There is perhaps no single word that strikes more fear into the heart of a Catholic than to hear that he is being intolerant. In fact, there is no greater weapon against killing the apostolic spirit of a follower of Christ than the fear of being labeled as intolerant. In truth though, we have so twisted the concept of tolerance that we no longer even recognize intolerance when we see it. The word tolerance really has no practical meaning any more. It is time that we come to understand exactly what tolerance is and what it isn’t. Our culture has now set up tolerance as the new god and it is time that we slay this false god.
While this may seem like hyperbole, have you heard about the Day of Silence on April 15th? In the name of tolerance, schools throughout the country are encouraging students to remain silent throughout the day to “address the problem of anti-LGBT behavior.” So, we have replaced the moment of silence which was unconstitutional because it could be associated with the true God and replaced it with a whole day of silence to worship the new god of tolerance.
What exactly is a proper understanding of tolerance then? First of all, tolerance is not an end in itself. The moment that tolerance becomes an end and becomes the greatest good it means that we can no longer say out loud that anything else is either good or evil. Tolerance is meant to be a working principle that allows everyone to live peacefully for a time. The word tolerance comes from Latin tolerare which means to “bear or sustain” and tollere which means “to lift up”. In other words, it implies bearing with or carrying another person’s beliefs as a burden. It is truly a negative thing and it is certainly not a Christian virtue. Unfortunately, it is all too often confused with a real Christian virtue, prudence. Furthermore, you will find no place in Scripture where we are exhorted to tolerance nor Christ telling His followers to “tolerate one another”. His command is “to love one another as I have loved you” and he did this by guiding all to the truth.
Rightly identified, what we call tolerance now is really either indifference or agreement. What masquerades as tolerance is really an attitude that it is OK to believe whatever you like as long as I agree with you or it does not inconvenience me in any way, especially by making moral demands on me. This is how the new version of tolerance is really intolerance.
An example from an encounter I had comes to mind. A self-labeled feminist that I know came to me and asked me one day and asked me how I, as a man, could dare to speak on the issue of abortion. In her mind it was a woman’s issue and I had no right to speak on it. I asked her if she accepted the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v Wade. She responded that of course she did. She thought it was one of the best decisions that the Court has ever made. I reminded her that there were exactly 9 men on the Supreme Court at the time and asked her how she could accept the decision of 9 men.
Seeing her reeling and recalling all the times she had called me intolerant (why she still spoke to me, I have no idea), I kept going. I said, “So I guess what you are really saying is that a man can speak on the issue of abortion as long as he agrees with you. Come to think of it, that is the very definition of prejudice. Do you know what that makes you? That makes you not only sexist, but intolerant. To say that someone’s opinion doesn’t matter because of who they are and not on the merit of what they are saying is the very definition of intolerance” Once I used the I-word, I got nothing but stunned silence. She knew I was right, but couldn’t admit it.
The point is this: tolerance assumes three things. The first is that the two parties do not agree. A person can only be tolerant when they believe someone else is wrong or mistaken. We do not tolerate things we like or agree with. No one says, “I tolerated a delicious ribeye last night.” Second, our tolerance is always extended to a someone not to a something. For the sake of the dignity of the person and the absolute good that they are, we tolerate some of their bad ideas or actions. Finally, it assumes that in fact somebody is right. There is no room for the new tolerance’s only begotten son, relativism. A tolerant person and a tolerant society is one that must believe in an absolute moral truth.
Ironically true tolerance rests upon two foundational truths that our culture rejects out of hand—the dignity of the human person and moral absolutes. It is no wonder then that when those two things were removed from the cultural landscape, tolerance went awry.
As Christians, we should not be surprised that we become victims of intolerance under the guise of tolerance. Our Lord too was a victim of intolerance masquerading as tolerance of the Romans. Once we realize it is simply a weapon in the hands of the evil one, we can only heed the first words of advice in the pontificate of John Paul II, “Be not afraid.” Be not afraid to be called intolerant because it conforms us to Christ. It can serve as a wake-up call of sorts reminding us that the time for indifference is over. As Archbishop Chaput said in his great book, Render unto Caesar, “The time for easy Christianity is over. In fact, it never existed. We’re blessed to be rid of the illusion. We need to be more zealous in our faith, not more discreet; clearer in our convictions, no muddier; and more Catholic, not less.”