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Joseph Bottum and His Bottom Line

August 24, AD2013

Howard Duncan - Bottum

I do have to admit that I am extremely jealous of Joseph Bottum. He was actually paid by the Luce Foundation to write a very long essay describing a hoped-for fantasy future to be provided by marriage redefinition. I know what the subject of his essay is supposed to be about (homosexuality or gayuality if you prefer), but I am not quite sure why he has decided to dump Catholic teaching and a boatload of friends in order to propose a social experiment.

As the Catholic blogosphere reacts to a very visible Catholic writer/editor’s supposed reversal of attitude about marriage, I thought I would read his public explanation and justification for putting marriage in the crapper. Lamenting the apparent loss of a friend he describes as playing “let’s-embarrass-strangers-with-my-sexuality” game, he keeps coming back to that relationship in his essay for some reason.

Alright, I have lived in New York and I can tell you that until you have been passed on a sidewalk, with no warning, from behind, by a roller-skating chimp (in winter) as I have, you haven’t seen the best that its weirdness has to offer. Putting the friendship aside, I tried to follow his reasoning all the way to the bottum, to try and get to the bottum of it all. Along the way we get his opinion on various subjects.

A lonely life without a wife (not good), parents who change their mind about homosexual marriage when their son comes-out (ineffective argument), homosexual tactics to destroy the Church (you’re busted), why the Bishops should not fight this (we all know it is the only concern they are putting resources into), the Manhattan Declaration, DOMA, Pope Francis’s first Encyclical, enchantment (?), and much more. The bulk of this essay is sort of a recent history of social issues observed from a position inside of his head. Anyone who has followed this redefinition of marriage fight will not be edified.

This man is a very good writer. He knows lots of words and his grammar is impeccable. But what is he actually saying? I didn’t see any groundwork laid for his eventual proposition. Here is the summation of what he was getting at after I finally got to the end.

He writes:

“In fact, same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving. I don’t know that it will, of course…”

So, it boils down to rejecting the Church’s teaching and common sense understanding about marriage in order to perform a social experiment where love (I am not sure how he would describe this) seems to be the central theme. A view that proposes a hope for mankind as the Church waits in the wings for the results.

A view that proposes that men and women who are sexually attracted to the same sex are somehow superior enough to achieve what ordinary mortals cannot – a reversal of the instability of marriage. He also says:

“I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS IS not the answer my traditional-marriage friends demand. But then, it’s not the answer same-sex marriage advocates want, either. Far too many people on both sides see the issue in such stark terms that they dismiss any nuance as merely giving excuse to immorality.”

Yes, he has stated the issue as we understand it, but not the solution. Marriage has been defined by the nature of it’s participants and by God, In the Beginning…, as between a man and a woman. It is starkly understood, simply stated, and biblically correct. The nuances are in the execution of the sacrament by the parties involved. And any wishy-washy in-between attempts to satisfy un-enchanted sexual lusts, is indeed giving an excuse to immorality.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

H.L. Duncan is a senior citizen widower in his 8th decade of life (70s) who was married for 36 years to his only wife Jill. He lives on 40 acres of the Great Basin Desert in an owner built solar powered home. He has three children who have left the nest and are now too far away. After an Episcopalian childhood, his teen years brought on the disease of agnosticism with occasional bouts of atheism. He entered the Church in 2010 and says he has felt at home ever since.

His working life included Forest Fire Truck Driver, Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa building schools, Motion Picture Cameraman in industrial films and while in the U.S. Army, production assistant to a Producer in Hollywood, Professional Still Photographer, Photo Lab Technician, Postal Service Letter Carrier, Computer Systems Analyst in business and government, Computer Consulting, Owner of an Internet business, Web site creation.

His educational background is mostly self directed reading and experiential but does include; A graduate of the London School of Film Technique, London, England, AA degree in Business Data Processing with an additional course in accounting, Seminars and technical classes.

He now spends his days in local parish church work and Right to Life groups, Internet conversations with new friends and old enemies of the Church.

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  • The traditional Catholic form of argument pertaining to such questions of civil society and law pertains to the virtue of prudence. In form, then, if not in conclusion, Mr. Bottum’s essay was more traditionally Catholic than your response.

    • Howard

      I found his argument formless, wandering, capitulating, and very Catholic in that we tend to be divided on many important issues. However, I will be satisfied that you find his conclusions imprudent, which of course, is the result of his thinking.

    • It’s clear that you found his argument formless, but it seems pretty clear that this has more to do with you than with Mr. Bottum. That you did not see the form doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to be seen. You didn’t engage his argument precisely because you didn’t <i?get it.

      That has more than a little to do with why you’re losing this argument in our society: you seem to prefer shouting moral indignation to making honest efforts to understand. Those who don’t understand lose. And you don’t understand.

      I suspect the widespread animosity to Mr. Bottum is rooted simply in resentment at his having pointed this out.

    • Howard

      It seems to me that you are in a very small minority (maybe in more than one way) that claims to have “gotten it”. What part of his “argument” do you claim to understand?

    • That the primary issue pertains to the intellectual virtue of prudence, not to the moral virtues, this is what I claim to understand. The purpose of civil law is the ordered tranquility of society. And prudential questions pertain to how best to (1) promote human flourishing and (2) minimize social disorder.

      You can make reasonable arguments that civil recognition of gay relationships fails either or both of those tests. But you can also make reasonable arguments in the other direction. Recognizing these questions to be the fundamental issues, though, is necessary before reasonable argument can occur.

      Both Augustine and Aquinas, for example, argued vehemently against civil restriction of the practice of prostitution. To opponents who argued back that prostitution is morally wrong, they simply asked what that fact had to do with anything.

      Might it not be similarly reasonable for civil society to conclude that it has a stake in promoting stability and fidelity in sexual relationships? And that this is true of same-sex relationships, as well as traditionally recognized heterosexual relationships? Might it not be reasonable for the state to conclude that this subset of its citizenry could flourish as human beings in faithful, stable same-sex relationships more than they would in same-sex promiscuity? And that these are, in fact, the realistic alternatives? And might not the state conclude that this diminishment of promiscuity would contribute to the tranquility of social order?

      Those are the kinds of questions that both Augustine and Aquinas insisted are apt here. Engaging in intelligent and reasonable conversation towards real understanding on the basis of such questions might not be as fun, easy, and self-satisfying as patting oneself on the back for one’s moral righteousness — as evidenced, for example, in your ‘maybe in more than one way’ aside, based on nothing other than your need to be snide — but it gets no one anywhere.

    • Howard

      Prudence is: recta ratio agibilium, “right reason applied to practice.”

      My aside was based on the observation that you have a vested interested in homosexual “marriage”.

      You claim to have understood Mr. Bottum’s essay but give me your own. My main objection to his conclusion is that it is a call for an untested social experiment and a standing down of the American Bishops.

      J’accuse you of using this debate to further your own agenda under the pretext of knowing how the heck he reasoned any of it.

    • For what it’s worth, Howard, I have no such vested interest. And your presumption otherwise is reflective of a tendency on your part to know what you do not know, in fact, what you can not know.

      Social life, history, is an experiment, at least in large part. Thus the need to attend to “concrete singulars,” which differ here and there, now and then, which is the essential distinction between prudence and wisdom.

      This social experiment, though, is not utterly untested. Traditional attitudes, language, and law have been highly destructive of the lives of homosexual persons, and for a very long time. Without social and cultural support for stability and fidelity in sexual relationships, those relationships tend toward promiscuity. Whether straight or gay. We’ve been engaged in that social experiment for a very long time. It’s failed.

      What’s happening here isn’t that people are proposing some “untested social experiment” just for the libertine thrill of it. What’s really happening is that other people are recognizing that we’ve been engaged in a social experiment for long time, that it has failed the test, has been literally deadly for millions upon millions of people, and yet many insist — loudly and with moral righteousness — on perduring in failure.

      As to why I think I may have understood Mr. Bottum in a way that many didn’t, it has long seemed clear to me that ‘the Western mind’ took a very wrong turn with Descartes. It has further seemed clear that there had been an alternative, namely, the form of reason evident in the thinking and expression of Michel de Montaigne. That this latter was more continuous with the medieval Catholic mind, focused on understanding, than was Cartesian rationality with its clear and distinct ideas, focused on certainty.

      Reading Bottum called Montaigne to mind. Meandering, yes. Formless, no. The meandering reflecting the way our minds actually tend to work. We generally tend not to arrive at positions via syllogism. We imagine, formulate questions, experience partial insights, return to refashion the images — phantasms — have deepened insights, discover that many of those insights happen to be wrong, reformulate the questions, and continue on over long and treacherous terrain. After we’ve ‘aha, got it’ — we fashion syllogisms to express what we ‘got’ in far more torturous fashion.

      My main objection to your “main objection to his conclusion” is that you have no grasp whatsoever of how he got there. Without getting the form of reasoning, you simply can’t get the conclusion, yet you presume that you got it. You didn’t.

    • Howard

      My comment was tentative and suspicious, it shows no firm knowledge, only a desire to flush you out because you started out with a personal attack. I like to know where a commenter is coming from.

      To a Catholic, social life is not an experiment; it is given to us by God and clearly explained. Homosexuals are not the only human group in history that can claim to have suffered. I would not bring back the sodomy laws for example. Alternatively I would not solve the question by trying to convince a population that sodomy is a wonderful activity, as is happening now with homosexual activity in order
      to gain social acceptance. The Church teaches that they deserve acceptance as persons, not because of an activity you may think is desirable.

      I don’t begrudge you you’re meandering in order to try and gain some clarity in your thinking. But, unless people enjoy printed wanderings ala “Ulysses”, it does not communicate.
      A person can get a vague impression and insist that is meaning, like you have with Bottum. But, you have spent several comboxes avoiding that whole issue and give me only your vague general opinion on the matter.

      Actually I did get it. Bottum is reported to have said he has not changed his mind regarding marriage; he is still in agreement with the Magisterium on the matter. His beef is that he does not see the argument as one the Church should be involved in – he is wrong.

    • “To a Catholic, social life is not an experiment; it is given to us by God and clearly explained.”

      Wow, we should just make you the Philosopher-King and get it over with, since you understand so “clearly.”

      But, of course, you don’t. That you think you do, little doubt. Society as God-given? Of course? But given precisely as an experiment, to be co-created in our freedom, through our exercise of imagination, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility, and love.

      As to whether ‘homosexual activity’ is ‘a wonderful activity’ is to miss the significance of possible difference between that ‘activity’ occurring (a) in promiscuous fashion, and (b) in stable, faithful relationships. You seem to judge there to be no meaningful human and moral difference between those possibilities. I think them to be as humanly and morally different as night and day, heaven and hell.

      And so I have no opposition to efforts on the part of civil society to lengthen the days, and shorten the nights. I wish it didn’t assume the linguistic and legal framework of ‘marriage.’ I really do. But I also acknowledge that for about half a century now there have been efforts to create such social supports in different frameworks, that those efforts were adamantly opposed by the Church, and those efforts having failed, this is the direction the experiment has taken.

    • Howard

      You prefer to call it an experiment, I don’t like to use a word too close to what everyone now associates with science. If you didn’t get, “freedom, through our exercise of imagination, intelligence, reasonableness, responsibility, and love.” from scriptures and the church you could have and CLEARLY EXPLAINED by the Church. You pick a fight over preferred terminology, discounting meaning.

      Homosexual activity is a physical behavior between same sex persons. The activity remains the same no matter what the intended purpose. You could push grapes up your nose and down your throat, but it will never be considered eating no matter how much you want it to be.

      You have doubts about a moral question, I can see that. What you are not entitled to do is insist that others have the same doubt.

      Meanwhile, you still have not explained Bottum’s essay.

    • Howard, you introduced the word “experiment.” I just tried to pick up the conversation on your term and now you insist that you “don’t like to use [the] word.”

      There appear to be two irreducible differences between us. I’ll address those, then address the issue of ‘explanation’, and then say thanks for this exchange.

      First, is ‘social order’ clearly explained by Scripture and Tradition? You think so; I think not. Those who insisted on the morality of slavery and the immorality of lending money at interest for almost the entirety of the Church’s history held as you do. I think they were wrong.

      Second, you think ‘unloving promiscuity’ and ‘loving fidelity’ to make no human, moral difference pertaining to ‘homosexual activity.’ I think that to be a morally heinous conclusion. Unless and until the Church can formulate an approach to this issue that recognizes this difference as humanly, morally meaningful, it is the Church that does not communicate. Most anyone who knows gay persons and couples will disagree. Not out of moral indifference, but out of moral concern.

      Your insistent asking for an ‘explanation’ of Bottum’s essay reveals the very incomprehension that I’ve been suggesting characterizes your grasp of it. It isn’t that the author had a handful points that he made in a meandering way; it’s that he meandered toward understanding. To get it, re-read. Take my earlier remarks on the two questions fundamental to prudential reasoning, and my suggestion as to moral difference between promiscuity and fidelity in same-sex relationships, hold those in mind as you read, really try to understand what he’s saying, rather than formulating counter-arguments as you read, and see what happens. That’s the best I can do. Cliff Notes to Montaigne defeat the purpose of the essais at understanding.

      Thanks for the back and forth. If you really do want to assist the Bishops, I’d encourage you to attend to what I’ve said. Last Fall, I attended a panel sponsored by the Bishops of Minnesota on the Marriage Amendment they were supporting here. The panel, frankly, was embarrassing. It evidenced no understanding whatsoever of the issues I’ve raised here. They lost the election. They will lose many more, unless they try to understand why people are changing their minds, before judging them for doing so.

    • Howard

      I used the words experiment in reference to the suggestion that we allow homosexual marriage as a social experiment, but not in any way agreeing that it defines our lives as created by God and screwed up by us through the use of free will. I don’t believe that we were a divine experiment but a divine intentional creation.

      Again I did not say social order, I said social life. Order sounds much to temporal and frankly too Marxist. Life as we are taught to live it is explained in scriptures with Christ’s words. The readings at Mass illustrate my point. If you are confused about an issue of life I suggest you consult the Church in Her many aspects available to you.

      It is not impossible, of course, to find areas of disagreement among Biblical scholars. But, interpretation is not a matter of conforming to current social feelings or trends. We will be judged by the standards laid out by Jesus Christ, not by the
      standards of an attractive social trend.

      I have known homosexual couples and individuals,
      but the issue of their homosexuality is a different one from the sacrament of marriage. The desire to be accepted in their homosexuality is the motivation, ignoring the importance and rights of a child. It is the same selfishness that motivates having an abortion.

      Yes, we have reached the bottum of this discussion.
      I will give you some parting advice also. It only reduces your credibility when you insult others, rather arrogantly, and accuse them of not understanding your argument when what actually exists is a disagreement.

  • Howard

    To All who have commented and are interested; an update.

    It seems that Bottum has given an off-air interview with Al Kresta (of Ave Maria Radio and a friend) yesterday (Monday) after which Al spoke a little yesterday and today about the controversy.

    The essence of the interview was that Bottum admits that his article was “hard to read” (I would say poorly written) and claims the headlines (NYT & Commonweal) were not accurate in describing the article. The interesting thing I heard was that apparently EVERYBODY got the wrong meaning from the article. Well, that seems to tie to the “hard to read” admission and not point to some kind of defect in the readers.

    Mr. Bottum claims to not have changed his mind regarding the sin of homosexuality. I for one think he has over-reached himself in trying to come up with an attitude of defeat he believes everyone should take.

    Al seems to only be interested in chastising those who have reacted for their lack of a “generous spirit”, which I think, could be said about almost any controversy and is sort of an easy complaint to make. But I still regard Al highly, and consider him one of our outstanding Catholic thinkers.

    This controversy is probably over. Hopefully professional writers will write more carefully, keeping in mind that they are actually trying to communicate to people.

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  • Greg Mockeridge

    I found Bottum’s “because we are Americans” reasoning flabbergastingly specious considering that there are few things more contrary to the principles this country was built upon than the idea of same sex marriage.

    However, he does kind of sort of stumbles on to the truth when he says the bishops have been ineffective in the culture war overall and this issue in particular. But it is not for the reasons he seems to think, The reason is that the bishops exert more energy plumping for pro-illegal immigration polices and opposing the death penalty that are not essential from a Catholic point of view than they do issues that ARE. You have bishops like Dolan who goes to the lengths of falsely accusing the state of AZ of racism vis-a-vis SB 1070 and Chaput (and many other bishops) who parrots the fraudulent anti-death penalty arguments. Why would any skeptic take these guys seriously?

    And is there anyone in the Catholic media complex who will actually challenge on this point? No. There isn’t a mainstream “orthodox” Catholic publication who will do their job and challenge these guys on this. They act in MSM-like fashion and look the other way at this deplorable conduct. Hell, they won’t even practice much needed fraternal correction of Mark Shea’s behavior. The closest thing I have seen to an exception that didn’t get yanked (George Nuemayr’s excellent fisking of the bishops pro-illegal immigration stance quickly got yanked by Crisis Magazine) was Mr. Zummo’s piece on the Bishops bad faith immigration argument.

    While I find Bottum’s arguments sadly ridiculous, the Catholic media complex is getting what it deserves.

  • Kim

    The only thing Joseph Bottum’s article did for me was confirm a theory I have had for the last several years….and my theory is that we have a vast majority of “conservative” Catholics who cannot argue effectively for “traditional” marriage because they deliberately engage in or approve of sterile sex within marriage (thanks to their use or approval of contraception) and therefore can’t really see any logical difference between their “traditional” marriages and “same-sex” marriage. Therefore, the only logical outcome is what we are seeing from Joseph Bottum…a change of position on what marriage is defined as…which for them can only be founded on some vague notion of love which is ultimately centered on self-getting…not the love we as Catholics learn from Christ is all about self-giving. The world isn’t suffering now or going to suffer more because we are losing the fight for traditional marriage and religious freedom…the world is suffering because Catholics have lost their ability to show the world that the love of Christ is all about self-giving and complete trust in God’s laws for us. All the world sees from Catholics (at least the ones I often come in contact with) is a love of material things and a rejection of God’s laws for how we are to live our lives.

    • Kevin Aldrich

      The application of your theory to Bottum’s article rests on the assumption that the author and his wife practice contraception.

      I’m afraid that looks very much like a rash judgment.

  • Phil Dzialo

    OMG, Bottum;s article in Commonweal…despite my agreement or lack thereof was one of the most laborious, convoluted pieces of writing ever.

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