Critics say Joseph Bottum's marriage essay could confuse Catholics

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Critics of a recent essay rejecting continued political opposition to "gay marriage" warn that the author risks confusing Catholics and helps empower a false vision of the fundamental institution of marriage.

Deacon Keith Fournier, editor in chief at Catholic Online, wrote on Aug. 28 that Catholic thinker Joseph Bottum's essay could significantly "undermine the Catholic Church" and its teachings on marriage.

"That is because it will confuse many of the faithful," the deacon said, calling the essay "dangerous" at a time when the Church faces "growing persecution" for defending "the truth concerning the nature of marriage and the family and society."

In addition, he suggested that many evangelical Protestant leaders who greatly admire the Catholic Church's clarity and uncompromising courage in proclaiming the truths of marriage may confuse the essay with the Church's position as a whole, losing respect for the teachers of the Catholic faith.

In a 9,000-word essay, "The Things We Share," published Aug. 23 in Commonweal magazine, Bottum contended that federal and state recognition of same-sex "marriage" is already so far advanced that Catholics should not expend energy and resources fighting it in judicial and legal spheres.

He said that Catholic arguments against "gay marriage" are not persuasive in the wider modern culture and appear to be blinding supporters of gay unions to the Catholic Church's other efforts at evangelizing and spreading the faith.

Bottum is a former editor of First Things magazine, an ecumenical, conservative-leaning journal with a heavily Catholic emphasis and readership.

His prominence brought major attention to his Aug. 23 essay. The New York Times characterized him as a "conservative Catholic" who "now backs same-sex marriage."

However, Bottum told CNA Aug. 26 that he is not a dissenting Catholic and accepts Church teaching that homosexual acts are wrong and that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.

He said that he had "in some ways set myself up to be misinterpreted" by consenting to the essay's subtitle, "A Catholic's Case for Same-sex Marriage." The New York Times coverage also distorted his position, he said.

Bottum acknowledged that parts of his essay may have been unclear but said that he had not been intending to undermine the bishops or diverge from Church teaching on the sacrament of marriage.
Rather, he said that he believes Catholics should tolerate civil recognition of same-sex unions as an entity separate from Church-recognized marriage. He argued that Catholics should de-emphasize their political opposition to a civil redefinition of marriage in order to focus on other methods of evangelization, working to "re-enchant" the culture.

Bottum's essay sparked online controversy, with some critics pointing to a 2003 document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in which then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, said: "In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty."

Several commenters argued that the length, indirect style and unclear wording of the piece lend themselves to easy confusion. Others disagreed with Bottum's conclusion that it would – or even could – be beneficial for the Church to drop its resistance to a civil redefinition of marriage.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, writing in an Aug. 26 blog post, characterized the "wandering, complicated essay" as "deliberately discursive – to the point of obscuring, at times, exactly what kind of argument the former First Things editor is making."

Douthat suggested that the essay can be read as "a literary Catholic's attempt to wrench the true complexity of his faith back out of the complexity-destroying context of contemporary political debates."

"He's writing as someone who loves his church, and wants everyone else to love it as he does - and I don't blame him for imagining that perhaps, just perhaps, ceasing to offer public resistance on the specific question of gay marriage would liberate the church from some the caricatures that the culture war has imposed upon it, and enable the world to see its richness with fresh eyes," he observed.

"I don't think it would actually work that way, for a variety of reasons," Douthat said, while voicing "sympathy for the impulse that animates his essay, if not the conclusions that it draws."

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J.D. Flynn, a Catholic canon lawyer in Lincoln, Neb., writing in National Review Online Aug. 27, suggested that Bottum may have adopted a utilitarian approach to marriage out of a strong sense of pro-life conviction.

Haunted by the suffering of unborn children in abortion, he said, Bottum may have hoped that "moving past arguments about natural law and common welfare and sexual complementarity" would allow a greater focus on working to fight against abortion.

However, Flynn said, this was a mistake.

"Joseph Bottum knows that without a foundation of truth, laws against abortion are a faint hope. He knows that we order our common life to natural law in order to protect the unborn, and the disabled, and the elderly."

Flynn asserted that most Catholic leaders might have "quietly agreed" with Bottum had he said that only the fight against redefining marriage "seems largely over."

However, he objected to Bottum's claim that the recognition of same-sex unions "might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for."

The "falsehood" of same-sex "marriage" cannot advance truth or charity, Flynn argued; rather, legal recognition of such unions will "lead only to greater injustice."

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Tom Hoopes, former editor of the National Catholic Register, argued that even if "marriage is a losing proposition for the Church," it is one of those "things worth losing for."

Writing for on Aug. 27, he pointed to the examples of St. Thomas More and John the Baptist, both of whom died for their defense of marriage.

These martyrs, he said, did not succeed in "winning the marriage fight" or even "(r)eversing the tide." But they were willing to "lose big for marriage," sacrificing their lives as a witness.

Because they are so foundational to society, Hoopes said, "potential parents deserve a special status" and the protections and encouragement that accompany marriage, even at a civil level.

"Maybe marriage has always been a losing cause," he reflected. "But it has also always been the fundamental building block of society."

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