is promoting sodomy, according to the New Mexico Supreme Court. That’s what I expect from the ruling class, but I don’t expect it from ex-editors of First Things.
Our allies on the internet are rightly disgusted by Joseph Bottum’s surrender on gay marriage. Myself, I mostly just resent losing half an hour of my life reading his entire essay. What people are saying about the piece being long and incoherent is all true. However, I’ve been following (and criticizing) Bottum’s writings for a while, and I think a comparison with his previous writings can throw some light on what he’s trying to say here.
First a word in Bottum’s favor: he doesn’t go in for the wanton slandering of opponents that intellectuals usually engage in when joining the sodomite bandwagon (e.g. leftist scumbag Wendell Berry). Bottum even disavows the claim that those of us left fighting the good fight are all ignorant bigots. Given the state of discourse on issues related to sex roles and/or buggery, this is a notable mercy. I would like to show Bottum the same cordiality; in fact, I wouldn’t mention his surrender at all except for the peculiar arguments he puts forth, which are worth considering as a window into the neoconservative mind, if nothing else. Many are perplexed by Bottum’s arguments from the incredulity of the public. On the one hand, he claims to be making a case for sodomitical marriage, a case that resisting its acceptance is not only futile but morally wrong. However, the substance of his argument (to the extent anyone has been able to make out an argument) seems to focus entirely on the unpopularity of our metaphysical premises. The public doesn’t accept natural law, so we should stop bugging them about it. Sex has become disenchanted in the public mind, so we should let our foes eliminate the last traces of recognition of marriage’s higher realities. It would be easy to understand claims of the form “We can’t sell people on X, so let’s not bother trying” or “The people want ~X? Let’s let ’em have it good and hard, and they’ll be brought around to our point of view soon enough.” The claim here seems to be “The American people don’t accept X; therefore, it would be wrong (not just futile) to advocate policies based on X.” Isn’t that bizarre?
Yes, it is, but it’s not new territory for Bottum. Those of you who read First Things regularly may recall his odd article opposing the death penalty from a few years ago. (The longer article is here, but Bottum is always clearer when he is forced to be brief. The man is frankly too mentally disorganized to be a very good writer. The only advantage of the long article is that it gets across the author’s craven desire for the Church to prove itself acceptable to liberals, a desire that has now lead him to the shipwreck of heresy.) The argument was roughly as follows. In previous times, the death penalty made sense because people thought that the state received its authority from God and that it had a charge to enforce justice (what Bottum calls “cosmic justice”, meaning “what people really deserve”). In modern times, though, people think the state gets its authority from the people, and it is not beholden to God or ultimate justice, but only enforces a little bit of procedural justice, or rather whatever the people via their “social contract” have authorized the state to do, which one would hope has at least some relationship to justice. On this understanding, the death penalty doesn’t make sense. Therefore, the death penalty is wrong.
Of course, from an orthodox Catholic perspective, the reply should be that the old understanding of the state was correct, while the modern understanding is incorrect, and we should always reason from true premises, rather than from popular ones. And, indeed, Bottum gives us no reason to believe that the modern view is better what it superseded.
This is a strange way to argue, especially since there are much stronger arguments to be made against the death penalty from within the Catholic tradition. One could start, for instance, with “Thou shalt not kill”, which has some scriptural warrant and a very arguable natural law basis. I suppose we should not be surprised that if Bottum pulled out his principle of bovine morality (“The herd is always right!”) for a position that was easily defensible in other ways, it’s not surprising that he came back to it when he needed to defend something utterly indefensible, namely that Catholics should not oppose the public promotion of mortal sin.
We should also remember that Bottum has always identified himself as a liberal, and has expressed frustration that Human Rights Watch doesn’t fight homophobia in the Muslim world. He’s the guy who opposes localism because a world with small communities would be one where Jews might not be welcome everywhere. Hence, my private nickname for him: Jody “what about the Jews” Bottum. So, anyway, painting him as a conservative who’s turned coat out of sheer unprincipled cowardice isn’t quite fair. He’s a man who inherited fatally compromised versions of Catholicism and conservatism, ones that thought the Church has an overriding imperative to fit somehow into the liberal American order. He was never brought to see that Catholicism, rather than being some socially-disconnected metaphysical dream, is an inherently patriarchal religion and relies on a particular form of the family both for its social organization and its symbolic vocabulary. He didn’t see how ruinous the Church’s silence on contraception and divorce have been–proof, if common sense weren’t enough, that allowing the Enemy a monopoly on the discussion of an issue means allowing one’s own beliefs to become unbelievable to the public at large. For most of the Vatican II generation, this was the closest thing to orthodox Catholicism on offer, and yet we see now how poorly it has served those who accepted it.