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Inoffensive Catholicism: further thoughts on Bottum and the acceptance of same-sex marriage

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles | Sep 05, 2013

It’s flattering, I suppose, to be singled out for special attention.

At Commonweal-- the magazine that published Joseph Bottum’s much-discussed essay, The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage, which I discussed here last week --associate editor Matthew Boudway has added A Reply to Joseph Bottum’s conservative critics. Boudway’s blog post (which is, mercifully, much shorter than Bottum’s original essay) concentrates on “two of his more articulate critics, Robert Royal and Phil Lawler.” His reasons for choosing the two of us are flattering in themselves, and for his kind words I am grateful. Nevertheless he charges that we both “fail to acknowledge plainly what the logic of their own position seems to require.”

My friend Bob Royal can defend himself very ably, and I trust he will. For my part, I am quite willing to “acknowledge plainly” what Boudway thinks I should be forced to admit. No force is necessary; I’m quite ready to say it.

Since I argue that Catholics should oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage even when the American public seems ready to embrace that change, Boudway asks: “why not try to change laws that allow divorce and the sale of contraceptives?” Later, pushing his advantage, Boudway challenges me: “If Lawler thinks [contraceptives] should be illegal, he should say so outright.”

Fair enough. I think contraceptives should be illegal.

However, I am practical enough to realize that there is no point in mounting a political campaign to ban contraceptives in the US today, because the weight of public opinion is heavily against us. The same is true, unfortunately, of divorce. It is not demonstrably true of same-sex marriage. I recognize that the winds of political preference have shifted against us. But 33 American states still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Catholics and their natural allies can still win this debate—if they do not concede it, as Joseph Bottum recommended.

Boudway asks whether I think Americans will be willing to change laws about divorce and contraception (he adds same-sex marriage) before they have changed their minds on those topics. Of course not. We have a great deal of work to do, to help our neighbors recognize that these practices are offensive to the very nature of marriage, which is inscribed in the nature of humanity. The debate on same-sex marriage could conceivably be won this year; the quest to withdraw public support for contraceptives and divorce will take much longer and require a much more painstaking educational campaign. But as I argued in my response to Bottum, the Catholic Church has lost public influence because of an unseemly willingness to accept political losses as inevitable. We won’t reverse the trend until we show the willingness to take an unpopular stand and defend it, even against heavy odds.

In making his case for acceptance of same-sex marriage, Boudway challenges me to explain why American voters should accept “the wisdom of allowing Catholic doctrine to determine the country’s laws about sex and marriage.” Here he misses the point entirely. The political case against same-sex marriage is not based on Catholic doctrine; it is based on natural law, on an understanding that existed throughout the world before the time of Christ and continues to prevail today in societies where the Gospel has never been heard.

At the close of his brief essay, Matthew Boudway makes a quaintly patronizing effort to excuse me for my retrograde ideas. He claims that “outside of a few urban areas in this country, most conservative Catholics are able to avoid openly gay people if they wish to, so that gay people remain for them mostly an abstraction.” Consequently, he theorizes, we “don’t have to worry much about offending a lot of close friends by publicly opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples.”

Nonsense. I live in a rural area, but among my colleagues, neighbors, relatives, yes, and friends, there are more than a few who identify themselves as gay. Some of them—not all—support same-sex marriage. We disagree on an issue that we both regard as important; that does not mean that we are enemies, or that we cannot have a civil conversation. If they really are my friends, they know me well enough to realize that I will give my opinions freely, and expect them to do the same.

But really, can the argument for acceptance of same-sex marriage be reduced to a question of avoiding unpleasant arguments? Is this a popularity contest—a matter of merging smoothly into the flow of contemporary culture, so as to give no offense? I thought I detected hints of that thinking in Bottum’s essay; in Boudway’s post it comes through clearly.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 09, 2013 9:21 PM ET USA

    Boudway's "gotcha" question is quite revealing. Boudway types say that the core feature of sex is "relational", i.e., about friendship. But if this were so, why would he rely on the pill and divorce as his defense? The pill is about pleasure, and divorce is about expediency. Neither the Pill nor divorce follow from or create true friendship. True friendship comes from virtue, which requires self-control, courage, trust, justice, and discretion. The Pill and divorce have little to do with these

  • Posted by: bnewman - Sep. 09, 2013 3:17 PM ET USA

    There are two ways to argue that “gay marriage” should not be legal. Is the objective is to convince a non-Catholic voter of the truth and relevance of natural law or is it simply to influence the way he votes on the specific question? If the latter, any argument (and there are many) may serve the purpose. Bottum is wrong. The average voter may not listen to natural law philosophy now: but the second approach is still practical. As to natural law, Catholic philosophers have work to do.

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Sep. 08, 2013 8:46 AM ET USA

    "There is no such thing as a lost cause and to suggest otherwise is to prove oneself faint of heart" - Matthew Boudway, paraphrasing Robert Royal. That is why the struggle continues...

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Sep. 07, 2013 12:51 PM ET USA

    I wonder whether people like Boudway who make these charges about Catholics wanting to impose Catholic doctrine on the nation are being disingenuous. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but it's hard for me to see how an intelligent person could sincerely believe such nonsense.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Sep. 06, 2013 11:01 PM ET USA

    Hi Phil, thanks again for your clear commonsense on these issues. You are right, the Bondways and Bottums of the world are missing that essential point - the relationship of these matters to the natural law. As history has shown time after time, the more man drifts away from his nature in his desires and his dealings with his fellow man, the more society drifts into chaos and social disharmony. The attacks on marriage and its ideals in the past 5 decades are destroying Western civilisation.