The tide is turning in the United States over marriage equality…so much so that some conservative catholics are becoming vocal. Joseph Bottum is one such catholic, conservative, moral crusader who has changed his tune.
Which is why “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage,” an essay by Joseph Bottum, published Friday on the Web site of Commonweal magazine, is something new in this debate.
Mr. Bottum, 54, is a serious Christian. He attended Roman Catholic high school, college and graduate school. His erudite writing for conservative magazines like National Review and The Weekly Standard is laced with references to church history and theology and to Christian writers like G. K. Chesterton and W. H. Auden. He fiercely opposes abortion, and for five years, until 2010, he was editor in chief of First Things, a key opinion journal for religious conservatives.
In his large Victorian house here 50 miles from Mount Rushmore, a crucifix hangs in the hallway. At lunch, he crossed himself before we sat down. Mr. Bottum is the kind of man who, when he casually says “Thomas,” you know that he means Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic philosopher.
Not five years ago, he condemned backers of gay marriage as amoral. Yet in his new long and challenging essay, Mr. Bottum argues, in effect, that he was wrong and that fellow conservative Catholics are misinterpreting their tradition, in particular Aquinas’s “natural law” theology.
Aquinas considered heterosexual, monogamous union the highest form of marriage, but Mr. Bottum believes that he was actually less interested in strict legal precepts than in an enchanted vision of the world — a vision that, Mr. Bottum now says, is better served by supporting same-sex marriage.
So Mr. Bottum’s change of heart is noteworthy. He makes several arguments. The first is pragmatic.
It takes a gracious man to admit when he is wrong.
Basic democratic premises like fairness, equal rights and majority rule suggest that the time for same-sex marriage has come, he says. We can agree, Mr. Bottum argues, that Americans are turning in favor of same-sex marriage, and there “is no coherent jurisprudential against it — no principled legal view that can resist it.” Furthermore, the bishops’ campaigns against same-sex marriage “are hurting the church.” Especially for the young, Catholicism is coming to symbolize repression.
So this fight would only be worth fighting, for Catholics, if their theology required such a fight. Mr. Bottum now believes — here’s where the essay will really outrage fellow churchmen — that Catholics are mistaken to think that natural law requires them to oppose same-sex marriage.
Natural law, as systematically explained by Aquinas in his treatise Summa Theologica, is the will of God as understood by people using their reason. Aquinas extrapolates many principles of natural law, including those of marriage. But Mr. Bottum contends that these rules are not the point.
Natural law, Mr. Bottum writes, depends for its force on a sense of the mystery of creation, the enchantment of everyday objects, the sacredness of sex. In the West, that climate of belief has been upended: by science, modernism, a Protestant turn away from mysticism, and, most recently, the sexual revolution. The strictures of natural law were meant to structure an enchanted world — but if the enchantment is gone, the law becomes a pointless artifact of a defunct Christian culture.
“And if,” Mr. Bottum writes, “heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?”
Traditional-marriage activists would counter that we can at least begin a Christian renaissance by upholding marriage’s last connections to its Christian past. But Mr. Bottum says that’s the wrong starting point. “There are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world,” he writes.