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The Bottum Line: Reenchantment

I’ve been pondering Joseph Bottum’s lengthy essay on Catholicism and same-sex marriage. Matt Boudway has ably taken on some Catholic conservative reaction against its supposed “preemptive surrender” in the political battle over same-sex marriage. Boudway points out (correctly) that the conservative reaction seems to imply (and even state) the need to somehow take on issues of divorce and contraception in the public sphere – battles which the Church is extremely unlikely to fight. But Bottum’s deeper point in “surrendering” is not so much a prudential one; rather, it is his premise that the entire attempt to fight these battles is doomed apart from a more robust version of the natural law, which Bottom encodes as “the reenchantment of the world.” If the “war” is about reenchantment, Bottum opines, then this particular “battle” may prove to do more damage to the larger cause. Indeed, as other pro-marriage writers like David Blankenthorn have suggested, same-sex marriage may serve the cause of strengthening marriage, rather than weaken it.

Conservative replies to this “reenchantment thesis” tend to be in the form of an acceptance of Bottum’s larger point, but an irate rejection of the idea that one can move toward reenchantment apart from Truth. Put in simple terms, the reply to Bottum is: you can’t reenchant marriage by accepting same-sex marriage… because it isn’t marriage. In so doing, the responses I’ve read reveal two chief weaknesses.

First, I worry that some conservatives have an overly-narrow understanding of reenchantment, one that often centers on a particular kind of family life and on recovering pious practices that were marginalized in the wake of Vatican II. I would hasten to say that there is nothing wrong – and much right – about both of these. But the problem of disenchantment, and the rejection of any kind of sacramental worldview, stretches far beyond a few broken norms about sex and a few lost devotional practices. This is a point that links Bottum’s work to the chain of Catholic thinkers like de Lubac, Guardini, Teilhard, von Balthasar, and David Schindler. Beyond these theologians, all the popes of and since the Council are, in their own ways, engaged in exactly this reawakening. At its deepest level, the loss of an enchanted world comes via the dominance of modern scientific rationality, and in particular its application to our shared economic life. Yet too many (though not all) conservatives blithely ignore this problem, accepting the lifestyles and economic practices of the modern economy… despite papal encyclicals like Laborem Exercens and Caritas in Veritate, which aim quite specifically to reenchant human work and the economy. If it were not enough to have all this magisterial witness, basic historical study would reveal that the tendency to treat marriage and sex in isolation ignores the historical and contemporary ties between forms of sex and marriage and the dominant economic organization of society. The theological enchantment of “sola marriage” has difficulty explaining plain sociological facts, such as that highly-educated secular couples maintain marriages while poor-but-religious subcultures struggle to form and sustain marriages.

Take an example in Emily Stimson’s reply to Bottom. Stimson has written extensively on marriage and sexuality, and she writes:

I have a hard time squaring Bottum’s notion that [reenchantment] should be priority number one for the Church with the Jesus whom I’ve encountered in the Gospels. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been slowly re-reading the Gospel of Matthew. And it unsettles me. Rightly I think. There, Jesus doesn’t talk a whole lot about re-enchantment. But he does talk about sin, repentance, and conversion. He talks about giving up everything and following him. He talks about poverty and persecution, heavy yokes and light yokes, feasting and fasting, loving and dying, Heaven and Hell. Throughout Matthew, Jesus’ general expectation seems to be that the world will find neither him nor his disciples all that enchanting, that they will, in fact, be reviled and hated. He also doesn’t expect his teachings to bring peace, but rather division, pitting brother against brother. He says few will choose to walk the narrow way, and most will walk the wide and easy path that takes them straight to perdition.

The notes of martyrdom are constantly flung back at Bottum in these essays, the implication being that Bottum is unwilling to “walk the narrow way.” And it is true that Jesus taught much that was rejected. But it is difficult to find a case where Jesus offers this polemic in service of sustaining certain marriage norms via civil activism and legislation! Indeed, in almost every case, his admonitions aim squarely at three targets: wealth, violence, and false forms of religious piety. (In this, he is of course echoing the OT prophets.) Here we are, living in the richest country in the world, with a military of unfathomably expansive force, and with plenty of Christians fixated on pious religious observances. And yet the front-line martyr-producing battle is supposed to be about civil legislation about same-sex marriage?? More “enchanted” piety and more “enchanted” sexuality are good, but in isolation from a larger social critique, can become what Benedict himself calls “pious Pelagianism.”


I would suggest that the blindness to these realities (“reality” is a word these articles like to use against Bottum!) is not merely a matter of misplaced moralistic individualism; it potentially rests on a deeper problem about how the whole “Catholic thing” is conceived. Phil Lawler writes:

… Jesus did not speak about changing reality, but about sin, repentance, and conversion. The Gospel message is not that we are enchanted but that we are redeemed—and to say that we are redeemed necessarily implies that we are poor helpless souls in need of redemption. These too are realities, the pithy facts of human existence, which need no poetic embellishment to add to their dramatic importance.

In the end there is only one great story in the world, and Jody Bottum, who is a much more creative writer than I am, should recognize it. It is a story about sin and redemption, a story about Jesus Christ. The story is all the more beautiful because it is true. But—here is the point that I fear Bottum has skipped over—mankind has always had trouble digesting this reality. “He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not.”

Jody Bottum is right in saying that Christians are not called to defend any particular political proposition. But we are called to defend the truth about marriage, because it is the truth about mankind, which is the truth about Christ.

In the final crescendo here, one could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus’ entire mission is quite simply to defend, at all costs, the natural law! The story told here is an individual one about sinful souls seeking redemption; it has no room for the Church, except as a vehicle to serve this moral accusation and conversion process. Indeed, we are told (echoing Stimson’s claims about Jesus not being about re-enchantment) that “Jesus did not speak of changing reality” – really?! The Church IS meant to change reality – or rather, IS changed reality. In these articles, there is nothing about Lumen Gentium’s notion of the Church as “the sacrament of Christ to the world,” nothing that echoes Pope Benedict’s insistence in Spe Salvi that salvation is social, nothing indicates the possibility of astonishing new acts of the unleashed Holy Spirit (see Acts 2-4, e.g.). In short, religion is reduced to ethics, and redemption (presumably) to the individual salvation of the soul to Heaven, a redemption that is now possible by grace if we convert from our disobedience of natural law norms… but is apparently available without grace as well, since the desire is for civil legislation to enforce these norms!

There is, in this analysis, no new creation, no reassembled, reconciled Body of Jews and Gentiles, no partaking in the Divine nature. There is no sacramental marriage of heaven and earth, the eschatology eloquently defended by N.T. Wright in his recent work. It is as if the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit, far from a descending fire, a sweeping wind, or a flood, is simply the dropping of individual rescue ladders from airplanes high overhead, up which we can climb.

At base, Bottum’s essay should lead us to realize that the primary work of the Church, the gathering people into the new humanity – and surely this gathering is the reenchantment – is a messy, imperfect process in every age. If we do not accept this, we make the Church into a perfectionist sect. The messiness of this work means that drawing people into the enchanted world happens from the old world “gradually” – and what “gradually” means might be contested in any age or place. It mean adapting ancient gods or ancestors into the communion of saints. It mean taking over pagan festivals like “Easter.” It mean imposing a “peace of God” to limit the violence of warring lords, despite not being able to eliminate it. It means, as Augustine wrote against Pelagius, that we accept as “a man of good works” the one

Who indulges his incontinence within the decent bounds of marriage… who will put up with wrongs done to him with less than complete patience… who guards what he possesses and gives alms, though not very generously… (quoted in R.A. Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity, p. 54)

Such a person – like all of us, perhaps – straddles the old world and the new, perhaps stretching toward perfection but also constantly aware of the pull of all that is selfish, exclusive, power-hungry. At its best, in every age, the Church has proudly and starkly held up a luminous vision of holiness, something incarnate and yet seemingly new and almost impossible, and yet at the same time proclaimed the equally astonishing and humbling wideness of God’s mercy. It is no easy thing to maintain these two stances simultaneously. It is certainly to the credit of Pope Francis that he may be doing so, however it might be misunderstood. But it is the essence of Jesus’ ministry that it compromises neither the stark holiness nor the constant mercy. This is in fact how we become much more than enforcers of natural law on and for the State – this is how we become, by grace, truly like God. This is the changed reality, the enchanted world, the new kingdom that Christ offers, living and growing in the midst of the old, even if always imperfectly – or, as Pope Francis might put it, “messily.”

I am teaching Jim Martin’s splendid Jesuit Guide this semester, and it is reminding me how much I love St. Ignatius. Which in turn reminds me what a losing proposition it was for the Church to enlist the power of the State over against the Protestant Reformers. What reinvigorated the Church were two things: deeply creative and powerful spiritualities like Ignatius (who finds God in all things – definitely a reechantment program!) and internal ecclesial reforms that eliminated many abuses and put in place renewed structures. Perhaps what Bottum’s essay is saying is: these are what matter for our ongoing mission, much more than bending the public order to natural law.

UPDATE: I have revised this post and removed certain stereotypes, which were pointed out to me as offensive. I sincerely apologize if I have given offense by them, as I do not mean to impugn those sincerely trying to live out the Catholic faith. Such stereotypes of  sincere practicing “liberals” are frequent and painful, but are no justification for similar responses. I admit I was deeply pained by some of the haughty dismissals I read in the responses to Bottum’s essay, and they affected my writing. The above retains the substance of my concerns, but without stereotypes.



  1. I heard about Bottum’s piece via Ed Feser’s rebuttal. Where the critique’s cited here have a quasi-Evangelical tone, emphasizing sin and atonement, personal salvation and direct appeal to personal interpretation of Scripture, Feser relies on old fashioned Scholasticism and the tradition of Church resistance to immoral laws and false teaching from the state. Winnowing out Feser’s unfortunate tendency toward polemic, the conclusion I take is that if the ship of Christianized law is going down we should go down with it, firmly insisting on the truth of what the state and marriage should be, rather than jumping on the life raft of “tolerance” and private faith. This may be the same conclusion the other critics of Bottum arrive at but it seems to me Feser has a more intellectually solid and a more Catholic argument to support it, and I’d be interested to see a rebuttal to his critique.

  2. I did not find Bottum’s argument particularly convincing, although I think he is on to something very important in beginning with the human aspect, the personal relationship with gays, the importance of mercy, kindness and acceptance. The Holy Father has touched on this in his latest interview:

    “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

    It is important to distinguish between Christian sacramental marriage and state civil marriage, which is now a very different understanding of marriage. There does not appear to be anything per se immoral in state civil same sex marriage ceremonies, as the commitment to mutual love in such ceremonies is entirely in accord with the gospel and nothing in the ceremonies themselves conflicts with Catholic sexual teaching. Pastorally speaking, we are just going to have to come to terms with them in the same way with live with other personal living arrangements such as cohabitation, re-marriage, or contraception.

    God Bless

    God Bless

    • Chris, I would agree that “marriage” in the civil sense has come to mean something entirely separate from “marriage” in the sacramental sense already, so gay civil marriage is hardly a significant change and outside the purview of the Church’s interest. But I’m becoming more and more swayed by the sort of argument that says gay civil marriage will undermine the family and ultimately harm children. The clearest threat I think is economic. As marriage shifts from being seen as sort of an attempt at a walled garden for the natural generation of children, to an optional living arrangement for adults – adults who both can very well work full time jobs and provide for their own health care and retirements and for whom children are just another optional living arrangement – the justification for providing spousal benefits (that being that one spouse probably can’t pursue a career with his or her full energy because of child-rearing commitments) will disappear completely. I’m afraid marriage and children will both become commodities that responsible people only take on if they can afford them, and the social responsibility to help support marriages and child rearing through spousal benefits will fall away.

    • I’m not even sure that what the State grants would be called a “ceremony,” Chris. It’s true that a commitment to mutual love and sharing-of-life is not objectionable in itself and that, as far as I can tell, there is no “sexual activity test” in these laws…but what the State grants is even less controversial than a “ceremony about mutual love,” I’d think. It’s basically a piece of paper filed at a government office granting a package of legal benefits. That’s all. In many ways it is no different or more controversial than people registering a business together.

      Part of what is so irksome about the “conservative” position in this conversation is that it essentially boils down to a labeling game. The hierarchy at this point has basically conceded civil unions. So at that point does it really matter what WORD the State attaches to them? Is it the State’s job to legislate the evolution of language in order to help theology prevent confusion from surrounding its traditional categorical labels? Last night I “married” two half-empty bottles of ketchup. No one objects to this extension of the term BY ANALOGY, so why is the semantic battle given so much emphasis when it comes to what the State calls its institutions of domestic partnership (a category that includes traditional marriage, but also includes more than just that).

      Zeb, I think your objection about how marriage “shifts to be seen” as something different may have some validity…but it has nothing to do with allowing gay civil ‘marriage’. The law REFLECTS a shift in how marriage and family understood. In itself it is not a cause, really. Yes, State approval might accelerate cultural acceptance, but only after a tipping point has been reached. And besides, is it the job of the secular State to be theologically pedagogical in its labels?

      I don’t know what sort of “spousal benefits” you think will “fall away” after granting gay marriage. It’s not like the State was ever really subsidizing marriage all that well; people have been waiting until financial independence to marry for a long long time, and frankly there are demographic benefits to that regarding economic sustainability. People should be responsible regarding when they are ready for children. And we’re already living in a world where the stay-at-home mother (a rather late creation) is not a feature of many families anymore.

      And if the issue is parenthood, shouldn’t we subsidize single parents just as much as (if not moreso!) than married couples to help them raise their kids? If gay couples are raising children (sometimes, even, one of their biological children) we may not see this as ideal, but why would these children or families deserve protection any less?

      Although, yes, the shift a voluntaristic individualistic notion of family and relationships has concerning aspects, I think a convincing case can be made (as in Bottum and Cloutier) that gay marriage will, if anything, help slow the erosion, just a little bit, of that shift. I mean, it’s pretty hard to see how a fight to EXTEND benefits to an additional 4% of the population…is really going to be a major force in abolishing spousal benefits entirely. The leap from “granting rights to gay couples” to “taking them away from straight couples” has always been a dubious one in my mind.

      • David, I am so sorry for your easy acceptance and perpetuation of the liberal-conservative categories in this post. They quite distracted me from the argument.

        By the way, acknowledging a caricature to be a stereotype before you employ it in your argument doesn’t make it any less offensive.

        • Maria– I am sorry I gave offense, which was certainly not my intention. The substance of what I was arguing – that too often the re-enchantment program in narrowly focused on marriage and pious practice, and that this problem is rooted in a less-than-expansive understanding of the point of Catholicism – does not require any stereotyping. And the theological conversation is not advanced by it. I worked hard in the post to show rather starkly that I was arguing from within a broadly orthodox lens, appealing to popes, to thinkers like Guardini and de Lubac, yet I received reprimands. I am sure this is because I have given personal offense, which I regret.

      • Chris, the DOMA case was specifically about a spousal benefit (immunity from inheritance tax) that only makes sense if we assume one or both partners give up part of their lifetime earning potential for the sake of child rearing. Here is a story I saw recently about the trend of employers cutting spousal benefits Employers Trim Health Costs By Cutting Coverage For Spouses. And with the (manufactured) Social Security crisis I can’t imagine that spousal benefit will go unchallenged. While the stay at home parent is not so common these days (I don’t know what you mean about it being a late creation), it is still the case that many spouses, especially wives, forgo significant earning potential in the lifetimes in order to raise families. This is one of the main reasons behind the income divide between men and women in America. For the last 75 years we’ve partially repaid spouses for that sacrifice by letting them share their working spouses’ benefits. Why do that if both spouses can be expected to work equally throughout their lives? Though you’re right that granting marriages to the small number of gay people who want them will not have much direct economic impact, but all the ballyhoo of formally announcing that now this is what marriage means will have a big cultural impact. I agree that we should also subsidize parenthood generally, but that requires no change in marriage law and changing marriage law does nothing for single parents. But the purpose of marriage subsidies is not to directly financially help parents raise their kids, it’s to help parents stay together to raise their kids by removing some of the natural penalty for doing so (lost wages and benefits). It’s true that the law reflects what a growing part of the population already thinks should be the case, but a change in law will affect what the public thinks marriage is, and that will have knock on affects on how marriage is treated in both the public and private sectors.

        • Sorry, that was a reply to mradeknal, not Chris.

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