Sophistry Slouching Toward Apostasy: Response to the Commonweal Essay of Joseph Bottum
The most charitable thing I can say about this 9000 word piece is that Joseph Bottum made a dreadful mistake in writing it - and an even more dreadful mistake in attempting to defend it
I read the 9,000 word essay entitled The Things We Share: A Catholic's Case for Same-Sex Marriage last weekend. It was written by Joseph Bottum for Commonweal magazine. In fact, I read it several times. Each time, it broke my heart at an even deeper level. The first thing I did was to pray about my response. I decided to wait until I could let my emotional reaction to it calm down a bit. I knew the utter despair that this essay would generate in the broader, faithful Christian community.
For Joseph Bottum to abandon the truth, by writing a winding 9000 word essay in Commonweal magazine, does not change the truth. Join me in praying for him to recover his clarity and once again turn his substantial gifts back toward defending all that is good and true.
CHESAPEAKE, VA - I read the 9,000 word essay entitled The Things We Share: A Catholic's Case for Same-Sex Marriage last weekend. It was written by Joseph Bottum for Commonweal magazine. In fact, I read it several times. Each time, it broke my heart at an even deeper level. The first thing I did was to pray about my response. I decided to wait until I could let my emotional reaction to calm down a bit. I knew the utter despair that this essay would generate in the broader, faithful Christian community.
The first adjective I thought of to describe the Bottum article was a word I have never used in my own writing - turgid. I was so unfamiliar with the word that I wanted to check my use of it by checking the definition. It was right on target. When used as an adjective, turgid means swollen, congested, or pompous. It is probably derived from a Latin word but its etymology is uncertain. When used in a medical context, something is turgid when it hardens as a result of an accumulation of fluid.This article and the position which it posits fits the word well.
I knew how dangerous the article would be in this critical time when the Church faces a growing persecution in the West, precisely because she is defending the truth concerning the nature of marriage and the family and society founded upon it. I thought of the admonition in the New Testament Letter of St. James: "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness. For we all make many mistakes." (James 3:1,2)
Joseph Bottum has been a teacher, of sorts, for a very long time. As the Editor of the periodical First Things, founded by the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus, he led one of the intellectual fronts in the defense of the deposit of faith. He succeeded Fr Neuhaus as the Editor in Chief. The publication sought to offer a relevant application of classical Christian thought to the task of reversing the decline and rebuilding Western Culture. I used to read it when I could. However, I was not associated with it in any way.
I have never been a part of the "in crowd', no matter what season of my nearly sixty years of life. That was true when I returned to the Catholic faith as a young man. It has characterized my years as a Catholic who simply seeks to live at the heart of the Church for the sake of the world. Most of my career efforts, as a constitutional lawyer, writer, and policy advocate, as well as a Catholic Deacon, have placed me at the intersection of faith and culture.
I do not hang out, literally or figuratively, with those who self identify as intellectuals. I like simple folks,the salt of the earth, like those with whom I was raised in a blue collar Boston neighborhood. Like those whom I now call friends in Southern Virginia. Though I have certainly spent much time in academic study, and even participated in the Academy, when I choose to hang out, I opt for a karate dojo or boxing ring over hobnobbing in Manhattan.
The most charitable thing I can say about this 9000 word piece is that Joseph Bottum made a dreadful mistake in writing it - and an even more dreadful mistake in attempting to defend it, which he has now begun to do in the media. His former colleagues at First Things immediately separated themselves from the article. The first to market was a piece written by Matthew J Franck entitled Joseph Bottum, Weary and Wearisome There has been no formal response yet from David Mills, the Executive Editor who replaced Joseph Bottum in a controversial change of leadership at the magazine in 2010.
Though I decided not to write immediately about Bottum's essay, I knew I had to immediately reach out to several good men, evangelical protestant leaders, with whom I have forged a close, treasured friendship as we stand together in the defense of Marriage. They hold great respect for the clarity of the teaching of the Catholic Church in the defense of marriage. They are part of a growing body of evangelical Protestants who admire the courage of the leadership of the Catholic Church in not compromising on the truth. I knew they would read the article and wonder what, if anything, it might signal in respect to their reliance on the dependability of the teachers of the Catholic Church.
They have experienced their own Christian communities teetering on the brink of heresy as the frontal assault on the nature of marriage intensifies in the West. Given their confessional placement, they do not understand the difference between a Catholic layman like Joseph Bottums making an error in judgment and the teaching office of the Catholic Church veering away from the deposit of faith. I wrote a quick note to them on the Feast of St Bartholomew:
"My brothers: This article is an example of the kind of compromise which will come, even in our own "camp". The author's pretense of "intellectualism" is a dangerous rejection of the very structure of reality founded upon truth. It is long winded and filled with guile. May we, like Bartholomew (Nathanael, See John 1:45) hear the Lord say of us that we are men without guile. This man was an early Manhattan Declaration guy, considered one of the intellectual "elite" in some circles. This compromise pretending to be reasoned insight is corrosive and sad. May we be numbered among the foolish God chooses to confound the wise. I will probably respond, I am praying as to how and when. Pray for him."
Now, I will begin to respond. I will probably continue to respond as the months and years unfold. That is because this piece by Joseph Bottum is not new. He is just new in succumbing to the error which it represents. It could do more to undermine the Catholic Church than the growing hostility from the Cultural Revolutionaries who seek to enforce a moral and legal equivalency between homosexual and lesbian partnerships and married couples by a misuse of the mechanisms of the State. That is because it will confuse many of the faithful.
It will also give fodder to the enemies of the Church in their campaign against the truth as revealed by the Natural Moral Law about the dignity of the human person, human sexuality, marriage, family and the good society. They will point to this "conservative" Catholic in an attempt to paint the rest of the Church, and those who agree with her teaching, as out of touch or even dangerous.Remember the early Christians were persecuted as enemies of the State.(Odium Generis)
Bottum denigrates efforts to use a Natural Moral Law argument to defend marriage as what it is, a lifelong union between one man and one woman, open to new life and formative of the family, the first vital cell of society. How he does so is what is most infuriating about this essay. It is done in a manner which is haughty, condescending and intellectually dishonest, while pretending to be intelligent and artistic. In the middle of this 9000 word essay he almost hides his conclusion, even though he says he did not intend to do so:
"I DON'T MEAN to hide this essay's conclusions. 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. Indeed, once the sexual revolution brought the Enlightenment to sex, demythologizing and disenchanting the Western understanding of sexual intercourse, the legal principles of equality and fairness were bound to win, as they have over the last decade: the only principles the culture has left with which to discuss topics such as marriage.
"And so, I argue, a concern about the government's recognizing of same-sex marriage ought to come low on the list of priorities as the church pursues the evangelizing of the culture. For that matter, after the long hard work of restoring cultural sensitivity to the metaphysical meanings reflected in all of reality, Catholics will have enough experience to decide what measure of the deep spirituality of nuptials, almost absent in present culture, can reside in same-sex unions."
What is evident is that this Catholic intellectual named Joseph Bottum, who once sat at the Editorial pinnacle of one of the communications pieces of the new intellectual class, does not understand the teaching of his own Church on the ontological nature of marriage as between one man and one woman. Nor does he respect the teaching of that Church on the dignity of the human person called to marriage, the family and society based upon it, the common good derived and advanced from it and the happy and virtuous life it promotes.
Marriage as low on the list of priorities? What the Church teaches and defends about marriage is, along with what she teaches about the dignity of every human person, at the very top of the list of priorities. That is why Jesus Christ taught so clearly about it. It touches the meaning of human life, love, community and the structure of reality! It opens up God's self revelation and perfects His image as present in men and women who are called to the communion of love it portends and promotes.
Bottum references what he calls thinness in the Natural Law arguments which have been raised to defend marriage by the Church. Then, he simply dismisses the entire Natural Law teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage. This reference to thinness is an academic ploy. Academics speak of thin and thick presentations of philosophical or theological positions. Part of the difficulty Bottum refers to requires a bit of historical context. The crisis affecting contemporary Catholic Moral Theology finds its roots in the separation of subject and object which infected Western Philosophy following the influence of the philosopher Rene Descartes and his progeny.
The way of understanding the world, and our role in it, prior to what could be called the modern era (the post Cartesian age), viewed human reasoning in continuity with the reasoning that was already present in the universe. Reason was not understood in a solely intellectual or cognitive notion. Rather, when a human being reflected, they participated in Divine Reason. Indeed the entire universe was quite reasonable, in as much as it participated in God's reason. With this separation of subject and object there emerged several views of what was meant by the phrase the Natural Law. Each was built upon different notions of nature and reason. Thus, when one hears the phrase, Natural Law, one needs to ask which concept of nature, reason and natural law is being promoted.
One can trace the idea of a natural law back to classical Greek thought. However, there currently exist two prevalent though varying views of Natural Law theory in contemporary Catholic and broader Christian circles. Both claim to find at least some ground in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. First, there is what is popularly referred to as the new natural law theory. This school of thinking is identified with Germaine Grisez, John Finnis, Joseph Boyle and William E. May. One of its most popular contemporary spokesmen is Robert P. George.
This theory offered a response to theories called proportionalism and consequentialism which eroded the claims of the existence of objective moral truth and norms to guide human behavior following the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church. It was an effort to again articulate natural law thought in what was first called a naked public square by Richard John Neuhaus, the Founder of First Things, in 1986. With the understanding that the first principle of practical reasoning is to do good and avoid evil, Grisez asserted that reason (meaning that concept of reason as a work of the human intellect) will lead the human person to discover that there are certain self-evident goods, which all men and women can discover. These basic human goods direct human choice.
Their existence is part of the basis for the view of the natural law which Bottum now calls thin, even though he once promoted it in the magazine he edited. Grisez offered this basic principle of morality: "In voluntarily acting for human goods and avoiding what is opposed to them, one ought to choose and otherwise will those and only those possibilities whose willing is compatible with a will toward integral human fulfillment." According to Grisez, this first principle of morality requires that a person respect integral human fulfillment. These basic human goods are not commensurable. They are "pre-moral", and capable of being discovered by anyone, at any time in any age and any culture. Their existence and the fact we can all find them and agree upon them is what gave a structure to this new natural law theory.
It was labeled the new natural law theory by its opponents because of its strong variance from the understanding of natural law offered by St Thomas Aquinas. On Thomas' view, the natural law was a participation in the Eternal Law through which God governs the universe. God does this by Divine Reason. The things of creation that are ruled by this Eternal Law are all reasonable, in the sense that they participate in Divine Reason. However, with the separation of subject and object, reason itself was redefined after Descartes. It came to be seen as either a work of the subject, discharged by the intellect, or it was posited as somehow found in what was viewed by Cartesian thinkers as nature, meaning either things - or even the human body treated as a thing.
Neither of these approaches to reason and nature accurately represent the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. He used the phrase Natural Law to speak of the participation of all in the Eternal Law, the Divine Reason, through which God governs the world. This Natural Law can be known and should inform all positive law, if it seeks to be true and just law. Catholic proponents of the natural law thought of St. Thomas include classical Thomists like Ralph McInerney. Perhaps the latest and clearest contemporary response is found in the excellent treatment of the subject offered by F. Russell Hittinger in his work entitled The First Grace: Rediscovering the Natural Law in the Post-Christian World.
Joseph Bottum is aware of both of these two strains of Natural Law thought. In his intellectual sounding rhetoric, by claiming that the thinness of the natural law arguments have failed, he simply dismisses Natural Law entirely as a basis for defending marriage as what it is in the contemporary struggle we face in the West. He says the Church and other Christians who oppose the notion that homosexuals or lesbians are capable of entering into marriage, or attaining the ends of marriage, based upon the Natural Moral Law argument, should just drop their efforts. This is where Joseph Bottum may be moving beyond sophistry and slouching toward apostasy.
Sophistry is a method of argumentation which uses lofty words to present a seemingly plausible but incorrect and misleading argument. Apostasy refers to the rejection of fundamental Christian doctrine and dogma. The teaching of the Catholic Church on the nature of marriage is unequivocal and will not change. Its rejection by a culture, or even by a Christian intellectual, is nothing new. However, when a Christian intellectual does so, he or she is skating on very thin ice. Those cultures and those mistaken intellectuals of the past have disappeared. However, the Catholic Church and her teaching continues. Truth endures.
The Christian claims concerning life and marriage are not outdated notions of a past era but provide the path to the future. Homosexual or lesbian couples cannot bring into existence what marriage intends by its very definition. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Catholic Church explained the truth about marriage well in 2003. Here is an excerpt: "The Church's teaching on marriage and on the complementarity of the sexes reiterates a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by all the major cultures of the world. Marriage is not just any relationship between human beings. It was established by the Creator with its own nature, essential properties and purpose."
"No ideology can erase from the human spirit the certainty that marriage exists solely between a man and a woman, who by mutual personal gift, proper and exclusive to themselves, tend toward the communion of their persons. In this way, they mutually perfect each other, in order to cooperate with God in the procreation and upbringing of new human lives."
Nor is the position of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on the truth about marriage simply a religious position, in the sense of intended only for those who profess religious belief. The Catholic Church insists upon the existence of a Natural Moral Law which can be known by all men and women through the exercise of reason. Though affirmed, fulfilled, and elevated by Christian teaching, the truth that marriage can exist only between one man and one woman is not based on religion or revelation alone, but on this Natural Moral Law. It is cross cultural.
The Catholic Church will never abandon the truth that Marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of creation. Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman, ordered toward the union of the spouses, open to children and formative of family. Nothing else is a marriage. Family is the first vital cell of society; the first church, first school, first hospital, first economy, first government and first mediating institution of a truly human and just social order. Heterosexual marriage, procreation, and the nurturing of children form the foundation for the family, and the family forms the foundation of civil society.
This is not only a Christian position. It is the ground upon which every great civilization has been built. It is the source for every great and authentic human and civil rights movement. The Natural Moral Law gives us the moral norms we need to build societies and govern ourselves. It should also inform our positive law or we will become lawless and devolve into anarchy.
For the positive law of the United States to now insist, backed up by the police power of the State, that we pretend otherwise, or face the consequences, is to enforce a dangerous social experiment. It is also manifestly unjust and overtly anti-Christian. To confer by governmental fiat the benefits that have been conferred in the past only to stable married couples and families to homosexual paramours is bad public policy and can never serve the common good.
To state all of this is to serve the common good. It is to stand up for the rights of children to have a mother and a father. It is to promote the first school of virtues called the family. For Joseph Bottum to abandon the truth, by writing a winding 9000 word essay in Commonweal magazine, does not change the truth. Join me in praying for him to recover his clarity and once again turn his substantial gifts back toward defending all that is good and true.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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