Tolerance Has Its Place, But Also Its Limits – A Brief Consideration of a Widely Misunderstood Virtue
Yesterday we discussed the intolerance of the very radicals who are forever calling for tolerance. A couple of people wrote in to indicate that they consider my stance duplicitous, since I likely support Archbishop Cordeleone’s stance requiring Catholic School teachers to demonstrate loyalty to Catholic teachings and promise not to teach to the contrary in Catholic schools. I do in fact support the good Archbishop. But I do not accept the charge of duplicity.
Why? Because, as I hope to teach, tolerance is a virtue, but it is not an absolute virtue. Too many “debates” in our culture hinge on an absolutizing of what is said. Tolerance has limits. In addition, context is important.
Regarding context, I would tolerate certain topics being discussed among adults that I would not tolerate being discussed in the presence of children. I am going to be more tolerant of a dissenter from Catholic teaching speaking in the local park or debate hall than I would be of a Catholic priest dissenting in the pulpit of a Catholic Church.
There are certain contexts in which debate and disagreement are more expected and tolerated than in others. Catholic parents pay a lot of money to send their children to Catholic schools, where they reasonably expect the faith to be handed on, defended, or at the very least not openly opposed. Bishops have a right and duty to meet this expectation and to protect minors from error and dissent. I am more tolerant of even a Catholic university allowing the spirited discussion of various ideas, but I certainly think that at a Catholic university, Catholic answers would at least be vigorously presented (and surely not suppressed as we saw in yesterday’s article). So context matters in terms of how we understand the limits of tolerance.
Second, when tolerance IS extended, we can reasonably protest if certain groups are favored over others. It is one thing to say that certain groups or activities should be tolerated legally or otherwise. But then to declare that opposing groups have no right to the same tolerance or to voice their disagreement in the same matter is unjust. Many people today mistake “tolerance” to mean approval, tacit agreement, or at least feigned indifference. This is a misunderstanding.
Permit me some further thoughts on the issue of tolerance in order to address this misunderstanding. This post is not intended as a systematic treatise on tolerance. Rather, these are just some thoughts on a “virtue” that has too often become detached from reason and justice.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines tolerance and toleration this way:
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 other words, by definition, 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 imply that we approve of the tolerated thing as something that is good. This essential point is glossed over by those who demand that tolerance mean approval, and insist that disapproving 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 whom we like, but who also have annoying or less desirable traits (as do all human beings). Without tolerance we would be locked in a fruitless attempt to re-make each person so as to be “perfect” to us. We tolerate people’s less desirable aspects for loftier purposes such as harmony, friendship, respect, mercy, and kindness.
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 reasonably tolerated. Behavior that endangers one or both parties (either physically or spiritually) ought not be tolerated and often makes it necessary to end relationships or at least to establish firm boundaries.
In wider society tolerance is also necessary and good but has its 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 true even if some of the places they go (e.g., a brothel) do not please us or win our approval. Without this 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 its less desirable aspects.
However this tolerance has its limits. We do not permit people to drive on sidewalks, run red lights, or drive on the wrong side of the street. Neither do we permit breaking and entering or the violation of legitimate property rights. We also restrict unaccompanied minors from certain establishments. In effect, every just law enshrines some limit to tolerance. Conservatives and liberals debate what limits the law should enshrine, but both sides want civil law to set some limits. Even libertarians, while wanting less law in general, see a role for some laws and limits; 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 common understanding of tolerance, as we have discussed, is flawed. Many people equate tolerance with approval, and call disapproval “intolerance.” But, as we have seen, 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 involves sexual matters. Proponents of sexual promiscuity demand increasing tolerance for it despite the fact that such behavior leads to disease, 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, despite the fact that 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 tolerance and its limits is not a new one, but it seems more intense today when there no longer appears to be a shared moral vision. 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, believe homosexual behavior to be wrong. The same can be said for illicit heterosexual behavior such as fornication, adultery, 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, and hateful).
But tolerance is really not the issue. Most Christians are willing to tolerate the fact the people “do things in their bedrooms” 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. And when we cannot supply such approval we are called intolerant. This is a misuse of the term.
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 intolerant or that we seek to force an end to behavior we do not consider good. Very few Christians I have ever heard from are asking for police to patrol the streets, 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 tolerance. Perhaps such a consideration might instill greater respect and less name-calling in these debates.
As 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 believe that God defined and established marriage as described in Genesis. Hence we cannot support attempts to substitute a human redefinition of something we believe was instituted by God.
Finally, I offer 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 “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 is 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 from us.
Please add your thoughts to this discussion.
Sites That Link to this Post
- MONDAY MORNING EDITION - BigPulpit.com | March 16, 2015
- Pastoral Sharings: "Fifth Sunday of Lent" | St. John | March 21, 2015
- Pastoral Sharings: "Easter Sunday" | St. John | April 4, 2015