HOT SPRINGS, S.D. — Author Joseph Bottum says that while parts of his controversial article on Catholic responses to “gay marriage” may have been unclear, he did not intend to suggest a divergence from Church teaching.
“I’m not dissenting from Church doctrine here in any way,” said Bottum, who wrote the essay “The Things We Share” in Commonweal last Friday.
Rather, he told CNA Aug. 26, “I am taking exception to some prudential judgment about the way in which we try and evangelize the world.”
In the more than 9,000 word essay, subtitled “A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” Bottum suggested that federal and state recognition of same-sex “marriage” is already so far advanced that Catholics would do well to not expend energy fighting it in judicial and legal spheres, but, rather, should evangelize and share the Christian worldview in other ways.
Bottum’s essay was popularized by an interview which appeared in The New York Times by Mark Oppenheimer headlined “A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same-Sex Marriage.”
This characterization was the first introduction to the article for many, both on the political right and left.
“Much as I was grateful for the publicity” of the Times article, Bottum said, “I think one of the problems with that was our conservative Catholic friends read The New York Times essay first, and then read the Commonweal piece, and its effect was, ‘Catholic deserter comes to our side.’”
“They look at it through the lens of ‘Catholic deserter,’ and the first blog posts about it really blocked me into a position.”
Similarly, he said, the left’s first reaction, “based on The New York Times profile,” was “'Hooray, hooray, we’ve got a defector’; and then they actually read the essay, and now they’re all out after me.”
Since his essay itself conveys a different tone than did Oppenheimer's article, Bottum said, “I didn’t expect the immediate knee-jerk reaction of a sizable chunk of the conservative world to be angry at me.”
While continuing to view homosexual acts as “manifestly not in accord with Divine law,” in alignment with Church teaching, Bottum said it is “right to make the distinction over what evils we allow without rebellion.”
“Just as there’s no rebellion in Nevada among Catholics over the counties that have legalized prostitution, I think we’ve probably reached a point where the Catholic teaching here has no purchase on the larger culture, and we’re going to get same-sex marriage. It’s already mostly here.”
While wanting to make clear that “there’s no doubt” he accepts that marriage is between two persons of the opposite sex, Bottum said he merely wanted to write the piece about his thinking, having come to the position that, in the U.S., “the Church just needs to get out of the civil-marriage business, because the culture is just too bizarre to hear” her teaching about marriage.
“In the short-run anyway,” Bottom said, Catholics should tolerate the civil recognition of same-sex unions. “I also think we need to re-evangelize the culture, but, in the short run … I think we have to accept that the fact on the ground is, it’s here, and it's going to be here for some time.”
“I was always very careful to, any time I said something affirming of same-sex marriage, I was very careful to put in the word ‘civil,’ ‘state recognition of,’ some kind of qualifying phrase like that.”
“I did kind of assume that it would be taken as writ that I'm an orthodox Catholic,” Bottom reflected, though he added, “Maybe I should have just said it, to pre-empt some old friends from reading the piece as though I was saying 'this is sacramental marriage as much as anything else.'”
The essay is “very long,” Bottom admitted, explaining that it is written in a literary style he has been exploring lately, calling it “a style of personal essay that takes two steps forward and one step back, that circles around and circles around, that's more impressionistic than it is argumentative.”
“I open, for instance, with that description of a lost friendship … and immediately afterwards I say, personal anecdote isn’t argument, and then I say, we're all Americans; America's got this; we should probably just accept this insofar as we're Americans,” he said, reflecting on his writing style.
“And then immediately after, I say that, of course, the bishops shouldn’t be persuaded to take the (popular) cultural position out of some feel-good call for consensus. And the whole essay kind of proceeds by this back-and-forth method.”
He cited the style of Michel de Montaigne, a French essayist of the 16th-century renaissance, as an inspiration for the admittedly “complicated” and “impressionistic” voice of his personal essay.
“I set myself up to be misinterpreted, in a way, just by making the conscious literary decision to write an essay in an essayistic style, and it didn't occur to me at the time that it would be quite so open to misinterpretation,” Bottum shared.
Saying that he is “not entirely free from blame” for the essay’s subtitle, since he discussed it with the editors and consented to it, Bottum said that, instead of being a Catholic advocate for same-sex “marriage,” “the case that I am making is a case for Catholics who work in these sorts of fields to recognize that same-sex marriage is something the culture has and is going to get completely,” though “in the civil sense only.”
“I certainly didn’t intend to undermine the bishops by making anything more than a prudential argument about their fight over same-sex marriage,” Bottum said.
Moreover, he pointed out, “I explicitly said in the piece that they should not be persuaded by purely cultural reasons.”
Bottom said there are two passages that he should have phrased differently, because “they’re getting misinterpreted consistently” — one section on the judicial cases made in favor of marriage and another on natural law.
His intention, he clarified, in speaking about the lack of a “coherent” legal argument in defense of marriage was not “an indictment of all the work of our lawyer friends” who have been defending marriage in court, but was only a recognition that “given the jurisprudence” and the prevailing understanding of the Constitution, “this wasn't a coherent argument” for the Supreme Court.
And in clarifying his comments on natural law, Bottum said that “of course” natural law is true without what he calls “enchantment.” His intention was to say that natural law “is not persuasive without enchantment.”
In the essay, Bottum did go so far as to suggest that, given culture’s crisis of confusion around marriage and sexuality, the civil recognition of same-sex “marriage” could possibly “prove a small advance” in terms of “chastity” and “love.”
Even while acknowledging that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered, Bottum said that “I think I do” hold that, because “we have such a rotten marriage culture right now … an exclusive relationship between two homosexual people, recognized in law, might actually be some small improvement, because the marriage culture is actually below that right now.”
“This cannot be a sacramental marriage,” Bottum emphasized. Same-sex "marriage" is “based on a failure to recognize the enchanted, created reality of the body. But in the culture as it actually is, this might be an improvement.”
“I do say, 'I don't know,'” he added. “These are all predictions of the future, but it’s a future that’s coming very, very shortly.”
Bottum admitted that “the big missing piece” in his essay is “direct engagement” with the thought in the Church, including that voiced in a 2003 document by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which seems to counter his position of prudential acceptance of civilly recognized same-sex “marriage.”
“What I did gesture at, to try and do some of that work,” according to Bottum, was a work of Paul J. Griffiths, which he said “explicitly and very respectfully addresses that teaching.”
Bottum summed up his essay, saying that “we cannot cease to teach the imperfections” of same-sex unions “while promoting and showing the perfections … of sacramental marriage in the Church,” but that “we can do those without necessarily entering the direct political fray.”
Towards the end of the essay, Bottum discussed what he calls “enchantment,” a focus on metaphysics and the createdness of the world, and he offered this focus as a better use of time and resources as the Church tries to evangelize the culture around her.
“The messages we want to send are about how this world is filled with the glory of God, and because I believe in the unity of truth, I believe that that will evangelize people into moral truths.
“I know it’s odd, and I might be mistaken, but I am thinking my way through the idea that what we start with is a kind of metaphysical proposition, not a moral proposition.”