Tolerance is a nice word, but is it a Christian virtue? Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver doesn’t think so, and his claim has occasioned no small amount of protest. In a smug editorial, America magazine recently chastened Chaput for coarsening the tenor of intra-ecclesial discourse. While no call for courtesy and civility should go unheeded, an apology for toleration that ignores its niceties only furthers the intellectual and moral torpor plaguing the public square.
Proponents of a kinder, gentler discussion on the great issues of our day often attempt a rhetorical sleight of hand, coupling tolerance with charity. Such a pairing is ambiguous at best. The call to charity—loving one’s fellow man as a child of God—is universal and, one hopes, uncontroversial. But what does it mean to be tolerant of those with whom we disagree on serious matters? If used as a synonym for charity, combined patience and magnanimity, one can make a case, but that case remains weak and the term imprecise. Jesus did not say, “Tolerate one another, as I have tolerated you.” Surely, we are called to do more than put up with each other. I put up with the traffic in midtown Manhattan, but I’d gladly be rid of it. And how exactly is someone intolerant of others—not the views of others, but others themselves? One can be uncharitable, nasty, or curmudgeonly, but that’s not quite the same as being intolerant. In the noble aim of a more elevated tone in public discourse, a plea for tolerance somehow misses the mark.
The concept of tolerance forms and is formed by one’s ideas, beliefs, and convictions. Such a realm can hardly be considered innocuous, consigned to some ivory tower and therefore isolated from any real world implication. How we think determines how we act. Richard Weaver wrote some sixty years ago that ideas have consequences—consequences that powerfully impact the moral health and spiritual well-being of society. To take an example from the economic sphere, it would be difficult to overstate the ways in which the ideas of Adam Smith or Karl Marx have shaped human lives over the past century. The more significant the idea, and the more directly it impinges upon human dignity, the more unwaveringly must it be held to the standard of the true and the good.
At root, this litmus concerns fundamental principles of nonnegotiable importance. In a society that has reached a consensus on these foundations, a vibrant diversity emerges in their expression and application—the white light that refracts into the varied colors of the spectrum. When we agree upon a free press and open access to information, for example, means of communication become ever more varied and sophisticated—from courier post to iPhones, from newspapers to this webpage. Augustine’s famous maxim, Ama Deum et fac quod vis (Love God and do what you will), speaks to this holy freedom. On the big questions, however, the public square today affords no such luxury, as we find common ground increasingly less common. And in this arena an assumption of good will simply doesn’t suffice. Aristotle rightly noted that everyone acts for a perceived good. But in the objective order, those perceptions are often misguided, ill-informed, or just plain wrong.
True charity does not permit tolerance in this regard, because it seeks the moral good of another even when that causes offense. Yet charity does not equal niceness. The latter is an unwillingness to offend at any cost, whereas charity, exercised with prudence, casts a wider net. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, he showed charity for those souls regardless of who took umbrage. Likewise, his actions in the temple, which caused great offense, were nonetheless ordered to a greater good that took precedence over the complacency of his coreligionists. It wasn’t nice of Jesus to call the Pharisees blind guides, whited sepulchers, and a brood of vipers. But his forceful articulation of a truth, even an uncomfortable truth, aimed at saving their souls and the souls of his listeners.
True charity not only puts the good of others before your own comfort, it also puts the good of others before their own comfort. This surely flies in the face of popular morality, where the only remaining sin is to offend. (How many public pseudo-confessions begin with the protasis, “If my actions offended anyone . . .” Rare indeed is the apology for having done something simply wrong.) When truth itself, which alone sustains free society, faces serious challenge, the only recourse can be a steadfast and unyielding intolerance.
With characteristic panache, Fulton Sheen, in his 1931 essay “A Plea for Intolerance,” reveals that this confusion is hardly new:
America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance—it is not. It is suffering from tolerance. Tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded. . . . Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience toward evil, a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. Tolerance applies only to persons, never to truth. Tolerance applies to the erring, intolerance to the error. . . . Architects are as intolerant about sand as foundations for skyscrapers as doctors are intolerant about germs in the laboratory. Tolerance does not apply to truth or principles. About these things we must be intolerant, and for this kind of intolerance, so much needed to rouse us from sentimental gush, I make a plea. Intolerance of this kind is the foundation of all stability.
These are strong words, but their strength is vigorous, not brutish. Only the persuasion and attraction of truth’s inherent force can effectively combat error—proposing, never imposing. And for those who genuinely care about the welfare of society, that proposal is not an option. In his encyclical Libertas, Leo XIII affirmed that error has no rights. People in error have rights—the right to be treated charitably and respectfully, for one—but the unchallenged persistence of error, manifested in a live-and-let-live permissiveness, holds grave consequences for a society no longer tethered to the truth. Yet in the face of increasing polarization, how do these claims reconcile with, and find meaning in, our pluralistic culture?
A healthy pluralism does not accept the status quo, too often applied as a thin veneer masking moral insouciance. Especially when it concerns principles themselves, pluralism can only be a means toward the goal of societal consensus, a shared conviction of truth. In this light, President Obama’s words at Notre Dame were most curious. He said, “I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away.” Why can’t it? More importantly, why shouldn’t it? If the president really believes that abortion is a right, what value does he see in a perduring opposition? Does he wish there were a more vigorous debate over slavery? Are we somehow impoverished because so few are calling for the repeal of the 19th amendment? For those who recognize the unborn child’s inviolable right to life, that debate cannot go away soon enough. There is no inherent worth in a multiplicity of opposing viewpoints, a Baskin Robbins offering thirty-one flavors.
Panegyrics to this type of diversity always leave me a little puzzled. A schizophrenic society, unable or unwilling to grasp reality, cannot be expected to advance very far. I hardly think we would benefit, for example, by a sudden glut of Flat Earthers. Such nonsense only impedes growth, for one cannot build when the foundation has not been laid. Only full confidence in earth’s circumference allows science, travel, and trade to expand and flourish. Otherwise we remain stagnant, atrophied and forever afraid of falling off the edge.
A truly pluralistic society, then, does not shy away from these challenges, but engages them eagerly in constructive dialogue. And only a shared desire for truth prevents dialogue from becoming self-efflating subjectivism, in which one shares his thoughts and feelings. The resulting overtures to dialogue here devolve into mere talking about talking. Such circular logic leads to an insular society, closed in on itself, morally adrift and unable to stay afloat.
Without a conviction about the first things, tolerance becomes apathy, pluralism becomes ignorance, and dialogue becomes cacophony. Only when truth’s guidance infuses these terms with their careful distinctions and proper direction can they help raise society to a higher plane—right thinking preceding right living. Without glossing over differences, a polarized society and a polarized Church must honestly and forthrightly embark on an uncompromising quest for the truth that alone secures real and lasting peace. This pursuit itself, this conversation, is never the end. But such a conversation, undertaken with sincerity, respect, and genuine love of others, is not at all a bad place to begin.
Brian A. Graebe is a seminarian of the Archdiocese of New York, studying at St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie.