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.

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