Last August, Commonweal magazine published an intriguing article entitled “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage.” What made it most intriguing was that it was written by Joseph Bottum, a religious and political conservative, who is the former editor of First Things magazine, a staunchly conservative publication. You can read our blog post summarizing and critiquing the article here.
This past week, Commonweal followed up on Bottum’s landmark essay in an equally intriguing way: they asked both a leading conservative columnist and a leading progressive columnist to respond to Bottum’s arguments. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat and The National Catholic Reporter’s Jamie Manson each offered their thoughts on Bottum’s work, and Commonweal provided Bottum’s to respond to them.
Today, we will look at Douthat’s comment and tomorrow we will look at Manson’s remarks. You can read Douthat’s comments in full here. If you want to read Bottum’s reply to both of them, you can click here. After reading it, I decided not to comment on it because I don’t think such comment would add much to the debate about marriage equality.
Though Douthat and Bottum’s may agree on many matters, even some that concern same-sex marriage, Douthat believes that one of Bottum’s main argument–that the Catholic hierarchy has lost the debate on marriage equality and that church leaders should not argue the case anymore but instead focus on “re-enchating” the public with its traditional view of marriage–is “either confused or a cop-out.” Douthat explains:
“For the Catholic Church to explicitly support the disentanglement of civil and religious marriage, and to cease to make any kind of public argument against treating same-sex unions the same way opposite-sex ones are treated in law and policy, would be a very serious withdrawal from political and cultural engagement. It is one thing to urge the church to prepare for political defeat on this issue—such preparations are obviously necessary, more obviously so now even than when Bottum’s essay first appeared. But it is quite another—more separatist, more sectarian, and thus more problematic—to say that the church should preemptively cease to even make the argument.”
Douthat wants no part of such retreat, and he argues that Catholics opposed to marriage equality must, on principle, continue their argument:
“If Catholics are to continue contending in the American public square, if they are going to choose active participation over catacombs and lifeboats, they need to have something to say to actual Americans about actual American debates. . . . there is no honest way for the church to avoid stating its position on what the legal definition of marriage ought to be—even in a world where that definition has changed and doesn’t seem likely to change back.”
While I disagree with Douthat about marriage equality, I have to admit that I sympathize with him about the idea of speaking out on the basis of principle. As someone who believes in the power of argument and persuasion, I think it is important that people do not give up on their principles just because others, even a majority of others, may disagree with them.
But I don’t think that is necessarily a strategic thing to do. Pope Francis himself has urged church leaders not to be “obsessed” about same-sex marriage, among other things. Douthat, I think, agrees with the pope, for strategic reasons, stating:
“This need not mean starting every conversation with same-sex marriage; once the legal change is accomplished, it may involve talking about the issue less often, or talking about it in some very different way. But it cannot mean pretending that the church’s opposition to calling same-sex unions ‘marriage’ no longer exists.”
I tend to think that Pope Francis made his comment from a pastoral, not a political, perspective, based on the context in which he made the statement. And I think that it is wise pastoral advice for at least two reasons: 1) there are many, many more important pastoral, spiritual, and social issues that church leaders should focus on; 2) constantly speaking negatively about same-sex marriage will certainly alienate many Catholics and others from the church.
Finally, I strongly disagree with Douthat in his estimation of the results of the spread of marriage equality. He states:
“I think a serious look at the trends that have accompanied the advance of gay marriage, at the legal arguments deployed on its behalf, at the shifting understanding of marriage that has made it seem commonsensical, and at the direction of the debate on related issues (from polygamy to surrogacy) should all cast grave doubt on the idea that the church could somehow incorporate same-sex nuptials into its view of marriage without transforming that view beyond all recognition.”
To me, this is not an argument, but simple fear-mongering. As I see it, the only major social change that has happened since the advent of marriage equality has been the strengthening and protection of more couples and families, providing greater social stability. Douthat, however, is almost right on one point: same-sex nuptials will require a transformation of the hierarchy’s views on marriage. I think that transformation will be for the better of all concerned. But, more on that tomorrow, when we look at Jamie Manson’s piece.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry
Marriage Equality: A Positive Catholic Approach by Francis DeBernardo