What Is Tolerance?

What is Tolerance?
By Prof. Plinio Correa de Oliveira   

"If there is tolerance only in abnormality, then proclaiming the necessity for more tolerance affirms the existence of abnormality."

When it comes to tolerance, confusion reigns supreme. Everyone talks about it, but few seem to know exactly what it is.

What, then, is tolerance? Imagine a man with two sons, one with sound principles and a strong will and the other with undecided principles and a vacillating will. One day, in the town where the family lives, a professor comes to present a holiday course that would be of extraordinary use to both of them. The father wants his sons to take the course, but sees that this will mean depriving them of various outings that both are very fond of.  Weighing the pros and cons, he decides that it would be better for his sons to forego their diversions, however legitimate, rather than miss this rare opportunity for intellectual betterment. The youths react to this decision in different ways. The first son, after a moment of reluctance, accepts his father's wish. The other complains and implores his father to change his mind, showing such irritation that his father fears a serious gesture of revolt.

In face of this, the man upholds his decision with his good son. On the other hand, considering the difficulty his mediocre son would have in following the academic routine and foreseeing many occasions of dissension that would arise in their daily relationships, he decides, for the long-term safe guarding of immutable moral principles, that it is better not to insist. He relents, and this son does not have to take the course.

Acting thus with his mediocre and slothful son, the father reluctantly gave his permission, but it was not in any way an approval. It was an extort­ed permission. To avoid an evil (fric­tion with his son) he granted him a lesser good (the holiday trips) and relinquished the greater good (the course). It is this kind of consent, given without approval and even with censure, that we call tolerance.

It is true that tolerance sometimes means accepting not a lesser good to avoid an evil, but a lesser evil to avoid a greater one. Such would be the case of a father who, having a son who has acquired several grave vices that would be impossible to overcome all at once, plans to combat them successively. Thus, while trying to thwart one vice, he closes his eyes to the others, acceding to them with profound disgust as a way to avoid a greater evil, which would be to make the moral correction of his son impossible. This is characteristically seen as an attitude of tolerance.

As we have just seen, tolerance can only be practiced in abnormal sit­uations. If there were no bad children, for example, there would be no need for tolerance on the part of parents. The more that members of a family are forced to practice tolerance among themselves, the more abnormal their situation would be.

The reality of all this is more striking when considering the case of a religious order or an army whose superiors must habitually practice unlimited tolerance with their subor­dinates. Such an army would be unlikely to win battles, and such an order would not be heading toward the high and rugged summits of Christian perfection.

In other words, tolerance can be a virtue. But it is a virtue characteristic of abnormal, difficult, and dangerous situations. We can say, then, that it is the daily cross of the fervent Catholic in times of desolation, spiritual decadence, and the ruin of Christian civilization.

For this reason, one understands how necessary it is in a catastrophic century like ours. At every moment the Catholic of our time encounters the prospect of tolerating something. On the train or bus, on the streets, in the workplace, within the homes he visits, in hotels where he vacations, he encounters abuses at every instant that provoke an interior cry of indignation. It is a cry that he is sometimes forced to restrain in order to avoid a greater evil. It is a cry that in normal circumstances would be a duty of honor and coherence.

In passing, it is curious to observe the contradiction into which the adorers of this century fall. On the one hand, they emphatically praise its qualities to the clouds and silence or play down its defects. On the other hand, they do not cease to apostrophize intolerant Catholics, calling for toler­ance, clamoring for tolerance, demanding tolerance in favor of this century.

They do not tire of affirming that this tolerance should be a constant, all-encompassing, and unlimited. It is hard to understand how they cannot perceive their inconsistency.  For, if there is tolerance only in abnormality, then proclaiming the necessity for more tolerance affirms the existence of abnormality.

One way or another, the Greeks and Trojans concur in recognizing that tolerance is acutely necessary in our epoch.

Given these conditions, then, it is easy to perceive how erroneous is the current usage regarding tolerance. In fact, the word is commonly used eulogistically. When some­one says that another is tolerant, the affir­mation is accompanied by a series of implicit or explicit complements: magnanimous, big hearted, broadminded, generous, objective, naturally prone to sympathy, cordiality, and benevolence.  And, logically, qualifying someone as intolerant brings with it a sequence of more or less explicit reproaches: narrow-minded, bad-tempered, malevolent; spontaneously inclined to suspicion, hatred, resentment and vengeance.

In reality, nothing is further from the truth. If there are cases in which tolerance is a good, there are others in which it is not. And it can even be crime. Therefore, no one merits praise for being systematically tolerant or intolerant, but rather for being one or the other as circumstances demand.

The question, then, is somewhat different: It is not the case to decide whether someone should be systematically tolerant or intolerant. What matters is to decide when one ought to be one or the other.

Before all else, it is appropriate to point out that there is a situation in which the Catholic must always be intolerant, that is, toward sin, to which there are no excep­tions. One cannot tolerate committing some sin in order to please others or to avoid a greater evil. Since all sin is an offense against God, it is absurd to imagine that in a certain situation God can be virtuously offended.This is so obvious that it may seem superfluous to state it, but, in practice, how necessary it is to remember this principle. For example, no one has the right, in order to be tolerant with friends and gain their sympathy, to dress immorally or to adopt the licentious or frivolous manners of those who lead disordered lives.  Nor does anyone have the right to exhibit rash, ques­tionable, or even erroneous ideas, nor to boast of vices that they do not have in reality -- thanks be to God.
To give another example, a Catholic who is conscious of the duties of fidelity entrusted to him by Scholasticism but who professes another philosophy solely to win sympathy in certain circles, practices an unacceptable form of tolerance.  He sins against the truth by professing a theory that he knows contains errors, even if they are not against the Faith.
The obligation of intolerance, in cases such as these, goes even further.  It is not enough that we abstain from practicing evil; it is necessary that we never approve of it, either by action or omission.
The Catholic who takes a sympathetic attitude in face of sin or error sins against the virtue of intolerance. This is what happens when he witnesses, with an unreserved smile, an immoral conversation or scene, or when in a discussion he admits a right of others to embrace their own opinion about the Catholic faith. This is not respect for the adversary but rather for his errors or sins. This is to approve of evil, a point to which no Catholic can go.
At times, however, one reaches that point thinking he has not sinned against intolerance. Such is the case when silence, in face of error or evil, gives an idea of tacit approval.
In all of these cases, tolerance is a sin, and virtue is found only in intolerance.

It is understandable that certain readers will be irritated on reading these affirmations. The instinct of sociability is natural in man, and it is this instinct that allows us to socialize with others in an agreeable and harmonious way.
Within the logic of our argumentation, the Catholic is obliged in an ever-increasing number of circumstances to repeat before the world the heroic "non possumus" of Pius IX: We cannot imitate, we cannot agree, we cannot remain silent. Consequently, an ambience of war, cold or hot, soon forms around us, and the supporters of the errors and fashions of our epoch persecute with implacable intolerance, in the name of tolerance, all those who dare to disagree with them. A curtain of fire, of ice, or sim­ply of cellophane, surrounds and isolates us. A veiled social excommunication puts us at the fringe of modem ambiences. Men fear this almost as much as, or even more than death itself.
We are not exaggerating. In order to have the right of citizenship in such ambiences there are men who work themselves to death and women who fast like ascetics of the Thebaid to the point of seriously jeopardizing their health. Now, to forfeit a "citizenship" of such "value," merely out of love of principles, one must dearly love those principles.
And besides, there is laziness. In order to study a subject in depth, to have the argu­ments entirely on hand for any opportunity, to justify a position, how much effort... how much laziness. Laziness in regard to speak­ing, to discussing, is evident. Yet, even greater is the laziness in regard to study, and, above all, the supreme laziness regard­ing thinking with seriousness about something, mastering something, identifying oneself with an idea, a principle!
How far removed from the subtle, imperceptible, manifold laziness regarding being serious, thinking seriously, and living seriously is the inflexible, heroic, and imperturbable intolerance that on certain occasions and in certain matters -- perhaps it would be better to say on so many occasions and in so many matters -- is the duty of the true Catholic, today as always.
Laziness is the sister of indifference. Many will ask, why so much effort, so much combat, so much sacrifice if our atti­tude isolates us and the others do not improve? Strange objection! As if we should practice the commandments only so others will also practice them and are dis­pensed from doing so if the others do not imitate us.
We witness before men our love of good and hatred of evil in order to give glory to God. Even if the entire world disapproves, we must continue doing so. The fact that the others do not accompany us does not diminish the right that God has to our com­plete obedience.
However, these are not the only reasons for disdaining intolerance. There is also opportunism. To be in concert with the dominant tendencies is something that opens all the doors and facilitates all careers. Prestige, comfort, money, every­thing, but everything, becomes easier and more obtainable if one accepts the prevail­ing influence.

 From this perspective, one sees how costly is the duty of intolerance.

When to Practice True Tolerance

Granting that in a given case, we may be called to practice this difficult and dangerous virtue, how should we do so? Tolerance - even when necessary - bears its own particular perils. What are these hazards and how may we avoid them?

I shall present a brief theoretical consideration, followed by a relevant historical example.

To tolerate an evil is to consent to its existence. Just as good produces good, evil yields evil. When we are obliged to tolerate something evil, we must limit the evil effects of this tolerance to the greatest degree possible and diligently prepare the con­ditions for eradicating the evil, rendering further toleration unnecessary.

This principle is elementary in medicine. If, for clinical reasons, a patient suffering from a malignant tumor cannot be operated upon immediately, the physician's treatment consists in retarding the tumor's ill effects in every way possible. Not satisfied with this, he will diligently prepare the patient for the eventual surgery. Even the most tolerant man would not tolerate his doctor acting in any other way. I do not understand why this clear, log­ical, and wise process should not also be lauded when, instead of the danger of a malignant tumor, we face the threat of a moral cancer such as heresy.

Indeed, wherever error is introduced, we must remedy the situation with the suave and deliberate clinical means of apologetics and charity. Should these means fail, or when the evil spreads so rapidly that it cannot be treated over time, or is so resistant that no argument or act of charity will root it out, we must resort to surgery. If this surgery can­not be performed at once, we must resolutely combat the further infiltration of the disease, while preparing for an auspicious day to operate.

By way of example, let us consider a religious association into which an evil influence has entered, permeating it with a spirit of worldliness, sensuality, and doctrinal relativism. If the association is well disposed to resist the evil, it is preferable not to expel the fallen member immediately in order to afford him the opportunity to reform. Nonetheless, throughout the treatment, the superior will have to be particularly attentive regarding the infectious member, his associations, his sphere of influence, and so on. He must - at the slightest symptom - take every necessary measure to halt the contagion. Above all, the fraternity's director should practice a constant preventive medicine with the healthy members in order to inoculate them against the deadly dangers of infection. In this way, he will have practiced virtuous tolerance, for he will have offered good to the bad without risking grave harm to the good.

Virtuous tolerance requires much work, demands strict precautions, and takes considerable time. Let us suppose that the fallen member is a person of rare charm who immediately begins to influence his confreres. Since it is far easier to influence men towards evil than good, the superior sees that despite his best efforts to the contrary, numerous members will soon be entirely deformed. He now faces the following choice: to permit the evil influence to remain within the bosom of the association, risking the loss of once healthy members; or to expel the carrier of contagion, who will likely be lost in any case, thus saving the good and restoring the fraternity to its former order, good spirit, and peace.

What is the director's duty? It can be but one. The well-being of the innocent is worth more than that of the guilty. It is necessary to expel the wolf in sheep's clothing as soon as possible. Failing to take the neces­sary action to protect the innocent, the superior will have betrayed his duty and will have to render account to God for the lost souls he could and should have saved.

Finally, let us suppose another situation. The evil indi­vidual infiltrates the association and quickly begins to ensnare his victims. In a short time, his success is such that if he were expelled, even the best members would fail to understand. His expulsion would precipitate a crisis that would dissolve the fraternity, and its members, deprived of any protection, would risk being lost themselves.

What should the director do? Evidently, effect a strategic compromise, but only with understanding, intelligence, and wisdom. The superior will have to employ every direct and indirect means to improve the disposition of the black sheep and, at the same time, to restrict his influence over the rest of the flock. At the same time, he will have to prepare the faithful members so that they may understand the urgent need for the infiltrator's expulsion. As soon as they are prepared, it is necessary to carry out the indispensable amputation. Even then, virtuous tolerance will have been virtuously practiced, for the society will have been saved, whereas rash action would have destroyed it.

In contrast to these examples of virtuous tolerance, we should mention some examples of defective tolerance.

Lacking firm principles and convictions, the superior of the association is superficial, vain, impressionable, and timid. When the evil individual enters the fraternity, the unprincipled director perceives, to a degree, the seductiveness of the attitudes and principles that the infiltrator deftly introduces.

As he is superficial, however, he is incapable of under­standing all that is implicit in the evil member's words and actions. In his vanity, he deems himself the idol of his peers and subordinates and thus cannot conceive the possibility of anyone undermining his influence. Impressionable, he is perfectly content as long as the association's members show him kindness and render him homage. He shuns principles, doctrine, and polemics as impediments to the sweet tranquility of his untroubled life. Timid, he is afraid of every reac­tion. Were he to take measures, he would be called intolerant within and without his social circle.

Now that would be quite uncomfortable, for the intolerant are never tolerated anywhere. We live in the age of tolerance. Every opinion is permitted - except intolerance. Anyone who would maintain that certain opinions are unacceptable would make himself the object of persecution, antipathy, and sarcasm. How could anyone expose himself to such ridicule?

Under the weight of so many pressures, the soft superior finds it easier to be tolerant, closing his eyes to the problem and permitting the evil to spread freely or, at least, imperceptibly. When the association is completely undermined and a cataclysmic crisis explodes, he submits with fatalism: "Such is life." He may even embrace the evil to save his own position from being overthrown.

This is how one makes a revolution from above, before those below do so. Such tolerance could not be more wicked.

Can Catholics be Intolerant Sometimes?

In a previous article, we established that tolerance, as well as its antithesis, intolerance, cannot be thought of as either intrinsically good or bad. In other words, there are cases in which tolerance is a duty and intolerance is an evil. And there are other times in which tolerance is evil and intolerance is a duty.

We return to the subject now not to further develop the basic principles we have already expounded, but to show the risks of tolerance as well as the precau­tions necessary for its practice.

Let us remember, before anything else, that all tolerance, as necessary and legitimate as it may be, has inherent risks. In short, tolerance consists in permitting one evil to exist so as to avoid a greater evil. Now, it follows that the unpunished existence of evil always creates danger, for evil tends necessarily to produce evil effects. Moreover, it is undeniably seductive. Thus, there is the risk that tolerance of itself bears even greater evils than those one desires to forestall by its practice. We must keep this aspect in mind, for our entire study rotates around it.

To avoid the aridity of an exclusively doctrinal study, let us imagine the situation of an officer who notes grave signs of agitation among his troops. He finds himself faced with a dilemma: Should he punish those responsible with all the rigor of justice, or should he treat them with tolerance? The second solution begets a range of other questions: In what measure and manner should tolerance be practiced? By applying mild punishments? By not applying them, but summoning those responsible and gen­tly advising them to change their atti­tude? To feign ignorance of the situation? To begin perhaps with the most benign of these solutions and successively apply the others in the measure that the more persuasive or mild solu­tions show themselves insufficient? What is the exact moment in which one should discard one procedure and adopt another more severe?

These are questions that may forcefully confront military officers, but they may likewise confront anyone invested with a position of command or responsibility in civil life and clearly conscious of his obligations. What father of a family, department manager, company director, pro­fessor, or leader has not faced these questions? How many evils did they avoid by resolving them with perspicac­ity and vigor of soul? And how many evils did they grapple with for failing to apply judicious solutions in situations they encountered?

In truth, one who finds himself in such a contingency ought first to make an examination of conscience in order to guard himself against the snares that his own personal frame of mind may create.

I must say that I have witnessed the greatest absurdities regarding this matter throughout my life, almost all of them leading to excessive tolerance.  The evils of our epoch have their present alarming character because there is a generalized sympathy for them, a sympa­thy that even those who combat them frequently share.

For example, many people oppose divorce.  But among these are found numerous people who, although against divorce, have an excessively sentimental spiritual makeup. Consequently, they consider problems born of "love" romantically. In face of a difficult mari­tal situation among some friends, these "anti-divorcists" judge it super-human, not to say inhuman, to exact of this inno­cent and unhappy couple that they reject the possibility of "starting over" (which means killing their souls through sin).

Hypocritically, they will profess being sorry about what happened, but if one were to bring up the problem of tolerance they will have a whole edifice built up inside for justifying the most extreme and aberrant concessions. Thus, they will comment on what took place with softness, invite the "newly­weds" over, visit them, and so forth. That is, they will favor divorce by their example while condemning it by their words. Clearly, with such conduct on the part of thousands or millions of oppo­nents of divorce, divorce has much more to gain than to lose.

How did they come to the decision to tolerate such an evil as this gnawing can­cer of the family? Because deep down they had a pro-divorce mentality.

Let us not stop here. Let us have the courage to say the whole truth. Modern man abhors asceticism. He is averse to anything that exacts of his will the effort of saying "no" to his sentiments. He finds the restraint of moral principles odious. The daily struggle against the passions seems to him a Chinese torture.

Because of this, modern man, even when gifted with good principles, is exag­geratedly complacent, and not only towards those who are divorced.

There are entire legions of parents and teachers who for this very reason are excessively indulgent towards their chil­dren and students. And the chorus they sing is always the same: "Poor so-and ­so…” Poor so-and-so, indeed, for he is lazy, takes ill the admonitions of his elders, filches snacks, frequents bad com­pany, watches immoral films, and so on.  And since he is "poor so-and-so,” he rarely receives the benefit of a rigorous punishment. The fruits are there for all to see. There are thousands, millions, of moral disasters occasioned by excessive tolerance. "He that spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes,” teach the Scriptures (Prov. 13:24). But in our days, who wants to hear it?

Now, the same takes place, mutatis mutandi, between certain kinds of managers and workers, since the managers, as paganized as their subordinates, feel that if they were workers they would be rebellious too.

And such examples continue to multi­ply in every field of life.

Clearly this tolerance is founded upon all kinds of pretexts -- exaggerating the risk of using excessive force or the possi­bility of things taking care of themselves, people closing their eyes to the dangers of impunity, and so forth.

In reality, all this would be avoided if the soul faced with the decision of whether or not to use tolerance were capable, out of humility, of being suspi­cious of itself.

Do I have unconfessed sympathies towards this evil? Am I afraid of the struggle intolerance will bring? Am I too lazy to make the effort that an attitude of intolerance would impose upon me? Do I seek personal advantages of any kind in an accommodating attitude?

Only after such an examination of conscience can a person confront the hard alternative of tolerance or intolerance. Without such examination, one cannot be certain of taking, in relation to himself, the necessary precautions to avoid sin­ning through excessive tolerance.

In general, there is some very fitting advice for those who find themselves faced with such an alternative. Everyone has particular bad tendencies that have taken root within him. This one is apathet­ic, that one is violent, another is ambi­tious, yet another is cynical, and so forth. We need not have much fear of sinning through excessive tolerance as long as this tolerance exacts victory over our most deep-rooted bad tendency. But as long as tolerance gratifies our bad inclinations, let us open our eyes, for the risk is grave.

Thus, if we are apathetic, we will probably not sin through excessive tolerance toward a friend who rouses us to action: There is nothing more sticky, nothing harder to catch, nothing more choleric than a lazy man contradicted in his lethargy. If we are irascible, we do not run much risk of exaggerated tolerance toward those who harm us. If we are sen­sual, it is improbable that we will show ourselves excessively rigorous in the mat­ter of dress and low necklines. And if we have a servile spirit as regards public opinion, only with difficulty will we over­step ourselves in hurling invectives against the errors of our century.

Likewise, it is advisable to have greater fear regarding our own weakness on this point, particularly when the rights of third parties and not ours are in ques­tion, thus preventing ourselves from sin­ning through excessive tolerance.

We are habitually much more "understanding" regarding the plights of others. We more easily pardon the thief who robbed our neighbor than the one who broke into our own house. And we are more disposed to recommend that injuries be forgotten than to practice this virtue ourselves.

Let us not lose sight of the fact that on this point we, according to the primary impulses of our egoism, quite often find that God is a third party. Hence, we are much more inclined to pardon an offense committed against the Church than one against ourselves, to endure a violation of God's rights than a violation of our own interests.

In general, this is the state of spirit of hyper-tolerant Catholics. Their language is imaginative, soft, and sentimental. They only know how to argue -- if one can call this arguing -- with their heart.  In relation to the enemies of the Church, they are full of illusions, complaisance, courtesy, and expressions of affection.

But they are terribly offended if a zealous Catholic causes them to see that they are sacrificing the rights of the Church. And, in place of arguing doctrinally, they transpose the subject to the personal terrain. "Are you saying that I am lukewarm? That I don't know perfect­ly well what I have to do? Are you doubt­ing my wisdom? My courage?" The chest heaves, the face reddens, the eyes brim with tears, and the voice takes on a cer­tain tone. Watch out, for this hyper-toler­ant soul is nearing the apex of a crisis of intolerance.

One can expect any violence, any injustice, and any one-sided thing from such a soul. This, because his facade of tolerance exists only when insipid and secondary values -- orthodoxy, purity of the Faith, the rights of the Church -- are in question. Everything changes when his little self enters the scene. Behold him disposed to cast into Hell those who pro­voke him.

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