Why Catholics Must Fight “Lost Causes”

Much has been said, maybe pretty much everything that needs to be said, about  former First Things editor Joseph Bottum throwing in the towel over the same-sex marriage fight. He believes that the legalization of this aberration is already a done deal and that Catholics should simply accept it henceforth as a civil matter. It’s a “lost cause.” Further public opposition to it by Catholics can only lead to further marginalization and hatred of the Catholic Church and perhaps even to active persecution.

My first reaction to this was to wonder how, even if what Joseph Bottum says is true, it would be a valid reason for the Catholic Church, of all entities, to cease her opposition to it on the grounds he cites, considering that it was her Founder, after all, who said, “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Mt 5:11). That’s “blessed.” That’s “rejoice.”

Yet it should perhaps not have been surprising, in the present climate, that an intellectual such as Bottum should have taken a position so in line with elite opinion. Many are restive in the face of the seemingly endless conflicts and bitterness of the contemporary culture war; it never seems to result in anything except continual defeats for traditional morality. Who could possibly want to be engaged in such a “fight”? The Catholic bishops themselves surely do not want to; they just understand, however reluctantly, that they have to; given the Church’s teaching on marriage, they have no choice but to oppose the pseudo-marriage that same-sex relations amount to.

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But the same thing does not apply to members of the intelligentsia. They have no responsibility for any outcomes, and they are adept at finding reasons why they don’t have to do what they are disinclined to do or find distasteful or believe is counterproductive. Joseph Bottum has merely joined the ranks of Fatherless America author David Blankenhorn and his Institute for American Values (IAV), which in 2012 proposed what it called a “new conversation” in which defenders of traditional marriage were supposed to broaden their definition of the institution to include the same-sex unions being called marriages. “Instead of fighting gay marriage,” Blankenhorn said, “I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen their marriage with straight people who want to do the same.”

The signatories to Blankenhorn’s manifesto calling not merely for neutrality in the culture war but for surrender included a number of “conservatives” and even some “Christians.” There was, for example, former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels, who with his wife has also for many years been associated with Commonweal magazine where Bottum’s white flag was raised. It was hardly the first time that Commonweal magazine presumed to let the world know what the Church should be doing instead of what the Church is doing.

But the IAV signatories also included some specific First Things types such as former FT board member Glenn Loury and such long-time favorites of the journal as the late sociologist Robert Bellah and the late political theorist Jean Bethke Elstain. Joseph Bottum published in the Weekly Standard an obituary tribute to the latter the same week that his own “Catholic Case for [Accepting] Same-sex Marriage” appeared in Commonweal; in it he praised her as a 2011 convert to the Catholic Church; she died, he said, in the “fullness” of the faith—which neither for him nor for her, apparently, any longer includes any obligation to uphold the fullness of the Catholic truth about marriage.

In his Commonweal article, Joseph Bottum mentions the Blankenhorn changeover on marriage but declares himself “unsatisfied” with it. Yet in spite of his own incessant philosophical and theological citations and name dropping, his account of what is involved does not appear to be any more substantive or satisfying than the Blankenhorn thesis. He really does just seem to have joined with today’s intellectuals who dislike the same-sex marriage fight, and, accustomed as they are by the nature of their intellectual status to making distinctions, do not consider themselves bound to recognize and accept such established common-sense positions as that marriage is necessarily a union between a man and woman. For such minds, marriage apparently can be redefined merely by taking thought—or at any rate a redefinition of it that others have made can be countenanced.

Objectively speaking, however, marriage remains what it is in reality, and even if in the United States and other parts of the world many people have for the moment come to believe erroneously that it can be redefined to include homosexual liaisons, this is not a notion that the Catholic Church can properly entertain. Even if for the time being it seems to be a “lost cause,” true marriage still has to be upheld by Catholics and so-called same-sex marriage still has to be opposed by them for at least three basic reasons—there are actually many more reasons, in fact; but the following three reasons suffice to make the point:

  • Attempts at sexual union between two persons of the same sex do not provide the basis for a real marriage. If I come upon a group knocking a ball over two goal posts and ask what they are playing and get the reply, “baseball,” I have to answer: “No, baseball has a specific identity and rules, and what you are doing is not how it is played. You are playing something else.” Similarly, marriage requires something other than two persons of the same sex attempting a physical union; it requires a man and a women with complementary reproductive organs which complete each other when joined and have the potential to produce a child. Traditional definitions of marriage, both in law and in practice, have always included and taken for granted this child-producing (and family-producing) potential of the man-woman relationship. Calling a same-sex union that lacks this element a marriage does not make it a marriage. Claiming it to be a marriage is thus not true; legalizing it as such means legalizing a lie. Catholics cannot in conscience accept a legal obligation to affirm what is in fact not true.
  • The physical acts involving the reproductive organs carried out in a same-sex relationships are, first of all, not true, natural acts; they are merely attempts at a false, unnatural physical union. As everybody knows, however, the Catholic Church firmly and unambiguously teaches that these homosexual acts are morally wrong; they are objectively evil. Nor is the Church ever going to change her teaching on this. She cannot, because this teaching, again, is true. Thus, to legalize as a marriage a physical union arising from and based on the performance of these same acts amounts to legalizing and normalizing evil. The Catholic Church obviously cannot agree with this, and neither can any Catholic with a properly formed conscience. It is true that not much is ever said about this moral dimension of the issue—what actually goes on between homosexuals. Nobody really wants to talk about this; yet it is what is at the back of practically everybody’s mind, and it is the main reason why, as Joseph Bottum recognizes and deplores, proponents of same-sex relationships almost inevitably come to hate the Catholic Church. But there is no help for this. The Catholic Church cannot formally acquiesce in the legalization of what is objectively evil.
  • A third reason why same-sex unions cannot be legalized and regularized as marriages lies in the distortions resulting from the contemporary practice of considering sex to be the basis of a human person’s identity. This is especially pernicious as it is encountered in the dubious contemporary emphasis placed on one’s so-called sexual orientation. Again, it is not true that a human person’s identity is based on that person’s sexuality. And all sorts of errors stem from this basic assumption, including most of the recent court decisions requiring the legalization of same-sex unions as marriages. Similarly, all the forced and elaborate distortions involved in today’s LGBT obsession stem from the mistaken belief that sexual orientation, or sexual impulses generally, establish human identity and rule human behavior. We now know, from our forty years’ experience with what has been correctly called the sexual revolution, that when this kind of thinking is accepted, nearly everything else becomes eroticized and corrupted as well. We saw this with sex education. We see it with today’s HHS birth prevention mandate. And one need take only one look at our so-called popular “culture” in order to gauge the harm that this error has done.

And it is a fundamental error, for when the focus is so rigidly and narrowly placed on only one aspect or dimension of the human person, what gets diminished is human dignity itself and what Blessed Pope John Paul II liked to call “the whole person,” body and soul. Human persons amount to more than their sexuality, a great deal more. And the whole person, we know from Scripture, is created by God, both “male and female…[and] in his own image,” and moreover, and not incidentally, the man and woman created thereby are commanded in the very same passage of Scripture to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Gen 1: 27-28). In other words, God’s original creation of human persons as either male or female precisely and necessarily entails the possibility of further progeny also created “in God’s image” as a consequence of the male-female union designed by God—just as the Church insists today (and as the civil law itself used to) that the same children-producing potential must always be an essential element of any union that can properly be called a marriage.

However, this fundamental truth is no longer universally understood. What has come about today is that in a very brief span of time there has been an almost complete reversal of what constitutes morality in certain areas, particularly with regard to sex and marriage. While not too long ago almost any kind of sexual activity outside of the bonds of marriage was understood to be contrary to society’s official moral code (regardless of whether or not it was actually observed in practice), today almost any kind of sexual activity, providing it is consensual and between adults, is not only to be allowed, it is not ever in any way to be morally judged. Today’s moral judgments are reserved instead for the supposed “bigotry” of wishing to deny the “right” of same-sex partners to “marry.” Already penalties and sanctions are being imposed on some who refuse to recognize this new “right.”

This reversal of morality has been reinforced by the widespread current (but erroneous) belief that denying two persons of the same sex to have their relationship legally recognized as a marriage is equivalent to the old Jim Crow laws that forbade whites to marry blacks and vice versa. That was discrimination, and as everybody knows, no greater sin nor crime exists than that. But it is not discrimination, in fact, to recognize that in the nature of things a man cannot marry another man, nor a woman another woman. This is a matter of empirical fact not of some supposed “right” to marry whomever one chooses. While racial difference is not an impediment to a true marriage between a man and woman, and thus the old laws forbidding interracial marriage were indeed unjust, the analogy does not hold in the case of the same-sex unions because they are not marriages. By legalizing these same-sex unions as marriages, however, society is demanding that all of us must henceforth affirm that what the law decrees is the case (whether or not it is the case), or be subject to various penalties. This is intolerable, and, for Catholics, impossible.

And so we do have to keep on fighting on the marriage front even if at the moment it seems to have become a “lost cause.” We have to keep on fighting because so-called gay marriage is both false and wrong, and it distorts reality and truth in ways that cannot be countenanced. When Whitaker Chambers decided he had to leave the Communist party, he actually believed that he was joining the losing side, but he rejected Communism anyway in fidelity to the truth. We cannot do any less. Joseph Bottum and his fellow members of the accommodating intellectual elite are just wrong.

Yes, the proponents of so-called same-sex marriage do seem to be winning at the moment. But what they are so successfully but mistakenly getting enshrined in the law doesn’t really square with the realities of our human existence and nature; it remains profoundly unnatural, in fact, and in the long run it is not going to work. Nobody knows how long it may take before its energies get played out and its errors and distortions exposed, but eventually the time for that will have to come. More than two thousand years ago the ancient Roman poet, Horace, astutely observed that natura expelles furca, tamen usque recurret: “You may throw nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.” We have to count on nature “coming back,” and, meanwhile, work and pray and uphold what we know to be the truth to the best of our ability.


  • Kenneth D. Whitehead

    Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former career diplomat who served in Rome and the Middle East and as the chief of the Arabic Service of the Voice of America. For eight years he served as executive vice president of Catholics United for the Faith. He also served as a United States Assistant Secretary of Education during the Reagan Administration. He is the author of The Renewed Church: The Second Vatican Council’s Enduring Teaching about the Church (Sapientia Press, 2009) and, most recently, Affirming Religious Freedom: How Vatican Council II Developed the Church’s Teaching to Meet Today’s Needs (St. Paul’s, 2010).

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