On Joseph Bottum, “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage”

by Walter Olson on August 24, 2013

A formidable, subtle, and wide-ranging exponent of orthodox Catholicism, Joseph Bottum has long held a high place on my (not all that lengthy) list of writers I really wish we could convince. So I join Steve Miller in thinking it’s a pretty big deal to see him write a piece for Commonweal entitled, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” (More from the reliably interesting Mark Oppenheimer in the New York Times.)

Unlike some readers, I admired the essay’s meandering and discursive quality. To fall back on metaphor: if you’re feeling extremely conflicted on a topic, take a long walk for some fresh air. Those who don’t have patience for the entire thing and want more of a political statement might want to skip to the remarkable section where Bottum writes about how he regrets signing and helping draft the Manhattan Declaration (Robby George, Charles Colson, etc.), a manifesto of resistance to the modern liberal polity which attempts to link and in the process deeply confounds the three causes of abortion, religious liberty and same-sex marriage. As critics have already noted, Bottum makes no attempt to take down George’s position on the basis of logic, but then it’s not as if logic was the basis of that position in the first place.

The obloquy from former allies has landed like the ton of boulders I would have anticipated, including (in ascending order of charity and interest) Mark Shea at Patheos, Matthew Franck at First Things (where Bottum served long as editor), Rod Dreher at Patheos, and Sam Rocha at Patheos. Then there are the online commenters, proffering every turncoat trope one might expect. He’s just trying to curry favor with the NY Times? Check. He’s just trying to sell copies of his next book? Check. No matter how many times one has seen this process in action — from Norman Podhoretz’s Breaking Ranks to what happened to David Blankenhorn last year — it’s hard to imagine being the one it happens to. And Podhoretz’s and Blankenhorn’s are essentially secular examples: imagine the pressure when religious orthodoxy itself is perceived as being at stake.

Those looking for a more syllogistic as opposed to literary attempt to square same-sex marriage with Catholic orthodoxy may want to check out Paul Griffiths’ essay in Commonweal nine years back. But not to subtract from the respect owing to Griffiths, it is Bottum’s essay I expect to revisit again and again.

{ 5 comments }

Doug August 24, 2013 at 3:36 pm

It doesn’t seem so much like a case FOR gay marriage as much as a realization that gay marriage is here, deal with it, yes we are against it but lets move on to fight something else.

Lori Heine August 24, 2013 at 9:07 pm

The significance is not that any particular Catholic bigwig agrees with you or I on same-sex marriage. It is that he is willing to get out of our faces, get out of our personal space, stop shoving us around and stop trying to take our stuff.

If we absolutely insist that EVERYBODY agree with us on everything, we will make a very literal Hell on earth. That is the mindset of the Taliban.

As far as things that the Catholic Church ought to move on and fight instead of gays, I can think of plenty.

For starters, the whole corporate system is a moral cesspool. It is the single most anti-family force in the world. It is anti-human life, anti-human being. It goads us into lengthy and murderous wars. Anytime the Catholics want to turn their full attention to fighting that, it’s all right with me.

Houndentenor August 25, 2013 at 10:19 am

Agreed. I don’t really care what any bishop thinks about anything. I’m not Catholic so his opinions have no effect on my life. It’s only of any concern to me when people like him campaign against rights for other people. So long as he minds his own business I’ll mind mine.

And once again, I can’t help but think that any Catholic bishop has a lot of nerve acting as a moral authority after shuttling child rapists around the country for decades. Why should anyone have any respect for anything he has to say?

Barbara Graves August 25, 2013 at 9:35 pm

Most Catholic bishops had nothing to do with shuttling child rapists, just like most Catholic priests aren’t themselves child rapists. The majority of them are decent enough people, if a little out-of-touch with the concerns of the average parishioner.

Jorge August 27, 2013 at 2:18 am

Unlike some readers, I admired the essay’s meandering and discursive quality.

Me, too, but holy moley, I was supposed to go to bed over an hour ago.

Very nice use of Pope Francis.

I definitely agree with that train of thought where he talked about the need for Catholicism to restore that which is holy (though he doesn’t use the word holy), and marriage not really being the best place to do that.

But…

It’s a double-edged sword. If his essay is correct (and I found most of it boring in the way I only find things I agree with boring), the “we gotta learn to live with it” implications run both ways. “The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants,” as the interesting lesbian Catholic commentator Eve Tushnet once observed here in Commonweal.

There is a point at which there is Silence and you realize you’re on your own, everything rests on your decision, and your decision alone. It doesn’t really matter in the end, but before that, you could lose, you could be wrong.

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