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J. Bottum Flip-Flops On Gay Marriage

Well, this is a total shocker: Jody Bottum, the former editor of the theocon flagship First Things, has come out for same-sex marriage. From his Commonweal essay: Not the fact of the legality of same-sex marriage, exactly. That ship has already sailed, as well it ought to have. By July 2013, thirteen states had already […]

Well, this is a total shocker: Jody Bottum, the former editor of the theocon flagship First Things, has come out for same-sex marriage. From his Commonweal essay:

Not the fact of the legality of same-sex marriage, exactly. That ship has already sailed, as well it ought to have. By July 2013, thirteen states had already recognized it, and under any principle of governmental fairness available today, the equities are all on the side of same-sex marriage. There is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it—no principled legal view that can resist it. The Supreme Court more or less punted this June in its marriage cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor, but it was a punt that signaled eventual victory for advocates of same-sex marriage. And by ruling in Windsor that Section 3 of DOMA (the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional, the justices made it clear that the court will not stand in the way of the movement’s complete triumph. We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.


I find these practical considerations compelling, just as I think most ordinary Catholics do. The church in America today is in its weakest public position since agitation about Irish and Italian immigration in the 1870s prompted thirty-eight states to pass anti-Catholic Blaine amendments to their constitutions. A great deal of goodwill was built up by Catholic work in the 1980s and 1990s, from John Paul II’s successful campaign to “live in truth” by opposing Soviet Communism to the prestige of Mother Teresa’s work with the poorest in India. But the goodwill disappeared in a flash, just over a decade ago, with the Boston Globe’s 2002 stories of the horrifying priest scandals.

Regardless of the church-bashing uses to which some commentators put the news, the central fact of the scandals remains: a corruption, a horror, and an outrage, which many bishops tried criminally to bury in their bureaucracies. And major effects of the scandal included feeding the schadenfreude and sense of victory among anti-Catholics, wiping out the moral stature of the church in the mind of the American public, and eliminating the respect in which the seriousness of Catholic ideas was once held even by those who thought that such seriousness began with mistaken premises and arrived at false conclusions. In the context of the deserved contempt that followed, what kind of loony, pie-eyed judgment could lead the bishops to engage in a sex-based public-policy debate they are doomed to lose—feeding mockery of the church while engaged in the expensive process of losing that fight?

Bottum goes on to make an argument for the Church to give up this lost cause because it’s hurting its prospects to speak to the culture with authority about other things — things that are more important. Here is the heart of his essay:

The stony ground on which the church must sow is the landscape created by the sexual revolution. Made possible by the pill, accelerated by legalized abortion, aided by easy pornography, that revolution actually needs none of these any longer to survive, because they never defined it. They merely allowed it, and the completed change is now omnipresent. The revolution is not just in the way we use our bodies. It’s in the way we use our minds.

One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.


Those consequences were, in essence, the stripping away of magic—the systematic elimination of metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical meanings. Science, Francis Bacon told us, could not advance in any other way. Real democracy, Diderot explained, would not arrive “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” When the Supreme Court gave us the infamous “mystery passage” in the 1992 abortion case Planned Parenthood v. Casey—“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”—the justices were merely following out to its logical conclusion the great modern project of disenchantment. And it’s worth noticing that the mystery passage was quoted approvingly and relied upon in the 2003 sodomy-law case Lawrence v. Texas and by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in 2005 when it ordered the state to register same-sex marriages.

You’ll want to read the whole thing. Judging by the way my e-mail in-box is filling up, many of you already have.

Bottum’s analysis is not far from the conclusions I drew in my earlier TAC essay, “Sex After Christianity.”  Note this passage in which I draw from the late sociologist Philip Rieff’s observation that the sociological core of Christianity has to do with a way of seeing sex and the body that almost nobody holds anymore:

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.

How this came to be is a complicated story involving the rise of humanism, the advent of the Enlightenment, and the coming of modernity. As philosopher Charles Taylor writes in his magisterial religious and cultural history A Secular Age, “The entire ethical stance of moderns supposes and follows on from the death of God (and of course, of the meaningful cosmos).” To be modern is to believe in one’s individual desires as the locus of authority and self-definition.

Gradually the West lost the sense that Christianity had much to do with civilizational order, Taylor writes. In the 20th century, casting off restrictive Christian ideals about sexuality became increasingly identified with health. By the 1960s, the conviction that sexual expression was healthy and good—the more of it, the better—and that sexual desire was intrinsic to one’s personal identity culminated in the sexual revolution, the animating spirit of which held that freedom and authenticity were to be found not in sexual withholding (the Christian view) but in sexual expression and assertion. That is how the modern American claims his freedom.

To Rieff, ours is a particular kind of “revolutionary epoch” because the revolution cannot by its nature be institutionalized. Because it denies the possibility of communal knowledge of binding truths transcending the individual, the revolution cannot establish a stable social order. As Rieff characterizes it, “The answer to all questions of ‘what for’ is ‘more’.”

Our post-Christian culture, then, is an “anti-culture.” We are compelled by the logic of modernity and the myth of individual freedom to continue tearing away the last vestiges of the old order, convinced that true happiness and harmony will be ours once all limits have been nullified.

On that, I think Bottum and I would largely agree. We also agree that Christians are fighting a losing battle.

Bottum cares a great deal about how the rest of the world sees the Church. In the spring of 2002, he publicly rebuked me, then a Catholic, at a meeting of Catholic journalists for writing so forcefully in criticism of the bishops over the sex abuse scandal. He said that by attacking the Church’s bishops so publicly, I was serving as a “professional Catholic,” a useful idiot for secularist types who hate the Catholic Church, to help them justify their prejudices and deny the Church freedom. I thought that was an unfair and even gutless accusation, one that made being a theocon hack more important than speaking the truth about the failures of our Church. My view then was that it didn’t matter what the world thought of the Church, the scandal and the culture that brought it about had to be confronted openly, and by Catholics. The late Richard John Neuhaus, also trying to get me to temper my criticism of the bishops, told me privately around the same time that we Catholics had to remember that the Church’s freedom to do its work was precious, and that I shouldn’t give the Church’s enemies reason to hem it in.

It sounds to me like Bottum is still thinking along these lines. He doesn’t argue that same-sex marriage is good, only that it is a very close to a fait accompli, and that the Church harms itself by continuing to resist it. And he hopes that some good can come of ceasing to fight for traditional marriage — including the gassy idea that somehow giving in on this issue will make it easier for the Church to “re-enchant” the world, a metaphysical stance on which the appeal of natural law rests.

If you believe that, then maybe you believe that if the Church gave up its opposition to contraception, it could regain moral authority among Americans, very few of whom take the Church’s teaching seriously. But you would be fooling yourself. It’s one thing to recognize that the Church’s teaching on contraception, or homosexuality, or anything sex-related, is unpopular, and to adjust the Church’s message in light of that fact. You really do have to pick your battles. What is impossible to accept is the notion that by surrendering on an issue like this, the Church will come out with enhanced moral authority. That’s folly.

Jody doesn’t seem to have changed his view on the moral status of same-sex marriage (though maybe he has, and I miss it), as much as he has made a prudential decision that the bishops and other Catholics should throw themselves of the Church’s opponents and hope that they’ll play nice, and he’s counseling the bishops to do the same. I don’t think he’s being cynical; I see no reason to believe that there’s any dishonesty at all in his essay. Well, except for the part where he talks about how so many people today believe that to oppose same-sex marriage puts one in the same moral category as those who opposed the civil rights movement, and who “have hardly been shy about their desire to use the visibility of the same-sex marriage debate as an opportunity to damage public perception of Christianity”:

One wonders what the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., would have had to say about this interpretation of the civil-rights movement as fundamentally an overcoming of Christianity. But if that’s what the same-sex marriage movement is really about—the redefinition of history as Christian oppression, the rereading of even success stories like the civil-rights movement as tales of defeating Christian evil, all for the purpose of cutting off the religious roots of Western civilization—then to hell with it.

To hell with it, as well, if the campaign for same-sex marriage has anti-Catholicism as one of its major causes, or a feeding of anti-Catholicism as one of its welcome effects.

“To hell with it.” Good luck with that. This whole passage is whistling like a foghorn past the graveyard.

Again, I agree with Jody Bottum that Catholics and other traditionalists are probably going to lose this fight, and I agree with Bottum’s analysis of why we’re going to lose. That’s why I have been arguing for the past few years that conservatives should rethink our strategy for prudential reasons, orienting ourselves around protecting religious freedom in the face of the inevitable. I still believe that. What I don’t believe, and don’t understand how any conservative can take seriously, is the hope that giving up the fight will buy the Church any goodwill, or will give the Church new credibility to speak its truths to modern people. This is wishful thinking. Ask liberal Protestants how their churches have fared since liberalizing and accepting same-sex marriage as good — a stance that is more radical than even Bottum calls for. Ask Anglican Bishop Tengatenga how much goodwill his about-face on gay marriage bought him. At least the Catholic bishops, for all their sins and failings, are going down fighting for principle instead of reaching a de facto concordat with a new order that the Church teaches is profoundly immoral.

One last thing: it is interesting to reflect on these words Jody said about me at that 2002 meeting:

Now that job of being a professional Catholic, it seems to me, is one into which Rod Dreher has fallen. In recent articles Rod has fallen off the tight rope. He said that pedophilia scandals have to be talked about. He’s absolutely right and we should talk about it. We should talk about it in this room, but that doesn’t mean it has to be talked about on the front cover of National Review.

He says we need to regain our public voice. It strikes me that this is not the way to regain our public voice. This is the way to lose it forever. In fact, there are publications that would willingly use Catholics to be the point men in this attack which they intend to ultimately to be an attack on Catholicism. We’ve seen it before. The lefty journals of New York City have a set of people they use as their professional Catholics, Garry Wills, or Mary Gordon. They’re always trotted out to say: I am a Catholic, but I have to say, the Church’s position on this or what the Church is doing on that is an outrage.

I’ve watched it happen on the right as well. The Wall Street Journal a few years ago published a column by Ralph McInerny that bothered me a great deal. He let himself be used by the Wall Street Journal to write exactly the Garry Wills/Mary Gordon column that says I am a Catholic, but I can’t believe what the Church is saying about capital punishment. This is a perpetual threat, a perpetual danger and it seems to me one that we must all guard ourselves against and that Rod has fallen off the wagon on.

Jody’s interview with Mark Oppenheimer of The New York Times, an interview that took place before publication of his Commonweal essay, appears under the headline: A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same-Sex Marriage. Hey, I guess we can’t all guard ourselves against it forever.