Sunday, August 25, 2013

Extremely Random Thoughts on J. Bottum's Commonweal Article

If you follow the Catholic blogosphere, you know by now that Joseph Bottum, formerly of The Weekly Standard and First Things, and a conservative Catholic writer, has come out "in favor of" gay marriage in an essay in Commonweal: "The Things We Share". The essay brought forward many questions I myself have had regarding the Church and gay marriage, and in the larger sense, the Church's mission as it plays out in 21st century Western culture. Not surprisingly, the essay provoked much criticism on the Catholic right. (Full disclosure: the "Catholic right" label probably fits me better than any other label, which isn't saying much.) My very random thoughts:

> Is Bottum really saying that the Church itself should accept gay marriage as part of its sacramental practice? Or is he saying that the Church should concede the battle in the political sphere, and figure out how to move forward? I think it's the latter.

> Bottum begins his essay with a personal story of a friend who is gay. As he says, this can be dismissed as simply his own feelings intruding on a doctrinal/political issue. The problem is that, increasingly, we all are in this situation. Almost everyone has a gay friend for whom the Church's very public position is a sore spot.

> Bottum rightly points out that the Church's sex abuse scandals left it in a very unfortunate position to be criticizing gay marriage. Was it really wise for the bishops to enter this battle? Spiritually, maybe; politically, no.

> Bottum also says that we are living in what anyone would say is a post-Christian culture, and that the idea of "enchantment" (and by this I think he means a spiritual realm beyond the physical) is gone. Because of this, even the most basic arguments, such as those relying on natural law, no longer work to bridge the gap between Christian and secular. We no longer have a shared basis for morality.

> I believe Bottum, and most other writers, discount the role that advertising has played in the transformation of culture. Yes, there are other factors for Christianity's decline, but the engine pushing all of the changes we've seen coming so quickly is the great PR machine. We can quote Augustine or natural law, and of course people have always been fickle ("carried about with every wind of doctrine" as St. Paul says), but the incredible public opinion reversal on the issue of gay marriage only could have happened in our time of non-stop advertising, instant communication, and celebrity-driven opinion.

> Bottum also neglects to delve into the issue of divorce and remarriage within the church, which is an issue that just a decade ago was considered crucial to the lives of Catholics, but which now seems to have been forgotten by our bishops as they made the gay marriage fight a priority. The two issues are related, but that is an entire article in itself.

> Bottum explains the "sexual revolution" in stark and profound terms, and after reading it, you realize why he takes the stand he does.

One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.

The turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West, however: that is strange and fascinatingly new, unique to late modernity. 

Those consequences were, in essence, the stripping away of magic—the systematic elimination of metaphysical, spiritual, and mystical meanings. 

> Bottum then argues for a return to "enchantment", which he doesn't clearly define, but which I believe means bringing the sense of the spiritual back to the world. This, and his practical suggestions, have been mocked by his critics, but I believe he is exactly right on this point. How we do this is another matter, but it must be done, and it's more important than specific political or social issues. 

1 comment:

  1. While I may personally be in favor of civil sanctioned same sex marriages, I do not agree with Bottum. He said he arrived at much the same place as Blankenhorn "we must live together with some degree of mutual acceptance, even if doing so involves compromise.” I agree that the political fight is doomed, but if the Church's opposition is spiritual (versus political) it should not compromise.
    While the "slippery slope" argument is not usually compelling, I don't think the Church can ignore it. Already, a judge in New Jersey has ordered that a church must allow its facilities to be used for same-sex wedding ceremonies. The Judge said that the Constitution allows “some intrusion into religious freedom to balance other important societal goals.” This could be an isolated judge, but Feldblum the Commissioner of the EEOC (appointed by President Obama) has said “when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”