What Bottum Got Right

Joseph Bottum’s essay, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Gay Marriage,” is long. Very long. On its way to and from its point, that preventing the legalization of same-sex marriage “ought to come low on [the Church's] list of priorities,” it zigs and zags — from Bottum’s personal history, through recent Supreme Court decisions, Natural Law, and the backstage wrangling that preceded the release of the Manhattan Declaration. People who grasp these subjects more firmly than I are already saying Bottum’s got all of it wrong, so far be it for me to argue.

But whatever blunders Bottum commits, his reading of the immediate future is exactly right. Even if the Church does fight to the finish over gay marriage, gay marriage will probably win the day. Culturally speaking, we’ve drifted a long way from Bottum’s “thick, mystical” understanding of marriage — so far, in fact, that ruling same-sex couples out of the institution and all its tangible benefits now strikes the average American as indefensibly arbitrary. That’s unlikely to change.

Earlier this summer, after the Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act, other Catholic commenters made similar points. According to John Zmirak, no-fault divorce had already made “traditional marriage,” as defined in DOMA’s text, “a weak legal partnership and temporary sex pact that for some reason excluded homosexuals.” Anticipating its defense would involve “a legal Verdun in each of the 50 states,” Zmirak wonders, “Is that a hill worth dying on?”

At Verdun, the Hun did not pass, but Ross Douthat predicts that gay marriage bills, sooner or later, will. Their opponents, including the Catholic Church, might best serve their interests — preserving tax exemptions, etc. — by seeking terms now. Waiting till later, when “the bloc of Americans opposed to gay marriage has shrunk from the current 44 percent to 30 percent or 25 percent, and the incentives for liberals to be magnanimous in victory have shrunk apace as well,” could doom us to a Camerone or Dien Bien Phu.

These three aren’t the only ones who recognize the threat of defeat in the culture wars. Catholics in general seem to sense it. In certain quarters, that awareness seems both to have hit the panic button and uncorked the Id. A couple of weeks ago, Pat Buchanan affected astonishment that the mainstream American media would even even consider supporting a boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics over Russia’s ban on “homosexual propaganda,” which he judges fundamentally American. Among Catholics, this led to an outpouring of what Simcha Fisher calls “Putin worship” — if the old boy can put the nagaika to the nancies, her Facebook friends seemed to think, then molodets, and free speech be damned.

And Putin may even not count as the strangest bedfellow considered by Catholics this season. In Crisis Magazine, Marjorie Jeffrey stops just short of praising French historian Dominique Venner’s spectacular suicide before the altar at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Jeffrey calls the act “a cri-de-coeur against the modern age.” She notes, accurately enough, that Venner’s chief gripe, even greater than gay marriage, whose acceptance in France immediately preceded his parting shot, was Muslim immigration. With apparent approval she quotes the line in his suicide note calling for “new, spectacular, and symbolic gestures.” What these should be, or what Venner himself — formerly a member of Organisation de l’armée secrete — might have had in mind, she leaves to our imagination.

In an interview with LifeSiteNews, Peter Kreeft also pairs Islam with gay-rights activists, but he deals them all backhanded praise for being “the only two movements that will fight and die for their beliefs.” In Kreeft’s version of events, these two groups gained their purchase in the world because “[Christians] became sheep. We said, ‘Abuse us, we’re polite. We’ll smile at you. We’re tolerant of everything.’”

Knocking sheeplike qualities in humans might be standard bloviating procedure for someone like Michael Savage, but it’s not every day you hear it from Christians. Kreeft’s other statements are hardly less bizarre. Can it really be said, for instance, that Christians have smiled tolerantly on militant Islam when so many of us have supported the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and even the use of torture? In some places, being visibly gay may expose a person to physical risk, but can any reasonable person believe gays court danger in quite the same way as al-Qaeda operatives? And since when have gay people praised the Church’s leadership for accommodating them?

But niggling over details would mean missing Kreeft’s real goal, which is to speak with breadth and color, and to offer Christians a version of history that keeps them on their toes. True, not even in a qualified way has he saluted censorship or gruesome acts of political theater. Still, his message remains: double down. But in culture war, what can doubling down mean? After countless condemnations from bishops and bishops’ conferences, after two coolly-received Fortnights for Freedom, I can no longer conceive of it in terms that don’t involve something ugly, destructive, and finally fruitless.

Bottum’s version of history, in which the game was up the as soon as “the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse,” might have problems of its own. For all I know, it complements Kreeft’s. But at least Bottum is both willing and able to see the other side of the hill, to imagine a Church that has survived defeat in the culture wars without being reduced to total passivity. The goal he imagines for this Church, “the re-enchantment of reality,” might not be more easily reachable than any other, but it should at least succeed in engaging creative energies that find no use in a more combative climate. Better, it should enable the Church to do what it’s always done best, namely, to think in centuries.

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Okay, I’ve long thought and said that I could be convinced that civil same-sex marriage on the grounds of natural justice need not be a sticking point for Catholics (as many have pointed out, the current state of marriage is pretty much ‘marriage is only valid if it comes about because of erotic love and as soon as that haze of desire wears off, or you both or one of you don’t feel your needs are being met, you can dissolve the contract’).

    But when it comes to weaselling about “the incentives for liberals to be magnanimous in victory”, then I want to set something on fire. Firstly, I don’t believe there is any such incentive; would you give a pat on the head and a sweetie for being such a good boy to someone who stopped cutting the throats of old ladies to rob their purses? The idea on the progressive side is that it’s not a concession or toleration by the socially conservative, it’s forcing the knuckledraggers to acknowledge a basic human right.
    Secondly, so we should burn the pinch of incense to divus Caesar, should we?
    Of all the reasons not to protest something, surely “let’s see what we can get out of it” is the tawdriest!

  • http://www.facebook.com/fr.petebarnabite Peter Calabrese

    The Gospel this week is about striving to enter through the narrow door. The Gospel has been rejected by so many on so many fronts. As you say the essay was terribly long winded. Do we “surrender” on pre-marital sex and give out condoms in Catholic schools? I know Bottum did not suggest that per se it but that is the effect – if the Gospel is too hard give up?

    My other thought is this. More than any other issue this is one where they will get us because we will be perceived of as denying a civil right. Already people are being sued for refusing to service SSM ceremonies. Already it is dubious that conscience protections will hold in matters of employment. In other countries there is prosecution for saying homosexual acts are wrong. Do you really think suing for peace will gain us anything from those who want to see the Church changed? They don;t just want this for them – they want to ensure that the Catholic Church’s teachings against homosexual activity will be ignored and ridiculed. Gaining marriage rights is about setting the stage for that. Mainstreaming it is about making sure kids from the earliest age are told their Church is crazy. I won;t say, “Well it is OK because we lost the political fight but we can fight to pass Tradition on to our children.” The children will be and already are being told that SSM is normal and that to hold otherwise is hatred. Surrender is just that surrender.

    We were told it would not affect anyone that did not want SSM. Ask those that are being sued over it whether that was true. Even if they win they are mired in time and court costs. You want peace – the LGBT activists don’t want peace they want an Ardeatine victory.

  • FranRossiSzpylczyn

    I can’t even read another word on the subject, but that you wrote this… I had to come on over. I understand the teachings and I pray to submit to them, but it is always a struggle on this topic.

    My weariness over sexual acts at the primary focus knows no bounds. We have had divorce, as duly noted, which reduced marriage. Now as someone married, licitly I might add, to someone who was divorced, I can comment on how difficult divorce is in family life. But does it make any of us less Catholic? I’m sure someone will find us so, but Holy Mother Church has gratefully seen otherwise.

    Did you hear about wedleases? If I were the USCCB, I would be much more worried about that.

    Max, I am grateful that you took this on. When will those of us who are Catholic stop engaging in “culture wars,” and live as Catholics, in the world, shining light and touching all, not turning away?

  • Kevin O’Brien

    This is very well written, Max, and it addresses the strange position Catholics find themselves in. There is no longer a Catholic culture. Period. Not even in the Church. There lingers, in the society at large, some regard for “fairness” and self-sacrifice in very limited situations, but the culture we built has died.

    Do we respond to this by barricading ourselves in a Catholic ghetto on the one hand, or by swallowing everything the Culture of Death and Sterility feeds us on the other? Do we blow our brains out in front of the altar of the cross at Our Lady’s church (an act of hellish depravity), or do we simply “make nice” and pretend that the cruelty and irrationality that surrounds us is just fine thank you?

    The only answer is obviously before us: to love God and to love our neighbors. Only from such humble beginnings will Christ be effective in the world once more.

  • Alexander S Anderson

    I recognize your point, Max, but I think the problem may be even simpler: Bottom and Kreeft, and to some extent even the bishops, are both far too worried about worldly defeat, and that worry is leading them to conclusions that are bordering on un-Christian. Right after the Vatican releases an encyclical that shows faith is above all things a trust in God and His providence and promises, too many are willing to show their lack of faith. It’s disorienting. Even though the world has abandoned the old Christian mystical meaning of marriage doesn’t mean that we can just stop giving witness to it, and worldly defeats aren’t necessarily evidence of our lack of nerve.

    I especially expect better from Kreeft, who should be familiar with Tolkien’s phrase: “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ — though it contains (and in a legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some samples or glimpses of final victory.” In a final note, I would just like to add that I read the end of the book, and (spoilers) in the end, we win, not by our actions, but by the will of the lamb who was slain, who keeps his covenant, because that’s what God does.

  • JeffreyRO55

    It is wearisome, to say the least, that people of faith cry foul when the rest of us don’t wish to be involuntarily caught up in their beliefs. No one, not a soul, has ever suggested the catholic church can’t define marriage as a male-female only arrangement. So why does the catholic church feel that it can tell the rest of us what OUR marriages can or can’t be? The catholic church wants to define marriage for everyone, catholic or not. Let be clear: I will never be forced to accept catholic doctrine imposed on my by the state.

  • Jan

    “Sensing the threat defeat in the culture wars”, Max? I don’t think so- the “culture” wars haven’t even begun. All that has happened thus far is a bunch of nothing on the part of those people who hold strong views on morality- a morality which, for all its faults- doesn’t include tolerance for overt sexual perversion. No one cared what people did in private. Insisting that it not only be tolerated but liked is going to backfire horrifically. That’s what this Catholic senses.

  • DPierre

    It is well-written to anyone who has never had a beginning course in logic and/or has blind hatred toward Church hierarchy.

  • DPierre

    I do not think this is a well-written piece at all:

    1. Max wrote, “Can any reasonable person believe gays court danger in quite the same way as al-Qaeda operatives?”

    Kreeft never said that. That’s a straw man.

    2. Going to war with Iraq and Afghanistan was debatable, but that issue is a red herring.

    Did we go to war with al-Qaeda because they were acting like peace-loving altar boys? What does al-Qaeda actually *stand for*? What was al-Qaeda actually *doing* that we felt we needed to start a war with them? Are there reasonable arguments in favor of fighting this scourge? (Of course there are.)

    3. Max wrote: “And since when have gay people praised the Church’s leadership for accommodating them?”

    They haven’t, although *they should.* *Many* parishes in cities that are heavily gay-populated are specifically identified as “gay-friendly,” where the faith is watered down and made “tolerant,” yet you never hear gays praising this “accommodation.”

    4. Pat Buchanan – love him or hate him – warned us about this cultural disaster decades ago. He is hardly hitting any “panic button.” He is simply sounding the same alarm he’s been sounding for years. Apparently this is the first time you’ve heard it, Max.

    5. Max wrote, “I can no longer conceive of ['doubling down'] in terms that don’t involve something ugly, destructive, and finally fruitless.”

    How about giving us an idea of what you actually mean?

    6. “[Kreeft's] message remains: double down. But in culture war, what can doubling down mean?”

    If you are familiar with Peter Kreeft, you know exactly what he means. One of his most popular talks, which is also the title of one of his most popular books, is called, “How to Win the Culture War.”

    The answer: Become a saint. Get busy.


    Kreeft is right. We don’t need “wimpy” Catholics.


  • DPierre

    “Only from humble beginnings”??!? Puh-leeze.
    That is exactly the post-modern gobbledegook thinking that got the Church in the situation it is now.

    Do you have any clue of the cultures in which Christianity spread?
    Have you ever heard of the expression “being thrown to the lions”?


  • Tess

    As G.K. Chesterton once said “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried”. What a bunch of quitters.

  • Billy

    Last week’s OT reading was about how they through Jeremiah down a well for saying, during the siege of Jerusalem, that the people would survive if they went out to the Babylonians but die if they stayed in the walls.

    The Wikipedia article on Camerone was really interesting. The Legion venerates the prosthetic hand of that captain who would not surrender.

    No one is going to celebrate Bottum’s article even if he is right. In 100 years, no one is going to say that his article made all the difference in saving the Church.

    And yet, is he our Jeremiah? Should he be put down the well? Or, maybe things aren’t as bad as he says. I can’t help but feel he’s calling for surrender. Are we even fully besieged? Is remystification a good strategy for a Babylonian captivity or merely a counsel of despair.

    I can’t see Bottum’s writing Lamentations. Where is the regret at the loss of Jerusalem?

    Either way, maybe it’s time to make the coffee.

  • Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente

    The RC hierarchy has triggered and waged a war, worldwide, for several decades, opposing absolutely every extension of our civil liberties and demonizing us as the vortex of their so-called ‘culture of death’. I used to be sympathetic to the RC Church, now I cannot but see it as the enemy. Wars generally only end with the defeat of one side. I hope you end up utterly crushed, you have made my life and that of too many of my friends utterly miserable.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Here’s where I think you’re wrong Max, or at least the point you think Bottum is right on. First, even if the Church for expediency turns a blind eye to natural law it cannot turn a blind eye scripture. Scripture is clear on the sinfulness of homosexual acts, not just in the OT but the New. Every time those passages came up, whatever it was trying to preach would be hollow.

    Second, you take the cultural war metaphor a too far. It’s not a war in the sense of battles and negotiated peace treatises. The one sentence that is at the crux of Bottum’s point (it the midst of his convoluted and incredibly poorly written piece) is this: “We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.”

    What does he mean we or the Catholic Church should now “accept” state recognized SSM? I dont like many laws of the state, including the despicable law that allows to kill children developing in the womb. However, abortion is the law of the land and I accept it and I’m certain the Church accepts it too. What is meant by not accepting SSM? Does he expect that we are going to take armed resistance and fight those trying to enforce it? Do we go to abortion mills and launch mortars at the building? It seems to me his whole logic is nonsense. No one is not accepting the laws of the land. By our very consent to the social contract by which we live we are accepting them. We may not like them and we may be engaged in an attempt to persuade our fellow citizens that the law should be changed, but by all means we accept the laws of the land.
    The Church is not ging to be reduced to anything just because it either accepts or doesn’t accept SSM. It will be strong or weak based on the faith and number of its parishners and supporters. No one is going to give it fair treatment just because it accepts SSM now. Twenty years from there will be no peace treatise on a piece of paper to speak of that the Church can take to court for adjudication. The culture war is a battle over the state of the culture, not a battle between entities.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’ve said before that civil unions for heterosexuals are the obvious solution; a complete divorce of society from the church.

    With this essay, I can no longer call myself American.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    “No one, not a soul, has ever suggested the catholic church can’t define marriage as a male-female only arrangement.”

    Absolutely wrong- they vandalized Holy Redeemer in San Francisco over it. That’s a lie. The ONLY reason for gay marriage is to use the state to force the church into it.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Because if we lose the culture war, we will not be allowed to be Catholic. They will not stop until we’re all in the gas chambers.

  • michicatholic

    All this is because the average Catholic has a very skewed idea about what Christianity is about. It’s not about being the local “family association” or anything of the sort. That would be the PTA. Rather, Christianity is about becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, one by one.

    Anytime we go off on a white horse, on a screwed up crusade like this one, with no idea what it is to be a Gospel Christian, we are going to have these problems. Note that I didn’t say that homosexuality is okay, because it’s not. The Gospel says so. But it’s up the individual person, confronting his mortality and learning what the Gospel says to come to terms with that in their conversation with God. It’s not up to us, with our politics and pressure and all of it, to legislate for everyone, Christian or not, disciple of Christ or not.

  • kenofken

    So if your religion can’t have it’s boot on the neck of the rest of us through the coercive power of government, than the reverse is inevitable? This country’s founding was an explicit rejection of that concept. You have lost the culture war because 90% of the real people in the country don’t want a culture war. We have no interest in living under your doctrine or changing it. We want everyone to have equal justice before the law and then be left the hell alone to live their own lives.

  • Jan

    We can’t just sit around being neutral! If nothing is wrong, then nothing is right. Not to mention, while we are waiting for individual come to Jesus moments our livelihoods are in danger and our children are in danger!

  • michicatholic

    You don’t have to be neutral in your own life. Far from it. If you’re a Christian, you behave like a Christian, which means you take Jesus as your Lord and Savior and act like it. But you can’t ride herd on the rest of the human race and make that your hobby. Sorry but you can’t do that. Christ didn’t do that and you can’t either. A good part of the problem is that Catholics have no clue what the Gospels say; their imperative is largely cultural.

  • kenofken

    Was Holy Redeemer vandalized by state employees in an official capacity?

  • Jan

    Too bad we don’t all live in nice little compartments. That’s the only way your philosophy would work.

    Nowhere in the gospel does Jesus tell us to turn a blind eye to sin and perversion.

  • RobW

    Amen. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.

  • RobW

    Bottum is wrong. Period.

  • gregcamacho8

    DPierre, are you saying that the Roman martyrs should have fought back and staged a revolt instead of, y’know, humbly accepting their fate as they did? Or did I miss your point?

  • FranRossiSzpylczyn

    You are really sick – God have mercy on you.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The reverse is already happening. This country was founded not on religious liberty, but on an extremist definition of the right of private property.

    If you don’t want a culture war- STOP ATTACKING.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The state employees are part and parcel of the same cartel that has taken over that debate, as are you. Organized crime taking over government is nothing new.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I’m the one who you liberals are telling me I can’t be Catholic and American- and that you want us all dead- and I’m the one who is sick?

    God help us, there ain’t no intelligent life left down here.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The point you missed is that they were willing to go to their fate and NOT compromise what they believed. What these liberals want us to do is compromise our faith and turn our back on Christ for their own convenience, and that we should NEVER do.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Christ did do that. I’m sorry you missed it somehow, but he did.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I know places where being visibly heterosexual exposes a person to quite a bit of risk.

  • Abe Rosenzweig

    Oh, are you talking about Crease, NY’s hottest club featuring lights, psychos, Furbies, screaming babies in Mozart wigs, and sunburned drifters with soap sud beards? Good club, but the bouncer’s a douche and the drinks are watered down.

  • michicatholic

    He didn’t. He didn’t ride into Rome and give the Romans hell for being empire builders. That’s what Judas wanted him to do, but he didn’t.

  • michicatholic

    There is only one place that I can think of where Christ really lights into someone and that’s with the sellers at the Temple.
    John the baptist denounces Herod and loses his head over it in the NT, but that’s the only other instance like this I can think of. This is an example of being a prophet, but it’s not an example of a general campaign against all evil-doing or anything like that. Early Christians did not make it their business to attack the Romans. On the contrary.

  • kenofken

    There is nothing, nothing at all that is being “done to” folks of anti-SSM views that is any different than what has happened in the civil rights arena for over half a century. There is a narrative taken uncritically on faith that people are being prosecuted for simply holding and expressing anti-SSM views, but no one has been able to document a single incident in which anyone was actually prosecuted. There have been a tiny handful of cases in the UK and Europe in which authorities opened a file on a complaint under hate speech laws. None, so far as I have ever seen, resulted in any actual prosecution or penalties. Most seemed to be confusion over the scope of relatively new laws concerning hate speech.

    In this country, the only people having problems are those who refuse to follow basic civil rights laws concerning businesses which cater to the public.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I was thinking more about the Pearl District in Portland, OR.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    He didn’t do it before His crucifixion. He did it in the 500 years after.

    And that was done by Early Christians.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fr.petebarnabite Peter Calabrese

    You are defining what is acceptable for them as just par for the course? Are you saying that a business person has no right to choose not to serve someone or not to offer a particular service. A kosher deli does not have to serve pork even if I demand it, or would oyu force them. Could a business owned by African Americans be forced to host a KKK convention. You say the narrative is taken uncritically but lawsuits are publicly filed and can be viewed and they are real. maybe you are rich enough to blow money on trials but most business are not. You are naive. The pro-SSMs have sought out businesses and were not merely content with referral sot businesses that wanted to sel their products to celebrate “marraige”. this is just my point – conscience protections are being ignored. Because YOU FEEL SSM is a right then businesses must offer services but that is your a priori. If it was really about tolerance and respect a couple that is refused would just walk out and go somewhere else – a cake or a reception for their “marriage” is hardly a civil rights issue . No the SSM movement is a demand that we must stand up and applaud with them their actions – their victory in getting a pagan government to equate unnatural actions with conjugal marriage. No thanks. I will not celebrate their sin and businesses and churches should not be forced to do so.

  • kenofken

    Would you be ok with a business refusing your business because you’re Catholic (assuming you are)? If so, you have a decent argument, based on pure libertarianism. A foundation of civil rights law holds that civil rights considerations sometimes trump the rights of business people to decide who they will serve. Businesses do not have the right to refuse to serve people at whim, and the issue has never been the person’s ability to “go somewhere else.” King didn’t protest at lunch counters because black folks couldn’t get a bite to eat in Jim Crow South. They did it because being refused service as a class of people is a vile breach of dignity and what this country was supposed to be about. The kosher deli analogy does not hold water because it’s not about making a business offer something they don’t normally do. It’s about equal access. A kosher deli does not have to serve pork, but if they do, they cannot refuse to sell it to someone because they’re gentile or Muslim or gay. Likewise with gay marriage business. If a photographer or caterer offers no wedding business, they don’t have to do so to accomodate gays. If they do such business, and if the laws prohibit discrimination based on orientation, then they have to follow the same laws as everyone else.

  • http://www.facebook.com/fr.petebarnabite Peter Calabrese

    I would not agree with them not serving me because I was Catholic but if someone did not want to host a priestly ordination reception or photograph one or bake cookies for one or host a fundraising banquete for the Church, I would be OK with that. You don’t like the kosher deli analogy but that does apply when it comes to the adoption agency force out done in Illinois and Massachusetts in which people who don;t do adoptions to same sex couples were approached then sued. We don;t do adoptions. And you never answered as to whether African Americans or their businesses should be forced to host a KKK convention.

    The article basically said we should rollover on this issue and you said the implications were minimal. I am showing you how SSM affects others, especially those who have conscience qualms and that SSM needs to be fought because it advocates really do want to go after the Church and the government IS NOT adequately protecting on many levels the rights of traditional Christian believers. IF the LGBT movement wants to pretend to alter the definition of marriage and if the government wants to foolishly abrogate authority to do so I guess we will have it, but if they are going to ram this down our throats and alter society’s structure they should have the decency to respect those who feel differently. A country that can allow pacifists to not join the army can certainly allow a few Catholics and others to exclude their bakeries and halls and cameras etc from these “marriage” celebrations. Instead of suing them they should just take their business elsewhere. The whole suing someone because they won;t photograph your “wedding” is pure spite and a demand that others applaud their sins. It is laughable really; pitiable from a human perspective, that you would sue someone for not applauding your living arrangements. It is also a gross waste of time and money for the justice system.

    You are correct these rights (to refuse service) have limits. I am not saying it would be right to not give food at all to a person because they were homosexual. We are not talking here about the denial of basic human rights such as food, shelter, medical care and clothing – we are talking about contracting a business for the celebration of a particular event contrary to the conscience of some. In law there is the reasonable man argument and it is certainly reasonable that one should not be forced to sell their services for something they find eminently objectionable without the threat of criminal or civil penalties.