Engagement or Retreat?

Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage

Last summer Commonweal published a controversial essay by Joseph Bottum, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” Bottum, the former editor of First Things, had long publicly opposed same-sex marriage, but in “The Things We Share” he argued that it was no longer prudent for American Catholics to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex civil marriage—because such opposition had likely become a lost cause; because the only good arguments against same-sex marriage were no longer intelligible in an essentially post-Christian culture; and because same-sex civil marriage might end up being good for gay couples, as well as for America’s marriage culture more generally. According to Bottum, Catholics should instead concentrate their efforts on the “re-enchantment” of a culture that had forgotten “the essential God-hauntedness” of the world. Because he did not argue for a change in church teaching, many readers of Bottum’s essay criticized him for not going far enough. Many conservatives, meanwhile, criticized him for going much too far.

We invited Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, and Jamie L. Manson of the National Catholic Reporter to comment on Bottum’s argument. Manson’s piece went live Thursday and appears here; Douthat’s, which we posted Wednesday, appears here. Today, we feature Bottum’s response to them.

All our discussions of marriage in this country are strange, contorted expeditions—stretching over unmarked chasms, swerving around invisible barriers. We are voyagers adrift in a landscape of unlikeliness, and most of the peculiarity derives, I think, from a very simple fact: We wish to hide from ourselves the truth that contemporary Western culture has generally removed sex from the category of human actions that it believes can be judged in moral terms.

Of course, polls show that Americans still express strong disapproval of adultery, however often they commit it, and rape remains a moral category—an expanding category, in fact, which may itself be confirmation of the broader condition: perhaps the word “rape” is used for an increasing range of crimes simply because we lack any other moral vocabulary for identifying wrongful sex. Still, most sexual behavior, from masturbation to sadomasochism, has come to seem not much more than an amoral bouncing: sex as anaerobic workouts in the gymnasium of our beds.

The Pill is often named as the great enabler of these changes in our cultural understanding, combined with such things as publically acceptable divorce and the antibiotics that brought venereal disease under control in the era before AIDS. But whatever their origin, our altered attitudes about sex would have made for an odd social landscape all by themselves—except, of course, that those attitudes never existed all by themselves. The final piece of strangeness, the last skew, is the peculiar fact that the demoralizing of sex came to us in the twentieth century as itself a moral thing. Whether formulated in terms of physical health or mental stability or social improvement, our attitude to sex reflects an inherited Edwardianism that finds its moral gratifications in rejecting Victorian mores: a stern judgmentalism about anything that resists nonjudgmentalism in sex.

You can hear it still in the admiring tone with which the word “transgressive” is used in the sex-drenched essays of modern academia. You hear it still, for that matter, in the way Jamie L. Manson deploys the word “challenging” in her reply to my essay, even while she describes the social outcomes she wants as so ordinary and unremarkable that the church ought to embrace them immediately. There is, in truth, a key cultural feeling of morality left in sex, but it’s the self-righteous joy of knowing that one opposes the evil prudes who think sex still has some morality left in it.

This is the landscape in which same-sex marriage made its dramatic appearance over an incredibly short period of time, a volcano cone suddenly rising and erupting in American society. I’ve just never been sure where exactly on the map it lies. Sometimes same-sex marriage has been described as a natural outcome of the removal of sex from the realm of morality. Sometimes it has been praised as a wonderful transgressive rebellion, good because it helped undo bad Western norms. Sometimes it has been described as a useful expansion of an old idea, helping preserve the marriage culture. Occasionally it has been promoted as a way of returning ethics to sexual relations, drawing gays and lesbians away from support for the demoralization of sex, to which, it is claimed, they were forced by the repressions of a premodern morality that lasted into the modern world.

In other words, the arrival of legal recognition of same-sex marriage was over-determined in America. And that’s why I think it makes a terrible object for the Catholic Church to pick as the synechdoche for all the objectionable things in contemporary society. Our problem as Catholics isn’t that same-sex marriage somehow uniquely represents Western society’s recent turns; our problem is those turns themselves: the disenchantment of the world, the systematic effort to hunt down and destroy the last vestiges of old metaphysical and spiritual meanings in the world.

As I argue in my latest book, An Anxious Age, the eradication of the old supernatural meanings ended up creating new supernatural meanings in America—and often less benign ones, as strange angels and demons drifted out of the decaying mainline Protestant churches to find their home in social politics. Such a situation is both unhealthy and dangerous. When we suppose our ordinary political opponents are not simply mistaken but actually evil, we live in a world overtaken by misplaced spirituality. A world in which politics has become soteriology.

This is the modern turn that public Catholicism in America needs to oppose. In the current American legal and social climate, there is simply no available solution to the puzzle of human sexual desire. The cathedral of meaningful marriage has collapsed, opening space for advocates of same-sex unions to claim that they are building a small but stable chapel in the rubble. Are they, in fact? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But I rather imagine they should be left alone to try, just as I demand that the high post-Protestant moralists stop using same-sex marriage as a sledgehammer with which to knock down every Catholic institution in America.

Ross Douthat reads my essay as a retreat from politics—and a self-contradictory one, since the essay also counsels against fleeing modern corruptions aboard small lifeboats of the saved. But the contradiction exists only if one takes a narrow view of politics as somehow existing apart from culture. Among political commentators, Douthat has been one of the most appreciative of culture, but he’s still caught by the modern trap in which everything seems politicized, and our cultural understandings, our spiritualized experiences of the world, become political battles. The Catholic work that needs to be done is the work that rebuilds Catholic culture, restoring what in An Anxious Age I call “a room with a view,” a spiritually and theologically secure place from which to look out on the world and offer both criticism and praise. The examples of good Catholic work I gave in “The Things We Share” are dismissed by Douthat as Mrs. Jellyby inanities: pretending to care for distant souls as an excuse for the selfish ignoring of souls nearby. But I named those things as possible ways of working toward goals not merely in Asia and the Global South (where, in fact, the future of Christianity lies) but also here at home: extra-political devices by which we try to create and assert Catholic culture among ourselves.

Jamie L. Manson wants to bring the current social regime into the church, and Ross Douthat wants to bring the church into the current social regime. I have enormous sympathy for the motives behind both these views. But they each begin with the late modern premise that the supernatural enchantment of reality is primarily a political thing. For that matter, they both begin with the notion that homosexuality—and the issue of same-sex marriage in particular—ought to be near the center of Catholicism’s public moral concern. That’s bad politics and bad metaphysics, in just about equal measure. Douthat admits that Catholics shouldn’t necessarily begin conversations with same-sex marriage. Amen. But allow me to take a long step beyond that: I think we actually do need to start conversations with a mention of the Blessed Virgin. You want to re-moralize sex? Re-imbue it with beauty and meaning? Then use Catholic culture as your starting point. Say the rosary, and change the world.

With its strawberries and Prosecco in the park, Manson’s reply has the class markers and ecclesial feeling of writing by an admirably sensitive Episcopalian of liberal bent. With its rueful here-I-stand politics, Douthat’s reply reads like the work of a thoughtful Evangelical culture warrior of conservative impulses. That both authors are Catholics I have no doubt, but hand in hand they walk the unlikely landscape of American post-Protestantism—formed by its struggles, determined by its debates: inseparable companions on a trip I urge them not to take.

About the Author

Joseph Bottum is an Amazon.com-bestselling author whose latest book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America (Image/Random House). The former literary editor of the Weekly Standard and chief editor of First Things, he lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota.



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I am genuinely intrigued. What makes you so certain that the future of Christianity lies in the global south? Why won'It go the way of Europe, say? As for re-enchantment, why on earth would it happen in the terms that were once jettisoned. My niece stopped believing in Santa, she now believes in love, who's to say that the latter will hold fast?

I appreciate Bottum's refusal to restrict the reasons that people support same sex marriage. The reasons are as varied as the supporters themselves, and reducing them to whatever serves the writer's argument does not do these people justice.

I confess that when I read Douthat saying "This need not mean starting every conversation with same-sex marriage..." I more or less wondered "So what issue should we start the conversation with?" I imagine this was the question on Douthat's mind when he wrote it as well. Bottums's suggestion that we start the conversation with a mention if the Virgin Mary is a powerful corrective to this kind of thinking.

This is a clever article. I agree with his practical counsel: "they should be left alone to try." Many gay men, who are not dogmatic fans of gay marriage, take the same attitude.

I also find persuasive his account of why the category of "rape" has been so wildly extended (even morphing into the category of "torture" in some prominent recent statements).

Just published online my thoughts on this, adding a memorial of Paul Surlis, an outstanding moral theologian who has just left us. http://josephsoleary.typepad.com/my_weblog/2014/05/a-vexed-question-cath...

"We wish to hide from ourselves the truth that contemporary Western culture has generally removed sex from the category of human actions that it believes can be judged in moral terms."
More likely that is a reality with its birth in times Western culture likely has no culture at all.

"There is, in truth, a key cultural feeling of morality left in sex, but it’s the self-righteous joy of knowing that one opposes the evil prudes who think sex still has some morality left in it."
If the goal of this remark was to appear pompous you succeeded.  Put even more plainly, your opinion is just that and nothing more.

"Sometimes same-sex marriage has been described as a natural outcome of the removal of sex from the realm of morality."
No. From the realm of endlessly crippling obsession by those who reject all sexuality in their own personal lives, yes.
There is no more implicit morality in sex than there is in prayer.  It is our motives and how we express them that determines the act's morality.

"...as strange angels and demons drifted out of the decaying mainline Protestant churches..."  Holy Moly.  Do believe you are knowingly omitted pointing the finger at a group who claim as one of its champions a fellow who participated in the murder of his wife and child. All of Christianity through all of its history has often been misled by the psychotic sociopath or two.

"The cathedral of meaningful marriage has collapsed..."  Here's the grandest irony of this entire contortion of reason.
There is now and has been throughout all of recorded history not merely sufficient but pervasive evidence of murder, child abuse, genocide, rape, gluttony, robbery, usury, spousal abuse, adultery, bigamy, etc., etc., all done by those who define themselves as heterosexual.  A group all to often unable to see a same-age couple without imaging them in some type of wild orgy.  It is the great "as if" conundrum.  As if they are defending an absolute written not merely in stone but some type of divine stone when in point of fact the bulk of the conviction lies in their own fears.

It is the seemingly incorrigible hypocrisy that lies at the core of the issue and it is that hypocrisy those who so rightly cherish the best of Christianity must root out. 

And finally a big geezzzz.  People are trying to be responsible couples and you people are publishing books that do nothing more than add utterly unnecessary but quite eloquent gibberish to their journey as if the most compelling road to the heart was through the thesaurus.

@MightBe: I literally cannot understand about half of what you have written. Like this:

"Do believe you are knowingly omitted pointing the finger at a group who claim as one of its champions a fellow who participated in the murder of his wife and child."

What on Earth are you talking about? What does "knowingly omitted pointing the finger" mean? I'm completely lost.

Interesting speculation about Bonhoeffer's sexuality: http://dish.andrewsullivan.com/2014/05/25/was-dietrich-bonhoeffer-gay/


"Years after their exchange of letters, and after Bonhoeffer’s death, Bethge fielded a question from a member of an audience who had gathered to hear him speak about his old friend. Surely, the questioner said, “it must [have been] a homosexual partnership” that existed between you and Bonhoeffer—after all, what else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters have signaled? Bethge responded by saying, no, he and Bonhoeffer were “quite normal.” But perhaps an even better response would have been to query that idea of “normal.” Better, perhaps, for Bethge to have explored whether friendship and erotic love might be (in the words of Rowan Williams) “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.” Pursuing this line of thought might not give us a “celibate gay” Bonhoeffer, but it also might not yield a “just-friends-with-no-hint-of-eros” Bonhoeffer."

I think what Bottums is saying is that you are fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons.  We all want to live in a society that embodies our ideals, but there are natural limits to how closely we can make other people conform to our own deeply held beliefs in the name of living our own faith.

I used to participate in a Catholic social justice network where we were asked from time to time to write letters to mostly state legislators on various good or bad ideas percolating through the legislature.  The idea (based on exemplar letters) was that we give the Catholic point of view on aspects of legislation.  But a lot of the time, from my perspective, the disadvantages or benefits of a given policy were so logical from a practical point of view that it became almost silly to address them from a religious objection (or endorsement).   It seems to me that politics has almost become the tail wagging the dog when it comes to issues of normative conduct.  That the insistent "jumping in" to each and every debate, including SSM, has put us in the mind that if we "lose" that debate we have somehow lost a much larger debate, such that, we end up using secular policy fights as a means (largely hopeless) of validating norms, for the benefit of the institution, rather than using institutional norms to inform or influence policy. 

There is no doubt in my mind that gay men and women are seeking acceptance by the larger society, just as divorced and remarried men and women have, but it also seems that the actual policy debates surrounding same sex marriage (benefits, inheritance rights, legal capacity, and so on) are focused much more on very ordinary practical realities that don't have much bearing on whether one's own marriage embodies a certain spiritual content or value, or whether marriages in general should.

Here is a counterexample to the SSM debate:  When "living together" became normal, many states changed their laws on common law marriage because they didn't intend to contravene the wishes of individuals not to be married.  That struck me then (and now) as somewhat inconsistent with an underlying assumption that men and women who live together "ought" to be married, and the next best thing was having marriage "imputed" to them after a certain time.  I don't remember a lot of church involvement in this debate.  It was a straightforward acknowledgment of what individuals wanted and an intention not to become a roadblock to their intentions.  In my view, states should not be a roadblock to gay men and women who want to live under the legal protection of "marriage,"  in the name of validating religious norms. 


As a Unitarian whose wife is Catholic, and as the father of a gay son partnered now for more than 20 years, Jamie Manson was the only writer of the three that made sense to me. To me, if not Manson, the central problem is that the church (and not just the Roman church) is indeed wrong about homosexuality. This is the 21st century. Seems to me our knowledge and  understanding of human sexuality should be a bit broader than that of the 1st century. 

Our sexual orientation is determined during the pregnancy that gave us life. That orientation can run full spectrum from full hetersexuality to full homosexuality and degrees in between. Put another way, we are the way God made us.

Homosexuality occurs, naturally and normally, in most if not all animal species, including homo sapiens, or so my research tells me. Why can't we accept the actuality of our sexuality as human beings and quit using our sexuality as a manipulative form of social control? Why can't we like being human, and thus be joyful that two human beings of whatever gender can join together in mutual respect and sustaining love, and be recognized and accepted, in both law and church. This, to me, would be a culture that is moral.

It seems to me that if we are to live as Jesus taught us, to love our neighbors as ourselves, we have to stop hating ourselves for our innate sexuality — and the church and its philosophers need to stop teaching us to hate. 

Thank you, Joddy.
The Manson piece was the only one that made sense to me, as well. The others seemed strangely off target, and preoccupied with SSM being some kind of symptom of some cultural decline looming in the writers' field of preoccupations.
The Manson piece spoke of SSM as WHAT IT IS, in itself, and that is a great good for those who have acces to it, and for society as a whole.
Some of the remarks in the last piece just seemed bizarre, especially the swipe about prosecco and strawberries being dangerously Episcopalian "class markers" (should they have had hotdogs and beer? a fish fry?), and the loony idea that every conversation about SSM should begin with the Virgin Mary. (Hmmmm. Wonder what conclusions he had in mind with THAT suggestion?)

Joddy, that was brilliant!!!

The SANEST comment on here!

I do suggest that every conversation with heterosexual potential spouses should henceforth begin with the VIRGIN MARY.

Please let us be careful how and who we judge. For centuries men and women have lived together in arrangements other than one man, one woman (+children?). For many who live in community even a community of two, the attraction is not sexual intercourse but simply real love and companionship, a sense of caring and being cared for and about. Watch two older ladies living as widows or spinsters, and you will see a gentleness and compassion for others that outshines their neighbors. Watch two talented and gifted men live out a life of passion for arts and environment and causes. We have up to now tolerated and even 'winked' at so many such arrangements. Now that they wish to call it being married, we are scandalized and upset. Why? Who is it that is threatened? May God continue to bless everyone, no exceptions!

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