This is a remarkable and momentous pronouncement, which of course has caught the attention of the New York Times and is rippling through the blogosphere as both supporters and critics try to make sense of what exactly he was on about. NYT boasts in its headline, as if they bagged a big game trophy, "A Conservative Catholic Now Backs Same Sex Marriage".
(This, by the way, is a sort of embedded argument from authority: if a really bright, well known, and bona fide Catholic conservative has finally come to see the light about the way the Catholic Church is evil and oppresses gay people, then why shouldn't you too?)
In this NYT article, we are introduced to some (barely recognizable) version of St Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic view of "natural law". Anyone who has never heard the term "natural law" will be left wondering why a 13th century friar should even be wheeled out for any consideration about the political landscape and minefield of the gay marriage question in America, and will be left wondering why some "natural law" that is evidently a product of the magical, medieval, Dark Ages which requires us to live in "an enchanted world" to even be coherent should have any place in our contemporary discourse.
One is tempted to think that, as to be expected from the way the media typically gets Catholica wrong, that the author of the piece, Dr. Mark Oppenheimer of Yale University, has no understanding of medieval thought or Catholic social teaching or natural law or the Church's actual view on the whole matter. Assuredly, an articulate and orthodox Catholic intellectual such as Mr. Bottum was merely quoted out of context, either through ignorance or opportunistically. I cannot vouch for Dr. Oppenheimer's grasp of Catholicism, but it is clear that Mr. Bottum at best only added to the confusion with his strange arguments about "re-enchantment of reality" as the Church's primary goal:
"The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality."
Undoubtedly the Church's position (assuming it remains firmly in support of "natural marriage" as a unique social institution between one man and one woman, permanent, faithful, exclusive, open to life, and mutually giving and supportive) will make the Church increasingly alien in the world's eyes. Whether or not the Church prevails in the short term -- and history shows it often does not -- the role of the Church is always to proclaim the Gospel and to seek to arrange the "temporal order" (the things of this world as opposed to those of Heaven) in conformance with the Gospel and the dictates of reason so that society at large becomes compatible with, and conducive to, both healthy human relationships and sane moral formation which are virtually prerequisites for the process of sanctification and salvation. This is the real business of the Church, not merely to be liked or even just tolerated as Mr. Bottum would seemingly have it (even in doing penance for the criminal activities of bishops and priests in the sex abuse scandals). The Church has long held that "grace perfects nature" -- meaning also that nature itself is important to get right so that grace may work efficaciously in the process of our sanctification and salvation. The theological virtues of faith, hope and charity build on the natural virtues of prudence, temperance, courage and fortitude; they do not substitute for them and they do not endure without them.
Where is the argument?
But to the point of the NYT's article and Mr. Bottum's own essay, we are sort of promised a serious argument as to why, "that Catholics are mistaken to think that natural law requires them to oppose same-sex marriage.
Yet in his new long and challenging essay, Mr. Bottum argues, in effect, that he was wrong and that fellow conservative Catholics are misinterpreting their tradition, in particular Aquinas’s “natural law” theology.
Aquinas considered heterosexual, monogamous union the highest form of marriage, but Mr. Bottum believes that he was actually less interested in strict legal precepts than in an enchanted vision of the world — a vision that, Mr. Bottum now says, is better served by supporting same-sex marriage.
At best, Mr. Bottum presents a sort of realpolitik argument that in order for the Church to be liked in the modern world She'd be better served by feeding the poor rather than continuing a lost fight to oppose same sex marriage:
Campaigns against same-sex marriage are hurting the church, offering the opportunity to make Catholicism a byword for repression in a generation that, even among young Catholics, just doesn’t think that same-sex activity is worth fighting about. There’s a reasonable case to be made that the struggle against abortion is slowly winning, but the fight against public acceptance of same-sex behavior has been utterly lost.
The campaign for traditional marriage really isn’t a defense of natural law. It revealed itself, in the end, as a defense of one of the last little remaining bits of Christendom—an entanglement or, at least, an accommodation of church and state.
It is a given that the world does not see the importance of St Thomas Aquinas or the natural law theory or classical and medieval theories of jurisprudence as germane to our contemporary life. Yet to acquiesce in the world's ignorance and to keep the world in darkness by not making strong arguments to the contrary is a massive disservice. Mr. Bottum takes it for granted that "the equities are all on the side of same-sex marriage. There is no coherent jurisprudential argument against it—no principled legal view that can resist it." Furthermore he insists that,
And regardless of whether the metaphysics was right or wrong, without it there is simply no reasoning that could possibly outweigh the valid claims of fairness and equality. Same-sex marriage advocates don’t just have better public relations than their opponents. They have better logic, given the premises available to the culture.
What St. Thomas might actually teach us
In the context of a position paper, most of Mr. Bottum's claims come across as merely tendentious conclusions, not actual arguments. Mr. Bottum is evidently impressed with Thomas Aquinas' careful method of argument: always taking the strongest possible objections of his opponents most seriously, framing them often even stronger and more vigorously than they themselves did, showing his own argument to the contrary (sed contra), and then systematically dismantling the opposing views by carefully answering all the objections listed.
Not once in this scholastic method do we find Thomas simply stating X as both a premise and a conclusion. He always begins by taking the opposing view as a serious contention:
Q. Does God exist?
A. It seems that God does not exist...
(Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 2, Article 3)
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.
How natural marriage is different from homosexual relationship
In fact, there are strong jurisprudential arguments for why natural marriage ought to be considered different from same sex unions: principally that even as a civil contract between persons, a same sex relationship is naturally bound to the originating parties of the contract -- the relationship is naturally and always sterile and requires no accommodation of rights and responsibilities for third parties who are not signatories to the contract. Yet natural marriage between a man and a woman who are both sexually mature must accommodate the very real possibility of children who are "third parties" to the contract and therefore the State and society has a compelling interest in protecting the rights of children and enforcing the responsibilities of parents.
(This is not the place to address the question of "marriage" as pertaining to those who don't choose to or cannot have children naturally -- it seems sufficient for the purposes of the State and society to simply presume that people of complementary sexuality who are sexually mature are potential parents without an overreach of governmental intrusion into the actual sexual health or personal thoughts about whether they will actually have children. Those who make such arguments don't seem bothered by the practical implications of their position that would require grotesque governmental invasions of the most personal nature into the most private of matters between spouses in order to argue for gay marriage if the State recognizes marriage between a man and a woman that does not bear children).
But the very fact of procreation between man and woman, that a child is only the product of any one man and any one woman, seems sufficient to recognize an essential difference in the type of relationship between two persons of mutual consent. All civilly recognized contracts or corporations (and marriage is indeed a sort of corporation on the natural level) are established for specific purposes that the parties agree to and that the State or society recognizes as holding specific rights and responsibilities pertaining to the enjoined parties, whether a marriage, a guild, a business, or a non profit corporation. Each are recognized for what they are based on the nature of the relationship and the purposes for which they are intended. A gay couple cannot possibly naturally produce a child, and must always rely on some third party to either inseminate or to bear a child, or else must rely on the legal fiction of adoption to get a child and have the State artificially assign parental rights and responsibilities to the couple on behalf of the child. (I write more about the adoption question here) This alone is a coherent jurisprudential argument against equating gay unions to natural marriage, but Mr. Bottum does not even consider anything that might obstruct his a priori conclusion.
And this difference calls into question the whole notion that a homosexual relationship, as mutually loving and caring as any heterosexual relationship, can justly be equated to "marriage" per se. The two types of relationship are essentially different -- the one naturally capable of generation provided that the man and woman have sexual health and functioning organs; the other forever sterile and always incapable of procreation. If they are essentially two different things, then why call or consider them by the same term? Where else do we decide that two things that are different should be called by the same word? It is in the nature of the rational mind, as we sort through material reality, to identify differences between things and to name them so that we understand them to be different. Even when they belong to the same genus or species, we still assign terms that differentiate one from another, until we get to a level where it is of no use to distinguish -- the Eskimos may or may not have 180 different words for snow, but we don't need many terms for clumps of dust. Even little kids name their three goldfish in a bowl to distinguish them.
Can a natural law argument be made?
There might well be, in fact, a sound natural law argument compatible with the legal theories of St. Thomas Aquinas for according gay unions a whole series of legal rights under the law, but Mr. Bottum does not make them. It seems to me that matters of property rights, inheritance and survivorship, hospital and prison visitation rights, insurability -- in short equal access to all the natural and civic goods of a society in justice and fairness -- ought to be compelling arguments for consideration within the theory of Catholic Social Doctrine. Such matters can be handled under a variety of methods, from a simple contractual form between consenting parties to a registered domestic corporation between parties for purposes other than that which distinguishes natural marriage (namely, natural parenthood). There is not even any reason to limit a registered domestic corporation to two persons -- any number of sexually mature, mentally competent, consenting adults might well do what they will given a good lawyer and decently constructed laws. Within Thomas' theory of law, there is nothing I have found that would be objectionable to that. He understood and wrote explicitly about the limitations of law to regulate and proscribe all human behavior, even those things that he held were inherently sinful: he famously noted that prostitution itself ought not be outlawed even though it was an indulgence of lust, even for the sake of the common good itself. In this he follows St Augustine,
"Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says [De ordine 2.4]: If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust." (ST 2-2.10.11)
No doubt the Church needs to make these arguments carefully. For 2000 years the Church has dealt with every possible permutation of relationship with secular authorities, who are properly entrusted with ordering the whole of society toward the common good. While holding in tension the moral objectivity of the human being, the Church could well argue that in justice law is framed for the community, not the individual (ST, 1-2.96.1); and that human laws do not forbid all vices but chiefly those which harm others (ST, 1-2.96.2). The law is not about making saints, only civil tranquility and basic civic virtues, and ensuring the common good of an ordered society that is more conducive to healthy relationships and compatible with the process of acquiring virtue and sanctification. The question of equal access to the goods of society for all people needs to be answered, and I think can be for even an accommodation to homosexual households that life partners might live in peace and tranquility within society without fear of loss, second class citizenship, or worse prejudice, revilement, or persecution.
Can the Church speak to the modern world?
Frankly, even these arguments might well fall on deaf ears to a secular society that holds to pragmatic utilitarianism where everything boils down to the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain; the supposed "right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 1992); and the rejection of the transcendental horizon or any objective meaning or telos to the human person. As the atheistic physicalist might well argue, if we are all just radically autonomous, self aware, electro-chemical biomachines and all values and taxonomies of energy and physical matter are the product of 'mind', then at best the only ethic possible can be consent and not harming another. Even that is massively problematic and ultimately incoherent since all that is also reducible to mere electrochemical activity, and chemicals admit of no ethics, they just are, but that is for another discussion.
So the Church is left to make her arguments as best as She can, proclaiming the Gospel, calling men and women of good will to love, service, virtue, healthy relationship, healing, and salvation.Yet Mr. Bottum's essay serves nothing for the discussion. If he wants to argue that the Church should just capitulate to gay marriage since its a lost cause, or to gain credibility in the eyes of those who would rather see her destroyed, or that natural law ought to be abandoned since the world is no longer "enchanted", or because moderns no longer accept natural law or metaphysics (or even a common human nature or inherent human dignity for the strict physicalist), or something else along those lines, then he ought to just come out and say so. Or if he wants to mount an actual argument from a Thomistic or natural law perspective as to why society ought to equate gay relationships to natural marriage, or why the Church herself ought to give up the promotion of natural marriage as the basis of civilization, or that the Church should not continue to call all people to moral virtue and work to align the temporal order in accordance with the Divine Law, then he ought to do that.
But it really all hangs together, or quickly shreds to pieces: the Church's view of the created world, her anthropology and sociology, her virtue ethics and moral teaching, her sacramental world view and the relationships between the human person and the rest of creation including other persons, her teachings on love and life and human dignity, her jurisprudence and her application of human reason in the natural law. One wonders if Mr. Bottum appreciates the coherency of that world view, a coherency that coheres throughout the Church's magisterial teachings on every level, such that to disregard one part ripples through to call into question how other parts remain meaningful. Not to say that it is a house of cards, quite the opposite: the Church is firmly established by Christ on the solid rock of revelation and in accord with the dictates of human reason.
But as it stands, I am at a loss to know exactly what his point is, apart from a realpolitik view of the Church in the modern world. What is the bottom line for Mr. Bottum?