Among the vicissitudes of life, Belloc asserted that the loss of affection among friends is the worst thing in the world. I thought of this when reading Joseph Bottum’s recent coming out as a supporter of same-sex marriage. It struck me that this coming out should not go without comment in that Dr. Bottum was formerly the editor of First Things and a public intellectual engaged in some significant conversations about religion in public life and the Catholic Church in the modern world. In that he has offered for public consumption his reasons for his radical change of mind, I intend to offer not a point-by-point rebuttal, but rather several animadversions.
Dr. Bottum begins his article lamenting the estrangement of a dear homosexual friend of his over the years in the cultural battles that have ensued over public morality and sexual mores. Because of the incompatibility of their respective philosophical positions, the friendship cooled—something Bottum greatly regrets and laments. With this as a backdrop and framework, he then launches on a multi-page pedantic tour de force in citing scholars, studies, and sea changes in public morality. He even delves into a discussion of the natural law, obliquely suggesting that Aquinas might have a more nuanced notion of marriage than that which reason and revelation have confirmed for these several millenia. Regarding natural law thinking, he states something very strange, that “it worked well enough as a philosophy in a time when people generally agreed that the world was enchanted.” Does this mean that the natural law is not an objective standard? That its workability or even truth is dependent upon some subjective apprehension of the world’s enchantedness? That our public philosophy should be pragmatic, one that “works well?” (In truth, the world is enchanted whether one apprehends it or not; in the event that one doesn’t apprehend it, it is some defect in the mind of the person apprehending and has nothing to do with the reality.) Bottum’s final conclusions are: that Catholics in America should be “good Americans” and accept the new marriage paradigm, that the Church should dedicate her efforts to the “re-enchantment of the world,” and that acceptance of same-sex marriage may contribute to a culture of chastity. Bottum then ends his article with a lament for his friend and some verses that he and this friend used to share.
Besides the fact that your typical sheet-metal worker would read the final lines of the article and wince at such syrup, the whole piece demonstrates the manifest danger of intellectuals living in their heads vs. living in reality. Fr. Paul Mankowski, S.J., once commented on this new culture:
[T]he Catholic seminary and university culture has been freed of any responsibility to explain itself to the working class, and notions of scriptural inspiration and sexual propriety have become progressively detached from the terms in which they would be comprehensible by ordinary people.
Bottum’s pedantic article is, I suspect, mostly unintelligible to the “regular Joe Catholic”, and reinforces the so-called smart-guy Catholics who can justify sin and disorder through sophistic citation of–as I said previously–scholars, studies, and sea changes in public morality.
This presents a twofold observation. The first is the timidity of some to challenge public intellectuals like Bottum and (unwittingly sometimes) succumb to their sophistic arguments. Indeed, as the public philosophy and religious understanding has largely been formed by such intellectuals, there is a real danger of scandal in leading people away from the truth. The subtle “non serviam” of the intellectual will create enough doubt in the mind of the believer, that the believer will second guess his conviction that grass is green or that man is meant to unite sexually with a woman, or that the Church, through the authoritative interpretation of the Magisterium, is the exponent of reality. The second observation brought to light by Mr. Bottum’s pedantry is the very danger to himself and those like him as a result of those tremendous gifts that make him an intellectual. Indeed, it is the ancient temptation to design something better than the Designer, as opposed to submitting humbly to His design and helping others to see the wisdom of it. I think it is the especial challenge of the intellectual to recognize those truths which have been revealed–either by nature or scripture–and to intellectually assent to the judgment of minds, in many cases, inferior to their own. Yet, in reality, it is the height of intellectual honesty to do so if that submission is part of the divine design.
In the end, all of Dr. Bottum’s observations boil down to sophistic pedantry to overcome a personal hurt due to the loss of a friend’s affection. And this is tragic, because the totalitarian impulse of the homosexual lobby has claimed another. I will not presume to judge Dr. Bottum’s soul, but from his newly discovered position, he seems to prefer the friendship of “Jim” to the friendship of Christ; he prefers “old-timey Americana” to the timeless truth of Christ and His Church; and he prefers fleeting emotional attachment to true love which means speaking the truth to his friend—for that will be the only thing that sets him, and all of us, free.