Upon completing Joseph Bottum’s now notorious essay in Commonweal, several dozen snarky thoughts crossed my mind, some of which I shared elsewhere. But honestly I don’t feel like being snarky because Bottum’s seemingly bottomless (sorry, couldn’t resist) piece makes me more sad than anything else.
In one sense I share Bottum’s weariness. It’s a weariness born of reading essays such as his, and I’m not referring to the length. It’s the weariness of one who looks on in exasperated helplessness as yet another person waves the white flag of surrender, all the while employing the flimsiest logic to defend this preemptive surrender. It’s a weariness that comes from acknowledging that it certainly seems like part of the essay is rooted in truth – the inevitability of same sex marriage being recognized throughout the United States – even though Bottum’s cowardice is partly responsible for that inevitability.
Most importantly, it’s weariness from reading someone employ the most contorted of reasoning to justify one’s position.
Bottum basically argues that that the Catholic Church needs to stop fighting same sex marriage because it is weakening their ability to fight more urgent battles. Bottum’s naivete is breathtaking. He seems to be under the impression that all those forces who so virulently oppose the Church will soften their stance against the Church. Moreover, not only will they soften their views, they will pretty much rally around the Church once she says “No Mas!” Yes, Andrew Sullivan will suddenly stop being such a prickly dissenter once the Church looks the other way on this one issue. Right.
It strikes me as rather bizarre to think that people who seem to relish in bashing the Church at every corner will suddenly slacken in their resolve once they’ve managed to get her to capitulate on something as important as marriage. Bullies don’t tend to back down when they sense weakness in their opponents.
Bottum’s naivete is most clearly highlighted by this paragraph:
But how can we not take same-sex marriage advocates at their word, accepting that they really seek the marriages they say they desire? For that matter, I still believe in the general resilience and common sense of America, which will halt those who wish to hijack the movement. Christians are sometimes called to martyrdom: “The sacrifices you want to make aren’t always the only sacrifices God wants,” as the interesting lesbian Catholic commentator Eve Tushnet once observed here in Commonweal (“Homosexuality & the Church,” June 11, 2007). But I just don’t think that same-sex marriage is going to be the excuse America uses to go after its Catholic citizens.
Of course not. Just don’t tell that to Elaine Huguenin.
Bottum disregards the anxieties of same sex marriage opponents even as we witness the current administration trample on religious freedom through the contraception mandate, and even as we witness more and more societal shunning of those who don’t hold politically acceptable views with regards to homosexuality. But hey, at least Bottum has confidence in the common sense of Americans.
Admittedly I’ve felt at times like Bottum. Let’s just give up now and move on to more pressing issues, I’ve reasoned. But that’s simply an untenable position in light of the reality of what will unfold if same sex marriage manages to become entrenched throughout the country. Bottum’s inability to see this, or at least his casual dismissal of these concerns, might be the saddest part of a pretty sad essay.
Furthermore, there’s something thoroughly un-Catholic in Bottum’s white flag approach. I’m not just talking about the failure to defend and uphold Church teaching with regards to marriage. No, we have a faith that is rooted in the cross. Jesus, the ultimate sign of contradiction, gave up his ghost in the ultimate sacrifice to redeem mankind. Martyrs have spilled their blood to defend the faith in the centuries since then. Jesus told us that his teachings are hard, and that those who follow him would be shunned. Yet Bottum preaches the Gospel of “please don’t hate me.”
Yet I sense that despite ostensibly writing from a Catholic perspective in a Catholic publication, Bottum’s main concern is not really with the Catholic Church. No one with a passing familiarity with Church history could seriously claim that this is the thing that will make her lose legitimacy or blunt the import of her overall message. No, this is ultimately nothing more than Bottum’s attempt to salvage (in his mind) the Republican party and move the debate along because he thinks it is damaging to his political party.
Since Bottum’s piece is deeply personal, I should share something of a personal anecdote. Back when the same sex marriage debate swung into full focus around 2003, I was at least sympathetic to if not supportive of same sex marriage. Among the reasons why my opinion changed was due to the paucity of well-reasoned arguments on behalf of same sex marriage. It seemed that most arguments on behalf of same sex marriage, even conservative ones, were based on raw emotionalism. What’s so funny about Bottum’s essay is that he implies that the weight of the logical arguments support same sex marriage. Yet in a 9,000 word essay in which he talks of everything save for what he ate for breakfast the day he penned this article, Bottum offers up a specious, emotion-based argument, not necessarily in support of same sex marriage, but for surrender on the issue. Ten years later and the best argument out there, at least from the conservative Catholic side, is “let’s give up so they’ll like us.” I’d laugh if it didn’t make me cry.