The Things Worth Losing For

Last weekend was Jody Bottum weekend in the Catholic blogosphere. Reading Bottum and the commentary on Bottum — those who agree with him that fighting for marriage wasn’t worth the effort, and those who disagree  — was a wearisome task, to borrow a phrase from Matthew Franck.

But as I did so, a line from a Marie Bellet song kept returning to me: “There are things worth losing for.”

It’s from her song “The Man of the House” (a song I like better than “Shady Grove,” for what that’s worth):

And he fights the good fight ’cause there’s wrong and there’s right

There are things worth losing for

I think that is the best response to Bottum, though she didn’t mean it to be. That’s not to deny that some smart people have said smart things about Bottum’s smart essay. My favorite is Simcha Fisher’s “My thoughts on the Jody Bottum Controversy” the sum total of which is:

“Last time I read 6,000 words at one sitting, they were written by Herman Melville. That is all.”

Actually, Bottum’s piece was 9,384 words – excluding title and byline, but including the sentence, “Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.”

(At word 8,312 comes this sentence: “One more aside before we arrive at the argument for same-sex marriage …” There are about 1,500 words in just the paragraphs about his friend Jim. There were zero uses of the word “mother” [excluding Mother Teresa] and zero uses of the word “father” [excluding a book-title “Fatherless”] … But who’s counting?)

At the heart of Bottum’s essay is the claim that marriage is a losing proposition for the Church. Marriage is a hopeless cause and that ship has sailed and all we are doing is making people mad with no hope of that changing.

I probably agree with all of that. I much prefer arguing, “Don’t kill people!” in the abortion debate to arguing “Don’t marry people!” in the marriage debate.

I understand and feel for homosexual people. I really do. I love them; I want the best for them.

But marriage is fundamental. It is the institution that says potential parents deserve a special status. In the normal course of events, heterosexual couples who live together in love will beget the next generation. We want them to raise the next generation too, together. So potential parents need special protections, special encouragement, special help. Special status.

To give these potential parents a special status is better for all of us — we the same-sex attracted, the opposite-sex attracted and the not-all-that-attracted-to-sex. Because it is the fundamental relationship on which our society is built.

Will saying so make the Church look bad, and leave people feeling disenchanted?

I don’t know. I guess. But I am pretty sure that doesn’t matter.

john baptistIn a few days we celebrate the beheading of John the Baptist. He was beheaded for defending marriage. Peter Wolfgang points out that he is therefore a saint for our time. But why? Because he won?

John the Baptist opposed Herod for a transgression against the Mosaic Law – which forbids the union of a man with his brother’s wife while the brother is still living.

How did that dying for the Mosaic Law thing work out? Did the Mosaic Law win the day?

Or did the Christianity that John the Baptist helped bring us sweep away most of the Mosaic Law John the Baptist died for and change the whole paradigm he was working with?

And how about the other marriage martyr, St. Thomas More? Mark Shea has a nice bit reversing the Man for All Seasons line by proclaiming “Jody Bottum: God’s Good Servant, but the King’s First.”

thomas moreHow did Thomas More’s quixotic opposition to divorce in England work out? By winning the marriage fight? Reversing the tide? Of course not. His death was a blip on the march of divorce, like John the Baptist’s. But his death looms large in the march of the faith.

Would Jody Bottum have argued against both of those guys that they should not spend the Church’s spiritual capital on a losing battle? I’ll say it again: I don’t know. I guess. And I’m pretty sure it doesn’t matter.

Maybe marriage has always been a losing cause.

But it has also always been the fundamental building block of society.

As a Catholic I have spent my whole life fighting losing battles over fundamental things: fighting abortion, fighting poverty, arguing against war, fighting for religious freedom. Heck, I even promote natural family planning.

Maybe Bottum’s right, and God’s marriage cause is utterly lost in the 21st century, and to defend it is to look like a jerkfaced idiot.

Well, it hurts to put it that way, but we have been jerkfaced idiots for far too long to try to save face now.

Or maybe the opposite is true, and our witness will change the culture after all. It wouldn’t be the first time “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise,” as St. Paul put it. Or the last.

John the Baptist, saint of the losing cause of marriage, pray for us

St. Thomas More, saint of the hopeless defense of marriage, pray for us.

Give us the grace to lose big for marriage, like you did.


Addendum: Marie Bellet explained the genesis of her song in this comment on my Facebook where I linked this post …

“Thanks so much for the mention, Tom. I was asked to write that song for Crisis Magazine when they wanted to honor Henry Hyde for his pro-life work. I studied up a bit on Hyde and found that his hero was St. Thomas More. Hyde addressed the newly elected house members in 1990 and, inspired by St. Thomas More, told them: ‘There are things worth losing for.’ Well there certainly are!! We all know who wins in the end.”


Categories:Culture Marriage

  • Eoin

    Ron: So, at no point in history has marriage been understood as something which was intended to be “unitive, procreative, and permanent[?]” Really? So marriage was never, ever understood as something involving one man and one woman who would be expected to live supportive, integrated lives together, in a life-long union, and more often than not produce and raise children? Ron, I hope you didn’t pay much for your history education.
    Well, that leaves me with one question. What, on earth, are “Pillsbury women?”

    • Ron

      Hi Eoin. Thanks for your post. If you research the history of marriage you’ll find out the reasons why “marriage” was created throughout history. Regarding my history education, my parents and I paid the going rate. I feel it was money well spent. “Pillsbury Women:”

  • Mike F.

    You point out some of the things marriage, women and homosexuals “were considered” 50 years ago. And ask what is the basis for understanding that marriage is ”unitive, procreative, and permanent. ” The source of that understanding is JPII Theology of the Body which is based upon the entire teaching of the Church on the nature of Man and Woman and their relation to God. So, you’d like to leverage some of the apparent failures of people in the past to live up to the standard of what marriage is in order to change what it is considered. All the while ignoring what failures occur today as a result of our failure to abide by what marriage, Man and Woman are. Sexual abuse, out of wedlock pregnancy and abortion, child abuse and child sexual abuse, human slavery, suicide and just about every possible indicator of human misery has increase over the last 50 years. If you want to claim the shiny happy freedom to have civil recognition of whatever ‘love’ whomever you want then please also accept the misery that is its mate.

    • Patrick

      Mike F: Why isnt it enough that civil marriages are unitive? Why do you want to change the meaning of civil marriage to mean more than that? And how would you do that, (other than banning gay people from marriage)? I guess if you really wanted a word where marriages were unitive, procreative and permanent you would ban divorce and add a birth requirement. I mean, is there any other way to achieve this definition of marriage?

    • Ron

      Mike F. thanks for your comments. When researching the history of why marriage was created, I researched more than one Church’s definition. I’ve found that accepting one viewpoint blindly can be very limiting and lead to errors. If you wish to do so, reviewing the history of marriage on the internet might be useful. It was for me.

  • craig

    Reminds me of a quote from the great character Malcolm Reynolds on ‘Firefly':

    “May have been the losing side. Still not convinced it was the wrong one.’

    • Joshua Mercer

      I love it!

  • Jesús

    “It was allowed to make war against the saints and conquer them, and given power over every race, people, language and nation” Ap 13, 7.
    The Church is not to win or loose debates, but to be faithful and loyal to Our Lord. He will come at the end of times, with power to judge, and then you will know the vanity of winning or loosing the marriage debate.

  • Patrick

    Alan your first point doesn’t make sense at all. Are you seriously positing that for me to accept SSM logically requires that I also conclude that banning straight marriage would be fine? I don’t conclude that. Nobody does. A and B are not dependent on each other at all.

    As for (2), reasonable minds can differ, but marriage in the 18th century meant that a woman lost her legal identity and could be legally raped by her husband. So, you know, I think SHE would say things are better. At least in that respect.

    • Alan D

      My first point is not one of permission, but of equivalence, as in:
      if A=B and 2A=C, then 2B=C.

      Let us apply this to the concept of “love”, for instance. Most people recognize that there are different types of love. The Greeks had four different terms for it, but in English we typically use the one. So, a parent can love a child, a brother can love his sister, a soldier may love his comrades and a man may love a woman enough to be brought into a one-flesh union from which (typically) new life results. All of these may be described as love, but one would not say that marriage was appropriate for all these situations, and we in a sense do a disservice to the word by not attending to these distinctions.

      Similarly, the marriage debate sometimes attempts to genericize the term by denying one or more of its three hallmark characteristics of being unitive, procreative, and permanent. Now, you can argue against the religious norms that may impact marriage practices, but I think the argument can be made that even without that underpinning, the case is strong for those marriages in which a stable, deep level of intimacy is achieved through mutual sacrificial care for the other (precluding polygamous or “open” arrangements, which necessarily compromise this intimacy), which then flowers into offspring that are extensions of that intimacy. Arrangements which compromise any one of these three aspects suffer as a result and, while they may aspire to emulate all that marriage comprises and entails, they cannot, because it is no in their nature. There is no need to worry about “banning” true marital unions; forward-thinking heteros have been self-abandoning the true nature of marriage for several decades now, and one need only look at the growing culture of single mothers, latchkey kids and irresponsible men to prompt the question of whether there is a relationship between these trends.

      One does not have to go back three centuries to consider how abuses of the marital union have resulted in the institution itself being impugned; however, I think you can look at the (negative) examples occurring in your own lifetime to consider whether the proper understanding and honoring of marriage is in fact being vindicated.

      • Patrick

        Alan, with respect, your paragraphs don’t address my question: Am I correct that you were originally positing that for a person to accept SSM logically requires that he also conclude that banning straight marriage is necessary? That can’t be what you meant, but you seem to have said it. Any follow-up explanation of that would be helpful.

        Secondly, as to your latest reply: I think we all agree that no one is arguing that (as you suggest someone is in your first paragraph) a parent-child relationship or soldier-comrade relationship deserves recognition as a civil marriage. Do you mean to convey something other than that? I’m not sure what the point is here other than to say that we all agree on what marriage is NOT.

        Last, when you say that civil marriage has three hallmark characteristics of being “unitive, procreative, and permanent” I am now seeing the flaw in your thinking. Are you not aware that in truth, only one of those is an element of civil marriage? Civil marriages are always unitive. Period. They are OFTEN procreative and they are permanent about half the time. So you can’t say that those 2 are elements of civil marriage. Only the first one is an element of civil marriage: the couple is legally bound one to the other. The rest of their marriage is what they may or may not make of it.

        It seems that you, like many people who oppose civil gay marriage, have a view or a belief about marriage that is unrelated to the marriage laws in this country. May I suggest that the best way to look at this issue is to ask yourself what does civil marriage mean in this country, not what do you wish civil marriage meant. When one considers what civil marriage is in this country — unitive, you can’t deny it to the gays.

        • Alan D

          Now I see where the flaw has crept into YOUR thinking: you seem to be fixated on what civil marriages have BECOME, not what they have historically been. It is only in recent history that children are as likely to be generated outside of marriage as within it, and (coincidentally?) that the dissolution of the marriage has become not a matter of “if” but “when.” So, your experience of what marriage truly is based on a corrupted version of the institution. Now, it seems that progressives seem to like to take the current state of an institution/organization and make that the starting point of the discussion; however, this is a logical fallacy. One cannot say, “because this is currently this way, it was always intended as such.” I would challenge you to try to reason from the “optimal” state of marriage as characterized by the three pillars I mentioned, and consider the ramifications to the overall society if they were the norm, then consider whether your current definition offers anything comparable, besides self-gratification.

          Getting back to my first point, essentially, the point is that if one is accepting that same sex marriage is equivalent to, or is “as good as” heterosexual marriage, then one must be prepared to be comfortable with the possibility of the elimination of heterosexual marriage. This is not a matter dependent on some expectation of some sort of social purging of heterosexual marriage (current governmental and educational trends notwithstanding). It is more a simple exercise in logic: If I believe A is the same as B, I can live without either A or B, since I believe the other to be a satisfactory substitute. The problem with this logic is that when applied to personal relationships, one has to accept the equivalence of family units that are generated not by loving sexual unions, but by either acquiring youngsters that are either a) rejected by the parent(s) of a heterosexual union (e.g., adoption) or commoditized as a product, such as is the case in some cases of adoption, in vitro fertilization, or surrogacy arrangements. This is not to say that the “parents” are not capable of loving the child thus acquired, but the fact is that the child has in these cases been “made to order” to accommodate the adult’s desires, rather than being seen as having intrinsic value and dignity. And before you try to refute that characterization, consider carefully the 25% of all children aborted as though they were a “wrong delivery.” Given this fact, I would argue that your “equivalent” version of family is built on an understanding of life that is both demeaning and evil, and on this basis, I would indeed deny it to the gays and, frankly, to the heteros who have, like you, abandoned the promise of marriage to embrace arrangements of convenience.

    • kat

      Wow ALAN… eloquent, lucid, n Sharp! Awesome work!

  • Alan D

    I totally agree with MLSouths’s comment and would add two points:

    1) If one is to argue that same-sex marriage is equally valid to “traditional” marriage, one has to agree that it is “as good as” traditional marriage and that, as such, society would go on without detriment if ONLY same-sex marriage were the norm. To do so requires a person to advocate a society in which families would be built on either rejection of the child (e.g., adoption) or commoditization of the child (e.g., surrogacy, IVF, etc.).

    2) As one is preparing to argue regarding the equivalence of same-sex marriage, one needs to do an honest appraisal of the past 50 years and ask whether the erosion of the family and the traditional marriage it was built on has resulted in a society that is, on a large scale, better or worse than it was prior to those 50 years. As the heterosexual world slid into a mentality that marriage exists for the mutual support of 2 people who are emotionally, romantically and lovingly willing to be bound to each other, did we find that such a worldview translated to streets that were safer, people who were kinder, lives that were more purposeful?

    Aside from the religious and natural arguments against SSM, these two are pretty compelling.

    • Irene Swanson

      In the past 50 years, marriage has slid not because traditional marriage was at fault so much as, like Adam in the garden of Eden, our sin is primarily wanting to be the arbiter of what is right and wrong not the servant of it. We think we know better than God Himself so our new mentality is “marriage needs to be redefined because heterosexual marriage in the last 50 years has been such a failure, therefore, let’s try something new and figure it out as we go.” What went wrong with marriage in the last fifty years can be laid at the feet of the sexual revolution, birth control/abortion and no fault divorce, all actions which were conceived in the hearts of men and women long before they ever became a fact. Men and women who wanted the benefits of marriage and not the long term responsibility of it and all that that entailed. The sexual revolution was fertile ground for all else that is still following. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind. Rather than going back and practicing the virtues of chastity and abstinence, welcoming all children conceived and staying married for life, we are now seeking to spiral down further by embracing a new definition of marriage that even Darwin I am sure could not justify. It is amazing to me that any level headed person who LIKES being married could embrace a so-called marital relationship that, at the beginning and heart of it, refuses to practice monogamy. Oy, you got me started. God bless us and keep us!

    • Ron

      Alan D, it’s interesting that you use the concept of validity rather than the concept of human rights. What is the basis of your “validity” arguement? What makes marriage valid? Is it based on a definition of marriage that you have? If so, is that definition valid and if so, how have you proven its validity? You mention ” unitive, procreative, and permanent. ” What is your basis for that definition of marriage? It certainly can not be based on history because at no time in history has marriage ever been that. Regarding your “50 year” point, in 1963 spousal abuse was considered something no one even spoke about. It was considered no ones business if one spouse was mentally or physically abusing the other spouse. In 1963, homosexuals hid in the closet for fear that they would be abused or even killed. House wives were considered Pillsbury women. Do I think we’ve made progress over the last 50 years? Absolutely.

      • Alan D

        I’ve made a reply to Patrick that will somewhat address your points. However, of most immediate concern is your assertion that “at no time in history” has marriage ever been characterized by including unitive, procreative, and permanent aspects. That’s a pretty strong statement, as proving a negative is typically extremely difficult . So, I would challenge you to put together a survey of human history with the predominant “definitions” of marriage at the various stages and we can see how well your assertion holds up. I’ve already addressed the concerns of abuse within an institution being insufficient to condemn the institution as invalid. Were that the case, the U.S. Constitution would have been redrafted from scratch 30 days after its original ratification. Again, your assertions about the fears of homosexuals being especially targeted for violence would benefit from actual data regarding such occurrences in relationship to other incidents of violence through the years in order to have a conversation about overall reality versus anecdote and perception.



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