RELIGION & POLITICS AUGUST 26, 2013
Joseph Bottum, the conservative Catholic writer, has penned a long piece for Commonweal in which he declares that he is now in favor of gay marriage. This was a big enough deal that The New York Times wrote an entire column on Bottum's "conversion." Andrew Sullivan, meanwhile, called the piece "moving." It might be slightly churlish to complain about people migrating to the right (as in "correct") side of this issue—regardless of the reason—but Bottum's essay is less a celebration of gay rights than a paranoid take on the Catholic Church's place in American life, and less a mea culpa than a calculated attempt to ensure the flourishing of conservative Catholicism. It doesn't deserve to be lauded.
Bottum's goal is to find a way to support same-sex marriage that is not based on hedonism or legalisms. As he puts it: "It's not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us. We have a religion of intellectual coherence, too, and the moral positions we take have to comport with the whole of the moral universe. That's the reason for trying to be serious—for demanding that the unity of truth apply, and that ethical claims cannot be separated from their metaphysical foundations." Bottum, then, is not just "trying to be serious;" he also takes himself rather seriously ("the whole of the moral universe").
The piece goes from overwrought to slightly paranoid, however, when he introduces the idea that gay marriage is part of some plot against Catholicism. As he writes:
"But before we reach for those conclusions, there remains, I think, a question religious believers must ask: a prior question of whether the current agitation really derives from a wish for same-sex marriage, or whether the movement is an excuse for a larger campaign to delegitimize and undermine Christianity."
Bottum, to his credit, admits this is not the case: "I'm growing uneasy with the petulant and aggrieved way [my essay] is presenting the idea that anti-Catholicism was one of the purposes of, or at least one of the bonuses for, the cultural elites who took up the cause of same-sex marriage." And yet he can't stay off the subject, alluding to the fear that "the same-sex marriage movement is really about [ anti-Christian thinking]" and exclaiming that if this is the case, "then to hell with it." Even his denials of this non-reality are odd: "But I just don't think that same-sex marriage is going to be the excuse America uses to go after its Catholic citizens." I see. Perhaps the liberals have some other plan afoot to initiate large-scale anti-Catholicism. (In the strangest section of the piece, he even implies that a former friend of his—a gay man—would like to see the Catholic Church outlawed, which, if true, would make the man a near lunatic, and would have been reason enough for Bottum to cease going on (and on) about the loss of their friendship.
Bottum is also dismissive of same-sex marriage advocates, because he finds them either insufferable or lacking in good reasons for their support. Of a former friend, he writes, "[Certainly his] support for same-sex marriage was at least partly free from the grating self-interest, the fallacy of special pleading, that infects too many declarations on the topic." This "grating"-ness extends from Rob Portman—who changed positions once his son announced he (the son) was gay—to a reporter who lectured Bottum about Bottum's own previous anti-gay marriage stance. This young woman talked with "Insipid self-righteousness—delivered in exactly the hectoring tones with which her Protestant great-grandparents would have lectured me about lack of Catholic support for Prohibition?" Really? Exactly the same tones? But perhaps a wee bit less threatening?
If all this nonsense serves to make the essay interesting as a window into Bottum' s mind, the author's actual reasons for supporting gay marriage are misguided. Yes, this is one of those essays that goes on about "the turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West.” Any! [The italics are his]. He then writes about divorce being "a denial of a solemn oath made to God," before getting to the heart of his point: "If 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?" And: "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."
So, society is going to hell, no one values anything that isn't material, and fighting a giant war over gay marriage is a loser because our problems run much, much, deeper. If you think I am being too glib about his argument, try this passage: "Is sex the place in which that project of re-enchantment ought to begin? I just can't see it—not after the nearly complete triumph of the sexual revolution’s disenchantment, not after the way "free love" was essentially sold to us by the Edwardians as an escape from narrow Victorian Christianity, not after part of the culture’s most visible morality became the condemnation of those perceived as condemning something sexual. The campaign for traditional marriage really isn’t a defense of natural law. It revealed itself, in the end, as a defense of one of the last little remaining bits of Christendom." (Note the point earlier about how seriously Bottum takes himself).
Even so, he appears to be a decent, somewhat introspective fellow, and he deserves credit for writing what is clearly a pained essay. But there is nothing in his piece that gay marriage advocates should hold onto; it is a reactionary work that is more concerned with the future of Catholicism and sexual morality than it is with gay rights. Bottum isn't a fighter for same-sex marriage. No, he is more like a general who realizes a skirmish has been lost and wants to regroup before the big battle.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.