Special Report

Preemptive Surrender to Same-Sex Marriage?

An answer to Joseph Bottum.

By 8.29.13

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In a 9,400-word essay published by Commonweal and funded by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation (“The Things We Share”), Joseph Bottum attempts to make a “Catholic” case for same-sex marriage. It’s a daring -- not to say doomed -- enterprise, and a practicing Catholic pundit facing a challenge like that ought to write with swagger enough to create momentum, seeing as how little else can power the argument. Yet Bottum writes with diffidence that he hopes the rest of us will mistake for nuance. Head and heart both conspire against the case he is trying to make: On the one hand, Bottum rightly notes that Lumen Fidei, the new encyclical letter, “grants the faithful Catholic little room to maneuver on same-sex marriage,” despite the fact that its message is focused elsewhere (and note the implications of his choice: ought we to be thinking in terms of “maneuver” rather than “understanding” or “acceptance”?). On the other hand, Bottum grieves the loss of an amicable relationship with a musician he knows who grew “increasingly angry at first at the Catholic Church for its opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage and then at Catholics themselves for belonging to such a church.”

Splitting the difference between Catholic teaching and American culture is a dicey enough proposition when you start from a solid premise, but Bottum is hobbled from the outset by an instinct for preemptive surrender. Questions about the legality of same-sex marriage are moot, he writes, because 13 states have already made them so by approving that arrangement, and “there is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it.” When the U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to articulate something worthwhile, it chose to punt instead. As a result, Bottum contends, arguments about same-sex marriage, if we insist on still having them, must be made on other-than-legal grounds.

Fair enough. Many people have noted that the one-two punch of biology and philosophy that our forebears recognized as “natural law” has contributions to make to this discussion, but Bottum is none too thrilled with that, either. “As deployed in our current debates, this kind of thing has always seemed to me a scientized, mainline-Protestantized version of the thicker natural law of the medieval,” he sniffs. In other words, there is such a thing as natural law, but we’re not prepared to wield it the way our ancestors did against activists who pluck heartstrings more effectively. By way of example from the roll of recent Catholic luminaries, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Reverend Richard John Neuhaus are dead, and the faithful intellectuals still with us can too easily be painted as bigots, prudes, or obstructionists by their opponents. “In the current state of the public square, opposition to same-sex marriage gets portrayed (and thereby perceived) as hatred,” Bottum notes, and the inescapable conclusion is that the church herself is partly to blame for that, because sin, stupidity, and stubbornness have hampered outreach efforts.

Shall we reinvigorate arguments based on natural law by revisiting the writing of its medieval champions? Bottum does not think it would do any good to go down that road, either. Without quite saying so, he seems to think that Thomas Aquinas was as conflicted about same-sex marriage as he is. “Too careful, too honest, simply to condemn everything except the sanctified monogamy that Christianity had given him, Thomas works through an escalating series [about marriage] 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,” Bottum writes. It’s essentially an “argument from silence.” In this interpretation of the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas exalted the traditional view of marriage between one man and one woman, but did not thunder against rival conceptions. Moreover, saying that one arrangement is the “most meaningful form of marriage” does not preclude the possibility of having other “meaningful forms” of marriage. And that’s Bottum’s best shot -- that and the inchoate hope that formal Catholic recognition of same-sex marriage might prove to be a “small advance” in chastity and in love, because, he says, “we can’t predict the effects of same-sex marriage.”

I have not followed the debate as closely as he has, but it seems to me that people upholding the traditional view of marriage often do so in part because they think that we actually can predict at least some of the effects of same-sex marriage, the first of which is to undercut rather than broaden a consensus that has anchored Western civilization for millennia. If you decide for legal or other reasons that marriage is something other than a bond between one man and one woman, any attempt to include alternate definitions must necessarily exclude everyone -- present and past -- who subscribes to the original understanding. As for Bottum’s assertion that it is properly conservative to “take people as we find them” and to “instruct the nation where the nation is,” it hardly seems reason enough for an essentially “conservative” institution like the church to roll over. “In the world, but not of it;” remember? And it is hard to “instruct” a nation (if that is the conservative charter) while indulging it.

Where Joseph Bottum’s too-lightly-edited essay leaves a lasting impression is as a record of inner struggle. Bottum is still frustrated by the shortcomings of Chuck Colson’s “Manhattan Declaration” because that November, 2009 manifesto from Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christian leaders decries abortion, threats to religious freedom, and growing acceptance of same-sex marriage with equal fervor, and Bottum is sure that “not only do the possible negative results of same-sex marriage fail to match the horrors of abortion, but religious freedom isn’t even the same kind of thing.” His rejoinder is true enough, but socially conservative Christians looking for points of unity with each other from which to engage the culture around them could hardly have done better than the trifecta they came up with, and Bottum’s criticism (“This document is not symmetrical! There is no ‘seamless garment’ here!”) sounds petulant when you boil it down.

Bottum and I happen to root for the same team, but he thinks we’re losing in the late innings, and he’s disinclined to turn his cap inside out and twist it backwards on his head in the fine old tradition of starting a rally with what Catholic baseball fans might almost call a sacramental. Bottum thinks opposition to same-sex marriage can only be clumsy or ill fated. He’s too pessimistic. American Catholic bishops are in a minority, he says, as though they could ever be anything but a minority when they’re shepherding their flocks properly. “Natural law” is a shadow of its former self, he points out, in part because the Reformation made it so. Fine — take a tip from the “improvise, adapt, and overcome” ethos, and read up on Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” instead.

“There are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world,” Bottum writes, before listing several of those ways -- which, incidentally, the church already knows about and is doing. The man has confused means and ends. If you bracket the question about whether “teaching the God-hauntedness of the world” trumps “Reform your lives and believe in the gospel” (which it manifestly does not), then it is still true to say that opposition to same-sex marriage is just one of the implements in the Catholic toolbox. It is likewise true to remind Mr. Bottum that the church need not disavow her theology or social justice teaching to bear witness to Christ in the world; in fact, her witness is helped by those things. 

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.