A Reply to Joseph Bottum's Conservative Critics

As most readers of this blog will have noticed by now, Joseph Bottum's Commonweal essay on Catholics and same-sex marriage has provoked a good deal of criticism in the blogosphere. (Those who haven't noticed can see a few of the many reactions to Bottum's piece here, here, here, here, here, and, last and least, here.) Bottum doesn't need Commonweal—or me—to fight his battles for him; he is quite capable of defending himself, and has already done so (with more magnanimity, I might add, than many of his Catholic critics have displayed).

Nonetheless, I'd like to respond here to two of his more articulate critics, Robert Royal and Phil Lawler, because they are fairly representative of the response to Bottum's essay among conservative Catholics, and because they have both offered substantial responses and not just off-the-cuff reactions. Royal's reply is intelligent and sharply written. Lawler's is sober, honest, and not saturated with personal contempt. Both, however, fail to acknowledge plainly what the logic of their own position seems to require.

Royal and Lawler agree with Bottum that contraception and divorce are, like same-sex marriage, at odds with the Catholic Church's conception of marriage. And both Royal and Lawler fault Bottum for concluding that Catholics can and should give up their public opposition to same-sex civil marriage and instead direct their attention to other projects that are either more important or at least less likely to fail. Royal calls Bottum's conclusion "preemptive surrender." Lawler suggests it amounts to cowardice.

This raises an obvious question for both of them: Do they believe that the Catholic Church's honor requires American Catholics to wage a politcal campaign to get contraceptives and divorce outlawed? And if not, why not? Someone might answer, "Prudence." Someone might, but not, I think, either Royal or Lawler. Each of them has implied, perhaps unwittingly, that prudence is irrelevant.

Royal admits that opponents of same-sex civil marriage appear to many—including many of the opponents themselves—to be on the losing side of this battle. But he answers this common perception with a bit of history: 

In 1976, Henry Kissinger, “the smartest man in the world,” told Admiral Elmo Zumwalt: “The day of the United States is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.” The Soviets had only thirteen years left.

The gay surge in the West may seem much less likely to be reversed. There are days we all feel that way. And it may be so. But there’s only one way to find out. And it’s not pre-emptive surrender.

There you have it. According to Royal, it is idle to predict the future, and therefore prudence is irrelevant to politics because prudence requires, among other things, a consideration of the likelihood of success. We must fight the good fight and let the chips fall where they may. There is no such thing as a lost cause and to suggest otherwise is to prove oneself faint of heart. Sure, same-sex marriage is already recognized in thirteen states and all the political momentum appears to be on its side, but in a democracy bad laws can always be changed if enough of the public can be convinced of their badness.

In that case, why not try to change laws that allow divorce and the sale of contraceptives? After all, the church still teaches that artificial contraception is intrinsically evil, and the idea that a marriage can simply be dissolved is no more reconcilable with the church's traditional understanding of marriage than the idea that a man can marry another man. Furthermore, the church teaches that the truth about contraception and divorce, like the truth about homosexuality and same-sex marriage, is a matter of natural law, not special revelation. Which means that, in theory at least, none of these teachings is better suited than the others to public reason. But aren't contraceptives and divorce a lost cause? If Royal is right, there is no such thing. We can't know what's possible until we try, and it's pointless to guess. What turned out to be impossible yesterday may be possible today; in the ongoing experiment of democracy, hope springs eternal. So if it is obvious that Bottum has capitulated to a decadent secular culture by advising Catholics to stop fighting against same-sex civil marriage—if his position cannot be defended as a prudential argument—then it is just as obvious that the bishops and almost all Catholics in this country have capitulated to the same decadent culture by declining to insist with as much vehemence as possible that the state forbid no-fault divorce and the sale of contraceptives.

To his credit, Lawler seems to have anticipated this point, but it isn't clear that he appreciates all its implications. He writes:

What should Catholics do, then, if the intellectual argument has been lost and public opinion is trending strongly toward acceptance of same-sex marriage? We should—we must—do more, in word and deed, to to educate our neighbors about the true meaning of marriage. That will entail re-opening the debates on contraception and divorce.... The weakest aspect of Bottum’s argument—as he acknowledged in a radio interview with Al Kresta—is his quick dismissal of arguments based on natural law. Bottum writes that these arguments have not proven persuasive. He should say that they have not persuaded the public yet.

"That will entail re-opening the debates on contraception and divorce." Which debates, exactly—debates about whether contraception and divorce are immoral, or debates about whether they should be legal in the United States? If Lawler thinks they should be illegal, he should say so outright. And once he does that, I think he will quickly find that he has alienated the greater part of the remaining opposition to same-sex marriage. But perhaps that, too, is what courage requires. The public has not been persuaded yet that every law in this country ought to be determined by the church's moral teaching, but give it time, Lawler pleads. They are bound to come around once they see the social devastation wrought by the "culture of hedonism."

That raises another question: Does Lawler imagine that most Americans will change their minds about the legality of same-sex marriage, divorce, and contraception—and, more generally, about the wisdom of allowing Catholic doctrine to determine the country's laws about sex and marriage—before they change their minds about some other, more basic things? Before they become Catholic? If so, he should tell us why. (Imprudence is one thing, delusion another.) And if not, then Lawler agrees with Bottum after all, however much he protests against the term "re-enchantment.'

These responses to Bottum's article exemplify two related tendencies that have become alarmingly common in recent years among conservative Catholics: the tendency to think of civil law and democratic politics as nothing more than a footnote to Catholic moral theology, and the tendency to assume that all people of good will are bound to accept the church's conclusions about public policy even if they don't accept the church's premises.

It is obvious why many conservative Protestants who oppose state recognition of same-sex civil marriage do not also campaign to ban contraceptives and divorce. But what about conservative Catholics? There are no doubt many plausible explanations. Same-sex civil marriage, unlike divorce or contraception, is a new phenomenon; until very recently few had even considered the idea; until even more recently, no one considered opposition to it a lost cause.

But let me offer one more explanation. Probably most conservative Catholics in this country have friends who are divorced or who use artificial contraception. Some of those friends are Catholic, some aren't; some are probably conservative Protestants. By contrast, outside of a few urban areas in this country, most conservative Catholics are able to avoid openly gay people if they wish to, so that gay people remain for them mostly an abstraction. No doubt they've met a few and tried to be polite, but they don't have to worry much about offending a lot of close friends by publicly opposing civil marriage for same-sex couples. That may not be true for long. I don't say that such Catholics are all bigots, but I do think many of them find it easier to love the sinner more than they hate the sin when the sinner is straight.

In any case, the time has passed when there were enough bigots to combine with those who have honorable natural-law arguments against same-sex marriage to form a politically effective majority. Some Catholics may still yearn for a smaller, purer church; but, on this issue at least, a purer social conservatism will be too small to call the shots in this democratic country. Those who oppose same-sex civil marriage for any reason worthy of respectful consideration must "learn to be a minority," and that begins with accepting that they are one.

UPDATED

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.

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