How much tolerance can we tolerate?

By  Donald Demarco, Catholic Register Special
  • October 11, 2006

Benedict HSPope Benedict XVI told the Ontario bishops during their September ad limina visit to the Vatican, that, "In the name of tolerance your country has had to endure the folly of the redefinition of spouse, and in the name of freedom of choice it is confronted with the daily destruction of unborn children."

This strong and disturbing moral indictment raises the more fundamental issue concerning what things are and what things are not tolerable? Currently, we hear equally loud voices proclaiming the need for both complete tolerance and zero tolerance. The secular position on tolerance is simply incoherent, a condition that is, itself, intolerable.

The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain has stated that "the man who says: 'What is truth?' as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race."

There is genuine tolerance, he goes on to say, when a person is convinced of a truth but at the same time recognizes the right of others who deny this truth to speak their own mind. Such tolerance is respectful of other people and recognizes that they seek truth in their own way and, given their natural intellectual capabilities that are ordered to truth, may one day discover the truth they currently contradict.

Pilate's view makes it clear that if we do not know any truth at all, we should be tolerant of anything. But such a "tolerance" is based on intellectual bankruptcy. Christ makes it clear that the truth will make us free (John 8:32).

This freedom allows us to hold fast to truth while patiently tolerating the actions of others who are still seeking it.

Tolerance can never be a first principle. By nature, it is a response to something that preceded it. One can tolerate a person who has a peculiar way of blowing his nose, or a student who continues to make mistakes as he tries to learn trigonometry. But we cannot tolerate spouse abuse or gratuitous violence.

In addition, tolerance does not advance the situation to its natural point of completion. An artist should not "tolerate" an incomplete work of art, for example, but finish it.

Tolerance is not progressive. It is a status quo strategy. Vatican II pointed out that separated Christians need something more positive and dynamic than tolerance in order to advance to the truth that frees them from their divisions. Tolerance puts people in a state of moral suspension.

Tolerance is often a mask that conceals the truth. But it is the truth that is primary. This is precisely what Pope Benedict has in mind when he opposes a blanket tolerance that sets aside the rights of the unborn and the nature of marriage.

In other words, the Holy Father is saying that it is foolish to elevate tolerance to the status of a primary principle because it obscures that which is more primary and more important, namely the truth of the issue at stake.

Pilate's tolerance is a foolish tolerance because, in ignoring truth and justice, it gives primacy to something that is essentially a response.

Praise is a response to something laudable. But if nothing laudable takes place, there is no basis for praise.

Benedict is urging his bishops and the parishioners whom they lead to be principally concerned, as is Christ, with the truth of things. Pilate is not a good role model for anyone since, by disregarding truth, he is poised to tolerate anything. It is precisely Pilate's stance that is intolerable. If "anything goes," then nothing is valued and everything is imperilled.

(Dr. DeMarco is professor emeritus of philosophy at St. Jerome's University, Waterloo, and adjunct professor of Holy Apostles College and Seminary, Mater Ecclesiae College.)

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