Joseph Bottum on the Things We Share

 This weekend at Commonweal, Joseph Bottum published a long essay announcing his support of (civil) gay marriage. And the internet (at least the parts of it that I read) flipped. First the facts: Bottum is a leading light on the Catholic Right, a signer of the Manhattan Declaration and the former editor of First Things. He’s brilliant, influential, and staunchly conservative. He has, in the past, made exactly the sort of arguments I’m trying to address with this blog.

In his essay, Bottum admits that while he has previously opposed (civil) gay marriage, he did it without really thinking through the issue. And he says that now that he has thought through the issue, his mind has changed.

Now allow me a sigh of pleasure. Ahhh…

Look, all I’ve been asking with this blog is what Bottum took the time to do: think through the issue. Don’t start with your conclusion and work backwards. Seek out the best, not the worst, arguments from your opponents, and assume they write with honest intentions. Bottum does all of that, and it makes his essay essential reading.

That said, it ought to come with a study guide.* It’s complicated, sometimes confusing, and LONG. Very smart writers have looked at it and responded Umm, yeah, it’s over my head. Or, Yeah, I didn’t read the whole thing. I’m sure I haven’t fully grasped Bottum’s argument yet either, but writing is my way of thinking, so I’m going to essay a bit here as I process it. And then, perhaps unwisely, I’m going to hit publish.

Some highlights:

1. Towards the end of the essay, Bottum writes, “But how can we not take same-sex marriage advocates at their word, accepting that they really seek the marriages they say they desire?” This is my idea of heaven.  Number one on my wishlist for conversations about gay marriage. Because if we don’t take each other at our word, we can’t converse. Period.

(For the record: Marriage equality supporters also need to take religious objectors at their word that they don’t oppose gay marriage out of hatred for gay people.)

When writers from are saying that gays secretly want to destroy marriage, when they take some Russian leftist no one has ever heard of as the spokesperson of the movement, rather than, say Andrew Sullivan or Evan Wolfson—you know, the folks who have worked for decades, putting their careers on the line to make a serious case for gay marriage—then they’re admitting that they’re not interested in anything marriage equality supporters have to say.

For doing the opposite of that, Joseph Bottum earned a spot in my “Catholic Right Good Guys” Hall of Fame.

2. This essay is being taken as Bottum’s white flag, as a strategic decision that gay marriage isn’t a battle worth fighting. There is some of that in the essay, notably when Bottum writes that “there are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment of the world—including massive investments of charity, the further evangelizing of Asia, a willingness to face martyrdom by preaching in countries where Christians are killed simply for being Christians, and a church-wide effort to reinvigorate the beauty and solemnity of the liturgy.”

(EDIT: Bottum’s own explication of the text indicates that he sees the piece as a white flag, too. He tells the Catholic News Agency that he thinks Catholics have to accept gay marriage “In the short-run, anyway,” and calls homosexual acts an “evil” that Catholics might have to allow “without rebellion.” If you’re having trouble reconciling that with what the quotes I’ve pulled below, so am I.)

But folks who want to see this as just a tactical retreat—or as cowardice—miss what comes next. Bottum also allows the possibility that gay marriage may be good. He writes:

In fact, same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.

And then, “I think some good will come, I hope some good will come, but I cannot say with certainty that all must go well with this social change. Still, as the church turns to other and far more pressing ways to re-enchant the world, we’ll have time to find out.”

This is the sort of thinking that caused David Blankenhorn to change his mind on the subject: he just started to reckon that gay marriage could lead to more good than bad. And it’s the argument Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have been making for years. Rauch and Sullivan, too, have both preached patience (to marriage equality advocates) and attention to evidence (to conservatives worried about radical change).

Remember, attention to evidence is supposed to be the cornerstone of a natural law philosophy. Which brings me to…

3. “Thin” Natural Law vs. “Thick” Natural Law. In another gratifying moment, Bottum calls the sham natural law promulgated by Robert George et al a “thin” version of the “thicker” stuff he believes in. For a long time, it’s seemed to me that real natural law inquiry should lead to support of same-sex marriage, not opposition to it. And I’ve always seen the Robert George idea of natural law as threadbare, because it takes one basic biological fact (most people are born male or female) and tries to stretch it over the whole massive rich complexity of our sexual natures.

I don’t know specifically (or maybe I don’t understand) why Bottum calls George’s natural law thin, and I won’t project my views onto his. But Bottum does offer some tantalizing quotes, like “Too careful, too honest, simply to condemn everything except the sanctified monogamy that Christianity had given him, Thomas [Aquinas] works through an escalating series that ends up preferring the Christian idea of nuptials as the richest, most meaningful form of marriage—without condemning even polygamy as necessarily a violation of the most philosophically abstract application of the natural law.” And he writes that the Church must “decide where same-sex marriage belongs in a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order.”

 Suggesting that the Church not necessarily condemn gay marriage? That same sex marriage might “belong” in a “metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order”? That sounds to me more like Rowan Williams’ “The Body’s Grace” than JPII’s Theology of the Body.

4. “God-hauntedness of the world” is an awesome phrase. 

Those are the highlights. On my way out, I want to dispute Bottum’s premise that the push for gay marriage results from “the great disenchantment of the world,” from a modern notion that sex is meaningless. That strikes me as precisely wrong. If you truly think sex is meaningless, or nothing special, or just a biological function, you don’t get married. (Truly) wanting marriage, by definition, means you recognize the significance of sex. So the “re-enchantment of the world” that Bottum says ought to be the Church’s goal is more about getting people to recognize the enchantment they already know than about introducing them to some alien concept.

*While I was writing this, Bottum offered an explanation of his essay to the Catholic News Agency, vowing that he is “not dissenting from Church doctrine here, in any way.” And Ross Douthat called Bottum’s piece “a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates.” Bingo! That’s why I love it.

3 thoughts on “Joseph Bottum on the Things We Share

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