Major Defector on Marriage Equality

Joseph Bottums, a conservative Catholic who helped draft the Manhattan Declaration, has defected on the issue of marriage equality in an essay in Commonweal magazine. In that essay, he makes a “Catholic case for same-sex marriage,” but it seems to be more of a pragmatic case than a principled one:

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.

For that matter, plenty of practical concerns suggest that the bishops should cease to fight the passage of such laws. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the struggle against abortion is slowly winning, but the fight against public acceptance of same-sex behavior has been utterly lost.

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.

That’s just “we can’t win so there’s no point in fighting” rather than an actual change of mind. But then there are some details about the drafting of the Manhattan Declaration that are quite interesting:

One of the problems with the document was that none of the people on the drafting committee—Chuck himself, Princeton’s Robert P. George, and the very smart Baptist divinity-school dean Timothy George—were primarily writers. They were activists and teachers who happened to write, sometimes (as in Robby George’s 1995 book Making Men Moral) with real skill. But the genuine literary talent behind an entire generation’s set of manifestos had been Richard John Neuhaus—first as a Christian protester against segregation and Vietnam, and then as a Christian neoconservative. And with Richard’s death from cancer earlier in 2009, they had to produce The Manhattan Declaration in his absence.

The result would prove turgid, politically clumsy, and strangely disorganized. Just as there’s a rule in some online discussion groups that you’ve automatically lost an argument if you compare your opponents to the Nazis, so there ought to be a rule in public discourse that you’ve guaranteed your failure if you compare modern America to the decline of Ancient Rome. But that’s how the declaration opened, and as it wandered through its various complaints about the nation, it came to seem more and more a laundry list in search of a thesis: there’s bad stuff out there, people hate us, and it all adds up to, well, a picture—a modern reflection of the moral collapse of Rome from the stern glories of the republic to the satyricon of the empire.

I spoke to Chuck privately about the draft several times, urging him to reorganize it and tone it down, but he was too enamored of the frisson of rebellion in its call for civil disobedience to agree. Finally, at the New York meeting, I got up and announced publicly my unease: The equating of these three concerns is a mistake; not only do the possible negative results of same-sex marriage fail to match the horrors of abortion, but religious freedom isn’t even the same kind of thing. It’s like equating a small weed to a giant sequoia—and then lumping them both together with an umbrella. The entire text needs to be recast, I said. If the document has to threaten civil disobedience, then it ought to be about freedom: religious Americans may accept a culture that recognizes same-sex marriage, but they hereby announce that they will not accept a legal regime that uses same-sex marriage as a wrecking ball with which to knock down every religious building in the public square.

And in response, Maggie Gallagher stood up in that crowded room to call me a coward—or, at least, she declared that any reduction in the status of the fight over same-sex marriage was a counsel of cowardice, born from a fear that same-sex marriage was inevitable. A writer and activist, former president of the National Organization for Marriage, Gallagher has always struck me as a fearless and contrarian figure, and in this case, I think, she was correct.

Oh, not about the law: the legal victory of same-sex marriage actually was inevitable; not a single persuasive legal argument emerged against it in the courts. But right in her accusation of cowardice—although maybe not in quite the way she thought. My worry with The Manhattan Declaration wasn’t about the consequences of defeat, as Gallagher suggested; if something is wrong, you oppose it even though the heavens fall. But cowardice about my own mind, yes: my profamily friends were a strong public-intellectual force opposed to abortion, and I went along with them on same-sex marriage mostly because I lacked the seriousness and strength of mind to work through it for myself. I was just like that young woman journalist I found so insipid and self-righteous for pronouncing uncritically the views of her class.

In the end, my friends…but why should I continue to blame them for my own fault? In the end, I let myself be talked into publishing the (only slightly altered) document, despite my objections—talked into becoming one of the original signers of The Manhattan Declaration myself. It was a mistake, and one I regret.

And then finally — it’s a really long essay — he arrives at a substantive argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Well, kind of. It’s a pretty weak argument:

Some Catholic intellectual figures will continue to explore the deep political-theory meanings manifest in the old forms of Christendom, and more power to them, but the rest of us should turn instead to more effective witness in the culture as it actually exists.

In fact, same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.

I don’t know that it will, of course, and some of the most persuasive statements of conservatism insist that we should not undertake projects the consequences of which we cannot foresee. But same-sex marriage is already here; it’s not as though we can halt it. And other profound statements of conservatism remind us that we must take people as we find them—must instruct the nation where the nation is.

For that matter, the argument about unforeseen consequences is a sword that cuts both ways. Precisely because human social experience has never recognized same-sex marriage on any large scale, we don’t know the extent to which metaphysical meanings—the enchantment of marriage—can be instantiated in same-sex unions. How faithful will they prove? How much infected by the divorce culture of modern America? How spiritual? How mundane? How will they face up to the woe of the quotidian that, as Schopenhauer insisted, marriage forces us to see? How will such unions aid their participants to perceive the joy of creation?

The answer is that we can’t predict the effects of same-sex marriage. I think some good will come, I hope some good will come, but I cannot say with certainty that all must go well with this social change. Still, as the church turns to other and far more pressing ways to re-enchant the world, we’ll have time to find out. And when we are ready to start rebuilding the thick natural law that recognizes the created world as a stage on which the wondrous drama of God’s love is played, we will have the information we need to decide where same-sex marriage belongs in a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order.

To an atheist, of course, this all seems quite silly. And it should. But he is speaking to his fellow Catholics, not to us. And I expect that we will see more and more of this, more anti-equality advocates recognizing the inevitable and finding some way to accommodate same-sex marriage without jettisoning the rest of their beliefs.

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