Former First Things editor comes out in favor of gay marriage UPDATED

Joseph Bottum points to natural law and Thomas Aquinas in explaining his change of heart.

In a more than 9,000 word essay for Commonweal, claiming a basis in the work of Thomas Aquinas and of Pope Francis, former editor of First Things Joseph Bottum has announced his support for same-sex marriage. He writes:

By July 2013, thirteen states had already recognized it, and under any principle of governmental fairness available today, the equities are all on the side of same-sex marriage. There is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it—no principled legal view that can resist it. The Supreme Court more or less punted this June in its marriage cases, Hollingsworth v. Perry and United States v. Windsor, but it was a punt that signaled eventual victory for advocates of same-sex marriage. And by ruling in Windsor that Section 3 of DOMA (the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act) is unconstitutional, the justices made it clear that the court will not stand in the way of the movement’s complete triumph. We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.

About two-thirds of the way through his essay—in which, among other things, he describes the cooling of a friendship with a gay man over the marriage issue and his current regret over signing and publishing the pro-traditional marriage Manhattan Declaration while he was editor at First Things—Bottum makes two basic arguments in support of same-sex marriage; the first amounts to, “How can we say gays can’t marry when no-fault divorce is already on the legal books?”:

I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute. Rather, the point is that the legal and social acceptance of divorce, building in Protestant America from the late nineteenth century on, culminated in the universal availability of no-fault divorce. And if 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?

Think of the parallel with laws against sodomy. Justice Thomas may actually have been right that, bad as such laws were, it’s better to have our feckless legislators accept democratic responsibility and replace them than it is to have the courts rule on their constitutionality. But whatever the cruelty and prurience of such laws in the first place, they had become entirely ungrounded by the time of the 2003 Lawrence case. If marriage is nothing more than a licensed sexual playground, without any sense of sin attached to oral sex and anal sex and almost any other act, then under what intellectually coherent scheme can one refuse to others the opportunity for the same behavior?

Bottum believes that his position on same-sex marriage—rather than flying in the face of natural law, as is argued by many conservative and religious proponents of traditional marriage—actually has a basis in natural law as articulated by Thomas Aquinas:

I believe in a thick natural law. To read the questions on law in the Summa is to watch Thomas Aquinas assemble a grand, beautiful, and extremely delicate structure of rationality. As the Duke theologian Paul Griffiths pointed out in a prescient 2004 Commonweal article (“Legalize Same-Sex Marriage,” June 28, 2004), the premises may not be provable, but they are visible to faith, and from them a great and careful mind like Thomas’s can logically derive extraordinary things. The delicacy is revealed, for example, in his analysis of the questions of marriage. Too careful, too honest, simply to condemn everything except the sanctified monogamy that Christianity had given him, Thomas works through an escalating series that ends up preferring the Christian idea of nuptials as the richest, most meaningful form of marriage—without condemning even polygamy as necessarily a violation of the most philosophically abstract application of the natural law.

In this, I think, is a model for how Catholics might think about the world in which legal recognition of same-sex marriage has emerged. The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality. This is the language in which Pope Francis speaks: Marriage “as a sign and presence of God’s own love.” Birth as “a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom, and loving plan.” Mutual love as something that engages our entire lives and “mirrors many features of faith.”

The piece is quite lengthy, but will no doubt be the subject of much online discussion in the coming days. Published apparently simultaneously is a piece in the New York Times by Mark Oppenheimer, who visited Bottum at his home in South Dakota and spoke with him about his change of heart:

[Bottum] attends Mass weekly and objects to the death penalty as well as abortion, which leaves him frustrated with both political parties. (On balance, the Republicans are “usually more educable on the death penalty than Democrats are on abortion.”) He took his family from Manhattan back to South Dakota three years ago, after he was fired by First Things, for reasons he will not discuss.

If Mr. Bottum had testy relations with his co-workers at First Things, many of them Catholic conservatives, there was little sign that he would break with them on same-sex marriage. And a disagreement over Aquinas seemed even more unlikely.

Religious Catholics are generally united in their reverence for St. Thomas Aquinas, whose theology dominates Catholic thought. The traditional-marriage movement is led by men like Brian S. Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, and Prof. Robert P. George of Princeton, Catholics who rely on Aquinas’s reasoning to make the contemporary case for traditional marriage.

So Mr. Bottum’s change of heart is noteworthy.

The first response to Bottum’s piece at the publication he once headed is a post on its blog, First Thoughts, from contributor Matthew J. Franck:

Others who really know the author may wish to comment at greater length on an essay that is avowedly very personal. But what I detect in it is the work of someone who was never all that interested in investigating the arguments on either side of the same-sex marriage debate; whose scant interest in it has now been fully exhausted, both intellectually and morally; and whose present conclusions hover in mid-air without anything to support them other than a wistful regret that he has lost a hoedown partner in a gay man who has come fairly unglued over the issue.

Nothing other than intellectual and moral exhaustion (I am sure it cannot be native incapacity) can explain such howlers as this: “under any principle of governmental fairness available today, the equities are all on the side of same-sex marriage. There is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it—no principled legal view that can resist it.” No one with the least comprehension of legal reasoning who has followed the actual jurisprudential arguments in the relevant cases could have written such lines.

UPDATE, 8/26: Bottum spoke with Al Kresta on his radio show and said that his Commonweal piece has been widely misread.  

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About Catherine Harmon 577 Articles
Catherine Harmon is managing editor of Catholic World Report.