A lot has already been written about Joseph Bottum’s essay, “The Things We Share,” and it’s worth the attention it’s received from all sides. I won’t try to intuit Bottum’s intent, or explicate his reasoning. The piece speaks for itself, and has a lot to say.
One thread of his thought in particular sticks with me. He takes time that many people do not to consider the “perceived offense” lesbians and gay men take to the arguments in favor of heterosexual-only marriage, and mentions Bruce Bawer and David Boaz among many who have taken umbrage at things he has written. The essay was prompted by the deteriorated relationship he had with a gay friend.
Bottum is troubled by this unintended response. He does not mean to give offense, and I see little reason to doubt that. He will never be a champion of same-sex marriage, but he doesn’t seem to have a homophobic bone in his body.
So is the offense strictly on us? Are we being overly sensitive?
I think this question marks the primary disconnect between those who genuinely dislike or fear homosexuality and those who are struggling in good faith with a hard social and moral issue.
And I’d pose the answer as a further question: When it comes to marriage, how could we not take our exclusion personally? What kind of human beings would we have to be to not experience some level of offense?
You don’t have to have read Jonathan Rauch’s “Denial: My 25 Years Without a Soul” (though you should) to understand how important this is. Lesbians and gay men are, first of all, human, with all that entails. Our sexual orientation is fully bound up in our humanity. When we are treated – or treat ourselves – as if we are heterosexual, one of the most fundamental parts of our entire humanity is distorted, and the corrosive effects compound from that.
If you reduce sex to a biological minimum, then gender is all, and an orientation toward one gender or another is surplussage. That is the premise upon which our notions of sexual morality have proceeded. From that foundation, philosophers and theologians have built a structure that assumes a rationale for sex – reproduction – and works backward. Marriage is not, itself, biological, something we know from observing animals who generally lack our sophisticated rituals and relationships, but have been able to reproduce successfully for all of recorded time.
Animals are not moral creatures, though. The beneficial effects of biological parents raising their own children are undeniable. But even the most charitable view of parent-child relationships through history shows that this biological-marital ideal has been erratic and unconstant. At the very least it has always admitted exceptions.
A morality that does not allow for human inconsistency is no morality at all, it is a command. The debate over same-sex marriage has often tortured morality into the worst kind of science, where exceptions cannot be tolerated.
This is the moral universe lesbians and gay men find ourselves inhabiting. Opponents who are the least thoughtful assume that we are heterosexuals gone wrong, are violating a dictate of nature either to be attracted only to members of the opposite sex, or at least to act that way.
Bottum seems to accept that some people truly are homosexual in orientation, a profoundly important position the Catholic Church acknowledges. And the dilemma he faces is that the only choices offered to us in the current moral map that the church navigates from are ones no heterosexual would find tolerable: a lifetime of chastity, or marriage to someone who holds no sexual attraction.
So what kind of humans would we be if we did not, at a minimum, say that this view of morality is incomplete? It is a moral vision designed for only one group, assigning homosexuals to a lifetime of immorality by definition, or without any possibility of intimacy, connection, love. Is this the way morality, or any kind of god, should work?
If we are human at all, of course we would object, even take offense when these are the only options we are offered. But more to the point, as Americans, our moral universe is also shaped by our nation’s ideals. The promise of equality is no small part of the things we take for granted – a fact borne out by the strong support of American Catholics who, at a healthy 54%, are among the most accepting of all religious groups of same-sex marriage.
Bottum ultimately accepts that same-sex marriage is succeeding in the public mind (and not just in the U.S.), and worries about the damage the church’s increasingly hostile arguments about civil marriage are doing to its reputation. That is certainly a matter between him and his church’s leaders. All I can add, as one of the many who left the church of my birth over exactly this issue, is that I would be less human, and less Catholic if I did not object – sometimes strenuously – to their moral vision of a world that has no place in it for both me and my soul.