A Man Ahead of His Time vs. a Man for All Seasons

COMMENTARY: Catholic politicians are called to be always faithful.

Detail of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of St. Thomas More
Detail of Hans Holbein the Younger's portrait of St. Thomas More (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Democratic vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine is a man who claims to be ahead of his time. At a dinner for one of America’s largest and wealthiest homosexual-rights lobby groups, he stated his belief that the Catholic Church will change its teaching on same-sex “marriage,” just as he did

“My full, complete, unconditional support for marriage equality is at odds with the current doctrine of the Church that I still attend,” he declared. “But I think that’s going to change, too.”

How did the Catholic Church, given her meticulous explanation of the nature of marriage, as described in Scripture, miss the importance of “marriage equality” for more than 2,000 years? How could it have slipped past the attention of her 266 popes, her learned theologians and philosophers, her Fathers and Doctors of the Church, her saints and her educated laymen? How could the Church have so egregiously misinterpreted Genesis, where it is written that “in the image of God, he created them. ... Therefore, a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh”? 

Kaine interprets Genesis differently”: “My church also teaches me about a Creator in the first chapter of Genesis, who surveys the entire world, including mankind, and said, ‘It is very good. It is very good.’ Who am I to challenge God for the beautiful diversity of the human family? I think we’re supposed to celebrate, not challenge, it.”

Kaine’s allusion to his reluctance to challenge Scripture is hardly convincing when he does not hesitate to challenge the Church’s clear and consistent teaching on the nature of marriage. What he is truly reluctant to challenge is his own gross and gratuitous misinterpretation of Scripture. Nor does he let the lessons of Sodom and Gomorrah stand in his way. It is not for us, one might say, to judge a man who is ahead of his time by the present time. We must wait and see what unfolds. In the meantime, we must withhold judgment. Presumably, we must all just sit there and wait for Godot.

Being ahead of one’s time is an ambiguous notion. Charlie Finley, the former owner of the Oakland A’s, was said to be someone who was ahead of his time. He promoted changing the color of baseballs to orange and suggested that a walk should be reduced to three balls, while a strikeout be set at two strikes. Charlie O, as he was affectionately called, died in 1996. But he is still ahead of his time — perhaps so far ahead that his time will never catch up with him.

Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes was also a man who was considered well ahead of his time. In an 8-1 Supreme Court ruling (Buck v. Bell, 1927), he and his cohorts agreed to the forced sterilization of the “unfit.”

“Three generations of imbeciles is enough,” he wrote. Adam Cohen, in his recent book, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, describes these six words as constituting “one of the most brutal aphorisms in American jurisprudence.” Holmes was echoing the sentiments of several other prominent thinkers who also were considered to be ahead of their time. One in particular was Frank Taussig, a Harvard economist, who reasoned, “The human race could be immensely improved in quality if those of poor physical and mental endowment were prevented from multiplying.” His challenge of Genesis here is only too evident.

Was Carrie Buck, whose name has been immortalized in the history of American jurisprudence, truly “unfit”?  She married twice, sang in her church choir and cared for elderly people. Having been forcibly sterilized at age 21, she always mourned her inability to have children. She, most unfortunately, was a victim of men who were ahead of their time.

There was a single dissenter in the Buck v. Bell case, a certain Pierce Butler, who was also the lone Catholic on the bench. In his aforementioned book, Cohen credits American Catholics at that time with being the “single most outspoken group in opposition to eugenic sterilization laws.” There was an additional reason, other than defending the sanctity of life, which motivated Catholics. As Cohen reports, “Protestant eugenicists thought Catholics were the kind of people who should not be reproducing.”

Butler was not “ahead of his time” or a “progressive.” He was, in the esteemed tradition of St. Thomas More, a “man for all seasons.” Robert Bolt chose this fitting appellation to title his famous play on the life and death of this great saint. The “man for all seasons” is relevant today, tomorrow and always. He is what the Church has always been: eternally valid. She was founded and nourished not by men who were ahead of their time, or who adapted to their time, but by those who maintained their integrity and fidelity during extremely difficult times. Of the first 31 popes, all but Zephyrinus were martyred (though Zephyrinus, who fought heresies valiantly and was known as a great defender of the divinity of Christ, suffered enough to gain the title of “spiritual martyr”).

The man for all seasons does not bend with the times. He is prepared to deliver a relevant message no matter what passing fancies or popular trends cloud the cultural atmosphere. Tim Kaine is not a man for all seasons; he is a man who is so far ahead of his time that his time will never arrive. The Church will never change eternal truths.

Donald DeMarco is a senior fellow of Human Life International.

He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,

and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut.