From the Bottum Up: The Pathos of Joseph Bottum

Yesterday, at Commonweal, the former editor of First Things, Joeseph Bottum, published an essay, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, that claims to make “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.”

The essay is not the sort of thing one is used to reading on the internet these days. It twitches and rewinds and plods along, filling time to avoid the break-up talk. It requires patience and, oddly enough, an ability to set a hot button issue aside for a moment and give Bottum a chance to speak his mind.

It is a difficult essay. It requires patience and charity.

I read it twice from beginning to end, each ending with frustration. Then I read the essay from the bottom up (pun originally unintended) and the sections came alive a bit more. After that, I read it once more, in traditional fashion, and found myself moved in a very quiet and strange way.

I am not sure I have any more or less clarity on same sex marriage. I am not even sure that that was what Bottum was writing about — this essay was far more ambitious than that. Bottum did himself no favors in using same-sex marriage as his trope, one that he openly admits being disinterested in, but that is precisely the key to the enormous, slow affect this essay contains.

Bottum has returned to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

As he meanders and marks his territory, and predicts the reactions his words will and will not bring, Bottum doesn’t really tell us anything about why he came to this rather flimsy and half-cocked position, other than losing a former close friend who lives in New York. He is bright enough to realize, and mentions directly, that this sort of personal anecdote is no substitute for an argument, but he proceeds to basically make it into something very close to one.

The essay goes off into numerous tangents that are less connected to same-sex marriage as they are a wearisome, but mostly clear-eyed, indictment of the conservative movement in Catholic intellectual and pro-life social activist circles.

His position on same-sex marriage is a consistently pragmatic one, leaning heavily on his historical reading of something like classical American conservatism and libertarianism through the years. While he marks-out the loss of gay conservatives (like Andrew Sullivan) from mainstream conservatism, his narrative is less about the gays as it is about the mainstream.

This culminates in a very long, almost deceiving mea culpa: on his editorial distaste for gay issues-based articles and, more importantly, The Manhattan Declaration. In perhaps his most direct impact of the whole essay, Bottum admits,

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.

His reasoning against The Manhattan Declaration is built on several points. The more humorous one is that just as one loses the argument when the opponent is compared to Nazis, so too should anyone who compares modern America to the moral decline of Ancient Rome lose. The most serious point is that grouping issues like abortion, religious freedom, and same-sex marriage together is problematic. “The equating of these three concerns is a mistake,” Bottum writes. (I tend to agree, as I’ve argued before.)

This leads, somehow, to the present pope and Lumen Fidei. The section starts cold, but warms into an original, but hard to imagine, re-reading of Benedict and Francis’ new encyclical and the sexual revolution.

In the process he makes two important points, albeit glancingly.

First, he asserts that the sexual revolution (and, by implication, all social movements for that matter) was not about the body. It was about the mind. This is not an earth shattering claim, to be sure, but it does, again, highlight the objective of this essay — Bottum is trying to point Catholic conservatives in a different direction. Leave the homoerotic body alone; find the root; pull it from the bottom up. Don’t kill it either, it’ll grow again.

Secondly, he points out the literal demoralization of sex in present society. We are only allowed to have moral sentiments about rape. Everything else is up for grabs. The result, and most convincing point regarding same-sex marriage, is the modern loss of sex altogether. As he alludes to earlier, the gutted mythopoesis of sexuality has been sterilized and the disenchanted remains are what we are fighting over, resting in the blunt hands of legality and jurisprudence. We deserve to lose this argument, Bottum suggests, because it is nothing more than an argument.

He writes, with conservative bravado,

…once the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse, the legal principles of equality and fairness were bound to win, as they have over the last decade…

As you can tell, Bottum is all over the place — and I am too, as usual — and his remarks on the thick and thin qualities of natural law go a bit nutty, for my taste. These points add and subtract and amount to fragments, littered and strewn, hiding a more jarring truth: the culture wars have been lost not because of the wins and losses, but because of an inability to credibly communicate, to separate the essentials from the nonessentials and speak in voice modern people can learn to trust.

These are bold claims. Within these general claims Bottum find a small room — or a tiny dresser drawer — for same-sex marriage. Not as an endorsement, but, instead, as a loss that risks a larger prize: peace without victory.

This peace is not spelled out, and his rather cliche references to JPII and Mother Theresa don’t teach us anything we didn’t already know. But, as Bottum sees it, the failure of the Catholic Church is because of a widespread public and even private crisis of trust. I read this psychoanalytically, as a projection, albeit a powerful one: Bottum dares to confess what few of his generation and class have managed to do without burning all bridges.

He clearly doesn’t want to do that. But he inevitably will. First Things has already lashed out, with a hasty and nasty rejoinder, on their blog. Their petty reaction to his essay, only adds to my suspicion that there is another subtext for this essay: the pain of his departure from First Things.

I regret that Bottum wrote this piece about same-sex marriage — he could have written it about anything else. Poetry. But the effect and affect is what the essay is about. This is about pathos. I am not sure we know how to read essays like this anymore, offerings that are long and hidden, and Bottum’s writing shows some wear too. I fondly recall reading his fine prose with admiration and awe before, and hope to again. Here he is just heaving his pen around, trying to tell us how he feels and why it should matter to us as Catholics.

He tries to assure his friends, in parting. Wishful thinking. He will gain no new friends on account of this essay, and he knows that. His flummoxed “solution” will satisfy no one — no one, of course, but himself.

At least now he can think about the issue, which he probably won’t, free of the earlier charge he accepts, in another retrospective, of cowardice.

There is honor in that.

It is this inner comfort he is trying to make and find that leaves me, in the end, unwilling to read this essay as anything but a tragedy, in the classic sense. As such, I think it is a beautiful thing, as all tragedies must be.

Even if doesn’t make any sense.

 

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