Monday, August 26, 2013

Bottum, Zmirak and the battle of Verdun

French Gen. Robert Nivelle

If Joseph Bottum’s 6,000-word Commonweal ramble, “The Things We Share,” doesn’t read or feel like a structured argument for Catholic acceptance of same-sex marriages, that’s because it’s not — the subtitle (“A Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage”) notwithstanding. Rather, it’s the erstwhile First Things editor’s story of how and why he came to strike the flag of opposition. Some of his statements of fact are so wrong, you can’t help but howl with either rage or laughter. But you can’t fault as an argument that which never pretended to be an argument.

In fact, if there were just one fault (there are more, I promise), it’s precisely that it is Bottum’s personal conversion story, as it were, and not a real case against further resistance. For by the time he actually gets down to the meat of his contentions, he’s lost half his audience through lack of interest. In the combox for Matthew J. Franck’s rather impatient takedown in First Things, “Joseph Bottum, Weary and Wearisome,” at least two or three people admit they couldn’t get all the way through it.

Sorry, Jody, either your life or the way you wrote about it is just not that gripping. Next time, cut to the chase.

Moreover, throughout Bottum’s essay you can pick up strains that tell us he isn’t comfortable with the idea of surrender. For instance, in discussing David Blankenhorn’s New York Times flip-flop,  Bottum muses that it’s “not enough for a Catholic to say that legal fairness and social niceness compel us.” And of the anti-Christian element who use SSM as a stick to bash the Church with, he snarls, “if that’s what the same-sex marriage movement is really about … then to hell with it.”


For all the essay’s discursive self-absorption, though, Bottum’s major argument for surrender — we’ve already lost — is disturbingly compelling. Inter alia, Dr. John Zmirak offers the same core thesis as Bottum in much fewer, more concise words:


Sexual decisions are so intimate and so important to people that it takes a really potent force to goad them into self-restraint; either deep religious conviction or crushing social pressure is typically required. In their absence, people will do what they feel they must, and those of us who try to draw fine moral distinctions will seem like busybodies and prudes. In elite opinion now — which is common opinion tomorrow —– those who hold to traditional Christian marriage are morally no better than racists.
That’s where we are. Now what do we do? Should we wage a legal Verdun in each of the 50 states to revive the pale, exhausted ghost of “marriage” that Bill Clinton’s DOMA defended? Thanks to no-fault divorce, it was already the least enforceable legal contract on earth —– more fragile by far than credit-card debt, not to mention back taxes and student loans. It was, in essence, a weak legal partnership and a temporary sex pact that for some reason excluded homosexuals. Is this a hill worth dying on?


In essence, both Bottum and Zmirak advocate a kind of Catholic Realpolitik: “This is where we are now,” they say, “and this is the reality we have to deal with.” Quoth Bottum, “We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981). But there are much better ways than opposing same-sex marriage for teaching the essential God-hauntedness, the enchantment, of the world ….” “… [W]ith this strategic retreat to more defensible ground,” Zmirak contends, “Christians and other social traditionalists will gain breathing room. We don’t need a Theodosius, but without a Constantine we may well find ourselves in the catacombs once again.”

The first problem with Realpolitik, at least as ordinarily meant and practiced, is that it tends to strip away the moral dimension to social issues. It doesn’t ask, “What is the right thing to do?”, but rather, “What is the most practical thing to do?” To this armchair historian, the Church is at its least effective and most erroneous when her leaders strive to be pragmatic. Even in secular politics, nothing succeeds like Realpolitik for creating the conditions of future scandal and political embarrassments, precisely because it looks only at short-term outcomes.

More to the point, though, many people believe they’re being realistic when in fact they’re merely suffering from despair, which limits both perception and imagination. As G. K. Chesterton tells us in Heretics (1905), “For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful.”

As Bottum admits, the Supreme Court punted on the issue of gay marriage; its rationale for striking down the relevant passage of DOMA was basically a “states’ rights” argument on steroids, the kind of decision John C. Calhoun and his pals could have used during the nullification crisis of 1833, but it didn’t grant a constitutional right to SSM. It was a victory, but it wasn’t the final stake in the heart of the anti-SSM fight.

This does make a difference. The fight against legal abortion has been protracted precisely because the Warren Court locked themselves and their successors into a box with Roe v. Wade: once they declared abortion a right, following Courts could not take the right away without creating massive social upheaval. Had the Rehnquist or Roberts Court declared gays a “protected class” under the 14th Amendment, the anti-SSM forces would now be in the same position as the pro-life movement was in 1974.

As it is now, the shift towards pro-life that many people have detected in the momentum of that debate may very well mean that sexual anarchy has reached its high-water mark. The chatterati continually make the mistake of thinking that how the 18-to-25 set feels today is how they’ll think twenty years from now. As long as SCOTUS refrains from an absolute ruling, we can continue to defend traditional marriage wherever it’s challenged, which means additional opportunities to teach sexual sanity.

The comparison Zmirak and (by picture association) Max Lindenman want to draw to Verdun is off-kilter, for Verdun, despite its horrible toll on the French Army, was a German offensive that failed (Ils ne passeront pas!). The French held; with their British allies, they launched a counteroffensive at the Somme, and eventually regained the territory they had lost. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Germany had failed to bleed France to death.” If Zmirak meant to create an image of a costly yet futile defensive action, Verdun is a poor choice.

Is the outlook poor? Certainly; there would be no need for hope if victory looked inevitable. Have we taken a licking? Yes, we have, and we’ll probably get tagged a few more times before the fight’s over. Are people beginning to hate and persecute us? We’re called to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors (Mt 5:43-48); to continue the Chestertonian thought, probably no one needs our love more than someone who doesn’t love us.

They shall not pass.