A Response to Joseph Bottum
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Wisdom serving prudence.
That’s Ethika Politika’s north star. The quest for wisdom—a knowledge that is both grounded upon the truths of the world and that transcends the space and time where they are discovered—has never been fully valued by everyone. Prudence has gotten a bad rap lately. People are too quick to contrast prudence with risk-taking, making prudence sound cautious and perhaps synonymous with “timid.” The World Belongs to the Brave. That leaves little room for prudence.
But we know prudence stands for more. The prudent steward of scripture knows how to act when his master is gone. He takes his master’s talents, invests them, grows them, and ultimately his master praises him for doing so. Prudence helps a person know what to do. But we are not born with innate knowledge. We must learn. Prudence then must allow itself to be formed by experience, error, success, imitation, example, common sense, education and a whole host of sources of knowledge about the world we live in. Chief among these stands wisdom, a knowledge handed on between generations and eras, at times remembered well and at other times altogether lost.
Mr. Joseph Bottum struck a nerve with his essay “The Things We Share.” In it, he reflects on the nature of prudence in the application of Catholic action on the issue of same-sex marriage:
I DON’T MEAN to hide this essay’s conclusions. Where we’re going with all this is toward a claim that the thin notions of natural law deployed against same-sex marriage in recent times are unpersuasive, and, what’s more, they deserve to be unpersuasive—for their thinness reflects their lack of rich truth about the spiritual meanings present in this created world. Indeed, once the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse, the legal principles of equality and fairness were bound to win, as they have over the last decade: the only principles the culture has left with which to discuss topics such as marriage.
And so, I argue, a concern about the government’s recognizing of same-sex marriage ought to come low on the list of priorities as the church pursues the evangelizing of the culture. For that matter, after the long hard work of restoring cultural sensitivity to the metaphysical meanings reflected in all of reality, Catholics will have enough experience to decide what measure of the deep spirituality of nuptials, almost absent in present culture, can reside in same-sex unions.
Mr. Bottum seems to have something for everyone. New natural lawyers. Old natural lawyers. Defenders of religious freedom. Bishops. Catholics. Gays. Politicians. The reaction in the blogosphere and amongst talking circles has been swift and predictable: saw it coming; surprising; applause; cynicism; dismissive. Admittedly, his writing is a bit long and not meant to be a discursive or persuasive essay. That is certainly OK. But because we are attempting to pursue some grain of wisdom, I would like to highlight what I think is the lost opportunity Mr. Bottum’s reflection failed to mention.
The missing conversation is about virtue. (Prudence after all is a virtue!)
Mr. Bottum should not be at fault for failing to bring up this topic. Those who have defended marriage over the last several decades have done so not just for tactical political purposes. Or even just for a better society. There is a certain level of righteousness in this cause. That is, Catholics in the public square like Robert George and Ryan Anderson believe the cause of defending marriage is a virtuous path, leading one towards the good, regardless of the ultimate political outcome. That doesn’t make the quest for “one man, one woman” marriage quixotic, by any means, but it is ingrained deeper into the very identity and spirituality of those who are advancing its cause in the Public Square. The defense of marriage itself is a virtuous act!
In the last eighteen months, the Catholic hierarchy has too taken this turn, with their repeated fortnights for freedom and vocal expressions of supporting the traditional definition of marriage. Catholic parishes are now encouraged not just to pray weekly at Mass for the defense of marriage (even if few ultimately do), but also to make it a key part of their sympathies, both in terms of spiritual and emotional energy. It is a repetitive act; an act meant to cultivate a certain love as its object through habituation. It is a virtue. It is akin to the transformation the issue of abortion made in Catholic sensibilities, although that move had less ingrained cultural resistance. In that sense, Catholicism in America has taken a rather Rousseauean turn—not unlike Jean-Jacques’ reaction to the first generation of Enlightenment thinkers. Except Catholics are not mere Romantics, but rather see an intimate connection between their convictions and where their passions lay. Any call to turn down those energies of their passions will naturally lead to a rather discordant reaction. And Mr. Bottum has probably felt this all along.
Where the argument ought to be taken (and I suspect Mr. Bottum has some sympathy with this point) is the following: why marriage? That is, why have the Catholic hierarchy and Catholics in the public square put so much energy into the one man, one woman fight? And why specifically shape sentiments to defend this point over all others? Here, Catholics in America are influenced not so much by their own doctrinal considerations, but by the political and cultural alliances made with Evangelical Protestants. The permissibility of non-traditional marriage is simply, from a Catholic doctrinal perspective, the latest (if not last) fruit of a long-line of incursions against the family. Again, Mr. Bottum gets this, citing the defeat we have sustained from the sexual revolution.
But where is the outrage in response to other issues, ones that might touch on the day-to-day nature of marriage more directly? Catholics are not up-in-arms over the widespread accessibility and adoption of contraception. Here the libertines have won. Nor do Catholics mount campaigns against no-fault divorce. Here the culture of compassion cannot be overcome. Nor do Catholics really turn a strong eye against pornography. The almighty consumer gets his smut. Catholics have largely abandoned these issue in the public square and have thus left these debates for the pews, if they ever occur at all. And sadly, Catholics show little difference from their secular brethren on these issues. Thus, if a reason remains to fight, it is simply because this current retreat position—now advocated by Mr. Bottum—has helped a syncretism flower that further robs Catholicism of its identity and sends faithful Catholics deeper into their ghetto.
This consideration of virtue, however, must be grounded in what is true, good, and beautiful in Catholicism. If the culture warriors have a fault (one born of zealousness) it is saying that the true (in this case doctrine) is what really forms the foundation of the good and the beautiful. In most discourses these days that involve policy, truth is generally elevated over the good and the beautiful. Of course, while bringing the transcendentals into policy debates might seem a bit utopian, they are worth pondering for just a moment.
The church is a hospital for sinners. As we are all in need of redemption—and indeed of the grace of the cross—Mr. Bottom’s driving concern for his friend’s separation from the Church on account of the Church’s advocacy for traditional marriage cannot be dismissed simply out of hand. In conscience the Church must do all it can to avoid being a stumbling block to salvation. And given that the Church has taken these other aforementioned policy debates off the table, it is at least an entertainable discussion to consider whether or not the Church should in fact do the same with marriage. After all, permitting gay marriage probably won’t further the damage already done to marriage by no-fault divorce, pornography, consumerist culture and contraception. But absent a resounding negative consequence to marriage, that still does not provide a persuasive reason for the Church to simply stop preaching on one issue because She has stopped doing so regularly on others.
Although this is not the argument Mr. Bottom made, it makes more sense to me. The Church must be careful with her energies and resources in her mission for the salvation of souls. Yet, I doubt that those who want gay marriage will be flocking back to the Church simply because she has stopped rallying to oppose its civic enactment. And although that is not the argument Mr. Bottom makes, I get the sense that he hopes that his friend will at least give the Church a second chance, if she drops her guns on marriage.
But the opening of the human heart is very complicated. And given that much of the gay marriage movement is about the moral validation of a long-time rejected way of life, until the day that the Church marries two men or two women, I wonder if practicing homosexuals will truly feel welcome in the Church.
But that can’t be held against the Church insofar as she teaches what is true. What can be held against her is perhaps the lack of a proper spiritual and liturgical grounding of her teaching in what is beautiful and what is good. Ultimately, it is not enough to simply foster more marriages—these marriages must be as beautiful as they are fruitful, they must be as good as they are holy. This will require a Church that signals to her faithful as much energy spent in fostering a deep and beautiful commitment to the Lord, through a communal prayer and sacramental life. Something that becomes so irresistible as to move us to abandon older habits and dispositions because we have found the pearl of great price. Indeed, in the Eastern churches where liturgical beauty, sacramental centrality and mystical spirituality remain a daily cultivated activity, one sees less concern over the political engagement. Indeed, it is still there but it is secondary to a persuasively-lived orthodoxy and orthopraxy. It is something the Western Church still very much lacks.
Indeed, if one can somewhat stereotype the gay movement, it is for an attention to the finer things in life: to culture, to the arts, to food, to style, to poetry, and to an integrated and balanced life. That indeed is something good, a show of yearning for normativity that the Western consumerist Catholic altogether lacks. So perhaps it is unfortunate that the quest for gay marriage is the flashpoint, because the open wounds are so visible on all sides of the debate.
I suspect Mr. Bottum cares not to take the debate in this direction because it is not the primary thrust of his thought. But I do encourage him to move towards it. For his words have left many with the impression that if the Church—Catholics in the pews and the hierarchy—are to move away from the defense of marriage, then they are consequently to move towards supporting its complete liberalization. The political culture remains very polarized to the point that we are all in different camps. And Mr. Bottom will surely be remembered in 2013 for having crossed over to enemy lines.
Mr. Bottum hasn’t made an argument so much as attempted to change the conversation. For that he will be judged—and likely, in some circles, treated as somewhat of a leper. I can’t agree with his sentiments or his conclusions. But I do invite him to continue this conversation, if his conviction and conscience so lead him. I would welcome his contributions in this publication, if only because he deserves to have his concerns taken seriously. And not to have his person attacked.
For in the end, Mr. Bottum’s words should be a further call to remember where exactly we decide to ground our own sentiments and concerns. Marriage—or any of the culture war topics—cannot simply be defended on the intellectual or moral arguments that can be made. Those often come very much “after the fact,” once the heart and mind have been turned.
No; rather I think this remains a moment to return to prayer, to return towards spiritual things, in order to cultivate the fruits of holiness to which we are all called to produce. For, in the words of Saint Macarius:
Those who speak about spiritual topics without tasting or experiencing them are like a man who, while walking in the desert, has an overwhelming, raging thirst; so to satisfy his thirst he draws a picture of a fountain flowing with water, while all the while his lips and tongue burn with thirst.