Joseph Bottum: “There are a couple things that I regret in the article”

“I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”

This afternoon Joseph Bottum, former editor of First Things whose article in Commonweal on same-sex marriage ignited a firestorm of Internet commentary over the weekend, spoke with Al Kresta on his radio show about the controversial essay. Bottum says the piece (which can be found here) has been widely misunderstood by people on the right and the left, and that he has not, in fact, changed his position on same-sex marriage. Rather, he believes the issue has become a “distraction” and that “the culture is just in the weirdest place, and that the message that we have to teach is not being successfully learned.”

The full interview touches on the several controversial elements of Bottum’s lengthy essay—including that very lengthiness!—and can be heard here. A couple excerpts:

I’ve been, for the last few years, coming around to a position that Paul Griffiths, the theologian down at Duke, proposed some years ago—and he in turn got beat up for it by people I respected, like Father Neuhaus—which was: the cultural situation is getting so strange, we should probably get out of the civil marriage business. At the time I kind of went along with Father Neuhaus and the others who were saying, “No Paul—you can’t counsel Catholicism to withdraw from the public square.”

Kresta: You’re giving up the fight, you’re moving in the direction of a separatist community…

Bottum: Right. Exactly. That was the argument at the time. And I went along with it, probably even agreed with it. But as time’s gone by, […] I think many of us are coming around to the idea that the culture is just in the weirdest place, and that the message that we have to teach is not being successfully learned, on what marriage is in its full, rich sacramental sense. […]

I’m still on-board the Magisterium here, all the way. But I’m also looking at the culture. […]

Kresta: If your fundamental position hasn’t changed, what has changed?

Bottum: What’s changed is my encounter with young people, or what has changed me is my encounter with young people. My reading of the rising generation of Catholic bloggers…these are 20-somethings. They’re out of college, they’re serious Catholics […] and they’re saying, “Look I understand the theology and I accept the theology but I have a phenomenological crisis, because here in front of me are these people who are growing […] to see the Catholic Church as the image and the focus—to use a literary word, as the synecdoche—for all oppression of homosexuals.”

Bottum also discussed several regrets he has about his essay:

There are a couple things that I regret in the article, beginning with its very structure as a personal essay instead of a didactic argument, just because I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been. But still, you know, it’s my fault, not theirs. […]

I said there a couple things I regret—one is I said there’s no constitutional, persuasive legal argument against the emerging consensus on same-sex marriage. And I meant—in my mind what I was thinking is given the way the jurisprudence is going, that’s confirmed for me by what the Supreme Court did. But as phrased—this is a place I regret—I seem to be saying that, you know, all of our legal friends who would put together very good briefs on this were wrong. I regret the way I phrased that.

[…] The second thing I kind of regret is the way I phrased the discussion of natural law. I was using a short-hand for a thesis about enchantment that I’ve been developing, but, you know, the accursed essay was already 9,000 words long…I was trying to say in a way that [natural law]’s simply not persuasive without a level of enchantment, seeing things in the world as “natural.” What I think I ended up saying, if you read it kind of flat, without—as some of our friends have done—without a charity of interpretation, what I seem to be saying is, natural law is false without an enchanted sense of the world. And so I understand why it got misread there and I regret that.

Listen to the full interview here.

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