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“Tolerance and Toleration” 10 November 2011

The events unfolding on the main campus of Penn State University are a good study on the limits of tolerance. The Board of Trustees acted decisively and promptly to oust its highly regarded president and its legendary football coach, obviously intolerant of the way they behaved with regard to reported child molestation by a former assistant football coach. A number of the students, intolerant of the board’s action in firing their most beloved coach, demonstrated their intolerance by rioting and implicitly tolerating the way he acted or did not act in following up on what, by all accounts, was the eye witnessed raping of a ten-year old boy.

In the eyes of most people, tolerance is considered to be a virtue because it tends to make allowances for differences in cultures and life styles and hence reduce friction and strife. It operates on the principle of “live and let live.” Initially, tolerance meant to put up with evil or error for the sake of achieving a greater good. In more recent years, it appears to many to be something virtuous. In fact, the UN “Declaration on Principles of Tolerance” perceives it as a virtue and describes it as “respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human.” This statement can be very elastic or restrictive, depending on what people will tolerate. For example, should we respect and tolerate a belief that a woman who has been raped can be brutally murdered by her relatives because she has supposedly brought disgrace to her family?

Diversity or difference is not a good in itself and is not to be celebrated for its own sake. In fact, under the guise of diversity, one university is requiring conformity to political correctness for a certain Christian campus group and thereby attempting to restrict the constitutional right of free association. A recent article by George Will shows the absurdity and intolerant nature of so called diversity programs: “Unfortunately, in the name of tolerance, what is tolerable is being defined ever more narrowly.”

As early as 1931, Bishop, then Monsignor, Fulton Sheen exclaimed:

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. . . .

Francis de Sales understood very well the limits of tolerance and looked upon it as virtuous primarily in the sense of forbearance or agreeableness or in Bishop Sheen’s words, “reasoned patience.” In one of his letters he writes:

You must not only be devout, and love devotion, but you must make it amiable, useful, and agreeable to every one. The sick will love your devotion if they are charitably consoled by it; your family will love it if they find you more careful of their good, more gentle in little accidents that happen, more kind in correcting, and so on : your husband, if he sees that as your devotion increases you are more devoted in his regard, and sweet in your love to him; your parents and friends if they perceive in you more generosity, tolerance, and condescension towards their wills, when not against the will of God. In short, you must, as far as possible, make your devotion attractive” (Letters to Persons in the World, trans. Mackey p. 63, To Mme. Brulart, Letter V).

Notice, we can give into and be tolerant of the will of others as long as it in not against God’s will. He states this idea more directly when he says: “”One should be tolerant…in all things ‘short of the altar,’ that is to say, short of offending God” (C.F.Kelley, The Spirit of St. France de Sales, p. 21).

With regard to error, the saint is in complete agreement with Bishop Sheen that we should be tolerant of the erring but not of the error or of moral evil:

As to sins, we must neither occasion them nor tolerate them in our friends. It is either a weak or sinful friendship that watches our friend perish without helping him, that sees him die of an abscess and does not dare to save his life by opening it with the lance of correction.

This distinction helps us to appreciate the great clarity that Archbishop Chaput brings to the notion of tolerance in his 4 Feb. 2009 Address at the University of Toronto:

We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty — these are Christian virtues. And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle. But it’s never an end itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of serious evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square — peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.

Fr. Thomas Williams wisely warns in his recently published work, The World as It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation that the two radically opposed meanings of tolerance, viz., that of forbearance of evil for a greater good and as a virtue “create space for serious misunderstandings and abuse, both deliberate and unintentional.”


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