A Catholic Scholar Has a Change of Heart on Gay Marriage, and It’s a Doozy For All the Wrong Reasons

The New York Times has a piece that goes to great lengths to describe what a serious and weighty thinker Joseph Bottum is. Bottum is a conservative Catholic whose scholarliness is such that he refers casually to “Thomas” when he means the 13th-century Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas. You and I might find that vaguely amusing or off-putting, but the Times is smitten:

His erudite writing for conservative magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard is laced with references to church history and theology and to Christian writers like G. K. Chesterton and W. H. Auden. He fiercely opposes abortion, and for five years, until 2010, he was editor in chief of First Things, a key opinion journal for religious conservatives.

Joseph Bottum

It seems that the Times now applauds Bottum primarily because he has changed his views on gay marriage. Only five years ago, Bottum railed against proponents of equal rights, calling them promoters of an “amoral world,” and adding in no uncertain terms,

God’s will is for marriage to be a covenant between a man and a woman. Nothing else will work.

Now he’s come around. Bottum (hold the jokes) is in favor of gay marriage, he explains in a long, aimless, meandering essay in Commonweal Magazine.

Here, as summarized in the Times, are the three key arguments through which Bottum came to his change of heart.

[1] Basic democratic premises like fairness, equal rights and majority rule suggest that the time for same-sex marriage has come, he says. We can agree, Mr. Bottum argues, that Americans are turning in favor of same-sex marriage, and there “is no coherent jurisprudential against it — no principled legal view that can resist it.” Furthermore, the bishops’ campaigns against same-sex marriage “are hurting the church.” Especially for the young, Catholicism is coming to symbolize repression.

True enough, but this is hardly the stuff of principles. “We’re losing this one, let’s move on” is not exactly what you’d expect from a man billed as a fierce intellectual.

[2] Natural law, as systematically explained by Aquinas in his treatise Summa Theologica, is the will of God as understood by people using their reason. Aquinas extrapolates many principles of natural law, including those of marriage. But Mr. Bottum contends that these rules are not the point.

Natural law, Mr. Bottum writes, depends for its force on a sense of the mystery of creation, the enchantment of everyday objects, the sacredness of sex. In the West, that climate of belief has been upended: by science, modernism, a Protestant turn away from mysticism, and, most recently, the sexual revolution. The strictures of natural law were meant to structure an enchanted world — but if the enchantment is gone, the law becomes a pointless artifact of a defunct Christian culture.

“And if,” Mr. Bottum writes, “heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?”

Again, I’m underwhelmed. This second line of reasoning smacks of the same curious white-flag-waving that characterizes the first one. I even sense a bit of — petulance, perhaps? Divorce cheapens marriage, Bottum seems to be huffing, so letting the institution fall into further chaos by opening it up to “homosexuals” (as he liked to refer to gay people until very recently) will not cheapen it by much more.

It’s not really an argument, but an assessment of what’s feasible. It substitutes intuiting for thinking.

[3] Traditional-marriage activists would counter that we can at least begin a Christian renaissance by upholding marriage’s last connections to its Christian past. But Mr. Bottum says that’s the wrong starting point. “There are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world,” he writes.

Better tactics might include “massive investments in charity, the further evangelizing of Asia, a willingness to face martyrdom by preaching in countries where Christians are killed,” and a churchwide effort to beautify the liturgy.

At this point I’m officially embarrassed for the man, damn the to-be-respected fact that he has changed his once non-conciliatory stance. There’s no shortage of words in Bottum’s gargantuan essay, but there certainly is a paucity of crisp argumentation. The entire thing ultimately rests on considerations of strategy, rather than on what he believes to be morally and intellectually right or wrong, and why. Bottum is content to observe the wind vane of public opinion, and finds it sufficiently turned away from his preferred direction that he no longer has the heart, or the energy, to weigh the actual merits of the case.

Sure, I’d rather have an influential Catholic on “our” side rather than seeing him pointlessly charging windmills for the sake of religious orthodoxy. I just wish he’d tried harder to convince other Catholics, instead of leaving them shaking their heads over the thinness of his opinions.

The thing that frankly puzzles me the most is not Bottum’s all-too-cursory mea culpa to gay people (which reads, in its entirety)

There’s been damage done in the course of this whole debate, some of it by me. And I’m not sure what can be done about it.

Instead, it is that while the Bible didn’t change (and neither did the works of the sainted Thomas Aquinas), Buttom now finds the opposite meaning in those books that he did a mere five years ago.

The willingness to revise one’s opinion is the mark of an intellectually serious person; but if the sacred writings by which millions or billions live their lives are so malleable as to support diametrically opposed exegeses, it’s time to admit that the solidity, relevance, and usefulness of these ur-texts are seriously in question.

About Terry Firma

Terry Firma, though born and Journalism-school-educated in Europe, has lived in the U.S. for the past 20-odd years. Stateside, his feature articles have been published in the New York Times, Reason, Rolling Stone, Playboy, and Wired. Terry is the founder of Moral Compass, a now dormant site that poked fun at the delusional claim by people of faith that a belief in God equips them with superior moral standards. He joined Friendly Atheist in 2013.


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