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.
Pro-SSM folks routinely fault trads for not coming out forcefully against divorce — this, as if it proved that trad opposition to SSM is motivated only by special animus against gays. The truth is, I don’t know a single person who opposes SSM who doesn’t concede without the least bit of hedging that heterosexual folly — the widespread acceptance of divorce, and other things — brought our society to the point where SSM is not only acceptable, but virtually mandatory. Thoughtful trads rightly see that SSM really is the point of no return on marriage. It was possible to hope that traditional marriage culture would recover from the liberalization madness of the Sexual Revolution, however much a long shot that might have been. But with the institutionalization of SSM, the radical redefinition of marriage as nothing more than a contract based on the emotions two people have for each other is complete. We will learn in time, and not in much time either, that to sever the concept of marriage from any fixed position in our moral imagination and in our law has consequences. The point here is that SSM opponents rightly grasp that this is the Rubicon moment in a way that the early victories of the Sexual Revolution were not. If we lose this fight, we’ve lost the whole thing; there will be no ground left from which to make a counteroffensive on marriage and sexuality.
And yet, I cannot help agreeing with Bottum that the battle — the public battle at least, by which I mean the battle outside the Church (Catholic and otherwise) — has been lost. What we trads are fighting for now is to build as strong a defense as possible around churches and religious institutions — and doing that requires not backing away one bit from our belief in what marriage is, and pressing that argument. In First Things today, the Lutheran pastor Russell Saltzman concedes that traditional Christians have lost the culture, and he’s willing to go even further than Jody Bottum on this:
The vestiges of Christendom and America’s Protestant establishment are languishing, and will not soon be rebuilt. Christianity can no longer expect a friendly reception. Open hostility to Christianity is, well, open, especially to those Christians who have not fallen into the Gnostic revisions of mainline Protestants or hyper-progressive Catholics.
The non-Gnostic churches should stage a strategic retreat from a disenchanted public square and voluntarily return many of secular society’s gifts to Christendom. Stop being registrars for state marriages, surrender property tax exemptions, give up the double-dip tax privilege that grants clergy a non-taxable housing allowance while letting them also claim a mortgage deduction, drop military ranks for chaplains in the armed forces. I can think of some other things.
If we are in the final stages of a disenchanted Christendom, fine. Caesar has all the marbles, anyway.
I’ve heard that said in Christian circles, but I don’t think it has been sufficiently thought through. Yesterday I was speaking by phone to a traditionalist pastor friend in a mainline Protestant church. He said that if the churches lost their tax-exempt status over homosexuality, “We would have to close down the next day.” He explained that his congregation could not afford to pay the property taxes on their building. Indeed, I’ve heard many times that ministries — churches proper, and their other ministries, like soup kitchens and the like — operate on such a tight margin that to lose the tax exemption would be the end of many, many of them.
Very few Christians understand this aspect of the SSM battle. They may think it doesn’t matter what happens in the wider culture, as long as they will be left alone to worship in peace. They don’t understand that in a real sense, they may be fighting for their church’s life.
Back to Lawler’s essay:
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.
That’s an excellent distinction. Definitely read the whole thing.