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To defend marriage, the truth is enchanting enough

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 28, 2013

Although my few personal dealings with Joseph Bottum have been friendly enough, I cannot say that I really know the man. So I will not join those who have questioned his motives for writing “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage, which appeared this past weekend in Commonweal magazine. I do not claim to know why Bottum—the former editor of First Things, a longtime ally of people on the front lines in the battle to defend marriage—wrote this astonishing essay. But I do know how the publication of that Commonweal piece will change his life, in ways that he could and should have expected.

Jody Bottum is now one of the most talked-about figures on the American intellectual scene. The internet is buzzing with responses to his essay. The New York Times has announced, with ill-concealed delight, “A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same-Sex Marriage”. He is in demand for interviews. Sales of his most recent book have increased; prospects for the next one are soaring. Whatever else one might say about it, the Commonweal piece was an undoubted commercial success.

Yes, Bottum is taking his lumps from old conservative friends who feel that he has betrayed them—not only by deserting the cause, but also by spicing up his long essay with a few unflattering anecdotes about his former allies. An anonymous National Review contributor has penned a form letter for conservatives abandoning unpopular positions; I have no doubt that Bottum was the target of the satire.

Still, for every irate old ally, Bottum will find a grateful new supporter. He will be the darling of the liberal media: the “conservative Catholic” who can provide a quote to cancel out the token defender of traditional marriage. His message will be welcomed by liberal columnists, and by opportunistic Republican candidates who want to avoid questions of principle. He will be embraced by Catholics who are weary of the fight, and ready to concede another liberal victory. (Did I mention that his essay appeared in Commonweal?) Cowardice often passes itself off as sophistication, and Bottum has provided timid Catholics with a sophisticated excuse to retreat from the field of battle.

In short Jody Bottum is the Man of the Moment. His essay was sure to be a success with the talking heads of the American intellectual establishment, who see him as having joined the forces of progress, the side of history.

Try as I might, I cannot find any argument in Bottum’s piece more persuasive than that notion: that public acceptance of same-sex marriage is inevitable, and resistance is making the Catholic Church unpopular. We have lost the battle, he tells us, so we should retreat to take up a firmer stand on safer grounds.

Now tell me, how well has that strategy worked over the past 50 years? Catholics in America have acquiesced in the public acceptance and lavish public funding of contraception. We have avoided a potentially nasty public debate by agreeing to no-fault divorce. Having thus accepted laws and public policies that undermine the essential nature of marriage, are we in a stronger position to defend marriage today?

No! In the most perceptive part of his essay, Bottum argues that we lost the intellectual debate about same-sex marriage long ago, when we accepted routine contraception and divorce without a struggle. On that point he is absolutely right. We are losing the public debate on same-sex marriage today because we long ago lost—or rather forfeited—the debate on the very meaning of marriage. But to think that we can cede even more ground, and expect to gain firmer footing somewhere to the rear of our current position, is folly.

Even if Catholics could find a stronger defensive position, what would we use it for? To launch our own offensive? On what issue? What other public battle should we be fighting? From the Catholic perspective, there is no public-policy issue—none—more important than the defense of marriage. Bottum toys with the notion that after conceding on same-sex marriage we might regroup to oppose abortion. Really? In theory homosexuals should have no stake in the abortion issue, but in practice they have made common cause with feminists. (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”) We will not break up that alliance. More to the point, since the family is the fundamental cell of society, any attack on the family—whether it is abortion or homosexuality—is the equivalent of a cellular disease: potentially fatal. A society that his given its stamp of approval to homosexual alliances is not a society that will protect innocent children, born or unborn.

Bottum theorizes that if Catholic leaders relent in their opposition to same-sex marriage, hostility to the Church will decrease. This too is a fantasy. The avowed enemies of Catholicsm will not be diverted from their purpose. In a revealing piece in the New Republic, Isaac Chotiner heaps scorn on Bottum’s argument because it is, he says, “a calculated attempt to ensure the flourishing of conservative Catholicism.” He might be willing to accept Bottum’s help to ensure full acceptance of same-sex marriage, but if that maneuver would strengthen conservative Catholicism, the deal is off.

What about the millions of Americans who are indifferent to Catholicism? Would they be impressed by our willingness to compromise? Look at the historical record. American Catholics have been backpedaling on public issues for more than a generation, while at the same time contempt for the Church has steadily increased. In recent days we have been put on notice: Even if same-sex marriage gains universal approval, homosexual activists will not halt their offensive. I have made the point already, so I will not belabor it here: When Church leaders sacrifice principle for the sake of political expediency, they lose rather than gain political clout. The world notices when a great institution abandons its principles, and treats that institution with the scorn it deserves.

What should Catholics do, then, if the intellectual argument has been lost and public opinion is trending strongly toward acceptance of same-sex marriage? We should—we must—do more, in word and deed, to to educate our neighbors about the true meaning of marriage. That will entail re-opening the debates on contraception and divorce. Since we are debating an attempt to alter the definition of marriage, we cannot avoid the discussion of what marriage means—not only to Catholics but to all civilized societies. The weakest aspect of Bottum’s argument—as he acknowledged in a radio interview with Al Kresta—is his quick dismissal of arguments based on natural law. Bottum writes that these arguments have not proven persuasive. He should say that they have not persuaded the public yet. The arguments are powerful because they are true, and they can be persuasive if they are given a fair hearing. That will be possible, obviously, only if good Catholics continue this vital debate.

Who knows? We may be approaching a turning point in this great cultural battle. A Catholic counter-offensive may yet turn the tide of public opinion. My friend Robert Royal, in his response to Bottum, reminds us that in 1976 Henry Kissinger was quoted as saying: “The day of the United States is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.” Kissinger, whose expertise as a practitioner of realpolitick was unquestioned, did not notice that the Soviet empire was already crumbling under the weight of its internal contradictions, and would soon collapse. Any ideological system that denies the fundamental truths of human nature will eventually destroy itself. The culture of hedonism that emerged in the West after the sexual revolution is doomed to the same fate. So we are not on the wrong side of history after all.

In this short essay I have been, quite consciously, using military metaphors. In one of the more perceptive and charitable responses to the Commonweal essay, Ross Douthat of the New York Times suggests that Bottum is doing his best to avoid that sort of confrontational approach: “to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates.” Yes, Bottum at his best is a poet rather than an essayist, an artist rather than a polemicist. The odd structure and style of the Commonweal opus prove the point.

Look at Bottum at his best, then. In Commonweal he argues persuasively that today’s Americans—young Americans especially—do not find the Catholic case against same-sex marriage persuasive because they do not accept the fundamental premises on which those arguments are based. Most of our contemporaries have come to look upon the world in purely material terms, he says, and the most important goal of the Catholic Church must be to direct attention toward the supernatural. As he puts it, “The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality.”

There you have it: the artist’s desire to introduce his audience to some striking new perspective on the world. But here I found myself, more than ever, at odds with Bottum. The Church is not an artist, the world is not an audience, and there is no need to “enchant” reality. Here I think Bottum slips into the error of thinking that faith is a sort of “value-added” service that can enrich reality, by superimposing a layer of charm on everyday life. That is not how I understand the Catholic faith.

Faith is not a matter of adding something on to reality; it is a matter of plunging deeper into reality, of aligning oneself with the truth about the human condition. Reality is already enchanted, if you will. As Catholics, as apostolic witnesses, we are not trying to convince our neighbors to recognize something different from everyday reality; we are trying to help them recognize what is true, good, and beautiful in the reality that we all perceive.

The truth about marriage is beautiful, it is good, and it is something that everyone can understand. Ten years ago, in Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated at the outset : “The Church's teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world.”

By the way, in his interview with Al Kresta, Jody Bottum insisted that he has not changed his own position on same-sex marriage. He does not support the legal recognition of same-sex unions; he has only suggested that Catholics should drop their public opposition. (In other words he is “personally opposed, but…”—as so many prominent Catholics have been in regard to abortion.) “I’m still on board with the magisterium, all the way,” Bottum told the radio audience. Not so; the 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clearly sets forth the moral obligation of all good Catholics to oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions. As anyone remotely acquainted with today’s American political scene could have predicted, his words have emboldened the proponents of same-sex marriage. So he has not only failed to meet the obligation to oppose homosexual unions, but in effect promoted the cause.

Emily Stimpson has it right, I think, when she observes that Jesus did not speak about changing reality, but about sin, repentance, and conversion. The Gospel message is not that we are enchanted but that we are redeemed—and to say that we are redeemed necessarily implies that we are poor helpless souls in need of redemption. These too are realities, the pithy facts of human existence, which need no poetic embellishment to add to their dramatic importance.

In the end there is only one great story in the world, and Jody Bottum, who is a much more creative writer than I am, should recognize it. It is a story about sin and redemption, a story about Jesus Christ. The story is all the more beautiful because it is true. But—here is the point that I fear Bottum has skipped over—mankind has always had trouble digesting this reality. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not.”

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.

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Show 10 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: unum - Sep. 07, 2013 8:40 AM ET USA

    Phil, Your comments were on the mark, but stopped short of where we should all come together. Bottum, and others willing to compromise on the teachings of the Church, are forgetting whose church it is. The Church does not belong to intellectuals, theologians, or clergy, and they have no right to advocate its positions on moral issues. God's Church, founded by Christ and entrusted to Peter and those who followed him, is the sole visible sign of God's truth in an imperfect world.

  • Posted by: nix898049 - Aug. 31, 2013 8:01 PM ET USA

    "We should...educate our neighbor about the true meaning of marriage." Sorry, that ship has sailed. I agree with bnewman over-all. Would that I had a more delicate way of saying this. Our neighbors need to be educated about the true meaning of sodomy since the APA has sold out on the issue.

  • Posted by: trini - Aug. 31, 2013 5:26 PM ET USA

    Can I add another comment? The key documents published by the UK Government, advocating same-sex marriage, used the word 'marriage' about 150 times, but always in some legal context, e.g where the ceremony could be held. The literature NEVER discussed, or even used the terms, 'family, husband, wife, children, brother, sister'. The role of the family as the bedrock of society, to bear and rear children, was never mentioned. The family, the child, and society as a whole, are eliminated.

  • Posted by: trini - Aug. 31, 2013 11:38 AM ET USA

    The weakness of the case for legalizing same-sex marriage is clearly shown in the United Kingdom. The Government based its case entirely on two claims: (1) though it NEVER defines 'marriage', it claims that same-sex marriage is the same as, is equal to, 'traditional' marriage: but this is logically, philosophically, false; (2) it says that accepting same-sex couplings as marriage strengthens the public's overall esteem for marriage. But every study shows that respect for marriage is ruined.

  • Posted by: Francis - Aug. 30, 2013 6:25 PM ET USA

    A word about Humanae Vitae (Paul VI, 1968) might be in order in this excellent reflection, Phil. A crucial battle was lost when many of our clergy openly rebelled against this prophetic Magisterial document. This was the watershed moment when so many within the Church herself chose to ignore the true meaning of Marriage. All was prophesied in the encyclical, all is coming to pass.

  • Posted by: jplaunder1846 - Aug. 30, 2013 6:47 AM ET USA

    Excellent article Phil. One has only to look at what is happening in Western Society generally to see that we are crumbling and ultimately in danger of collapsing. The family in its ideal stable form is most important building block in a stable society. I think with all that has happened to undermine marriage and the family in the last 50 years, of which same sex marriage is only the most recent assault.

  • Posted by: bnewman - Aug. 29, 2013 10:31 PM ET USA

    Bottum is an outstanding writer, but Phil raises many excellent questions. In different places and in different times the Church is required to witness to Christ and to teach (not soft- pedal) many of his teachings which may be totally unacceptable to the prevailing culture. We should not imagine that it our arguments that will prevail, they will not,no matter how reasonable: it is only the Holy Spirit that can touch hearts and change minds. Our job is to persevere wherever we are situated

  • Posted by: tturner3998 - Aug. 28, 2013 9:26 PM ET USA

    Well said!

  • Posted by: shrink - Aug. 28, 2013 4:21 PM ET USA

    Excellent, excellent essay. Thanks Phil. One additional psychological point. The gay marriage issue shows that as a society, we have moved from simple hedonism into delusion, like the guy with a drinking problem descending into full blown alcoholism, or the transsexual who sees a normal body part and thinks it needs amputation. The deluded, individually or collectively, cannot escape the fatal collision with reality.

  • Posted by: lucinda.seago2595 - Aug. 28, 2013 9:48 AM ET USA

    The "personally opposed" to abortion crowd still maintains that abortion should be legal, and is willing to fight for that. Bottum is not saying that same - sex unions recognized as marriage should be legal; he's saying that we should stop beating a dead horse. I don't know if he is right; I don't think he is. However, rather than compare him to a "personally opposed" pro-choice politician, a better comparison would be to one who claims to be pro-life, but does nothing to advance the cause.

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