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.