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Now on our homepage: Joseph Bottum on the case for same-sex marriage

Just posted to the homepage, Joseph Bottum’s essay “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.”

Bottum, former chief editor of First Things, writes: “We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.” He goes on:

For that matter, plenty of practical concerns suggest that the bishops should cease to fight the passage of such laws. Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the struggle against abortion is slowly winning, but the fight against public acceptance of same-sex behavior has been utterly lost.

I find these practical considerations compelling, just as I think most ordinary Catholics do.

Read the whole essay here. And after that, see Mark Oppenheimer’s latest Beliefs column in the New York Times. An excerpt:

In the past couple of years, conservative opposition to same-sex marriage has clearly started to erode. Prominent Republicans like Senators Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have come out in support of gay marriage. Even David Blankenhorn, the expert witness in the Proposition 8 trial in California and a Democrat, announced that he had changed his mind.

They are, for the most part, moderate conservatives using secular, democratic arguments. None come from the Christian right. Among religious conservatives, opposition to same-sex marriage has remained essentially unquestioned.

Which is why “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” an essay by Joseph Bottum, published Friday on the Web site of Commonweal magazine, is something new in this debate.


About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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Again I say, live & let love (same sex or not)! Jimmy Roland says it all in his wedding song for Gay marriage 'Partners For Life' (see: )

Wow - Bottum at his meanderingest.  I'l try to encapsulate in one or two sentences what I suppose he's saying here: the church needs to pick its fights, and this fight may not be worth it, because it doesn't seem possible to engage in it without being tarred as homophobic.  There are much bigger and more serious fish to fry.



Link to article in First Things (with comments) on Bottom’s Commonweal post

The Oppenheimer article says that Bottum now supports same-sex marriage, but I don't think that's what Bottum is saying.  He is saying that given our circumstances in the U. S. he now supports the *legalization* o same-sex marriage because opposition to it is counter-productive.

But I must say he does sound sympathetic to the plight of gays.  Hmm.

If I were in need of being persuaded of the merits of gay marriage the sullen and dehumanized tone of the First Things combox would do the trick. Not a single mention of love or human flourishing in their dyspeptic grumblings. They are offended, indeed shocked, that anyone would dare "cave" and let down the side. To be sure, acceptance of gay marriage, while deeply true to Catholic values and Gospel values, does reveal that the Church has erred terribly for millennia, depriving millions of happiness and dignity; but we can live with that, we already have in regard to our terribly crimes against the Jews.

Reading this long and rambling essay reminded me of one of the many reasons I don't read First Things

The essay is indeed long and meandering as others have said. Nor is "the case" being made or the "argument" set forth particularly clear, except for the conclusion reached. There are oblique references to "metaphysics" and "disenchantment" that seem to be hints in the direction of a perhaps interesting piece.

As for the "First Things" blog discussion, it actually is quite lively -- both pro and con -- not least for the contributions of Jim P. and Joseph O'L who seem to bi-locate.

Normally when a talented writer puts out such a cluttered piece it’s an indication that there is some personal crisis afoot.   It’s at a time like that that an editor can truly live up to his Catholic calling:  Do the writer a solid and practice some fraternal correction.   That’s good for the publication and, more importantly, the lost sheep.

Mark:  I think in Bottum's case, it's more of a matter of "I once was lost but now I'm find.  I was blind but now I see."

The blogosphere response to this essay was such that the enterprising individual could have made a small fortune gathering up all the pearls that the pearl-clutchers sent flying.

Also, a few people may have broken their necks slipping on said pearls in their rush to make "bottum/bottom" jokes.

I look forward to some pearl-fishing today -- the Catholic RIght in extreme disarray is a spectacle not to be missed by schadenfreudists.

Schadenfreude  is mother's milk to me, but this situation just doesn't provide for it; it's just a big bummer.

Sounds like that line from the old Judy Collins song:  "All the birds are leaving ..."

Perhaps the implications of the impending evolutionary crash are beginning to take effect on our traditional conservative ideologue brethern?

Whatever it takes!

This piece has generated fewer than 15 comments here on the website of the publication that published it, but 100+ on the First Things website.  I suspect that, even though Commonweal published it, it was written "for" the First Things crowd.

Bottum isn't always easy to follow.  He has a sort of circumlinear style that makes it easy for a reader (me, anyway) to lose the thread of his argument.   I did better the second time through.  But I do think a number of the First Things commenters misread him.  And honestly, I'm not sure that the headline of the piece itself, "A Catholic's Case for Same Sex Marriage" is an accurate summary of what he is saying.  It strikes me as more a case to stop opposing same sex marriage so vehemently.

Robert Royal writes a response in The Catholic Thing to Bottum's essay.  Headline: "The Preemptive Surrender of Jody Bottum".  Royal is readable.




Jim Pauweis,

I share your puzzlement that such a major undertaking on Commonweal's part should receive such scant attention here. There are aspects of the piece that continue to intrigue me: the distinction made betwen "thin" and "thick" natural law approaches, for example.

Thanks for the link to Robert Royal's piece. I agree with Royal that Bottum's appeal to "re-enchantment" seems rather vacuous.

Jim and Fr Imbelli, did you see the more than fifty comments that follow Bottum's article on Commonweal? No need to comment here if one can comment there.

Claire - thanks, somehow I had missed them.  I see that even Ben Affleck has thrown in his two cents.  There are some pearls in there, but they're kind of widely scattered :-)


I second Jim P.'s "thanks;' i too was not aware of the other thread. I must say most of those who have posted there are new to me. Though I did notice Father O'Leary writing from "lovely Salzburg" – It must be intermission during Die Meistersinger ( say I, enviously!).

I found reading Bottum's piece extremely tedious.  I came away thinking -- alright, at least he is trying to budge the stubborn heirarchy to give up its battle on this issue.  It would be progress if the bishops moved away from its public fight on the issue of marriage equality. 

But it also made me think about how we very much need a more thoughtful and more open theological engagement within our Church about what the reality of same-sex love does mean for our Church now and could mean for our Church going forward.  In my humble opinion, the Church is missing the wonderful  "re-enchantment with the world" the gay civil rights movement is affording us.  It is increasingly the experience of everyday Catholics, that committed, same-sex love can and does lead to happiness and human flourishing, i.e., grace.   The heirarchy of the Church some day will repent of its homophobia and embrace openly the goodness and grace that abounds in committed same-sex relationships.  In the meantime, lots of us in the pews are already there experiencially and in our theology.

I am very grateful for Deacon Pauwels link to Royal's piece.  Indeed very readable, but very  frightening.  It is always astounding to me to read how frightened the "chicken littles" of the Church really are.  Royal is over the top afraid  for the future of the Church in the US.  He actually seems to think that things will get so bad with these unappeased gay activists that  Catholic bishops in the US will be marytred in less than 2 generations for not cow-towing to the "secular" agenda!  See this quote (which from what I've read starts off with a mangling of what Cardinal George really said): 

The Cardinal (George of Chicago) is famous for saying that he expects to die in his bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr. The Cardinal is 76, but he’s in pretty good health, and with the highest respect, may be entirely too optimistic.

I'd have a little more respect for the "chicken littles" if I saw them once and awhile getting a little hysterical about the truly ungodly, sinful stuff going on in this country, like permanent warmaking and the destruction of our social safety net for the poor. 

A recent Quinnipiac report says that about 54% of American Catholics now support same sex marriage, and, IIRC, only somewhat over 30% of American Catholics generally support the positions of the Vatican on the hot button issues.  If these figures are anywhere near correct, it seems that a very big chunk of conservative Catholics have switched to the liberal camp on the SSM isue.  

Given that many of the conservative troops are apparently defecting, is it any wonder that the conservative generals are upset at the defection of one of the generals, at least about this one matter?

Sensus fidelis anyone?  I do believe there is such a thing.


Jack Marth is right about human flourishing, and also about the dismal tedium of Bottum's piece. If Catholics are going to respond to gay realities by making them drab and boring, let them rather keep their mouths closed. 


Fr Imbelli -- I heard Rattle conducting Schoenberg, Berg and Le sacre du printemps last night and today its the Meistersinger -- all delightful.

The piece was ponderous, but to be honest I would expect nothing less from someone who was describing as much how he got to where he was going as much as explaining his reasoning and conclusions.  I am pretty sure that, whatever the questions are, I would disagree with Bottums 9 out of 10 times, but on one thing he is surely correct -- if you can't have honest internal disagreements about even (especially!) important topics then you might as well call it a day because your reason for being has ceased to exist as a human institution, even one that embodies the divine.  You can't always and everywhere expect to limit the discussion only to those questions you have think you already have an answer for.

And I still can't get over the fact that the institutional church has chosen this one -- same sex marriage -- to define itself without seeming to acknowledge or be bothered by the fact that marriage among younger people is vanishing unless they fall into very specific, usually privileged, demographic categories.  I went to the funeral of one of my aunts last year and realized with something of a shock that not one of her 10 or 12 grandchildren who are old enough are married -- the range in age is something like 18 to 45 (big family with both early and late marriage among the kids).  Not one, not even among those who already have children. And the pattern is repeated elsewhere in my extended, "used to be" Catholic family.  It just seems so strange to fight with all your might the one tiny group that pines for marriage while much of the rest of your flock is increasingly tuning out from whatever message it is that you think you are delivering on traditional marriage and family.

Barbara - I agree with you entirely on the relative magnitudes of the pastoral issues.  Of course, the church authorities can "do" something about gay marriage if it wishes (i.e. lobby to oppose it).  What to "do" about the vaster marriage crisis is a much harder problem.


It appearts to me that Mr. Bottum is in a state of religious shock, hence the rambling.  One of the pillars of his faith has cracked, and he finds himself all at sea with a rudder that isn't so reliable as he had thought it was.  He is honest enough to admit it, and some of his conservative friends are turning on him.  (See the really nasty comments about him by some of his former "friends".)  I'm sorry for the poor guy. He and all the others like him are in my prayers.  (There must be many more conservatives like him -- too many conservative Catholics now support SSM for there not to be.)

No, I'm not being a self-satisfied liberal.  I'm just noting that now some of the conservatives are going through what some of us liberals went through years, even generations ago, i.e., seeing that the official Church is not the thoroughly "definitive" source of knowledge it claims to be.

Now Bottum more or less says that he regrets nobody understood what his rambling and meandering meant. For the life of me I can't figure out how such a poorly written piece made it by the Commonweal editors. What is going on?

Thanks to Anthony Ruff for the link to Jody's partial "Retractatio." Here's a part I found of particular interest (in light of my remark @ 2:57 p.m. above):

" The second thing I kind of regret is the way I phrased the discussion of natural law. I was using a short-hand for a thesis about enchantment that I’ve been developing, but, you know, the accursed essay was already 9,000 words long…I was trying to say in a way that [natural law]’s simply not persuasive without a level of enchantment, seeing things in the world as “natural.” What I think I ended up saying, if you read it kind of flat, without—as some of our friends have done—without a charity of interpretation, what I seem to be saying is, natural law is false without an enchanted sense of the world. And so I understand why it got misread there and I regret that."

I also wonder with Anthony Ruff "how such a poorly written piece made it by the Commonweal editors. What is going on?"

Perhaps "Breaking Bad" proved just too distracting. In any case, it would be interesting to be privy to the backstory.

how such a poorly written piece made it by the Commonweal editors. What is going on? - See more at:

I can assure you that Breaking Bad is infinitely more compelling than the ceaseless barking, hand-wringing, and hyperventilating that convulses the Catholic blogosphere when ever anything about the gays pops up.





Actually, Jody Bottum says a couple of things in that paragraph, which was delivered during a radio interview. First he says that he can see how a less-than-charitable hermeneutic might lead someone to misread his intent. Then he says he regrets that he was misread.

Obviously the most charitable interpretation of the backstory of Bottum's piece is that we ran it because we were too busy binging on Breaking Bad. But, hey, at least it wasn't The Simpsons, amiright? 

I went to the funeral of one of my aunts last year and realized with something of a shock that not one of her 10 or 12 grandchildren who are old enough are married -- the range in age is something like 18 to 45 (big family with both early and late marriage among the kids).  Not one, not even among those who already have children. 

As long ago as 1999, the USCCB issued a very thorough paper on cohabiting couples. It starts with:

"Today almost half the couples who come for marriage preparation in the Catholic Church are in a cohabiting relationship."

it's most cheerful bit is:

"Since cohabitation is not in itself a canonical impediment to marriage, the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation. Marriage preparation may continue even if the couple refuses to separate. Pastoral ministers can be assured that to assist couples in regularizing their situation is not to approve of cohabitation."


John, What makes you think these people are cohabiting in lieu of marriage?  The snippets you excerpted seem to be worried that the couple is fornicating (i.e., suggesting that they separate while in the marriage preparation process).  What if that couple already has children?  What if the biological parents are not cohabiting and not even contemplating marriage? 

So long as they aren't currently in a situation in which they are visibly outside of church norms everything must be okay?  That's the kind of illogical reasoning that you end up with when you see everything through the lens of whether or not they are having sex outside of marriage.  There is a BIG divide between those who have extramarital sex but have set themselves on a path of wanting family life to be contained within marriage, and having extramarital sex and assuming that your family life is likely going to happen regardless of marriage, that is, where family is assumed but marriage is just optional.   When you have reached a situation where 50% women under the age of 30 giving birth are unmarried, with huge percentages in all racial groups, even for bishops, it ought to be clear that the fight over SSM is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. 

As for whether the Bottums piece was well-written -- you know, apparently there is a contingent of people who will look for any excuse not to debate substance on this issue. 


Did Mr. Bottum write the sub-head for his article or was that supplied by the editors?


As it stands, the sub-head says "A Catholic's Case for Same-Sex Marriage"


As I read his article, it seems to me that it would have been more accurate to say:


A Catholic's Case for Not Opposing the Legalization of Same-Sex Marriage.


I take Mr. Bottum's argument as being that it's possible to make a prudential decision not to oppose legalization of same-sex marriage without changing the Church's teachings on sex outside of sacramental marriage. This is essentially what we have already done by not fighting for the restoration of laws that that used to support the Church's teachings against contraception, divorce, adultery, fornication, consensual sodomy, etc


Both Thomas and Augustine recognized that human law had a different purpose than Divine law and wasn't intended to forbid everything contrary to  Divine law:

The natural law is a participation in us of the eternal law: while human law falls short of the eternal law. Now Augustine says (De Lib. Arb. i, 5): "The law which is framed for the government of states, allows and leaves unpunished many things that are punished by Divine providence. Nor, if this law does not attempt to do everything, is this a reason why it should be blamed for what it does." Wherefore, too, human law does not prohibit everything that is forbidden by the natural law....


Again it must be observed that the end of human law is different from the end of Divine law. For the end of human law is the temporal tranquillity of the state, which end law effects by directing external actions, as regards those evils which might disturb the peaceful condition of the state. On the other hand, the end of the Divine law is to bring man to that end which is everlasting happiness; 

Mr. Bottum is getting beaten up by people who ignore that distinction and insist that if he is willing to consider giving up the battle against legalizing same-sex marriage, he must want to change or or do away with the Church's moral teachings related to sexual activity between same-sex persons.


I thank Mr. Bottum for pointing out the difference and the fact that there is a prudential decision that the bishops and he rest of us need to make as more states move to legalize same-sex marriage. 

Natural law reasoning explains the huge disconnect between a rationalized normative value and pastoral care. I thought your article is a good start at reconciliation. I think what is most important is that we begin to share experiences with one another ... have that crossing-of-the-bridge experience ... and stop dehumanizing people with intellectual and ideological debates that will surely result in stalemate and acrimony and division. ~ Stephen DeVol, CITVN Executive Producer

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