Last week on the blog we spoke briefly of tolerance in the discussion about Sloth. For it sometimes happens that what some call tolerance is more of a disinterestedness of discovering the truth and living by it. But there is such a thing as true tolerance and it has an important place in the human setting.
Permit then some further thoughts on the issue of tolerance, a frequently misunderstood concept. This post is not intended as a systematic treatise on tolerance. Rather just some thoughts on a what some have called the only “virtue” left in our increasingly secular society.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Tolerance and toleration:
Toleration — from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance or suffer — generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained. 
It goes on to make a distinction that is often lost today:
[I]t is essential for the concept of toleration that the tolerated beliefs or practices are considered to be objectionable and in an important sense wrong or bad. If this objection component (cf. King 1976, 44-54) is missing, we do not speak of “toleration” but of “indifference” or “affirmation.” 
In effect tolerance involves putting up with something we consider wrong or displeasing but not so wrong that we must move to constrain it. Tolerance does NOT mean we approve of the tolerated thing as something that is good. This essential point is often glossed over by those who often demand that tolerance mean approval, and that to disapprove of something makes one “intolerant.”
Of itself, tolerance is a good and necessary thing. But, like most good things, it has its limits. As a good thing, tolerance is essential in an imperfect world. Without tolerance we might go to war over simple human imperfections. We all have friends and family members who are people we like but, as with every human person, they also have annoying or less desirable traits. Without tolerance we would be locked in a power struggle and a fruitless battle to make each person perfect to us. As it is, we tolerate less desirable aspects of people for higher goods such as harmony, friendship, respect, mercy, kindness and the like.
However, there are limits to tolerance. There are just some things in human relationships that are “deal breakers.” There are things that cannot be tolerated. For example serious and persistent lies breach the trust necessary for relationships and such behavior is not tolerated reasonably. Behavior that endangers one or both parties (either physically or spiritually) ought not be tolerated and often makes it necessary to end relationships or establish firm boundaries.
In wider society tolerance is also necessary and good but has limits. For example we appreciate the freedom to come and go as we please and it is good to tolerate the comings and goings of others. This is so even if some of the places they go, (e.g. a brothel), do not please us or win our approval. Without such a general tolerance of movement things would literally grind to a halt. But for the sake of the value of coming and going freely we put up with the less desirable aspects of it.
However this tolerance has its limits. We do not permit people to drive on sidewalks, run red lights or drive in the left lane of a two way street. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We restrict unaccompanied minors from certain locales, etc. In effect, every just law enshrines some limit to tolerance. Conservative and Liberals debate what limits law should enshrine, but both sides want civil law to set some limits. Even Libertarians, while wanting less law, see a role for some law and limits, for they are not anarchists.
So, toleration is a good and necessary thing but it has its limits. Our modern struggle with the issue of tolerance seems to be twofold:
- The definition of tolerance, as we have discussed, is flawed. Many people equate tolerance with approval, and many call disapproval, intolerance. But, as we have seen, this is flawed. Without some degree of disapproval, tolerance is not possible.
- The second problem centers around the limits of tolerance. In our modern world we are being asked to tolerate increasingly troublesome behavior. A lot of this behavior centers around sexual matters. Proponents of sexual promiscuity demand increasing tolerance despite the fact that their behavior leads to diseases, abortion, teenage pregnancy, single parent families, sexual temptation, divorce, and all the ills that go with a declining family structure. Abortion proponents also demand tolerance of what they advocate, although this behavior results in the death of an innocent human being. Many people of faith think that the limits of tolerance have been transgressed in matters such as these.
Rapprochement? – The debate about toleration and its limits is not new, but it seems more intense today when a shared moral vision has largely departed. Perhaps we cannot as easily define the limits of tolerance today. But one way forward might be to return to a proper definition of tolerance. Perhaps if we stop (incorrectly) equating tolerance with approval, a greater respect will be instilled in these debates. To ask for tolerance is not always wrong, but to demand approval is.
Consider the debate over homosexual activity. Many people of faith, at least those who hold to a more strictly Biblical view, find homosexual behavior to be wrong. The same can be said for illicit heterosexual behavior such as fornication, polygamy, and incest. But on account of our disapproval of homosexual behavior we are often called “intolerant,” (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, hateful, etc).
But tolerance is really not the issue. Most Christians are willing to tolerate the fact the people “do things in their bedroom” of which we disapprove. As long as we are not directly confronted with private behavior and told to approve of it, we are generally willing to stay out of people’s private lives. But what has happened in modern times is that approval is demanded for behavior we find objectionable. When we cannot supply such approval, we are called intolerant. This is a misuse of the term.
And further, what if our objections do not simply emerge from bigotry as some claim but, rather, from a principled biblical stance? Our disapproval does not, ipso facto, make us bigots. Neither does it mean we are wholly intolerant and seek to force an end to behavior we do not consider good. Very few Christians I have ever heard from are asking for the police to patrol streets and enter bedrooms and make arrests.
We are not intolerant, we simply do not approve of homosexual activity. And, according to the proper definition of tolerance, it is the very fact of our disapproval, that permits us to show forth tolerance. Perhaps such a consideration might instill greater respect in these debates and less name-calling from our opponents.
An aside– Gay “marriage” is a more complicated matter since it involves existing law and a demanded change in that law by proponents of so-called “gay marriage.” Most traditional Christians see a limit to tolerance here since we consider that God defined and established marriage as described in Genesis 1 & 2. Hence we cannot favor attempts to substitute a human redefinition of something we believe instituted by God.
Finally a thought as to who really “owns” tolerance. Opponents of traditional Christians often claim the high ground of tolerance for themselves. But the paradoxical result of this is a “holier-than-thou” attitude is an increasing intolerance of Christian faith by the self-claimed tolerant ones. Legal restrictions of the proclamation of the Christian faith in the public square are increasing. Financial exclusion of Catholic Charities from Government money used in serving the poor are becoming more common as well. In other parts of the world where free speech is less enshrined, Catholic priests and bishops are being sued and even arrested for “hate speech” because they preach traditional biblical morality. None of this sounds very “tolerant.”
Our opponents need not approve of our beliefs but they ought to exhibit greater tolerance of us, the same tolerance they ask of us.
Please add to this discussion.
This video demonstrates comically and in extreme form how even those who demand tolerance often exhibit intolerance themselves.
47 Replies to “Coming to a Truer Understanding of Tolerance”
To the ones that call us Catholics ‘intolerant’ : the so called ‘tolerant’ are the most intolerant.
Perfect! Isn’t this definition of tolerance the founding concept of our nation. We have a common economic system and generally a consistent political system but for each of us to be able to “pursue freedom and happiness” we need to be tolerant of each other but tolerance without any limit is anarchy. The debate about the future must start with an agreement that there has to be boundaries. The question is where to draw the boundaries. The limits will be less than most any individual would prefer. “I can pick limits for you but you can’t pick mine” will not work. The debate about where the boundary should be will be enough of a challenge but it will be impossible if the only acceptable tolerance is approval. The culture or the vocal minority that demand “approval” for their views. Everyone should passionately advocate for their preferred boundaires but this is different than imposing my boundaries on another. I will passionately advocate for an end to abortion but it is not going to work for me to physically force someone to adopt my view. God gave us freewill but not to harm others. Tolerance as you define is the “natural” extension of God’s tolerance for our exercise of freewill.
“ya have to disapprove of it before you can be tolerant of it”… i like that.
Awhile ago, Father, you posted a prayer that mention something about a reasonable amount of happiness in this life. If people come to realize that expecting more happiness in this life is unrealistic, then maybe meaningful tolerance will make a comeback. One thing I like about G. K. Chesterton is that he was willing to let us see his bad teeth.
Excellent post! I think I found one minor error that you may want to correct. One of the paragraphs begins:
“And further, what if our objections do simply emerge from bigotry as some claim but . . . ”
I am pretty sure it should say, “. . . do not simply emerge from bigotry . . . .”
Yes thanks for the catch……
The people who support the alleged rights of those who are criticized seem to usually class themselves as liberal so, why would they be so careless as to misuse the true meaning of tolerance. Could it be that they only pretend to misunderstand in order to use it as a deceitful weapon to attack anyone who disagrees with them, rather than what the disagreement is about?
By deceit I mean dodging a responsibility to dispute negative criticism by, instead, attacking all who disagree with them with stereotypes. “…we are often called ‘intolerant,’ (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, hateful, etc).”
The oppressors of the cotton and sugar cane plantations before the Civil War (and, later, the bosses of the sharecroppers) used many sweeping stereotypes to criticize the oppressed and the true liberals who spoke against oppression.
The Nazi’s who rose to power in the Twentieth Century used sweeping stereotypes against the ethnic groups they savaged; Slavonic peoples and others, as well as the Jewish.
Now, there seems to be a tendency for alleged liberals to attack all who disagree with them in order to keep the statements of critics from being taken as presentable, or even from preventing the statements from being delivered to the public.
If they’re real liberals, and not hijackers under a false flag, why do they have such a problem with dissenters being heard and; what is the true agenda that we are being distracted from hearing?
All this, and more, has been better expressed by One who is greater than me; John 18:23 “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Emotionally brutality, such as stereotyping, may have a worse aspect than the physical because some might use its intangeable aspect to negate the victims’ suffering. At least the slavers, Nazis and earlier ones were honest about using open brutality, instead of the lower level sneaky stuff of these days.
I’m certainly glad that we have such a clear mandate on using the truth to bring freedom, John 8:32, to help us avoid the trap that the tempter has used to trick others into doing his evil.
A friend of mine, who is a reporter, once said that “everything is a small-town bourgoise game for influence and power”.
Sad but true.
‘Intolerance’ has become one of those easily mailable terms used to shame dissenters into compliance, like “homophobia”.
Reminds me of a line from South Park: “‘Tolerate’ means you’re just putting up with it! You tolerate a crying child sitting next to you on the airplane or, or you tolerate a bad cold. It can still p!ss you off!”
And further, what if our objections do simply emerge from bigotry as some claim but, rather, from a principled biblical stance?
Should that be:
And further, what if our objections do NOT simply emerge from bigotry as some claim but, rather, from a principled biblical stance?
Yes thanks for the catch
Some people want to rebuild The Temple.
The rest wants to rebuild Sodom & Gomorrah.
I do not think the issue is more complicated than that.
I do think the issue is FAR more complicated than that. A quick glance at the Ayatollah’s Iran or Franco’s Spain should give us a clue.
The world needs to understand Homosexuality in light of Catholic teaching. All of this entire hostility movement is the result of a misunderstanding of Church teaching.
By the way, this video is specific to the topic of homosexuality.
Actually, to be fair, I think we should acknowledge that the demand for tolerance from the homosexual community begins with a legitimate complaint- there are people who disapprove who will NOT tolerate it. This is of course especially a problem in the adolescent years, but is not limited to that. Homosexuals, especially men, DO have to deal with unjust discrimination in some places and situations, to the point of actual physical abuse or even murder. Any Christian should acknowledge that even though the homosexual act is a sin, anyone who engages in it is still a child of God with inherent dignity. I think the hostility on their part is understandable although misguided.
Hmmm… seeing homosexuals today as “victims” does not ring very true to me. If anything they are in the ascendancy. Politically they seem to have the power on the inside of the system. Perhaps if we were allowed to have more referendums that would be less true, but that shows their power in that they are able to evade plebiscites and work their agenda through the legislatures, human rights commissions, and the courts. They seem rather powerful to, not victims. Further they own the entertainment industry, if you ask me. Lastly surveys show that homosexuals as a group as much more affluent than the population in general. Victims of injustice? I am not so sure.
Msgr. would have to take you to task somewhat on whether or not homosexuals are not actually victims of injustice. All one has to do is remember Matthew Shephered who was tied to a fence and beaten so bad that he died. Or go back to the Nazi period when homosexuals where sent to concentration camps. Or look at the way homosexuals are treated throughout the world, i.e., the videos posted online showing gay teenage boys being strung up on cranes by their necks in Iran. Homosexual men and women, historicly, currently, and throughout the world are regularly victims of injustice. To state otherwise is to attempt to hide the truth.
Another great hidden truth about human sexuality is that heterosexuality, while the dominant public display of human sexuality, is not actually the dominant sexual nature of humankind. Bisexuality is. And the ongoing failure of the world religious community to understand the right use of human sexuality as a statement about love leaves this most common human experience untouched by theological interpretation. Bisexuality, like homosexuality and even heterosecuality, does not have to be physically expressed to be psychological real. But a failure on the part of the religious community to recognize this reality and explain how it operates in God’s injunction to love one another as he has loved us is a scandal.
I can’t speak for Iran, but for the record Christians too are being killed around this world. The 1940s are a long time ago and in another nation. I am talking about today here in America. The situation you describe in America related to Matthew Shepherd was many years ago and is rare. I have no idea what you are talking about in terms of the worldwide religious community, but if you are asking for pages to be torn out of the Bible, no can do. Your notions about the “dominant form” of sexuality are fanciful. What is scandalous is denying the inerrant world of God and defying natural law.
Msgr. you’re not being fair to the sufferings of others which is a lack of charity.
And, no I’m not asking for any pages to be torn out of the bible. But I am expecting that all of them get read–even by a Catholic Priest who has merited the honor of monseigneur.
The research done in the 20th century regarding human sexuality is not fanciful as it clearly indicates that human sexuality is extremely fluid and very few people will claim to be exclusively heterosexual or homosexual. Most fall somewhere in a wide range of bisexual feeling.
And at no time does anything in my post deny the inerrant wor of god or advocate the denying of natural law. In fact the contrary is evident in what I said that human sexuality does not have to be acted out phsycially in order to be a psychological reality. What is a denial of the inerrant word of God is that God is love. And that we are enjoined to love one another. Human sexuality, even when it is expressed through chastity, is a means of loving one another.
I think what dissapoints me is that you comments reflect a common position among many clerics in the church to ignore the complexity of the issue and simply duck it by claiming that anyone who brings up the subject is trying to rip pages out of the bible and deny natural law. In other debates that would be called a cheap shot.
I won’t argue your other points- I agree with them. However, while the homosexual community does wield some political and financial power in this country, that does not mean none of them still suffer from discrimination. Matthew Shepherd died “many years ago”? It was 1998. And there was a story just this week about a shooting in an IHOP in DC that allegedly involved anti-homosexual epithets. Just because others are also suffering does not diminish the suffering that teenage boys often suffer at the hands of their peers, because they are “fags”. I taught for two years at Catholic high schools. Prejudice against homosexuals was alive and well I can assure you, expressed mainly through mean-spirited jokes, not concern for the others spiritual well-being. I agree with your assessment of the misuse of the word Tolerance, I am just saying homosexuals DO have good reason for feeling abused, and you would be more credible with someone who disagreed if you acknowledged that, I think.
Well i can t sa y how some should feel, but as one who serves in a minority community that has known real, severe discrimination resulting in monumental financial and social consequences, i find the suffering described to be less than convincing as proof of grave or even serious harm.
By the way, i was laughed at by peers in high school because i was so skinny. Further i had my catholic faith ridiculed by numerous classmates, especially on account of my last name. I have survived however and done well. Dislike does not equate with persecution necessarily. I t might be nice if no one disliked homosexuals, but it might also be nice if no one disiked Catholics, or white males, et al. I think Catholics might be heading for real persecuti on in the future but it not here now, lots of dislike though!
Thank you, Michael. Thank you. I also see many expose’s of Christians subjecting homosexual persons to the very worst demonizing polemics.
Demonizing polemics you mean like: calling your opponent Homphobic, intolerant, bigot, mean-spirited and demonizers? You mean like that Brian? But perhaps I am being too theoretical since we NEVER hear such things coming from the homosexual community — Oh, wait a minute, we DO hear things like that! …. hmmm. Well, of course I am sure you just forgot to denounce that too, but I am sure in your fair-mindedness you meant to include that in your description of demonizing polemics.
Liberal websites have amassed mountains of evidence of demonizing rhetoric from Christians.
Pardon the spamming, monsignor, but I was trying to make the point that hatred cuts in all directions.
I notice that my most recent post on this blog has been deleted. Why is that?
an old post. The beat goes on. There’s been plenty of back and forth and the point of the original post has been lost in an endless cycle of debate about whether orthodox Catholicism is “nice” enough but the post is about tolerance and tolerance 1. has limits and 2. is premised on the fact that I find what you advocate or do to be objectionable and wrong. Homosexual acts are wrong, sinful, unbiblical, and called by God himself an abomination. Other sexual acts such as fornication and incest are also sinful, wrong and unbiblical. No smiley face will be forthcoming from the Church for such behavior or issued to those who demand approval for them. No reason to keep going round in circles about this. You asked, that’s why. Sometimes its best to let things drop, but you wanted an answer.
The essence of liberty is not that my interests should be tolerated, but that I should tolerate yours. [Tom Stoppard, telegraph.co.uk]
Isn’t tolerance another way of stating the Spiritual Work of Mercy – to bear wrongs patiently? But still we must remember another Spiritual Work of Mercy – to admonish sinners!
I think there are two virtues that are both called tolerance but that are slightly different.
One is an aspect of justice in which we see something that ought to be punished, but not by us. Think of a stranger’s child misbehaving in a supermarket; the kid may well deserve a spanking, but it’s not your place to give it.
The other is an aspect of prudence, which sees that the consequences of seeking full justice may have unacceptable consequences. Good examples of this would be the fact that Hirohito was not tried for war crimes, because that would have made the transition period for Japan much harder to manage, and the “Truth and Reconciliation” process in South Africa, which put national stability above the punishment of wrongdoers.
You give an inch tolerating and then you’re expected to give a mile. It is really late in the game, Catholics. The Catholics in the U.S.A. are in the process of being marginalized into extinction. It was not enough that for the last 40+ years we have hated the sin and loved the sinner. Now we are having our faces rubbed in the sin. We are being forced to participate monetarily in the sin of abortion and now gay unions undermining the sanctity of marriage. If we do not get our soldiers for Christ in places of decision making in this country very soon, we will be a whisper crying out in the wildeness within 5 years. Kennedy, Biden, Pelosi, Kerry, Chris Matthews have done far worse for the Catholic Church than if they would have been quiet athiests. It starts with US and who WE elect into office. Many of you drank the Kool-Aid Satan so deceitfully prepared for us. Ther gates of hell shall never prevail against God’s church, but how much destruction is done in the meantime before God Says ENOUGH is what we are experiencing. Be a soldier for Christ in all that you do. Christi Fidelis
Marginalized into extinction…being reduced into a whisper in the wilderness…I’d say that started when Charles Coughlin started preaching antisemitic conspiracy theories all the way back in the 1930s.
Funny video. Living in the south that concern about intolerance of Christians is often expressed–although to be honest when you live in the Bible Belt you don’t see very much actual intolerance of the religiously minded. The kind of intolerance I often face is that demand that I must recognize that Catholicism is quite simply wrong. It isn’t good enough to tolerate the existence of Catholics in Georgia by many protestants, but I have encountered some who actually get angry with me because I refuse to believe that the Catholic Church is really the Whore of Babylon. The other peculiar manifestation of “tolerance means approval” is in political opinions. When I lived in DC I had friends who were conservative but who didn’t consider my political liberalism to be equivalent to a mental disorder. The opposite is true quite often in the south. When I say that my politics are liberal I’m accused of not only being communist baby-killer, but seriously sick as well. According to the prevailing wisdom, God is a Republican, and so to be a political liberal one must not only be an anti-christian heretic but seriously deranged as well. When I try to talk about Catholic social teachings and how they range from a position that affirms the right to life, to the right to access to the benefits of life, many of my interlocutors cannot understand how a person can be both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty at the same time.
Though I suppose I might tend to fall more along the conservative lines in prudential matters, I to find people baffled that I can be both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty at the same time. In the end, a faithful Catholic can never really be a conservative or a liberal, just Catholic.
Thank you. Jeff. It is very sad that liberals, especially social liberals, are stereotyped as bloodthirsty Bolsheviks who revel in Satanic orgies.
I don’t recall using the term liberal in the article, nor Bolsheviks, nor satanic. I would agree that many “social liberals” (your term – I would probably distinguish between social liberals and and those who are at odds with the moral teachings of the Chruch) exhibit, as a group, significant sexual confusion or are generally supportive of promiscuity.
I was not talking about you, monsignor. I was talking about what I see in general on Catholic websites.
I agree with Nathan’s comment that a Catholic can never really be a conservative or a liberal, just Catholic. It’s hard for my southern protestant friends to understand how Catholic social teaching can fall across the spectrum of contemporary American politics. They like the Pope when he comes out against abortion, but then thought there is something seriously wrong with him when he spoke out against the Iraq war.
What has happened in the south is that certain political opinions have become a litmus test to Christianity. They will begrudingly accept that Catholics might have some claim to being Christian because of the Church’s teaching on abortion and homosexuality.
However, they exhibit a great deal of confusion about politics because the reality is that southern conservatives are really just old fashioned people–economically they are liberals. While they decry taxes (and come on, who doesn’t?) they still want all the benefits of a welfare state: schools, parks, free higher education through the Hope Scholarship, medical insurance for children and the poor through PeachCare (our local version of ObamaCare), etc.
“Finally a thought as to who really “owns” tolerance. Opponents of traditional Christians often claim the high ground of tolerance for themselves. ”
…and for the same reasons, they often think they “own” compassion as well.
About excluding Catholic Charities from government money to serve the poor: I just want to remind people that Blessed Teresa of Calcutta REFUSED to take money from governments and her apostolate, or whatever you call it, did ok while she was alive, and to the best of my understanding, is still doing ok now that she is dead.
For many years when I lived in Washington, DC I worked for a charitable organization run by the Lutheran Church based at the Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill. It provided GED classes and job training to men and women living in Southeast on the other side of the Anacostia. During the years that I worked for Southeast Ministries we never accepted government money. One of the principal reasons was that in accepting government funding we would be confined into a narrow range of services, even if those service proved to not be working. By working with private funders we had the flexibility to meet with them to discuss changing the services we offered, that they had funed, if we found that they were not working or needed changes. Also, government funding, since it is tax payer money, cannot be used for activities that had an expressely religious content. Although we had a limited budget Southeast Ministry was consiered a very effective service and was recognized as such by various organizations in DC.
“One is an aspect of justice in which we see something that ought to be punished, but not by us. Think of a stranger’s child misbehaving in a supermarket; the kid may well deserve a spanking, but it’s not your place to give it. ”
Howard, I like that a lot. Thanks!
As I review the post and the resulting comments, I begin to see that we (Catholics) are tolerating with things which we disagree with. Tolerating because of the rule of law and democracy.
So, if we’re being called “intolerant” for tolerating, but disagreeing, what is the motive of our critics? Are they trying to prevent anyone from disagreeing?
If they’re trying to force people to claim to agree and disagree where the allegedly popular opinion tell them to agree and disagree, are they working toward a day when they will have the power to tell everyone to like and dislike what the allegedly popular opinion tells them to like and to dislike?
But then, why do I say, “allegedly popular opinion” as if the loudest temper tantrum wasn’t the majority? Perhaps because a conspicuous minority can sometimes appear to be a majority. I’m remembers Nixon’s “silent majority”
However, what about when a special interest group; majority, vocal minority or whatever; screams accusations of intolerance at people who are tolerating? Aren’t they really criticizing those people’s disagreement and their right to disagree and, more to the point, dissent? I believe that dissent is a necessary part of democracy (What if the political party that gets the most votes throughout the country was awarded all the seats in both Congess and Senate, for instance?) so where’s the democracy when dissent is called, “intolerant,’ (and many other things as well such as homophobic, bigoted, hateful, etc)” and worse?
Starting to seem like is that the accusers who oppose dissent being very much portraying themselves as enemies of democracy. If someone in position to do speak for organization (and is having the organization large legal defense fund) would call in very a public way that these anti-dissenters is enemies of democracy and dares them to sue … would they dare to sue?
Much prayer for advice probably best before deciding whether or not ot pulblicly accuse anti-dissenters of being enemied at democracy.
Beautifully said, spiritually pertinent article appreciated from my socially “liberalish” Mainline Protestant viewpoint. I make no claims to be without sin, yet I tire of the modern poison of moral relativism that permeates society. Thanks for this inspiring reminder that God does have absolutes in the realm of morality. It’s merely how we treat one another that’s open to consideration.
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