This article is going to be a rough response to the comments I got on my article on dating outside of the Church. I got some comments on that essay, which seemed rightly to accuse me of being a little too afraid of non-Catholics. In this article I’m going to tackle the issue of non-Catholic friends and tolerance. I’m going to write about tolerance which I think has become an overrated word and basically a cover for relativism. I’m also going to write about what I think real tolerance might look like.
I had said, “while I thought that I could become more tolerant, I learned that dating a non-Catholic can destroy one’s faith. The same could be said of spending a lot of time with friends outside the faith or worse opposed to it.” I think this led some people to wonder how deep my faith could be. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all solution to this. Just how much time we spend with non-Catholic friends may depend a little on our circumstances such as our age. I still stand by this statement and believe a lot of time with someone who has different values can be corroding.
When people make statements such as “I have a lot of X friends” or “I have a lot of friends who do X” (with X being whatever view they don’t hold or whatever it is they wouldn’t do), they are saying I’m a very tolerant person. I often find this statement slightly off putting. This is what I would call fake tolerance.
I don’t take issue with the tolerance of people who say things such as the above, but I take issue with the relativism that seems to lie behind their statement. I often feel that the people who make this statement are trying to mask a discomfort they feel for another person’s point of view, lifestyle, or actions. However, instead of examining this discomfort, they let it be. There is no effort to seek the truth.
This tolerance is also rather hypocritical because at heart it seems to say I feel good about not being “X” or not doing “X” while I also feel self-congratulatory about not judging. In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the main character begins to fall victim to this pretentious tolerance. The “patient”, as he is identified, begins to make very secular friends. This makes him feel very proud, but the source of his pride is really that he feels himself to be a “well-balanced person” because he remains in his mind a very religious and spiritual person at the same time. Wormwood’s instructor tells him to dig deep into this pride.
He [the patient] can be taught to enjoy kneeling beside the grocer on Sunday just because he remembers that the grocer could not possibly understand the urbane and mocking world which he inhabited on Saturday evening; and contrariwise, to enjoy the bawdy and blasphemy over the coffee with these admirable friends all the more because he is aware of a “deeper”, “spiritual” world within him which they cannot understand. You see the idea—the worldly friends touch him on one side and the grocer on the other, and he is the complete, balanced, complex man who sees round them all.
A Christian is always in danger of falling into this hypocrisy with secular friends—in fact, with Catholic friends too. I admit that at certain times in my life, I’ve relished living this double standard, both the spiritual one and the one making the jokes everyone enjoys. At such times, the knowledge that I am somehow “deeper” can make me feel not only different from those in the room, but even better about myself.
This hypocrisy is supported by the idea that any anxiety about our choice of friends is “puritanism.” After all, we are constantly told that we are a better person if we are more open. In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis writes about this as well.
In modern Christian writing . . . I see few of the old warnings about Worldly Vanities, the Choice of Friends, and the Value of Time. All that, your patient would probably classify as “Puritanism”—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years?
It could be said that today the older puritanism that called us out for associating with sinners has been replaced by a kind of modern puritanism that tells us we must associate with them. Even if we feel that something doesn’t make sense in someone’s actions or life choices, we must be tolerant of it.
Apostolate Through Tolerance
Obviously, tolerance is a good and necessary thing. One of Jesus’ clearest messages is not to judge lest we be judged, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt 7:1). He went further than simply not judging. He sat with tax-collectors and sinners. He scandalized the Pharisees by talking to and eating with sinners.
An active apostolate, like that of Christ, requires the same attitude that Christ had towards sinners. It means having that conversation with a fallen away relative and being open to friendships with people with different points of view. I admit I’m not always sure what this tolerance is, but I believe that it exists, and I strive for it. I believe it is possible to be open to people in all walks of life without falling into the relativism of tolerance in which we cease really wanting the best for the person because we simply want to agree.
Christ said “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). I believe a good friend can be that doctor. This seems to be of the very nature of truth as Jesus speaks truthfully to the Samaritan woman at the well. Yet, while Christ speaks the truth he remains firm in his conviction. He shows true genuine interest while remaining rooted.
A Few Final Points
When I said secular friends can corrupt us, I was thinking of a few practical considerations. The first question, I might ask myself is what generally happens when I’m around these friends. If 9 of 10 times I find myself falling back into “X” vice, I need to consider whether these friends are good for me. Second, I need to consider the time and the place in which I see these friends. Finally, and most importantly, I must consider the purpose of the friendship. C.S. Lewis had friends who didn’t share his beliefs, but I believe the purpose in his conversations was to seek the truth. If the purpose of my friendship is developing a skill or exploring a hobby, there may be a lot of good to come from it. A great way of exploring these points further is C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves.