Monday, August 26, 2013

The Preemptive Surrender of Jody Bottum

By Robert Royal
Sunday, 25 August 2013
Joseph Bottum, sometime friend of several of us at TCT, published a painfully long, painfully rambling article Friday in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal saying that the Church is wasting its time – is even harming itself – opposing gay marriage. He was fired as editor-in-chief of First Things three years ago, years in which he has mostly been living in his native South Dakota, where one hoped he was growing in wisdom and grace. But that is not our subject today.
The subject involves the fact that the liberal Luce Foundation provided the money for the writing of the Commonweal article, whose release included an announcement of the publication of Jody’s book, An Anxious Age (scheduled for in February), and coincided with a large story in The New York Times Saturday. A cynic might think that this shows less an argument about Church policy than a PR campaign, as in “former First Things editor turns.”
But let’s start by getting the record straight: if you take his argument seriously, which I mostly do not, Jody is not saying that he “supports” gay marriage, which the New York Times headline, as is its wont in matters Catholic, gets wrong.
He is saying that the Church cannot win this cultural battle, indeed is being harmed by it, given the forces arrayed against Her. Our bishops should not waste time on it and instead focus on the deep “re-enchantment of the world,” which is what it will take to get people to see the real point of the Church’s richer notions of Creation – and sexuality.
In a way, true enough, and many people, myself included, have been saying that – minus the surrender on same-sex marriage – for decades. But I personally don’t have a large investment in the “beauty will save the world” argument, which tends to work some of the same veins as “re-enchantment.” The Beautiful is one of the transcendentals, but only one, a lot of bad can happen while we’re waiting for it to kick in.
There are hundreds of art galleries all over the world filled with first-rate Christian painting and sculpture. Religious music is regularly performed. Christian literature is abundant and still being produced. There are beautiful liturgies in many churches. People I admire write brilliantly about the deep significance of such things. I don’t see that any of this has prevented, slowed, much less reversed, our sharp cultural decline.
Bottum’s argument is the equivalent of saying: fighting terrorism will not establish the peace that passeth all understanding, so we shouldn’t bother with such skirmishes. Leave aside that a large and sophisticated entity like the Catholic Church can walk and chew gum at the same time. Walking away from this fight will not gain the Church friends or placate her enemies.
The proof will be in the people who rally to his cause. The National Catholic Reporter, Planned Parenthood, Catholics for a Free Choice, most Catholic universities, and the most secular in the secular world. Be ready for the public wave of support for Church efforts to “re-enchant” the world – along with greater time spent on social justice and inclusiveness. I’m sure Luce Foundation funding can be found for those campaigns.
In other words, they will all be happy to send Catholics off on a wild goose chase that threatens nothing in our desert of a culture: “Have a nice trip. Here are a few Euros to tip the waiters. See you guys the day after the Second Coming.”
That would be a best-case scenario. Actually, once the Church gives up the legal and cultural pushback, it won’t appease gay activists and their many more or less passive supporters. They know it means weakness. We’ll see an increase in attacks on the Church to simply shut up, and maybe even get onboard about homosexuality.
Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George just got a letter signed by eight Catholic lawmakers in Illinois chiding him for cutting archdiocesan funding to a pro-immigrant group that decided to endorse gay marriage. Imagine, a Cardinal of the Catholic Church defunds a non-profit group that goes out of its way to take a non-Catholic position inessential to its mission – and, for his trouble, reaps a stinging rebuke from Catholic pols.
The Cardinal is famous for saying that he expects to die in his bed, his successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr. The Cardinal is 76, but he’s in pretty good health, and with the highest respect, may be entirely too optimistic.
Jody asserts that there’s no coherent, principled legal argument against gay marriage and that we should simply accept it “as Americans.” I leave the legal niceties to the lawyers and legal beagles, but an awful lot of them seem to think otherwise.
And that notwithstanding, there’s a very coherent and principled – if outrageous – legal effort to extend alleged “hate crimes” further and further. One hears that Cardinal George has already been threatened by groups saying that they have eyes and ears on him. And he’s not the only one.
Jody cited G. K. Chesterton on enchantment and St. Thomas Aquinas on tolerating certain evils in making his case. The implausibility and formlessness of this argument – about which he’s already published some defensive reflections – show his own nervous ambivalence. Take one step back from the controversy. Can you imagine either of these men retreating from this battle? I can’t.
In 1976, Henry Kissinger, known as “the smartest man in the world,” told Admiral Elmo Zumwalt: “The day of the United States is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.” The Soviets had only thirteen years left.
The gay surge in the West may seem much less likely to be reversed. There are days we all feel that way. And it may be so. But there’s only one way to find out. And it’s not pre-emptive surrender.
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.
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