Notes for the Etiquette of a New Age

This past week, in Washington, it was announced that “effective immediately, same-sex weddings may be celebrated at Washington National Cathedral,” standing at the heights of the city. 

In making the announcement, the Dean of the Cathedral observed that, “for more than thirty years the Episcopal Church has prayed and studied to discern the evidence of God’s blessing in the lives of same-sex couples.” This did bring some additional news. 

Are we to gather that for thirty years the Episcopal Church has done more than extend a pastoral concern for all people, with their varied descriptions, but had actually been cultivating an acceptance of same-sex “couples”?  

Had the Church been at work all this time preparing to accept same-sex marriage? Or if not “marriage,” had the Church been settling in with an acceptance of sexual couplings, however permanent or transitory, outside of marriage?

            The Church might have been busy discerning, but this new move was evidently stirred on by the fact that these weddings were now stamped as rightful in the laws of the city. A few miles up the road and across the border, the legislature of Maryland had also acted recently to recognize same-sex marriages.  

But from Bethesda, and the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, the young Msgr. Edward Filardi put out a message rather different from that of the Dean of the Cathedral. Msgr. Filardi has often had to put himself at odds with the liberal currents that run within his own parish.  He could hardly avoid doing it again unless a striking change in the moral terms of our lives would be treated as matter barely worth noticing.

          The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah by John Martin, 1852

And so he opened his pastoral note by saying, “Welcome to Sodom. Yes, that is what Maryland has now become. . .with the same disregard for the natural law of human love”: 

That same disregard is now written into state law. The distinctive physical and life-cultivating complementarity of woman and man has been dismissed as a basis for marriage. Additionally, those who cannot honor this diluted definition in their personal and business activities will be held legally liable for discrimination and punished accordingly.

Msgr. Filardi went on to record a “great sadness that many of Satan’s helpers in ushering in this demonic distortion of marriage were Catholics, such as our governor [Martin O’Malley]. . . .We must pray that they recognize this error, repent and make reparation.” 

While we wait for those recognitions to come rolling in, along with the reparations, it is clear that a change in the laws will bring with it a change in many parts of the so-called “culture.”  As Msgr. Filardi noted, many ordinary people would face penalties if they demurred from recognizing the rightness of these marriages – e.g., if they simply declined to take photos for them.

But as the ripples move outward, beyond the matter of legal penalties and disabilities, the question will begin to affect the conventions of our lives together in many ordinary ways.  And so, during this same week, at a service on the West Coast, a friend of ours encountered an acquaintance from Washington. She asked about the lady’s son: had he married? Yes, he had, and the mother quickly added with a decorous hint of excitement, “it was a same-sex marriage!” 

The news was conveyed with the sense that the mother was quite in tune now with the moral sensibility that was coming with this advanced, new age. For the rest of us this is yet another sign of the strains to come. How are we to react as people virtually invite us to confirm, with congratulations, the ethic they are announcing to us – or to stamp ourselves as retrograde if we show our reluctance to chime in? 

My friend gave a non-committal nod of the head. As we used to say, this was a moment when some of us begin looking down at our shoes, not knowing what to say. And so it may be worth starting to set down some notes now and then as to what we might devise as a scheme of etiquette to get us through these times.  

I’ve mulled over this line of responses to the news of the same-sex marriage.

“Oh, that’s nice. . . .Is it an ‘open marriage’?”  If the person asks, “What do you mean?,” one could explain:  “Are they open to a third person joining them? After all it’s been reported that we have about 500,000 polyamorous households in this country. These people profess to love one another, and that their love is not confined to a coupling. What would you say when they come asking why we would not honor their loves with the recognition of marriage?” Is it that two men would not invite a woman to join them? Is this just another version of hostility to women? We have polygamy making a comeback in the Southwest now. Would it threaten you if these people restored this ancient form of marriage?

The question can’t be met with the answer, “We insist that marriage is confined to two.” For as the point was made long ago, if this matter were to be carried simply by insistence or stipulation, that argument is countered with our own stipulation:  that marriage means one man and one woman. 

. . .But then again, we quickly add, before we follow out further the chain of possibilities: “I’m sure everything will turn out well.”       

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.