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The Catholic Church and Same-sex Marriage: Time for Retreat?

Jody Bottum, the former Editor-in-Chief of First Things, argues that the battle against same-sex marriage has been lost, and the bishops are turning off young people by continuing the fight.

BY Joan Desmond

| Posted 8/26/13 at 3:19 PM

 

Is it time for Church leaders to retreat from the public debate on same-sex marriage? 

Jody Bottum, the former editor-in-chief of First Things, believes that the time has indeed arrived for the U.S. bishops to call a truce, at the very least, and re-focus their energies on evangelizing Asia and preparing the faithful for marytrdom.  In a lengthy Aug. 23 post in Commonweal, The Things We Share: A Catholic's Case for Same-sex Marriage, apparently timed to coincide with a New York Times story on  about his change of heart, and the launch of his latest book, Bottum  states the following

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 does not argue that the Church should support same-sex marriage because it is the morally right thing to do. Rather, the bishops should throw in the towel because the public's understanding of marriage is already so debased that it can not be rehabilitated any time soon. Value-free sex and no-fault divorce have undermined the institution of marriage. The bishops can not paper over the damage wreaked by our permissive laws and practices, and their refusal to give up the fight is bad PR for the Church. 

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. 

It is time for the bishops to begin a different campaign, one that will grapple with the long-term consquences of the Englightenment, which introduced the secular currents that now pervade the West. Our world is no longer God-haunted, he said, calling on Church leaders to foster a re-enchangment of the culture.

And to those readers who still cling to the view that changing the nation's marriage laws will harm children and the women who bring them into the world, Bottum offers scant reassureance. He admits 

that we can’t predict the effects of same-sex marriage. I think some good will come, I hope some good will come, but I cannot say with certainty that all must go well with this social change. 

Naturally, the essay sparked a flurry on the blogsphere. Most commentators, including those, like myself, who are friends or acquaintances of Bottum, gifted writer,  concluded that his lengthy essay offered little of substance to the patient reader that made it to the end. 

Robert Royal, the editor of The Catholic Thing, took aim at Bottum's suggestion that legal same-sex marriage could not be stopped. He also offered further reflections during an interview with Register Radio

In 1976, Henry Kissinger, known as “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. 

Calling on Church leaders to step back from the public debate on marriage and re-focus on evangelization, said Royal 

is the equivalent of saying: fighting terrorism will not establish the peace that passeth all understanding, so we shouldn’t bother with such skirmishes. Leave aside that a large and sophisticated entity like the Catholic Church can walk and chew gum at the same time. Walking away from this fight will not gain the Church friends or placate her enemies.

 

 Among the various posts on Patheos, his suggestion that it was too late to resist same-sex marriage sparked this retort

Pursuit of pleasure trumps Truth. Why fight it?

Because noble ideals must be defended. And in order to be defended, they must be lived. And they must be lived because they are true. And since they are true, they lead us to true happiness, and on to our ultimate destiny, which is Life Himself. 

Dawn Eden clearly agreed with the sentiment, linking to  a rousing endorsement of "lost causes" in Mr.Smith Goes to Washington. 

At First Things,  Matthew Franck concluded that the essay reflected the writer's "intellectual and moral exhaustion."

"Exhaustion" could describe the mindset of many Catholics and their leaders who are, at times, disspirited by the slow, but steady gains of same-sex marriage across the land. During a recent interview with the Register, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence acknowleged his own  "disappointment," not only with the recent passage of same-sex marriage in Rhode Island, but with the lack of support from many self-identified Catholic lawmakers. 

There are legitimate questions, as well, about whether the issue of same-sex marriage has supplanted a critical discussion about the state of marriage in general, and how young people are drifting away from a marriage culture. In the months and years ahead, we will hear proposals that would separate sacramental marriage from civil marriage, as is the practice in France or Mexico, among other countries. 

In the meantime, it is worth noting a small, but significant fact: Bottum's decision to speak out on same-sex marriage got the attention of The New York Times, which rarely misses an opportunity to mark a change of heart among one-time defenders of traditional marriage, like David Blankenhorn. A New York Time's reporter travelled all the way to South Dakota to meet Bottum at his home, and receive a first-hand account of his apparent conversion. 

"A Conservataive Catholic Now Backs Same-sex Marriage," reads the paper's headline for a story dated the same day as the Bottum's Commonweal post. The headline isn't quite accurate but the Times' decision to frame the story that way serves as a reminder that while Bottum may believe the battle is over,  same-sex marriage is not yet the law  in every state. Until that day arrives,  The Times  will keep putting points on the board.

UPDATE 8/26: Ross Douthat, a columnist for The New York Times, offers a different take on Bottum's essay. Douthat views the essay, at least in part, as a reaction to the way our culture wars have distorted the fullness of Church teaching and its merciful accomodation of human frailty. 

UPDATE: David Goldman, a friend and former colleague of Bottum's at First Things has since offered another perspective on one concern raised in the essay: How to engage-not repell young Americans who don't know or share Catholic and natural law teaching on marriage. Goldman argues that Bottum has pointed to the failure of a religious-informed public square. Catholics need to re-think their outreach to the young.