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A Literary Catholic’s Lament

Jody Bottum’s Commonweal essay is the blog gift that keeps on giving. I find myself sympathizing with this point from Ross Douthat’s charitable read of an essay he finds unpersuasive in its conclusions: That’s how I read Bottum’s essay, at least in part: As a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his […]

Jody Bottum’s Commonweal essay is the blog gift that keeps on giving. I find myself sympathizing with this point from Ross Douthat’s charitable read of an essay he finds unpersuasive in its conclusions:

That’s how I read Bottum’s essay, at least in part: As a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates. He’s writing as someone who loves his church, and wants everyone else to love it as he does — and I don’t blame him for imagining that perhaps, just perhaps, ceasing to offer public resistance on the specific question of gay marriage would liberate the Church from some the caricatures that the culture war has imposed upon it, and enable the world to see its richness with fresh eyes.

I don’t think it would actually work that way, for a variety of reasons, some of which are suggested by other threads in Bottum’s essay. But I’ll let those lie for the purposes of this post, and just close with sympathy for the impulse that animates his essay, if not the conclusions that it draws.

Yes, I get this. I was telling a friend earlier today that I sympathize with what Bottum is apparently dealing with regarding his weariness of the gay-marriage issue. I care about it far less than you’d think reading this blog; in fact, the only reason I bring it up so often is because it is so often in the news. Funny, but liberal readers who e-mail or comment that I’m “obsessed” with the story (that word comes up a lot) ought to read The New York Times, which writes as often and as enthusiastically about gay issues as L’Osservatore Romano writes about the Pope’s schedule. Once a reader complained about the amount of same-sex marriage postings on this site. My first thought was, “Um, I focus on religion, politics, and culture, and there is no bigger story in any of those categories than homosexuality and how to deal with it.” But I did a count of all the posts I’d written about homosexuality in the previous year. It was something like 10 percent or less. The objection isn’t really to the attention I give to the issue, but that I’m on the wrong side.

Somebody’s obsessed with the story, and it ain’t me.

It’s not the Catholic Church either. As you know, I was a Catholic for 13 years. One of the more interesting aspects of seeing the Catholic Church from the inside was how very different the Church is, versus how it is portrayed in the news media. It was frustrating to me, as a Catholic, but instructive to me as a journalist, to observe how heavily distorted the reporting on the Church, especially on the Pope, was. It wasn’t so much that they reported things that weren’t true, but rather that the focus was heavily on the kinds of things that preoccupy the minds of American newsrooms: sex, gender, and cultural politics.

In a part of his essay that I did not quote, Ross makes a gentle but important point: is it really credible that the religion of France and Italy is a body-hating cult? Of course not. As you know, I’m reading Dante’s Inferno now, and it is impossible to miss the sheer fleshiness of the Italian Catholicism that animates the great poet’s imagination. In listening to Yale Prof. Giuseppe Mazzotta’s free (!) online course on The Divine Comedy, I’m learning how Dante’s vision — a profoundly Catholic one — proceeds from the conviction that we are embodied creatures, and that we are saved or damned in our bodies as well as our souls. It’s not for nothing that the sins of the flesh — lust, gluttony, etc. — are punished in the outer rings of Hell. Dante believed they were natural, and therefore the most forgivable. Sins, yes, and sins for which we will be held accountable. But not the worst sins. It is a deeply wise poem, one that emerged from the Catholic Church — some of whose clerics and even popes Dante places in Hell, showing that they too will be held accountable by Divine Justice.

The point is that this idea that the Catholic Church teaches hatred of the body is a calumny. True, Catholicism acknowledges sin and its consequences. To judge the entirety of Catholicism on the basis of its stance on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular is mistaken, unfair, and grossly ignorant. The idea that Catholics see their church primarily in terms of its teachings on sex and sexuality is absurd. But it’s exactly the kind of thing you would expect from American culture, though; even our secularists are Puritans. And to a frustrating extent, that’s where our media and intellectual elites are.

So yes, along with Ross, I get Jody Bottum’s weariness with all this. Who wouldn’t be tired of it? Who wouldn’t be fed up with friends and members of your professional class shunning you because of your faith? As if the complexity (Ross’s word) of the Catholic faith — or for that matter, the Christian faith — can be reduced to this one issue. As if the complexity of the human character can be boiled down to how one thinks about any one issue. This is not how ordinary people think, or should think; it’s how ideologues think.

Ross is right: if the Catholic Church dropped its opposition to SSM, it wouldn’t catch a break at all. This is not a fight the Church sought, but it is a fight the Church must wage. As Cardinal Francis George wrote last year, about SSM as well as the HHS mandate:

If someone a year ago had told me that Catholic social service agencies in Illinois would be forbidden by law to arrange adoptions or place children in foster homes, I would have said that he or she could not be serious. If others had said that a well-established Catholic college in the archdiocese would be told by a government agency that it is no longer Catholic, I would have thought that impossible. If two years ago I had been told that Catholic hospitals and universities and other institutions that are securely part of the church’s ministry would have to insure their employees for medical “services” that are immoral, I would have thought that we were still protected against a decree that would force our institutions to close or to secularize themselves. If I had imagined that the church could not go to the aid of women who have been trafficked or of refugees needing care without offering them “the full range of reproductive services” (including abortion and sterilization), I would have dismissed the thought as a mere fantasy. If the thought had occurred that the U.S. government would attack in court the right of a church to determine who are its properly recognized ministers and who are not, it would have been dismissed as pure fancy. Similarly fanciful would have been a law, actually introduced in a State legislature, revising the church’s internal governance, taking it from priests and bishops and vesting it in committees dictated by State law. These developments have made me anxious. The church’s work with the poor and the disadvantaged, the sick and the uneducated, the hungry and the homeless has never been threatened before. Loss of these ministries, as well as a weakening of our right to govern ourselves and to worship God in an orderly and regular fashion, will affect not only Catholics but also our whole society.

Giving up resistance to SSM will not buy the Catholic Church, or any Christian church, the slightest bit of goodwill. Jody Bottum may be tired of this argument, weary of this controversy — I am too, believe me — but there can be no doubt that the Church’s enemies are indefatigable.



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