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September 3, 2013

We’re Not the Good Guys

In response to an invitation to write an essay on the topic “What’s Wrong with the World?” G.K. Chesterton wrote two words:

 I am.

In these past days I’ve have truly come to admire the skill, efficiency and critical capacities of Matthew J. Franck. One week ago as of my writing this, he penned what turned out to be the first of an avalanche of online blogs and essays about Joseph Bottum’s recent essay in Commonweal. Leaving the contents aside for one second, it is worth noting that the essay in question is whopping 9,000 words long. Yet Matt, scholar that he is, went right to the heart of it in his little post, thus opening up Bottum to what has been almost ceaseless criticism and ridicule.

The contents of the essay are what is to blame here. The subtitle of the essay is ‘A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage’. Whoever at Commonweal wrote that, I’m guessing, hadn’t actually read the darn thing. In light of the assertions made in the work, a more appropriate title would have been: How to Lose Friends and Replace Them with Publicity. It isn’t until 2/3rds of the way through his essay that Bottum writes, “Let’s turn at last to the actual intellectual questions raised by same-sex marriage.” Before that he’s busy making fun of the Manhattan Declaration, a “turgid, politically clumsy, and strangely disorganized” document. He considers himself somewhat of a legal sage by penning: “the legal victory of same-sex marriage was inevitable; not a single persuasive legal argument emerged against it in the courts.” But oddly enough, he has enough sense to get angry with a young lady “who hadn’t read the legal decisions, hadn’t followed the arguments, hadn’t examined DOMA,” etc…

These are just the tip of the iceberg that is Bottum’s essay. But exploring the depths is not my purpose here, for men better than me have already done so. Peter Leithart wrote this little note about Bottum’s use of “enchantment” and human sexuality. A Catholic deacon invokes Robert Bork in this essay on Bottum entitled “Sophistry Slouching Towards Apostasy”. Meanwhile, the folks over at the New Republic have made it quite clear that they don’t welcome Bottum as an ally to their side of the marriage debate, calling his essay, “The Worst Imaginable Case FOR Gay Marriage.

In an attempt to respond to the overwhelmingly negative response, Bottum was recently interviewed by Al Kresta on Ave Maria Radio. During the course of that interview he makes an interesting claim. “I’ve been, for the last few years, coming around to a position that Paul Griffiths, the theologian down at Duke, proposed some years ago…” says Bottum. The position he is referring to, I am guessing, is what Griffiths argued in Commonweal back in 2004, with an essay, somewhat misleadingly titled: Legalize Same Sex Marriage: Why Law & Morality Can Part Company. As with Bottum’s subtitle, the editors of Commonweal are a little too sensational when it comes to nuanced philosophical positions. Griffiths makes a massive mistake as he proposes his argument, which I will argue below, but from the outset, know that he is not among those who stood outside cheering after Robert’s handed down the majority opinion. However, in some ways, Griffiths is more dangerous than the homosexual marriage lobby. It is this danger which I will lay out here today.

Unlike Bottum, who always returned to boring anecdotes if he ever came to close to offering an argument, Griffiths’ case is very plain. His conclusion states: “Catholics may support the legalization of same-sex marriages, together with the progressive disentanglement of sacramental marriage from state-sponsored contractual marriage.” How he gets there is really very simple.

He begins with three assumptions:

1.     “The public culture of the United States is now profoundly pagan”.

2.     “What the church (being in this case the Magisterium of the Rome) teaches about the nature of marriage and the proper expression of sexual desire within it is true… This is what I (meaning Griffiths) call the traditional view.”

3.     “There is an important distinction, for Catholics, between judging some pattern of human activity sinful and judging that it should be illegal.”

That last distinction is the sticking point. It becomes, for Griffiths “always an exercise of prudence” to decide which moral teaching ought to be enshrined in public law, and which ones ought not. In order to determine the dictates of prudence, he proposes two questions that must be answered.

1.     Is it reasonable to expect non-Catholics to understand and assent to the necessary premises and assumptions entailed in the moral teaching of Catholicism?

2.     “What is the character of the body politic in which the discussion is takes place, and what is the character of the church’s relation to that body politic?”

How does this lead to allowing for Catholics to support same-sex marriage? Well, the answer to question two was already given as an assumption. The culture of the United States is pagan and the Church is usually seen as being anything from irrelevant to annoying, but certainly not a moral center or standard. The issue then rests on his first question. If we passed laws saying that marriage is between one man and one woman, would non-Catholics have the intellectual capacities necessary to see the human person as the church sees the human person? Griffiths doesn’t think so. “Catholics should not,” he writes, “advocate the embodiment of the orthodox view in U.S. marriage law because we think there are persuasive public arguments about the question. There aren’t.”

Did you catch that last part? It doesn’t matter that Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George wrote that masterful account of marriage. It doesn’t matter that the late Jean Bethke Elshtain devoted her final years to the issue of marriage. It doesn’t matter that ordinary citizens are forming political groups to advocate the traditional view of marriage, rain or shine. It doesn’t even matter that groups of young conservatives will get together over drinks and trade war stories about debating (and sometimes winning over) their classmates who were in favor of same-sex marriage. Griffiths has said there are no persuasive public arguments, so we ought to stop wasting our time.

Or should we? It becomes clear from the rest of the work as well as other publications by Griffiths that what he means by ‘persuasive’ is an argument to which everyone will assent, regardless of their position previous to hearing the case. As a matter of fact, contra Griffiths, no such arguments exist about anything, period. No matter how strong your case is, no matter how airtight your logic is, there is always the distinct possibility that your opponent can opt for the three-year-old response; that is sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming.

But just because not everyone will be convinced doesn’t mean that no one will. Every year high school students graduate, go to college and find themselves with ample freedom to ask the big questions. We ought to have our arguments ready, if only to try and make the case to the younger generations. Griffith and Bottum may be lost causes.

But there is a bigger problem with Griffith’s work. His two questions aren’t the only questions that matter as far as the dictates of prudence are concerned. The third question, and the important question may be rendered thus: “Will the enshrining of the view opposite the Church’s teaching in public law inhibit or prohibit the public practice of the faith by Catholics?”  It is obvious that the passage of DOMA did not prevent homosexual couples from engaging in sexual acts, living together and in some cases raising children. But, it is not obvious that the legalization of same sex marriage won’t prevent Catholics (and more broadly Christians) from practicing their faith. The church hall, the baker, the photograph taker are all subject to legal force should they try to refuse to participate in a gay “marriage” based on the dictates of conscience.

Bottum and Griffiths cannot be equated at least as far as their cases for same-sex marriage are concerned. Griffiths at least gives his opponents something to chew on. But, at bottom (if you’ll pardon the pun), there is a common problem lurking beneath the surface of these two men’s worldviews.

Around the 23-minute mark of Bottum’s interview with Al Kresta, he explains why he wrote the essay for Commonweal. In telling the faithful to stop pushing the issue of marriage in the public square, he really thought he was helping Catholics, especially young Catholics. Bottum recounts that he has been reading the blogs of young Catholics (though he never says which ones) and that they are in crisis. Because young Catholics take it as being normal to have homosexual friends, “they have a phenomenological crisis because here in front of (them) are these two people (the gay couple) who are growing to see the Catholic Church as the focus for all oppression of homosexuality.” Wouldn’t it be better then, Bottum concludes, if the Church stops making these friendships awkward and instead focuses energy in Asia?

Griffiths has a similar problem. He begins his essay by noting the release of the CDF document, Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions between Homosexual Persons. He says, as all Catholics ought, that “Catholics are bound to show at least obsequium religiosum, religiously submissive respect or deference, to magisterial teaching…” However, “one element in showing such respect is to raise questions.” Griffiths sees himself as being in such a position to ask the church questions. He does so “with the hope of contributing to the further clarification of the church’s mind over time while still maintaining submissive deference to what is taught.” From my summary of his argument above, it should be at least doubtful that he is still operating with “deference to what is taught.” After all, his conclusion, that Catholics may support the legalization of same-sex marriage directly contradicts the Church’s conclusion.

So, Griffiths is “contributing to the …clarification of the church’s mind.” Bottum is responding to a “phenomenological” crisis among young Catholic bloggers. What then are we to make of them? Their chief error is that they see themselves as heroes. They think they can solve what ails the world. But the thing we have to remember always is that Christians and conservatives alike, must never see ourselves as “the good guys.” My friend Brian Miller recently made the point very well:

“Contrary to popular belief, it is not the mission of the cultural conservative to set out on a crusade to eliminate all sinful acts. In fact, he thinks such a mission to be blasphemous, as there is only One who will accomplish that goal. It is his mission, however, to plant a few trees in the wasteland, and work to create an environment where man can flourish and live with a healthy soul.” 

In the last weeks of August, as I prepared my notes from this little piece, the Gospels at daily Mass were recounting the more tense exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees. Matthew 23 contains numerous damning injunctions against not only the Pharisees, but also ourselves. Who has not, as was recounted in verse 25, “cleansed the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.” To be confronted with these sharp sayings of Christ is to be confronted with one’s own limitations, and difficulty in always doing what is good.

Paul Griffiths, earlier this year, was invited by Douglas Farrow, at First Things to respond to thirteen theses on marriage. Theses 12 and 13 concerned the public defense of the nuclear family and proposed an evangelical approach to spreading these truths in the culture. Griffiths, sticking to his line from Commonweal, was extremely critical of anyone who proposed proselytizing the truth about marriage. “To say what twelve and thirteen say to the pagans of our time is to act like the monoglot Englishman traveling abroad who, when faced with incomprehension by the locals, speaks English louder. It doesn’t help. This won’t help, either. It makes the Church look ridiculous.”

One wonders if Griffiths is familiar with the bizarre happenings at Pentecost, wherein the apostles were faced with “incomprehension by the locals” but found their own shortcomings eased and erased by the grace of God. But beyond that obvious oversight, it is worth noting that during the week I was preparing my notes, the Church celebrated the Passion of St. John the Baptist.

As Griffith and Bottum tried to persuade me that the culture war surrounding marriage wasn’t worth fighting, I was confronted with a man who spoke the truth of the Gospel, even as he sat in jail. One imagines that his final words were the same as his first words, always speaking the truth, no matter what it cost him. St. Thomas More was no different, an incorruptible man who knew the cost of speaking out against the evils of the times, just as Griffiths and Bottum do, but who didn’t let that silence him. Both of these men, it seemed to the casual observer died in the public square. Their arguments did not convince their contemporaries, but that did not stop them.

Indeed, they looked “ridiculous”, to use Griffiths’ word. But it was that way from the beginning. Look to the crucifixion of our Lord and the jeering of a particular thief. The Church has been called to look ridiculous from the start.

We are called thus, because we defend principles and persons bigger than ourselves. The truth about human sexuality and its carnal expression in the marital bond, is not merely an amusing academic theory, cooked up by Catholic intellectuals, it is written onto our very souls. When we stand it its defense, we step out of our comfort zone and out of ourselves, because the truth we are defending, while it condemns homosexual marriage and any other disorder of human sexuality, also turns back to demand more from us. Indeed, every time I look longingly at a young lady on the quad, every time I strike up a conversation merely for the thrill of seeking a physical sensation, I am denying the truth that I try to publicly defend. That is why we cannot be silent. For every defense of marriage and the truth about human sexuality ought to come with that beautiful request to the Queen of Heaven and the Saints who have gone before: “Pray for us sinners.”


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  • JonMarc

    Great piece – thanks for the read. Griffiths/Bottum of course have a valid point about the difficulty we face in dialoguing with the culture we’ve been given to dialogue with, but it is unfortunate (as you point out) that their response is to give up the fight.

    Both the “monoglot englishman” merely “speaking louder” as well as those who throw up their hands and cede the culture war, I think, take the easy, wrong road. As always, the hard, right road is easy to pick out – it most resembles the way of the cross. It always involves patience and perseverance in terrible times.Yes, It means speaking the truth well, in a way that will “impart grace”, but then nevertheless being ready for and embracing the expected crucifixion, no matter how figurative or literal.

  • cleareyedtruthmeister

    Very good points in this essay.

    Christian teaching on marriage is common sense regardless of whether one accepts the premises behind it. Assuming that this debate cannot be waged in the public sphere without bringing in religion, and, conversely, that religious precepts are irrelevant, is defeatist.

    Christians should not let themselves be defined by non-Christians. They must speak up in a civil fashion, and they must point out that Christian moral teaching is good for society regardless of one’s religious inclinations (or lack thereof).

    Part of the reason gay marriage has been legalized in certain states is that advocates have relegated arguments against it to the religious realm (see Prop 8). There are plenty of secular arguments for traditional marriage, and they need to be explored more fully and presented publicly.