experience, namely, an encounter with Christ on a personal and communal level…’ (9).” Fullam takes this to mean – it seems to me sarcastically – that “disagreement with magisterial teaching means that you don’t know Jesus.”  But as a Catholic, you believe as normative (or at least you should believe) that the teaching office speaks in the name of Christ. As Vatican II’s Lumen gentium, no. 25, teaches, “In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent.” So why should this be such a big deal for a Catholic? It is the equivalent of “mom and apple pie” for a faithful Catholic.

vaticanFullam then sees the results of the questionnaire – which was sent out to inform the authors in their writing of the “Instrumentum Laboris” – “lead the writers of the instrumentum to nearly opposite conclusions at several points in the text; some oppositions come from the responses, and some are added as editorial comments from the writers.” [My emphasis] She mentions five of these. I will comment on her first two only (The remaining three could be responded to as well, however, and found not to be opposites, as Fullam alleges).

“Some expressed concern about too much openness to life (when couples want a child ‘at any cost’ and practice IVF, pg. 34) and not enough (when they practice contraception, pg. 56).” There is no contradiction here, however, once you realize that both contraception and IVF are both immoral means, as the Church teaches, even if they are means to very different ends: one preventing life, the other producing it artificially.

“There is consistent concern that the church should demonstrate mercy to people in ‘irregular situations’ (pg. 63), but that doesn’t negate the risk of too much mercy that, e.g., streamlining the annulment process would pose (pg. 45).” Again, I ask: Why are these perceived as opposites? She continues: “Along the way, the writers take stock, to some degree, of the real challenges to current doctrine posed by factors like poverty, abuse, migration, etc., that cannot be as easily turned into blaming the usual straw men of relativism, hedonism and the influence of the media.” But why call relativism, et al., “straw men”? Don’t these ideologies truly harm families?

Fullam then goes on to observe: “Current magisterial teaching on sexuality and family life is highly controversial, a fact amply demonstrated by the internal oppositions raised in the ‘Instrumentum,’ as well as by stacks of sociological data demonstrating non-reception of much of current sexual teaching.” Notice that nice fat word – “stacks.” Its use implies a “case-closed” kind of definitiveness; the evidence is so overwhelming that the Church had better take note, wizen up, and then loosen up on its strict moral doctrine on sex. Moreover, the term “controversial” is one of those weasel words whose use is usually a way of hiding the fact that you disagree with the Church while seeming to be reporting only the “facts.” It allows the author to play both sides of the fence on an issue without being pinned down one way or the other.

But it’s Fullam’s next point that is the most scandalous, it seems to me. She asserts that “current magisterial teaching on marriage and the family is the occasion of significant suffering [My emphasis]. The Synod on the Family, if it is to address the complex and multifaceted challenges and opportunities to family life and intimate relationships in our time has to begin by listening to the voices of people living their lives in faith.” Well. Has Fullam not considered the very real possibility that the persons living in those “intimate relationships” have sometimes made bad choices that have been the occasion of their own suffering? This isn’t about blaming the victim, but simply acknowledging that our free choices determine us to be the kinds of persons that we are – with all of the “baggage” that often accompanies our bad choices and all of the “blessings” that often accompany our good ones.

But finally, its Fullam’s last point that really goes off the rails. The Church, she argues, must not simply regurgitate “current doctrine – the church needs its leaders to rethink teaching on sex, marriage, and family from the ground up, beginning with the affirmation of ‘Gaudium et Spes’ [GS] that marriage is a community of life and love, enlivened by the Spirit of Christ [My emphasis]. Then the laity – who are living that life and love in many and beautiful forms – must be heard. The Synod fathers would do well to use their time together to structure and launch a broad consultation of all the people of God in all our magnificent diversity.”

What are we to make of her call for “rethinking”?  Apart from the annoying use of the term, “current” (it’s used six times in an 850-word essay) – you see, you just never know when “current church teaching” might become “past church teaching” – I see three problems.

First, this rethinking “from the ground” up implies, I predict, a radical reconsideration of Church teaching that will look nothing like its present form in either form or content. What was once considered dissent now becomes doctrine.

Second, the (mis)use of GS is particularly disturbing. The conciliar document spoke of a man and woman constituting a conjugal covenant/community of “life and love”, not some generic, content-free “life and love” that gays and other non-traditional partners could be accommodated by (cf. GS, nos. 48-50). In my opinion, Fullam is being seriously disingenuous here, even if quite clever, in her use of GS.

Third, Fullam merely takes for granted that those various couplings – e.g., gays? lesbians? heterosexual cohabitators? – living “life and love” assume “beautiful forms,” and that the diversity she speaks of is “magnificent”. How does she know this? If these forms are in fact immoral, as the Church has always taught, then her argument crumbles. As I believe it does.

Mark S. Latkovic, S.T.D. is a Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary (Detroit, MI), where he has taught for over 23 years. He is co-editor of St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition: Contemporary Perspectives (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004), as well as author of What’s a Person to Do? Everyday Decisions that Matter (Our Sunday Visitor, 2013) and numerous articles in scholarly and popular journals.
Articles by Mark:

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  • Rosemary58

    I just finished buying food at the supermarket. I actually had to follow the store’s checkout protocol (and I had to pay for the food). While Catholics are fortunate to receive their “food” in the Holy Eucharist for free, it does not mean that some Catholics can have a “get out of Church teaching” card for free.

    Were we all saints already, Christ would not have had to come and we would not have need of Church teaching. She seems to dislike the fact that the Magisterium addresses human failings in order to draw us to our salvation. Instead of seeing the Magisterium as being helpful, Ms. Fullam seems to see it as a rebuke or a stumbling block to salvation. We are mere humans (granted, in the Divine image) who appreciate orderly management and conduct. Without that, there is chaos and scandal. Who would want to join a church like that?

    • Mark Latkovic

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Rosemary.

  • Stephanie

    I would add to your critique that she doesn’t address the truth of the teachings. They may be a “significant occasion of suffering” but that would not necessarily make them wrong. Even those living the Church’s authentic teaching may suffer, but suffering is part of life and it has meaning. It seems to me that Fullem has simply embraced the Western hatred of suffering. In contrast, the Church, like Christ, her head, embraces the cross.

    • Mark Latkovic

      And thanks to you too, Stephanie, for these insightful comments.

  • Baron Kaza

    Excellent article, but Fullam has no business teaching at a Catholic anything. But for a Church that allowed corrupt creatures like Bernandin and Weakland to be Bishops, this does not totally surprise me. A great purging is needed and yes that mean the purging of all gays and lesbians from positions of power and teaching. All of them have to go, they are morally corrupt

    • Mark Latkovic

      Thanks… Either that, or we take the name “Catholic” off the building…

  • Claire

    The fact that Fullam is a moral theologian at the Jesuit School of Theology says it all.

    • Mark Latkovic

      It’s a real shame…

  • Harri

    There was a time when everyone believed the world to be flat. Then the imposible happened and we found it wasn’t. Once upon a time there was the belief that humankind would never fly and guess what, we do. There was a time when women weren’t allowed to vote and yet in a number of countries they can and hopefully this trend will continue.
    Lisa Fullam is a brave person speaking from a female perspective in an area that has been dominated by male voices. Yours included.
    It is important to consider what she has said without the theatrics contained in the article. Just as it is important to hear other views, differing from those in the comments too.
    As women make up more than half of the world’s population and are the ones mostly living in poverty with responsibilities for children it may be time to hear a differing view from what has been the “accepted narrative” of a Church that has maybe lost its way.
    Marriage as people think they know it now has very cultural controls which are not the experience or belief of many women and some men in an educated society.
    Perhaps Lisa Fullham is better aquainted with the scholarship and the history of marriage than you.
    Exploring the options will be important for many people and most married people do not have a say at the proposed Synod. Why?