Getting to the Bottum of resisting legalized same-sex marriage

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 (Thomas 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 evil.”

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 policies.

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.

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About Russell Shaw 275 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).