Joseph Bottum’s Commonweal essay, subtitled “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Gay Marriage,” has not even raised an “Oh, my” among the average Catholic church attender. Among Catholic bloggers, activists and communicators, however, it has generated a roar.
This Bottum controversy was framed badly from the start. It was never about fidelity or infidelity to Church teaching. The Commonweal article was badly subtitled as “a Catholic’s case for gay marriage.” It clearly was not. The New York Times claimed that Bottum did not think Catholics were bound by natural law to oppose same-sex “marriage.” False. He thinks “thin” versions of natural law have rightly failed to persuade. Authentic natural-law teaching does require us to teach against “gay marriage.”
I had the advantage of interviewing Bottum immediately after the essay’s publication and asked him if he had changed his fundamental theological or moral view on “gay marriage.” He assured me, in no uncertain terms, that he had not. He still agrees with the Church: that marriage is between one man and one woman.
Bottum’s essay was always about assessing the culture’s response to our stalled efforts, legally, ecclesially and socially, to defend traditional marriage.
He admits that his style and expression contributed to the widespread misunderstanding of his essay. But blaming Bottum distracts us from two daunting rhetorical problems about our current situation related to same-sex “marriage” and the defense of traditional marriage.
First, “gay marriage” hasn’t yet been tried or tested. It is fresh and unblemished, and this allows Americans to fantasize about how fine it will be for homosexual persons. Christian marriage or some semblance of it, on the other hand, has been tried and incrementally redefined by heterosexual persons seeking easy divorce and remarriage, contraception, abortion, adoption for unmarried couples, toleration of deadbeat dads and the promiscuity that leads to nearly half of our nation’s children being born out of wedlock.
The Christian community that claims to be the defender of God’s design for marriage has consistently cooperated with, or, at least has been unable to resist, the cultural pull that has defined civil marriage deviance downward. What is it that we are now defending in civil marriage?
How to build a visibly Christian marriage alternative formed by sacramental rather than civil awareness and which better provides for family flourishing: This is the task of the next generation of Catholic activists, pastors and social critics.
Isn’t this a good moment to reassess why we have failed to persuade our culture about the dignity of marriage? While we are a people of hope, is anyone optimistic about the future of marriage in the United States? Diligent and earnest activists are at work full time on strategy and tactics. I am not arrogant enough to think that I can devise a better way. But as someone who is engaged on a few activist fronts, there is nothing wrong with my asking if it is not time for some kind of reappraisal.
In 1989, homosexual-rights activists published After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s. They knew they needed to change the face of the homosexual movement. In the late ’80s or early ’90s, I cooperated in circulating thousands of copies of a documentary film containing footage of outrageous “gay pride” parades in San Francisco. The shocking images revealed a mock public orgy celebrating every type of fetish and deviance. The mainstream media generally refused to show the footage, claiming it would be morally unsettling to their viewership. Irony all around. Perhaps my radio listeners enjoy being unsettled, but in over 25 years of broadcasting, I have never had more demand for any book, film or song than these videos.
“Gay rights” activists eventually sensed that the defiance of conventional morality was not a winning strategy. They went to work changing the face of their movement from a limp-wristed, swishy in-your-face drag queen to smiling, non-threatening professionals in business suits holding cups of Starbucks and a copy of The Wall Street Journal or young soccer moms of whom little Heather now had two.
Is it time for Catholic activists to write After the Bishops: How American Catholics Must Take Co-Responsibility for Building the Church and Blessing the Nation?
The second daunting rhetorical problem is our culture’s apparent inability to recognize natural law. We’ve seen this before with artificial contraception. Why don’t people get it? Our rejection of artificial contraception is not, first of all, a matter of Divine revelation, but natural law. This is a truth accessible to all, including the unbaptized.
Yet the inextricability of the unitive and procreative functions is overwhelmingly denied. Love and life, babies and bonding, these twin purposes of the nuptial act, are not grasped as intertwined, even by most Christian communities. The sense of the sacred that used to undergird our apprehension of the created order and made the truths of natural law subjectively compelling has been lost. Even the definition or existence of human nature is up for grabs. As George Weigel wrote in First Things in the August/September edition: “Can there be an effective appeal to natural law grounded in moral norms absent any culturally received notion of ‘nature,’ human or otherwise?”
These rhetorical problems need to be addressed before we can sharpen our message. People may not be able to articulate these problems, but they unconsciously are acting on them.
It’s also worth noting that the last great civil-rights movement of our country, which we associate with Martin Luther King, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Civil Rights Act, was born in the black church with abundant formal support from mainline Protestant denominations. It was largely led by pastors and praying laity.
In contrast, the homosexual civil-rights movement was born in a bar fight the year after King was assassinated, and it now appears to be led by a shameless entertainment industry with unmatchable powers of propaganda.
This may be the first major “reform” of American social morality that has not appealed to historic Christianity for its legitimacy. Do we simply want to passively accept this as the inevitable turning of a corner in America’s relationship with its Christian past?
Scripture shows us a God who allows human beings and their societies to turn their back on him. One consequence of turning from the Divine light is that we lose our capacity to see reality clearly.
Of the Jewish leaders in John 12, Jesus quoted Isaiah, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts.” And in Romans 1, St. Paul describes the Gentiles who suppress the truth evident in creation as having become futile in their thinking:
“Their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools. …Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie. …Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.”
Are we a nation under judgment? This wouldn’t relieve us of the responsibility to engage the culture, but it might alter how we proclaim the Good News.
Maybe this controversy will be an occasion for some of us to remember that the ultimate success of Christian witness is bound up with the health of the Church. When Christ calls someone, he is called to be a member of a community. A people under judgment may find itself yearning for some plausible evidence that there is somewhere a people of redemption. Would they see that today in the Catholic Church? In your parish? In your domestic church, your home? If not, do we know how to minister the mercy which is universally needed to bring healing and a new start?
Only by building the Church, will we bless the nation. On that I believe we would all find agreement.
Al Kresta is a Catholic broadcaster and writer.
He is president and CEO of Ave Maria Radio and host of
Kresta in the Afternoon, produced by Ave Maria Radio and
syndicated on EWTN Global Catholic Radio.