As I was reading Joseph Bottum's
rambling brief in Commonweal
arguing that Catholics should
accept legalized same-sex marriage, I happened to dip into Father
Dwight Longenecker's new book The Romance of Religion
Nelson). There I read in part:
"If we believe in good and evil,
then we must wish to be good, and if we wish to be good, then we must
confront evil because that is what good people do, and if we are
going to confront evil, then we must be engaged in battle against
Which, as far as I can see, is about
as good a one-sentence explanation as we are likely to get of why
Catholics should resist legalized same-sex marriage, not accept it.
(Before I go any further: no, I'm not
saying gays who want to get married are evil people. I make no such
judgment. What I'm saying is that the underlying rationale for gay
marriage is evil because grounded in destructive untruth. I'll say
more about that in a minute.)
Joseph Bottum, a former editor of
First Things, is a decent and earnest man, and his lengthy
piece in the September 13 Commonweal is likewise decent and
earnest. But its argument for Catholic acceptance of gay marriage
simply doesn't stand up.
The heart of it is this. Gay marriage
advocates aren't winning the political and public opinion fights
because they have better PR (although they certainly do); they're
winning, says Bottum, because "they have better logic, given
the premises available to the culture."
Two things should be said about this.
The first is that Bottum's argument
for Catholics to back off from this fight reflects an unstated but
very unattractive elitism. At no point does he address or even
acknowledge the situation of people of conscience who reject gay
unions but are forced by government to cooperate or face penalties.
Already this has happened--here in the
case of a bakery that makes wedding cakes, there to a husband and
wife team of wedding photographers, and others as well--and it will
go on happening. But the problems of bakers, photographers, and the
like when forced by government to cooperate with gay marriage seem
not to register with Bottum. They should.
Second, take another look at that
phrase, "the premises available to the culture." Bottum is
right about this--same-sex marriage is in sync with the fundamental
values of contemporary secular culture. Hence its rapid rise.
But suppose a culture's premises are
mad? Every system of governance operates by the logic of certain
cultural premises, but does consistency make evil policy right? The
Nazis in Germany were true to their principles. The authoritarian
rulers of North Korea are true to theirs. A regime's consistency with
the mad principles of its peculiar culture does not validate its evil
In his landmark 1981 study After
Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press), Alasdair MacIntyre
called the world view of today's secular culture "liberal
individualism." I'd call it libertarian individualism myself,
"libertarian" being descriptively closer to the mark than
"liberal." Whatever you call it, it's radically at odds
with the moral tradition of the Judeo-Christian West.
To his credit, Bottum believes in
evangelizing culture. His preferred tool for that is what he calls
"enchantment." By all means, then, let secular culture be
enchanted. But let's not imagine doing that will be easy or fun.
Father Longenecker writes, "we
have only two options: either we drift further into the nothing of
nihilism and continue to commit a kind of cultural and corporate
suicide, or we get better." Fighting the good fight on gay
marriage isn't the whole of getting better, just a necessary part.