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.


  • Jasper0123
  • AnneG

    Surely you get a whole lot of time off from purgatory for reading that thing 4 times! Sounded like a freshman sociology paper. No clear arguments.
    What amazes me is the multiple pretzel argument. I cannot understand rejecting thousands of years of human experience and Church teaching for “fairness” for 3-5% of the population. Sodomy is one of the only 4 sins that cry out to heaven. I am sympathetic to the needs of relatives and friends and to their struggles, but not to the sin that binds them. Facilitating sinful and harmful behavior does not help anyone.

    • JeffreyRO55

      No one is advocating that different-sex couples no longer be allowed to marry, after thousands of years of being allowed to do so. Straight couples can still get married, when same-sex couples do so. And why must a group reach a threshold amount, in order to receive equal legal treatment? Shall we discriminate against Albino people, because there are so few of them?

      • AnneG

        There is a difference between behavior and biology. You are still arguing against the whole of human history.

        • JeffreyRO55

          Christianity is arguing against the whole of human history most of the time, but that doesn’t seem to stop the Christies from trying to force normal people against their wishes.

      • James

        I do hope you will plump for the few numbers of polygamists who want to marry multiples and as well as the fewer numbers still of consenting adults in incestuous relationships who wish to marry. Shouldn’t they be allowed to do so as well?

        • JeffreyRO55

          They can plump for themselves. I oppose polygamy and incestuous marriage, and banning those particular marital arrangements doesn’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights, as banning same-sex marriage does.

          • James

            Sure it does, it violates their right to marry. You clearly don’t care how few and far between these people are so why does the sex of the people marrying not to matter to you but the numbers or the family status matter?

          • JeffreyRO55

            No it doesn’t violate their right to marry: they can still get married, just not to someone they’re related to, or to more than one person.

          • James

            Why can’t they? I often hear that argument used in the context of same-sex marriage: people of the same sex are free to marry…people of the opposite sex. How is your argument any different?

          • JeffreyRO55

            Marrying a person of the opposite sex is a meaningless right for a gay person, just as having the right to marry someone of the same sex is a meaningless right for a straight person. Banning same-sex marriage, therefore, effectively denies gay people the right to have a spouse.

            Banning incestuous marriage or polygamy doesn’t deny anyone the right to have a spouse, just a spouse that’s closely related to them, or more than one spouse. So, you can’t marry your sister(s) but there are still millions of other females that you CAN potentially marry. the limitation is extremely small, in other words. Polygamy is simply a particularized marital arrangement. Wanting to be married to more than one person doesn’t bar you from getting married, or having a meaningful marriage.

          • James

            I do appreciate you taking the same to answer my questions but the reasoning here is still not sound enough. Same-sex marriage could be called a particularized marital arrangement as well because of the relative rarity compared to different-sex marriages (trying to discern what is particular about polygamy that isn’t particular about SSM). “Particularized” sounds like a way of saying that it is a rare occurrence, which it is, but that shouldn’t matter(see below)

            Likewise, your argument about incest could be turned around on SSM: So, you can’t marry that man but there are still millions of females that you CAN potentially marry. The fact that the limitation is small shouldn’t matter to you since you argued up a few posts that we shouldn’t discriminate against tiny groups because of their limited numbers; you are still denying marriage to those in love.

          • JeffreyRO55

            An arrangement isn’t particularized because of its rarity, but because of the nature of the arrangement. And in case it’s not clear, I’m explaining this from a constitutional law standpoint: why same-sex marriage prohibitions violates constitutional equal protection guarantees, while banning incestuous marriage and polygamy don’t. Should people be allowed to marry a sibling or have multiple spouses? I don’t care either way, but society is in no way running afoul of the constitution when it bans those things.

            A gay person is as uninterested in marrying someone of the opposite sex as a straight person is in marrying someone of the same sex. Marriage is a sexual relationship, based on commitment and usually, love. Therefore, a ban on same-sex marriage essentially is a ban on having a spouse, and being married, for gay people. Even the staunchest anti-gay marriage litigants aren’t arguing that gay people have the same right as straight people to marry someone of the opposite sex. It’s a meaningless right, like telling Jews they can’t worship on Saturday, because Sunday is available to them just like it is to Christians.

            There is a fundamental difference between telling someone he or she can’t have a spouse, and telling him that there are two or three specific people he can’t marry (his siblings) but he can marry any of millions of other people. Likewise with polygamy: saying you can one spouse, but not three or four, reflects sound public policy and does not prevent someone from having a spouse.

            This pattern repeats itself in all kinds of issues, legally. Look at guns. Imagine if a state created a law that said no one can own a gun. That is patently unconstitutional, based on Second Amendment interpretations. But states often limit that right, such as you can’t own certain kinds of guns (say, assault rifles) and you can’t own any number of guns (unless registered as a dealer or collector).

        • michicatholic

          Careful, don’t make the obvious mistake. There is a huge difference between saying, “I’m a Christian, so I can’t marry a person of my same sex,” and “I’m a Christian, so that guy over there can’t marry a person of his same sex.”

          What the law of the land decides is legal is one thing. What is Christian, according to Scripture or Revelation may be another thing entirely. They are founded on different premises.

          Christendom, that amalgam of political and religious interests is over. It’s been over for 100 years now. Notice. Please. This is getting ridiculous.

          • James

            I said nothing of the sort about Christianity. I was wondering why the law was more far for same-sex marriages and not polygamist marriages. The law of the land should be equal for all.

    • Jim Englert

      It’s actually your comment that sounds as if coming from a freshman, Anne. That you didn’t get the article is fine. That you actually judge that not getting to be because the article is so far beneath you, rather than the actual fact of you being that far beneath it, is hilarious.

      • AnneG

        What am I judging? Ad hominem attacks are unconstructive. I contained my remarks to verifiable fact. I may be dumb, but not that dumb. Or is it the sin thing that really bothers you?

        • Jim Englert

          The only thing that bothers me is your presumptive and casual dismissal of a serious argument as sounding like “a freshman sociology paper.” And you just keep getting funnier: “Ad hominem attacks are unconstructive.” Look in the mirror.

          No, it’s not ‘the sin thing’ that bothers me. And no, I’m not particularly simpatico with Mr. Bottum’s reasoning. But this is a serious man making a serious argument about a serious issue, and your casual dismissal reveals your lack of seriousness. You might, though, do very well on the stand-up circuit.

    • michicatholic

      You missed the point.

  • BrianKillian

    I can’t believe you read it four times. It felt like an hour reading it once. And I had to struggle to keep my attention focused on finding the argument. One I found it, it didn’t seem all that controversial, the headline is just link bait I think, since he isn’t really making a Catholic case for SSM.

    For people that love natural law theories it will be more controversial, but I’ve always been skeptical of NL the way it’s used today.

    I think your looking for meaning in his meandering is a better way of reading it.

  • oiskankoihoorah

    His solution isn’t a solution at all. It seems to me that what he’s advancing is something akin to what you see in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or even, to come back to the First Things crowd, a lot of the stuff David Bentley Hart has been putting out lately. They are pleas to Catholics, and Christians more generally, to scrap the code fetishism of 11th century Latin Christendom and bear witness to the spirit of the code, to the divine moments they all experience in a seemingly godless world. This is why, in his solution that isn’t a solution, Bottum envisions a future characterized by a “thick natural law that recognizes the created world as a stage on which the wondrous drama of God’s love is played.” Scrap the law and bear witness to the drama, period.

  • Devinicus

    Sam, this is absolutely the most insightful, most beautiful, and most intelligent commentary I have yet read on Bottum’s essay. Thank you for that.

  • Tess

    It doesn’t matter what the article says. It is being used by liberal circles to say that a once conservative Catholic now has seen the light and endorses SSM. Maybe that was not Bottum’s intent…but that is what the media will run on. Ironically, he mentions the Manhattan Declaration, but does not address the religious liberty violations that the SSM issue is causing.

  • arty

    I just read Bottum’s essay, and I had the same thought that you did, Sam, that Bottum’s departure from First Things has a lot to do with the tone of the essay. I’ve always been a little puzzled at how that parting of ways happened (I’ve subscribed to FT for over a decade now, and it always seemed inconsistent with the institutional history of the magazine). Perusing some of the comments over at the FT blog, I find myself disagreeing with Franck’s tone, just as much as I am disappointed in the sloppy presentation Bottum provides. One of Bottum’s central points is that natural law is a fruitless edifice on which to build an argument for SSM, and Franck doesn’t take the time to argue, he just disagrees. There are plenty of people, though, who don’t place much hope in arguments from natural law, FT’s own (and one of my heroes) David Hart, for instance, who recently caused a bit of a kerfuffle by arguing that natural law reasoning never actually convinces anyone who isn’t already convinced. While I wish that Bottum had written a less meandering piece, I think he’s on to something when he argues that SSM is a fait accompli. I’d have grounded that argument on Philip Rieff’s arguments about the demise of the sacred, myself, but I think Bottum is right, that increasingly we are faced with a choice between MacIntyre’s final sentences in “After Virtue” and public compromise on issues (such as SSM) that until now we’ve held to be “first things.” Where I find Bottum unpersuasive is his argument that the MacIntyre solution is “uncatholic.” What a cop-out. Engagement with the culture isn’t an a priori good. It is a good if it gets us closer to the good result we want. My guess is that if Neuhaus were alive, he’d be siding with MacIntyre and publishing a new book on the “private square.”

    • SamRocha

      I was thinking DBH the whole way through, too.

  • RobW

    The apostasy begins.

    • SamRocha

      I’m sure it began long ago, like fever.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    The only part that really mattered in all of this, was the line that we should be Americans first and Catholics second. In that, I read that people like Jody Bottum no longer want Catholics to be American- that they have basically excluded us from the body politic. Can the gas chambers be far in the future now?

  • arty

    Sam, Seen Bottum’s rather squishy backpedal? Reading that, and the stuff over at FT, I’ve been trying to find a rational explanation for l’affaire Bottum. Maybe what’s really going on here is that the whole cultural state of affairs that occasioned the birth of the magazine is currently at some sort of transition point. This would make sense of the argument that Bottum’s piece is really a sort of generational lament. If so, the logical thing for the magazine to do, would be to publish a symposium asking: “Is SSM a First Thing?” If so, then Ryan Anderson need not apologize if people foam at the mouth at his views, and if it isn’t, then we can move on to more substantive issues, like trying to get the secular establishment to throw believers the odd table scrap because we’re so amusingly quirky. (Oops, I think I just let my opinion slip). Personally, I’d like to see an additional symposium on what taking the MacIntyre solution would look like in practice. I’ve already given up voting in federal elections, as a matter of principle.

    @ Theodore Seeber: I’d argue that Christians have been excluded from the body politic for years; that was in fact the implication of the infamous symposium FT held back in the mid 90′s, even though the verdict was divided among the participants. I think the important question is, rather, is there sufficient christian cultural capital left in the West for there to be anything to recover? I’m pessimistic myself, but that may just be my curmudgeon scandinavian ancestors talking…

    • SamRocha

      Yes, I’ve seen it. I heard the radio show yesterday and have also seen some of his stuff on Facebook. I think he’s allowing himself to be misunderstood at this point. It does beg, I think, for an extended discussion. It could be fascinating. But I don’t see FT as being willing to give it the time of day.

      • arty

        Maybe, but Saltzman’s article on FT today certainly is in line with what I was thinking about, above. Do you get what Reno is driving at, with his SSM-as-luxury-good argument? I see what he’s saying, but it has always seemed like the kind of argument that won’t pass the Occam’s Razor test, to me.

        • SamRocha

          I am trying to understand the “argument,” as I tried with George et al, I think I am coming closer to something like an opinion about it and, maybe, my own alternative. Nothing right now hits me as being persuasive, but they all have their reasons…

  • michicatholic

    “We deserve to lose this argument, Bottum suggests, because it is nothing more than an argument.” Yes, it could have been about any number of the hot topics involving Catholics. The point is that Catholics have been meandering for a long time now, and we’ve meandered ourselves into a blind corner, and discovering nothing in the corner after all, we are puzzled and frustrated, even outraged and looking for someone to blame, which will not be tolerated by non-Catholics.

    **The answer isn’t in the corner, although there is an answer. It’s where we least expect to find it. And that’s the puzzle.**