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


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“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.


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