Joseph Bottum is the type of conservative Catholic writer that conservatives adore. He’s on a first-name basis with Thomas Aquinas, writes for the Weekly Standard and National Review, and was editor for five years of First Things, a journal for conservative Christians. So, it’s a surprise to see Bottum in a densely written personal essay in the traditionally Catholic journal Commonweal express his support for marriage equality.
“[S]ame-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity,” Bottum writes. “Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for.”
It’s quite the turnabout. Just five years ago, Bottum argued that “an amoral world may be a quite suitable environment for gay marriage, but it is hardly the kind of world in which most Americans want to bring up their children.”
Which is not to say that Bottum’s rhetoric isn’t just as offensive as it was when he opposed marriage equality. In fact, his essay is much more a complaint about the terrible position Catholicism occupies in American society, much of it, by Bottum’s acknowledgement, of its own making. He talks about losing the friendship of a gay friend, Jim, but also says that Jim’s support for marriage equality “was at least partly free from the grating self-interest, the fallacy of special pleading, that infects too many declarations on the topic.” He notes the personal pain that the inability to marry has caused but wonders “doesn’t that kind of personal fact deployed as argument reduce public discourse to little more than self-interest and self-importance?”
For a Christian argument, it’s remarkably lacking in caritas. No wonder Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic calls the essay “The Worse Imaginable Case For Gay Marriage.” (By contrast, Andrew Sullivan called it “moving.”)
Even Bottum’s final endorsement of marriage equality comes with a little twist of the knife. The one legitimate fear that Catholic’s have about same-sex marriage, says Bottum, is that “the movement is essentially disingenuous. That gays don’t actually want much to marry, but Catholic resistance to the idea is just too useful a stick not to use. That modern Americans, heirs to the class-based self-satisfactions of their Protestant ancestors, look at same-sex marriage and think how wonderful a device it proves for a little Rome bashing.”
Trust us. Joe. It’s not always about you.
Photo credit: Joseph Bottum’s Amazon page