Taking an oath: Marriage, annulments, Kim Davis, and 'A Man for All Seasons'

Taking an oath: Marriage, annulments, Kim Davis, and ‘A Man for All Seasons’

“A Man for All Seasons” is available on DVD and streaming via Amazon Instant. “Sir Thomas More she’s not,” begins a recent editorial by William McGurn on WSJ.com regarding Kim Davis, municipal clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who was briefly jailed in the last couple of weeks for contempt of court

A Man for All Seasons” is available on DVD and streaming via Amazon Instant.

“Sir Thomas More she’s not,” begins a recent editorial by William McGurn on WSJ.com regarding Kim Davis, municipal clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, who was briefly jailed in the last couple of weeks for contempt of court over her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

The name of St. Thomas More has cropped up in recent discussion of current events as never since — well, if not since the English Reformation, at any rate probably since one of my all-time favorite films, “A Man for All Seasons,” won six Academy Awards at the 1966 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director (Fred Zinnemann), and Best Actor (Paul Scofield).

Davis’s case isn’t the only reason. On Monday, Pope Francis issued a pair of documents reforming the Church’s process for marital annulments or declarations of nullity. A question of marital nullity or validity — namely, the marriage of King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, which Henry wanted nullified so that he could marry Anne Boleyn — was at the epicenter of the historical upheaval that led to More’s execution by beheading.

“A Man for All Seasons” resonates with both of these stories in striking ways. On the one hand, although characters talk about the King’s “divorce,” the discussion clearly highlights the question behind all annulment inquiries: Was Henry’s first marriage valid from the start? If it was, a second marriage is unthinkable; only if Henry and Catherine were never lawfully married in the first place is marriage to Anne possible.

An annulment is not and can never be a “Catholic divorce” in the sense of dissolving a valid sacramental marriage, for the sacrament of matrimony creates a bond that is indissoluble by any power on earth. This has become a profoundly countercultural understanding of marriage, but “A Man for All Seasons” depicts a world in which it was universally acknowledged and even taken for granted.

To secure his divorce from Catherine and remarriage to Anne, Henry found it necessary to sever the Church in his realm from the Church of Rome, leading to the creation of the Church of England, with the archbishop of Canterbury as its primate and Henry himself as its supreme head.

Thomas More, then Lord Chancellor of England, thus found himself in a position not entirely unlike that of Kim Davis: a public official who for religious reasons could not accept revolutionary social changes permitting a relationship to be called a marriage where previously this was unthinkable. Both were imprisoned for their recalcitrance (Davis for only a few days, but More for more than a year in the Tower of London).

More was a respected scholar and statesman, beloved and admired by the elites of England, as well known for his virtue and piety as his wit and sense of humor. He was a thorn in the side of King Henry VIII precisely because he was a man whom no one could dismiss or deride. Davis’s critics, on the other hand, have a readier target in this plain, moon-faced Kentucky woman, four times married and with children out of wedlock, a convert to a sub-Christian Pentecostal sect. (Apostolic Pentecostals are non-Trinitarians and baptize in the name of Jesus only.)

But the most telling difference is this: More’s response as a public official to the change of regime he found unacceptable was to resign as chancellor — a position in which More was obliged under oath to execute justice “after the laws and usages of this realm” (and in particular not to permit or know of any kind of repudiation of the king, “or that the rights of the Crown be decreased” by anyone, without making it known to the king).

Davis also is bound by an oath of office to uphold the law — a fact highlighted by federal district judge David Bunning in ordering her imprisonment. Davis, however, has not resigned, and continues to hold her elected post as county clerk. (The question is further complicated by questions around the legal principle of reasonable accommodation, among other things.)

It would not be going too far to say that the drama in “A Man for All Seasons” turns on the importance of oaths. For Robert Bolt, who adapted his own stage play for the screen, the binding power of oaths was a way into the theme that interested him, that of “a clear idea of the self.” In his preface to the stage play, Bolt wrote:

A man takes an oath only when he wants to commit himself quite exceptionally to the statement, when he wants to make an identity between the truth of it and his own virtue; he offers himself as a guarantee. And it works. There is a special kind of shrug for a perjurer; we feel that the man has no self to commit, no guarantee to offer.

Or, as More himself (Scofield, who originated the role on the stage) puts it to his daughter Meg (Susanna York) in the Tower:

When a man takes an oath, he’s holding his own self in his own hands, like water. And if he opens his fingers then … he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.

Men who “aren’t capable of this” include not only Richard Rich (a very young John Hurt), whose climactic act of perjury sends More to the executioner’s block, but also More’s friend the Duke of Norfolk (Nigel Davenport). When More resigns as chancellor, Norfolk demands an explanation for what he says “looks like cowardice.”

“Have I your word that what we say here is between us two?” More asks confidingly.

“Very well,” grunts Norfolk.

“And if the King should command you to repeat what I may say?” More persists.

“I should keep my word to you,” Norfolk answers impatiently.

At that More steps back and abruptly adopts a prosecutorial tone. “Then what has become of your oath of obedience to the King?”

More was not an eager martyr, and was not spoiling for a fight he could avoid. Before his resignation, when Parliament passed the 1531 Act of Supremacy, More found that he could accept it, despite the language about Henry as “Supreme Head of the Church in England.” In a scene from the play omitted in the film, More underlines the words that follow — “so far as the law of God allows” — adding, “How far the law of God does allow it remains a matter of opinion, since the Act doesn’t state it.”

“A lawyer’s quibble,” scoffs More’s son-in-law, Will Roper.

“Call it what you like, it’s there, thank God,” is More’s unfazed response. (The phrase “so far as the law of God allows” was added, notably, at the insistence of Bishop John Fisher — the only bishop who would later refuse to go along with Henry’s new order. More and Fisher were martyred two weeks apart in 1535; the date of Fisher’s death, June 22, is their shared feast day.)

More served Henry ably and faithfully as long as he was able, and to the executioner’s block he professed himself “the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” When he was finally forced to resign from office, Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern of “Rumpole of the Bailey”), the king’s chief minister, tried a number of gambits to pressure him to accept the King’s new marriage.

In these interviews, More shows an allegiance to Henry deeper than Cromwell’s. To Cromwell’s charge that More was the true author of Henry’s book on the seven sacraments — a polemic against Martin Luther, for which Henry was named “Defender of the Faith” by Pope Leo X — More replies judiciously, “The King knows the truth of it … and whatever he may have said to you, he will not give evidence to support this charge.”

“Why not?” Cromwell demands, curious despite himself.

“Because evidence is given on oath,” More answers, “and he will not perjure himself. If you don’t know that, you don’t yet know him.” More believes that Henry, hell-bent on his divorce as he was, nevertheless regards an oath as sacrosanct.

Then, though, comes the 1534 Oath of Supremacy. At first More hopes that, like the 1531 Act, there may be wiggle room: “What is the wording?” he asks. Told that “We know what it will mean,” More answers, “It will mean what the words say! An oath is made of words. It may be possible to take it.” (This language is from the play; the film version is slightly different.)

But there is no wiggle room, and More is sent to the Tower, and periodically summoned and interrogated in the King’s name by Norfolk, Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer (Cyril Luckham of “Doctor Who”), archbishop of Canterbury.

This panel unsuccessfully tries to induce More either to sign the Oath of Supremacy, or else to explain why he refuses — but More believes that in silence is his safety, and defends himself adroitly. In one memorable exchange, Norfolk, showing the same impatience seen earlier, bursts out:

“Oh, confound all this! I’m not a scholar. I don’t know if the marriage was lawful or not … ” (Watch for Cranmer’s scandalized reaction to this unguarded revelation.) Then, pointing to the names of all the signatories of the oath, Norfolk adds, “Why can’t you do as I did, and come with us, for fellowship?”

“And when we die,” More replies gently, “and you are sent to heaven for doing your conscience, and I am sent to hell for not doing mine, will you come with me, for fellowship?”

Cromwell does everything he can to tighten the screws on More, removing all his books from the Tower and refusing to let him see his family, until the day they come to try to persuade him to sign the oath.

More’s silence should have been enough to save him from execution: but, as he remarked to Meg, “some men aren’t capable” of the perilous implications of taking an oath. In the climactic trial scene, “holding his own self in his own hands like water” (as More described one who takes an oath), Rich “opens his fingers,” perjuring himself.

“In good faith, Will,” More replies with weary grief, “I am sorrier for your perjury than for my peril.” And then, indignantly, More tells the judges, “My lords, you know if I were a man who heeded not the taking of an oath, I need not be here. Now I will take an oath. If what Master Rich has said is true, I pray I may never see God in the face! Which I would not say, were it otherwise, for anything on earth!”

This is the attitude that interests Bolt, a nonbeliever who also wrote the screenplays for “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) and “The Mission” (1986). Aware of the irony, Bolt asks in his preface: “Why do I take as my hero a man who brings about his own death because he can’t put his hand on an old black book and tell an ordinary lie?” The answer he gives is: Because such a man knows who he is, and we secular moderns no longer do.

There are fewer and fewer things which, as they say, we “cannot bring ourselves” to do … But though few of us have anything in ourselves like an immortal soul which we regard as absolutely inviolable, yet most of us still feel something which we should prefer, on the whole, not to violate. Most men feel when they swear an oath (the marriage vow for example) that they have invested something …

Bolt wrote those words in 1960. In the 55 years since then, the importance of the words even of the marriage vow have receded. Ever-greater numbers of people today no longer bother with marriage in the first place, which is the only reason divorce rates are as low as they are.

Last June, a bare majority of Supreme Court justices in Obergefell v. Hodges imposed as normative a view of marriage as a gender-neutral institution, uniting two people of any combination of genders. This understanding of marriage has become the mainstream view of our culture.

The Catholic understanding of marriage as the indissoluble union of a man and a woman — an understanding convergent with that of many others (certainly not all) in the Christian tradition as well as other religious traditions, including Islam and Judaism — is increasingly regarded as obsolete and even bigoted.

This is the world in which cases like Kim Davis, among others, raise the question to what extent society will tolerate those who cannot accept the new marriage regime. This is the world in which Pope Francis and the Church’s shepherds must try to weigh the extent to which men and women who have chosen to tie the knot have any conception what sort of knot it’s meant to be.

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