John the Baptist and Thomas More on Marriage

June 22nd is the feast of St. Thomas More; June 24th is the feast of the nativity of John the Baptist. Today, June 23rd, is smack-dab right-in-the-middle of these saints’ feast days, so it’s an appropriate day for me to publish a blog post about these two saints, both of whom I have long considered to be among my special patrons. However, it took me a long time to realize that, not only were both of these saints martyred, but they were martyred for reasons related to their views on marriage.

John the Baptist incurred the wrath of Herod’s wife Herodias (who had previously been married to Herod’s brother Philip) by insisting to King Herod that “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). After some intrigue, Herodias gets John beheaded. Thomas More was killed by King Henry VIII because of his refusal to recognize Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Thomas stood by the judgment of the Pope, who had refused to grant Henry an annulment and whom Henry in turn had rejected as having authority over the church in England. After a prolonged imprisonment and a joke of a trial, Thomas was sentenced to death and beheaded.

Knowing what happened to each of these men should probably make me less eager to stick out my own neck on the issue of marriage, but these days, I think it may be more likely for me to be said to have lost my mind than told that I must lose my head for holding an opinion that challenges the mainstream.

Neither John the Baptist nor Thomas More can offer much directly to the question of same-sex marriage; it would be easy for an opponent to say that, because both were endorsing religious interpretations of marriage, neither More’s beliefs nor John the Baptist’s teachings can be of much help for the modern apologist for traditional marriage: we are working in an ostensibly secular society in which religious beliefs are (rightly or wrongly) excluded from discussions of public policy, and even with that aside, they seem to stand against divorce rather than against same-sex marriage. However, there are still lessons to be learned from their perspectives. The main lesson I want to draw from these patrons is encouragement, but more specific lessons are detailed below.

In Robert Bolt’s play and film A Man for All Seasons, St. Thomas More recognizes that the institution of marriage had integrity that the political concerns of Henry VIII could not overrule (I limit this to Bolt’s version because I haven’t had occasion to study real history, and so, like so many of my contemporaries, I rely instead on a combination of pop culture and my own presuppositions). Henry’s lust for Anne Boleyn is not adequate excuse to invalidate the marriage, nor is his claim that Catherine had become sterile and that England needed a male heir in order to avoid a bloody war of succession (like the one that had given rise to the House of Tudor) sufficient for his purpose. Henry’s final argument seems to lie (pun intended) in the assertion that his marriage to Catherine was adulterous in the first instance since she had been his brother’s wife, and I don’t see the need to provide further refutation than, under Levitical law as acknowledged by 1st-century Judaism and presumably for a long time before, if a man died before his wife bore a son, his younger brother was supposed to marry his widow. The objection to which I’d like to pay the most attention to the second argument, the one from political necessity: in the film, More says that he is ready to recognize Henry’s children through Anne as legitimate heirs to the throne if they are recognized by Parliament as such, but even at the cost of his life, “would not assent to the marriage.” Marriage, we learn from St. Thomas, is an institution with a certain meaning that cannot be changed based on the way the political wind is blowing.

As for John the Baptist, he landed in hot water for stubbornly pointing out that Herod’s marriage to the wife of his still-living brother Philip was no marriage at all. Herodias, apparently quite incensed by this suggestion, nurses a grudge against John for so long that, when her daughter comes to her and tells her that she had earned a favor from her uncle foster-father, Herodias decides immediately on revenge. One could easily contend that John’s statements were rash or otherwise un-compassionate, but John did not say that a friendship between Herod and Herodias was unlawful (one might even say that it would be politically astute): he said that they could not be married, and that it was against the Law for them to act as if they were. St. John shows us that marriage is not an institution that bends to our emotions. It is an institution with its own integrity.

Again, both of these lessons could be answered by the objection that these are appeals to religious definitions of marriage, and that both notions are from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but I think it is nonetheless sane to conclude that, even in our day and age, it is prudent to ensure that meaningful words such as marriage retain their essential meanings. Marriage cannot be enslaved to the “need” to produce a male heir to the throne any more than it can be brought to heel by someone who feels that the definition of the word stands in the way of their emotional fulfillment.

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