Joseph Bottum’s Catholic "Case" for Same Sex Marriage

In 2009, Joseph Bottum was kind enough to offer me an opportunity to blog at First Things, and to cover the release of Pope Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate. It was a thrilling experience and an opportunity for which I remain grateful. Having maintained some semblance of an online friendship with Bottum since then, I was of course surprised to encounter Commonweal‘s publication of “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage” (see also Mark Oppenheimer’s article, A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same-Sex Marriage New York Times 08/23/13).

Reactions have been widespread and predictable. Mindful of Bottum’s kindness in the past, the least I can do is attempt to distill some chief points in Bottum’s meandering “essay” and respond. Suffice to say that, having read through all 9,000 words, it seems to be less of a ‘case’ for same-sex marriage than a waving of the white flag of surrender in the culture-wars, born of despair and resignation that the battle is already lost.

  • Bottum resigns himself to “the fact of the legality of same-sex marriage …, there is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it — no principled legal view that can resist it. We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans. … There’s a reasonable case to be made that the struggle against abortion is slowly winning, but the fight against public acceptance of same-sex behavior has been utterly lost.” (Quite the categorical dismissal here of the jurisprudential argument. It’s hard to believe that not one legal brief against same-sex marriage has mustered a principled legal view that Bottum finds persuasive).
  • From a practical standpoint, says Bottum, the priestly sex scandals (“a corruption, a horror, and an outrage, which many bishops tried criminally to bury in their bureaucracies”) has severely jeopardized the moral credibility of the Catholic Bishops, squandering whatever goodwill they built up under the pontificate of John Paul II and effectively “wiping out the moral stature of the church in the mind of the American public, and eliminating the respect in which the seriousness of Catholic ideas was once held.”

    Indeed, says Bottum, even the distinction maintained by the Catechism of the Catholic Church between same-sex orientation and activity “that might have once seemed intelligible, even commonsensical … has absolutely no purchase today.”

    In 1987, Fr. Neuhaus could argue that “the Catholic Church is the leading and indispensable community in advancing the Christian movement in world history. In evangelization, in furthering the Christian intellectual tradition, in the quest for Christian unity, in advocating the culture of life, and in every other aspect of the Christian mission, this was, I contended, the Catholic Moment.” But for Jody Bottum, the “Catholic Moment” has long since passed in America. In so doing, he joins Rod Dreher and Ross Douthat.

    Even so, Jody recognizes that the USCCB has made its stand out of the conviction that “same-sex marriage is philosophically wrong: damaging to the individual and destructive for society.” In doing so they have become “the counterculture” — and will not be swayed by a “casual appeal to cultural consensus or to join the winning side.”

  • Bottum further observes:

    … the thin notions of natural law deployed against same-sex marriage in recent times [by proponents of the “New Natural Law” movement, more on this later] are unpersuasive, and, what’s more, they deserve to be unpersuasive—for their thinness reflects their lack of rich truth about the spiritual meanings present in this created world. Indeed, once the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse, the legal principles of equality and fairness were bound to win, as they have over the last decade: the only principles the culture has left with which to discuss topics such as marriage.

    A similar observation regarding the “un-persuasiveness” of natural law arguments was made recently by David Bentley Hart in First Things, to the consternation of many.

  • Bottum, to his credit, admits his own personal dissatisfaction with considerations advanced in favor of SSM advanced by David Blankenhorn — appeals to “equal treatment”, “comity” and “respect for the emerging consensus”:

    It’s not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us. We have a religion of intellectual coherence, too, and the moral positions we take have to comport with the whole of the moral universe. . . . If there is no philosophical or theological reasoning that leads to Catholic recognition of civil same-sex marriage, then we’re simply arguing about what’s politic. What’s fair and nice. What flows along the channels marked out by the dominant culture. We’re merely suggesting that Catholics shouldn’t make trouble. And how is that supposed to convince anyone who holds intellectual consistency at more than a pennyweight?

    However, if Bottum thus intends for his essay to advance an intellectually-consistent, philosophical and theologically credible argument for Catholic recognition of civil same-sex marriage, I don’t think he’s accomplished such.

  • Bottum further confesses his own wishy-washiness in forming his own mind on the subject (“I went along with [my pro-family friends] on same-sex marriage mostly because I lacked the seriousness and strength of mind to work through it for myself”). Apparently what provoked him to finally do so was a disagreement with Charles Colson and Maggie Gallagher over the framing of The Manhattan Declaration‘s expressed grievances with abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom. (The background deliberation over this document is one of the more interesting tangents in this article).

  • Bottum then moves on to Pope Francis’ Lumen Fidei, noting that it affords “little room to maneuver on same-sex marriage” with its clear recognition of “the stable union of man and woman in marriage […] a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh.”
    The Pope’s conception, he notes, stands in sharp contrast to our characteristically-modern wholesale ambivalence about sex. Here — after making our way through a thicket of tangential reflections — we get to the real meat of Bottum’s essay:

    “One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex … resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time”. …

    The comic line that “sex was invented in 1750” is an exaggeration of his thought, but Foucault quite rightly understood that there were bound to be consequences to what Max Weber called the great “disenchantment of the world” in the joining of the “elective affinities” of the Protestant Reformation, the scientific and industrial revolutions, and the triumph of Enlightenment philosophy.

    Those consequences were, in essence, the stripping away of magic—the systematic elimination of metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical meanings. Science, Francis Bacon told us, could not advance in any other way. Real democracy, Diderot explained, would not arrive “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” When the Supreme Court gave us the infamous “mystery passage” in the 1992 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey—“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”— the justices were merely following out to its logical conclusion the great modern project of disenchantment. And it’s worth noticing that the mystery passage was quoted approvingly and relied upon in the 2003 sodomy-law case Lawrence v. Texas and by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 2005 when it ordered the state to register same-sex marriages.

    The disenchantment that Bottum speaks of extends to America’s widespread acceptance of divorce (“If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God”).

    And finally we arrive, after some 7,000 words — at a possible “case” for acceptance of civil recognition of same sex “marriage”: the fact that our modern “dis-enchanted” culture has already vacated the concept of “marriage” of any real, lasting meaning:

    … the legal and social acceptance of divorce, building in Protestant America from the late nineteenth century on, culminated in the universal availability of no-fault divorce. And if heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women? … If marriage is nothing more than a licensed sexual playground, without any sense of sin attached to oral sex and anal sex and almost any other act, then under what intellectually coherent scheme can one refuse to others the opportunity for the same behavior?

    And, of course, not only did marital relations become a value-free zone in the sexual revolution, but non-marital relations did as well. The seal of virginity, the procreative purpose, the mystical analogy of marriage to Christ’s espousal of his church, the divinely witnessed vow, the sexual body as a temple, the moral significance of chastity: all that old metaphysical stuff got swept away. And regardless of whether the metaphysics was right or wrong, without it there is simply no reasoning that could possibly outweigh the valid claims of fairness and equality. Same-sex marriage advocates don’t just have better public relations than their opponents. They have better logic, given the premises available to the culture.

    (Little wonder that Isaac Chotiner over at the New Republic heralded Bottum as making “the worst imaginable case FOR gay marriage).

  • Bottum expresses his dissatisfaction with the “thinness” of the “new natural law” of John Finnis, Germaine Grisez and Robert P. George, concurring with Russell Hittinger’s criticism of the same as “an attempt to have a theology-free version of a rational philosophy that depended, by its original internal consistency, on premises of God, creation, and Aristotelian natural forms.” Similar criticisms of the NNLT (“New Natural Law Theory”) have been advanced by traditional Aristotelian Thomists, so again Bottum is hardly alone in voicing this opinion. (See, for instance, the Spring 2013 issue of The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly).

    Still, one wishes that Bottum WOULD elaborate on precisely what he finds disappointing about the “thinness” of new natural law theorists, or what they have to say on same-sex marriage. Much like David Bently Hart’s incessant proclamations of skepticism about natural law in First Things, Bottum assertions-absent-arguments give little indication that he has actually engaged, weighted and refuted natural law arguments on same-sex marriage or demonstrated them to be wanting. Perhaps a review of Ryan Anderson’s What is Marriage is in order here?

  • What, then, should be our focus? — per Bottum:

    The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality. This is the language in which Pope Francis speaks: Marriage “as a sign and presence of God’s own love.” Birth as “a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom, and loving plan.” Mutual love as something that engages our entire lives and “mirrors many features of faith.”

    Is sex the place in which that project of re-enchantment ought to begin? I just can’t see it—not after the nearly complete triumph of the sexual revolution’s disenchantment.

    Thus Bottum advances the meager, desparate hope that a Catholic recognition of civil same-sex marriage (thereby indulging the consensus of the majority of “disenchanted” Americans) might amount to some good:

    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.

    In What is Marriage, Ryan Anderson notes that the present debate over the meaning of marriage is fundamentally a contention between two rival understandings: conjugal — marriage as a comprehensive union of spouses in body and mind, inherently ordered toward procreation and the welfare of children and the broad sharing of family life, and calling for an exclusive commitment), and revisionist (“the union of two people
    who commit to romantic partnership and domestic life: essentially an emotional union, merely enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable”).

    Bottum muses that our “rebuilding the thick natural law that recognizes the created world as a stage on which the wondrous drama of God’s love is played” will give us the resources to “decide where same-sex marriage belongs in a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order.” This begs the question of whether a “thick natural law” — that is to say, the medieval, Aristotelian and traditionally Thomistic understanding of such — would philosophically countenance modern society’s revisionist conceptualization of same-sex marriage. I expect it would not.

    Moreover, to even entertain the hope that same-sex marriage might fit into “a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order” is to explicitly deny Catholic doctrinal teaching on human sexuality. I simply don’t see any possibility of reconciling the two and remaining within the bounds of the Church. Or, as one reader in Commonweal succinctly put it: “If it is immoral, it can’t be enchanted.”

  • Finally, Bottum states that “I just don’t think that same-sex marriage is going to be the excuse America uses to go after its Catholic citizens” — insisting that if the movement to legalize same-sex marriage was indeed “an excuse for a larger campaign to delegitimize and undermine Christianity, then to hell with it.” But he doesn’t believe this to be the case.

    In 2004, Justices of the peace who refused to preside over same-sex unions due to moral or religious objections were summarily fired.

    In 2008, a New Mexico commission ordered Elane Photography to pay $6,637.94 in attorneys’ fees to two women who filed a complaint because they refused, out of religious convinction, to photograph their “commitment ceremony.” (Elane Photography v. Willock).

    It seems to me that once the move to legalization is secured, it’s only a matter of time before the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church and other religious institutions will be challenged in America on account of their refusal to recognize (or perform) such weddings in the United States.

    Likewise, Bottum also fails to take into consideration moves to withhold federal funding of Catholic adoption agencies by those demanding recognition of same-sex couples as candidates for parenthood.

    In 2006, Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley announced that Boston Catholic Charities would abandon its founding mission rather than submit to a state law requiring it to place children with homosexual couples.

    In 2011, the Boston Globe reported that most of the Catholic Charities affiliates in Illinois are closing down rather than comply with a new requirement that says they can no longer receive state money if they turn away same-sex couples.

    Perhaps the Manhattan Declaration was on to something after all.

* * *

Additional Responses to Joseph Bottum’s “Catholic Case for Gay Marriage”

  • Bottum’s essay and “legal moralism”, by Rick Garnett. Mirror of Justice 09/06/13.
  • A Reply to Joseph Bottum’s Conservative Critics, by Matthew Boudway. Commonweal 08/30/13.
  • We Must Learn to Be a Minority, by Russel E. Saltzman. First Things “On The Square” 08/29/13:

    … When we get to the end of the essay—see, I said there was a conclusion—there is no ringing endorsement of same-sex marriage, there’s not even a half-hearted one. He is announcing what we already know: It is here. Now, he says, maybe traditional Christians, Catholics particularly, ought to back out of the public eye on this question and spend our credit elsewhere. That is hardly an endorsement of gay marriage.

    We come only to his question. Can we “take same-sex advocates at their word, accepting that they really seek the marriages they say they desire” and back away from the dispute? Jody believes we can. He doesn’t “think that same-sex marriage is going to be the excuse America uses to go after its Catholic citizens.” He concedes a sliver of the public square, and that is all.

    In a way, Bottum doesn’t go far enough for me. I think we should give up more than a sliver.

  • Hitting Bottum, by Edward Feser. 08/27/13:

    “Bottum’s article is just too much. And it’s too much because there’s nothing there. Or rather, while the article is verbose in the extreme, what’s there is almost entirely stuff that completely undermines Bottum’s conclusion. Yet he draws it anyway. …

    Though Bottum’s conclusion is entirely un-Catholic, un-conservative, and contrary to natural law, what is most remarkable is just how very thoroughly he still accepts the substance of the Catholic, conservative, and natural law positions on this issue.

  • Can Conservative Religion Survive Gay Marriage?, by David P. Goldman. Torah Musings 08/28/13.
  • To defend marriage, the truth is enchanting enough, by Phil Lawler. Catholic Culture. 08/28/13. “Jody Bottum is right in saying that Christians are not called to defend any particular political proposition. But we are called to defend the truth about marriage, because it is the truth about mankind, which is the truth about Christ.”
  • Two Generations on Gay Marriage, by Matthew Schmitz. First Things “First Thoughts”. 08/27/13.
  • First thoughts on Jody Bottum’s second thoughts, by Dr. Ed Peters. In the Light of the Law 08/27/13. (See also: Why the Church cannot walk away from ‘marriage’ 07/01/13.
  • Joseph Bottum: “There are a couple things that I regret in the article”, by Catherine Harmon. Catholic World Report Blog. 08/26/13. “I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”
  • Trampling the Fumie – J.D. Flynn. National Review. (“Trampling on the face of Jesus?” — Seriously?)
  • What Joseph Bottum Wants, by Ross Douthat. New York Times 08/26/13. Douthat speculates as to Bottum’s true intentions.
  • “Inconceivable!” or Why I Agree with Joseph Bottum, by Calah Alexander. Barefoot and Pregnant 08/25/13.
  • Bottum, Zmirak and the battle of Verdun, by Anthony S. Layne:

    For all the essay’s discursive self-absorption, though, Bottum’s major argument for surrender — we’ve already lost — is disturbingly compelling. Inter alia, Dr. John Zmirak offers the same core thesis as Bottum in much fewer, more concise words (The Christian Case for Marriage Multiplicity The American Conservative 07/05/13):

    Sexual decisions are so intimate and so important to people that it takes a really potent force to goad them into self-restraint; either deep religious conviction or crushing social pressure is typically required. In their absence, people will do what they feel they must, and those of us who try to draw fine moral distinctions will seem like busybodies and prudes. In elite opinion now — which is common opinion tomorrow —– those who hold to traditional Christian marriage are morally no better than racists.

    That’s where we are. Now what do we do? Should we wage a legal Verdun in each of the 50 states to revive the pale, exhausted ghost of “marriage” that Bill Clinton’s DOMA defended? Thanks to no-fault divorce, it was already the least enforceable legal contract on earth —– more fragile by far than credit-card debt, not to mention back taxes and student loans. It was, in essence, a weak legal partnership and a temporary sex pact that for some reason excluded homosexuals. Is this a hill worth dying on?

    In essence, both Bottum and Zmirak advocate a kind of Catholic Realpolitik: “This is where we are now,” they say, “and this is the reality we have to deal with.”

  • The Worst Imaginable Case FOR Gay Marriage, by Isaac Chotiner. The New Republic 08/26/13.
  • A Response to Joseph Bottum, by Mattias A. Caro. Ethika Politika 08/26/13.
  • The Preemptive Surrender of Jody Bottum, by Robert Royal. The Catholic Thing 08/25/13:

    I personally don’t have a large investment in the “beauty will save the world” argument, which tends to work some of the same veins as “re-enchantment.” The Beautiful is one of the transcendentals, but only one, a lot of bad can happen while we’re waiting for it to kick in.

    There are hundreds of art galleries all over the world filled with first-rate Christian painting and sculpture. Religious music is regularly performed. Christian literature is abundant and still being produced. There are beautiful liturgies in many churches. People I admire write brilliantly about the deep significance of such things. I don’t see that any of this has prevented, slowed, much less reversed, our sharp cultural decline.

    Bottum’s argument is the equivalent of saying: fighting terrorism will not establish the peace that passeth all understanding, so we shouldn’t bother with such skirmishes. Leave aside that a large and sophisticated entity like the Catholic Church can walk and chew gum at the same time. Walking away from this fight will not gain the Church friends or placate her enemies.

  • , by Steven Schloeder. The Sacred Landscape: Reflections of a Catholic Architect 08/25/13. “[A]s it stands, I am at a loss to know exactly what his point is, apart from a realpolitik view of the Church in the modern world. What is the bottom line for Mr. Bottum?”
  • Disenchantment of sex, by Peter J. Leithart. First Things “Postmodern Conservative” 08/24/13.
  • What Bottum Got Right, by Max Lindenman. Diary of a Wimpy Catholic 08/24/13.
  • But there is a coherent jurisprudential argument…
    , by Robert Arujo. Mirror of Justice 08/24/13.

  • From the Bottum Up: The Pathos of Joseph Bottum, by Sam Rocha. 08/24/13.
  • Joseph Bottum, Weary and Wearisome, by Matthew J. Franck. First Things “First Thoughts” 8/23/13.

Happier times: Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, Jody Bottum, Russell Hittinger, David Novak, Robert P. George at a First Things Hootenanny
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s