Joseph Bottum has walked back the most controversial assertions of his barnburner Commonweal essay on gay marriage. For this, I’m glad: Several of them were unsupportable. Yet the essay was never about any point of fact so much as it was about a certain mood: one of surprise and dismay at the way the sudden rise of the marriage debate has disrupted old friendships.
Bottum’s is a generational lament, the cry of a son of the baby boom who sees old patterns exploded by an issue unknown to his youth. This becomes clearer when one contrasts Bottum’s essay with a recent speech by Ryan T. Anderson, who Bottum singles out as the sharpest of the young advocates for the Christian ideal of marriage.
A few years ago, his friendship began to cool, bit by bit. You understand how it is: a little here, a little there, and last time I was through New York he didn’t even bother to answer my note suggesting we put together one of our low-rent urban hootenannies. The problem, our conversations had made pretty clear along the way, was that I am a Catholic, and Jim is gay.
[ . . . ]
We are now at the point where, I believe, American Catholics should accept state recognition of same-sex marriage simply because they are Americans.
The marriage debate is just one earthly battle, one among many that the people of God must wage. It is not ours to determine when we will succeed in it, or how. And ultimately, it is of secondary concern. For the only success of ultimate importance is holiness. The only real tragedy in life is not to have been a saint.
That success can be had—that tragedy avoided—whatever happens in law or culture. For holiness is not the world’s gift, but God’s; and what it calls for is faithful response. We give the other side a victory only if we fail to respond. Only if we spurn God’s calling to each of us. Only if we withdraw from the fight, out of indifference or despair.
God calls each of us by name, each to a unique path. There are as many different callings in this room as there are individual believers. And yet there is a common calling: a life of holiness and witnessing to the truth.
Bottum elsewhere appeals to the opinions of young people, but he can never share their experience of the issue. Younger Christians are more likely to favor gay marriage than their elders, but those that don’t favor it have a much better idea of what their opposition means. They have grown up with the debate, counted its costs, formed their friendships despite it.
This, I think, helps explain the different mood of Anderson’s essay. He, like Bottum, knows that the Christian view of marriage faces its steepest uphill sledding yet. But he’s not surprised by that fact. Indeed, Anderson is much more ready than his elder to press forward in the hard work of explaining Christian ideas of marriage to a culture that regards them with contempt.