Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bottum-ing Out

So a Catholic thinker who once helmed the wonderful periodical "First Things" has come out in favor of same-sex marriage.

No big surprise, then, that the New York Times would trumpet this story to the nations as they did this morning.

I'm sure much more blistering and thorough destructions of  Bottum's meandering and fluffy essay are being penned at this moment by much more capable hands than my own.  I did want to share some reactions after reading the piece this morning.

1) The most stunning component to the entire essay is Bottum's belief that St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching justifies support for legalizing same-sex marriage.  This statement betrays hubris on a scale rarely seen in these parts outside of the executive branch of our government.   By comparison, Martin Luther believed that he was the first person to correctly interpret the Gospels over the course of 1500 years.  Bottum can perhaps console himself with the thought that he's only half as brazen as Luther, given that Bottum believes he is the only one to properly interpret Aquinas over the last 700 years.

Bottum doesn't say something like "I am starting to wonder if perhaps St. Thomas' teachings could be used to justify this" nor does he say something like "I plan to kick this idea around with lots of other people who are scholars of St. Thomas' teaching",...nope...he just writes that he has suddenly realized that St. Thomas's Summa DOES support legalizing same sex marriage.

Bottum has thought let it be done.

2) Most of the underlying current of the essay centers around a gay friend of Bottum's, and how their friendship cooled over the past few years because of the Church's stance.

I would love to ask Bottum "SO THAT'S YOUR REASON?  You've changed your heart because the Gospel caused some friction in a relationship? Dude, have you EVER read the Gospels?  Have you heard what Jesus said his Word would bring?  If you haven't, He said division.  Have you heard what Jesus said he would do to relationships between mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, etc.?  He said he would pit them against each other.  But you've changed your heart because of FRICTION?"

I'm sorry, but the millions who have been martyred for their Faith through the centuries weep for the fact that your knees have buckled and your faith abandoned merely from a strained friendship while their bodies were crushed on this Earth because they held to the Faith of our fathers.

While still at First Things and defending things Catholic, Bottum wrote the following poem:

If I have seen geese low on the east horizon,
seen the cold reeds strain in the dawn to follow,
watched the first gray ice of the season take
roots for the winter,

that scene is no great moment in days that fathers
greet a half-born child with a knife and daughters
name the pain-free murder of mothers most
prodigal mercy.

And they that speak strong words in the failing season—
sparking new fires, stoking the dampened embers—
scorn the faint hearts nursing a private flame,
skirting the darkness.

But still the cold reeds sway in the wind and whisper,
"Leave the great voice blazing to stave the winter.
Autumn’s own soft music has need of songs
gentle and dying."

Joseph Bottum - congrats this morning on doing just about everything you lament in the poem above.


  1. So disappointed, Father. Thanks for sharing with us here. Suzanne McConnell

  2. Someone at Mark Shea's blog noted that where Bottum says:

    “I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.”

    that we've heard this somewhere before:

    "I believe English Catholics should accept the King's divorce simply because they are Englishmen."

  3. Not a single mention of Mr. Bottum's suggestion that absence of the virtue of prudence from much -- indeed, most all -- 'conversation' about this question has been the major weakness on each and every 'side'? It seems his central point. Yet you don't even mention it, seemingly because you didn't understand it.

    You accuse Mr. Bottum of having interpreted Aquinas as being supportive of same-sex marriage. He did no such thing. It isn't Bottum who is misinterpreting Thomas; it's you who are misinterpreting Bottum. His insistence is simply that Aquinas's insistence would be that prudence is the virtue proximately at issue here. Not faith. Not wisdom. And, as prudence pertains to 'concrete singulars,' universal moral truths (even those enunciated with such clarity and beauty by the angelic doctor) do not suffice.

    One can accept this insistence, while coming to different conclusions than does Mr. Bottum. But such conclusions would emerge from genuine conversation and argument. Right now it's just a matter of dueling monologues substituting volume for intelligence. Like your post here.

    1. Anyone can accuse his opponent of not being prudent.

      "Before we lambast Saddam for using chemical weapons, let's be prudent"

      Aquinas would not say this is a question of prudence. Aquinas would say it is a clear violation of the moral law, divine law, and the natural law for two men or two women to have sex together, and then to call that marriage...

      Also, are you and Bottum suggesting that universal moral truths do not exist?

    2. Bottum making retractions?

    3. Also, for the sake of my readership, who don't have philosophy degrees, it is completely fair for me to say that Bottum thinks he is the first to properly interpret Aquinas on this.

      You can rephrase that into saying "Bottum is claiming that the only thing proximate here, according to Aquinas, is the virtue of prudence, not the Moral nor Natural nor Divine Law, and prudence pertains to 'concrete singulars', whereas moral truths do not suffice"...that's a really fancy way of saying the same thing - Bottum is claiming to be the first person to properly apply Aquinas to this debate.

      How many other Aquinas scholars hold Bottum's thesis - 0...thus making Bottum the first one to get it right.

      Rephrasing Bottum's argument with philosophical phrasing doesn't change the fact that he thinks his reading on Aquinas is innovative.

  4. Distinguishing questions is fairly standard Thomist method, so let me distinguish two possible meanings to your asking about whether Mr. Bottum's interpretation of St. Thomas is novel: (1) Is Bottum insisting that politics pertains proximately to prudence, not wisdom, to the practical intellectual virtue, not the moral virtues, and is this insistence novel, or quite traditional? (2) Is Bottum suggesting that St. Thomas made the same concrete prudential judgment that he is making, and, if so, is this a traditional or novel interpretation?

    (1) It's simply silly even to ask of Mr. Bottum, as you do, whether he suggests that universal moral truths might not exist. He insists on their existence in this very essay, as he has throughout his career. But knowledge of such universal truths is but the beginning background of prudential reasoning. Politics involves, not the universal, but the concrete, the singulars. And this is standard Thomist interpretation. My primary background here is theological, primarily through Marie-Dominique Chenu, Walter Principe and Bernard Lonergan. This is more precisely a philosophical issue, though, and what philosophical grounding I have is primarily through Yves Simon, and this insistence on the centrality of practical reason in political life is at the heart of his entire project. Chenu, Principe, and Lonergan surely shared that insistence.

    This is what I believe Mr. Bottum claimed of Aquinas, that prudential judgment is at issue here, not moral wisdom, and I think it a very traditional claim.

    (2) I also think Mr. Bottum to have made no claim that Aquinas would necessarily have agreed with the specific prudential judgment he was making in the essay. As prudence pertains to concrete singulars, to the uniqueness of historical situations, there is no way to know. Aquinas followed Augustine, for example, in his insistence that prostitution be legal, not restricted by civil authority. Clearly, neither of these great Doctors had any doubt as to moral truth here. Both simply insisted that moral truth wasn't what was at issue. Would either of them argue that Nevada has chosen the more prudent path here than the remainder of our states? I don't know, and frankly I don't think it's knowable. Though they lived in strikingly different social and cultural situations, both concluded that, in the concrete situations in which they found themselves, the ordered liberty of social life would prosper with prostitution legalized more so than with prostitution outlawed. But they didn't -- couldn't -- know the concrete singulars of our situation. One can come to a different judgment on this specific question here and now than St. Thomas did there and then, yet be faithful to his tbinking.

    You have a highly inadequate understanding of the virtue of prudence, as evidenced by your Saddam quip. Reading some Yves Simon would be well advised.

    That you know of no Thomists who would argue that this is the authentically Thomist method for proceeding here, I don't doubt. They are, nevertheless, numerous. That you don't see them doesn't mean they aren't there to be seen.

    That you don't have a philosophically inclined readership, I understand. All the more reason for you to avoid making sweeping and untrue statements that your readership will be unable to recognize as such.

    1. a) I'd love to get some names of Thomists who agree with Bottum on his argument

      b) Concerning Bottum's view that Aquinas could be used to justify the legalization of same-sex marriage; does the fact that he thinks his argument is quite obvious make Bottum's claim more or less arrogant?

      c) As the Thomist that you consider yourself to be, in your opinion, what would the Angelic Doctor make of Bottum's description of his failing friendship as an argument for his position?

      d) I understand the virtue of prudence quite well. Paragraph 1806 of the Catechism. It is straightforward enough. I'll leave Yves Simon to someone with more free time.

      What I will say in conclusion is this - prudence and conscience, as understood by Aquinas and the Catholic Church, will never lead one to act contrary to CORE teachings of the Church.

      Prostitution's moral quality clear, but the Church has no law that says that prostitution must be made illegal in the civil realm.

      The Church has a law, in fact it has been enumerated in many places as foundational, that marriage be protected IN THE CIVIL REALM. The Church doesn't tell society what to do in many places, so when it does speak up and say, "If society gets _________ wrong, it will implode." The Church has made this level of a statement about the marriage question, invalidating Bottum's argument

  5. Allow me to address your points out of order, as (c) it’s important for me to insist at the outset that I do not consider myself any great shakes as a Thomist. I am neither theologian nor philosopher, but I have spent considerable energy throughout my adult life grappling with Fr. Lonergan’s thought, was privileged to participate in a seminar on St. Thomas with Fr. Principe at PIMS in Toronto, and have made a more modest effort to grapple with Simon’s Thomist reflections on the political order. This background seems simply to have enabled me to understand what Mr. Bottum was attempting to do in a way that you were not able to do.
    As for the friendship on which Mr. Bottum reflected (c), it seems to me that he presented this as more a partially precipitating occasion for his reflections more than as part of his actual argument. But such attention to concrete experience strikes me as very Thomist. The reflections on affection in the Summa Theologiae (I-II, q. 26) strike me as coming from one who is reflecting on more than the writings of Augustine and Aristotle, as coming from one who has reflected keenly on what he has observed in himself and others in concrete relationships. Indeed, coming to theoretical conclusions on such matters without such concrete attention seems antithetical to the manner in which St. Thomas proceeded.
    I also get no sense from the Commonweal essay that (b) Mr. Bottum thinks his argument “quite obvious.” I don’t know where you pick up that sense, but I don’t sense that at all. It’s clear that he himself didn’t think that way for a very long time, that there was real anguish involved in the course of changing his mind, and the very form of his essay reflects this.
    It also seems to me inaccurate (b) to state that Mr. Bottum has “used” Aquinas to “justify” his position regarding civil recognition of same-sex unions. I don’t think he’s engaging in proof-texting here, as much as appealing more generally to the Thomist method of reflecting on ‘nature,’ a method quite distinct from the Augustinian tradition, which was quite ascendant in his time, as in ours. Chenu reflects on this contrast as evidenced in the moral teaching of the prima secundae: “. . . there are surprises here for a certain type of moralist who looks only at a priori considerations and who extrapolates metaphysical and mystical ideas foreign to practical human behavior and to its internal criteria of freedom” (Aquinas and His Role in Theology, 97).
    Two Thomist texts can serve as examples of the openness to such surprise in such reflection:
    Because of the diverse conditions of humans, it happens that some acts are virtuous to some people and suitable to them, while the same acts are immoral for others, as inappropriate to them. (ST I-II, q. 94, a. 3, ad 3)
    For it can occur that in a particular individual there can be a breakdown of some natural principle of the species and thus what is contrary to the nature of the species can become by accident natural to this individual. (ST I-II, q. 31, a. 7, Responsio)
    In the latter instance, St. Thomas explicitly mentions among his examples, “in coitu masculorum,” acknowledging that for some persons this can be “connaturale secundum quid.” Did St. Thomas argue here to the specific point being made by Mr. Bottum? Of course not. Do such passages indicate an openness to ongoing moral reflection and discovery in the Thomist tradition that marks it as being quite distinct from the Augustinian? Yes.

  6. As for (a) Thomists who have argued along similar lines. Well, in my previous post I mentioned two distinct meanings to this question, and the distinction seems not to have registered with you, so I’ll try again. As to the fundamental insistence that establishing the “tranquillitas ordinis,” the ordered liberty of civil society, is a matter of prudential reasoning, the result of exercising the practical intellectual virtue, and not determined by universal moral truth, is a pretty generally held position among Thomists. My reading of Simon’s insistence in this regard comes primarily from “Practical Knowledge” (Fordham University Press, 1991). Daniel Westberg argues similarly and at length in “Right Practical Reason: Aristotle, Action, and Prudence in Aquinas” (Oxford University Press, 1994), as does David Mark Nelson in “The Priority of Prudence: Virtue and Natural Law in Thomas Aquinas and the Implications for Modern Ethics” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992).
    As for Thomists who have suggested that prudential natural law reasoning exhibits an openness to this particular issue, Stephen J. Pope surveys the field in “Scientific and Natural Law Analysis of Homosexuality: A Methodological Study,” Journal of Religious Ethics 25 (Spring 1997) 89-121. An often-cited article that argues from a different starting point but to similar conclusion was written by Eugene F. Rogers, Jr., “Aquinas on Natural Law and the Virtues in Biblical Context: Homosexuality as a Test Case,” Journal of Religious Ethics 27 (Spring 1999) 29-56. The Jesuit James F. Keenan also surveyed the field in “The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons,” Theological Studies 64 (2003) 127-150. From a Lonerganian perspective, I’m familiar with writings by Cynthia Crysdale, Charles Hefling, Daniel Helminiak, Dom Sebastian Moore, and James Robertson Price. As to other Thomists, Giles Milhaven comes to mind, as does Lisa Sowle Cahill, Mark Jordan, Richard Peddicord, Cristina Traina, Margaret Farley, and John McNeill. Derrick Sherwin Bailey’s seminal historical work, “Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition” (Longmans, Green, 1955), situated Thomas in the wider tradition and noted an openness not found elsewhere in medieval thought. And this is just from my very amateur familiarity. The field was well plowed before Mr. Bottum hopped on the tractor.
    And (d), I still don’t think you understand the virtue of prudence very well, though I’m glad you’ve managed to read a paragraph about it in the Catechism.

    1. I don't see an answer to the following so I will restate it.

      "The Church considers prostitution to be immoral. The Church does not anywhere say that governments MUST ban prostitution. On the other hand, the Church has made it very clear that EVEN IN THE CIVIL REALM, marriage as being between a man and a woman MUST be upheld. Do you and Bottum think that the Church and Blessed Pope John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the Catechism etc. have all read Aquinas wrongly?"