by Matt Sitman

After his coming out in favor of same-sex marriage drew the theocons’ scorn, Joseph Bottum clarifies his position, arguing that he was “not dissenting from Church doctrine…in any way”:

While wanting to make clear that “there’s no doubt” he accepts that marriage as being between two persons of the opposite sex, Bottum said merely wanted to write the piece about his thinking having come to the position that, in the U.S., “the Church just needs to get out of the civil marriage business, because the culture is just too bizarre to hear” her teaching about marriage.

“In the short-run anyway,” Bottom said, Catholics should tolerate the civil recognition of same-sex unions. “I also think we need to re-evangelize the culture, but, in the short run … I think we have to accept that the facts on the ground is, it’s here, and it’s going to be here for some time.”

“I was always very careful to, any time I said something affirming of same-sex marriage, I was very careful to put in the word ‘civil’, ‘state recognition of’, some kind of qualifying phrase like that.”

Bottum blames Mark Oppenheimer’s NYT piece for the way the essay’s been interpreted:

“Much as I was grateful for the publicity” of the Times article, he said, “I think one of the problems with that was our conservative Catholic friends read the New York Times essay first, and then read the Commonweal piece, and it’s effect was, ‘Catholic deserter comes to our side.’”

“They look at it through the lens of ‘Catholic deserter’, and the first blog posts about it really blocked me into a position.”

Similarly, he said, that the left’s first reaction, “based on the New York Times profile” was “’hooray, hooray, we’ve got a defector’; and then they actually read the essay, and now they’re all out after me.”

I certainly understand Bottum’s frustrations over how conservatives greeted his essay. His basic point, which barely seems to have been grappled with at all, was this: why, in a culture and political order as secularized as ours, should Roman Catholics (and religious conservatives more broadly) insist that our laws correspond with the way churches conceive of the sacrament of marriage? Why should one religion’s particular understanding of marriage dictate our civil laws?

I’m not sure it was taken seriously enough that Bottum wrote his essay primarily as a Christian, as a religious person considering his faith’s waning power over our culture and imaginations. Bottum is asking what kind of culture we’d have to have, what the preconditions must be, for the Christian understanding of marriage to have broad purchase in our society – and therefore be able to garner the kind of consensus necessary to be a part of our legal order. Here’s a key passage from his essay:

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—an entanglement or, at least, an accommodation of church and state. The logic of the Enlightenment took a couple of hundred years to get around to eliminating that particular portion of Christendom, but the deed is done now.

For the traditional, sacramental meaning of marriage to make sense, it must be embedded in a decisively Christian culture – this is what Bottum means by Christendom, or, as he says repeatedly in his essay, an “enchanted” world, a world in which earthly acts are assumed to reflect a deeper spiritual reality.  The Church only looks like a moralizing bully when it insists on having its way legally and politically apart from such a context. Never once does Bottum suggest the Church should change its own definition of marriage; he merely says that in our current context, it makes no sense for the Church to fight this battle by means of the coercive power of the state. It’s like shouting at someone in a language they don’t understand – you gain nothing by growing louder and more exasperated. Instead of pouring money and energy into fighting rear-guard actions on behalf of traditional marriage, he tells Catholics to do the harder, perhaps Quixotic, work of evangelizing and rebuilding a Christian culture that would allow their arguments about marriage actually to be heard and understood. To borrow a phrase, to focus on first things. To do otherwise only distracts an already skeptical age from the core message of Jesus.

I’m an Episcopalian, not a Roman Catholic, and don’t agree with Bottum on the substance of the Church’s teachings on homosexuality and same-sex marriage – I hope, and actually believe, these teachings eventually will change. But at least he’s bringing a message of political sanity to this debate, and trying to create a space, apart from the heat of the culture wars, for considering the deeper theological and spiritual issues raised by gay people, so that, in a pregnant phrase, the Church can “decide where same-sex marriage belongs in a metaphysically rich, spiritually alive moral order.”

Ross Douthat’s response (NYT) to Bottum’s essay adds some important context to all this. It seems to me right on the mark as to why the essay’s been misunderstood, reading it as the product of a “literary Catholic, a poet and critic and essayist with a sideline in history and philosophy,” rather than a culture warrior:

[T]he more aesthetically and culturally-minded that Catholic, the more ridiculously frustrating it seems that their faith of all faiths (the faith of Italy! of France!) should be cast as the enemy of bodily pleasure — that their church, with its wild diversity of weirdo, “dappled” saints, should be seen as a purely conformist and repressive enterprise — and that the religion of Wilde and Waugh and Manley Hopkins and so many others would be dismissed as simply and straightforwardly homophobic.

That’s how I read Bottum’s essay, at least in part: As a literary Catholic’s attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates. He’s writing as someone who loves his church, and wants everyone else to love it as he does — and I don’t blame him for imagining that perhaps, just perhaps, ceasing to offer public resistance on the specific question of gay marriage would liberate the Church from some the caricatures that the culture war has imposed upon it, and enable the world to see its richness with fresh eyes.

The entire post is worth reading in-full, and I think Douthat goes a long way toward explaining why Bottum approaches this issue the way he does and why he’s faced such difficulties in finding sympathetic readers.