The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. (Romans 1:18)
A major complaint leveled by the media against the Catholic Church is that it is intolerant. Likewise, in day-to-day conversations with non-Catholics and fallen away Catholics it appears to be the most important grievance against the Church. Since it is such a key criticism of the Church, questions can be raised: exactly what is meant by the term and why and how does the Church practice intolerance?
Definitions of Intolerance
The notion of intolerance is not always perceived in the same manner because it can have different cultural and political overtones and meanings. In defining intolerance, it first must be seen in relation to the description of the term tolerance. The Merriam Webster Dictionary definition of tolerance is
Sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own; the act of allowing something.
Many definitions of intolerance simply state it is the lack of tolerance, but some offer more details. If one Googles intolerance on the internet, the first option on the list of sites is taken from the Oxford Dictionaries:
Unwillingness to accept views, beliefs, or behavior that differ from one’s own.
The Dictionary.com definition is
Unwillingness or refusal to tolerate or respect opinions or beliefs contrary to one’s own.
These definitions of tolerance and intolerance seem to involve several elements. Bishop Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, in an Essay on Broadmindedness, notes that tolerance can refer to the persons or to their principles and/or their behaviors. In that context, there are the following three elements:
- not showing respect for a person’s right to hold a different view (principles and behaviors);
- not showing respect for the principle or behavior that the person expresses as his/her view.
- beyond the above, not accepting the person because of his/her principles and/or behavior.
These distinctions can help clarify where and why the Catholic Church is intolerant.
A Catholic perspective on intolerance
The Church stands for and professes the truth of God. That truth cannot be relative. In a culture which promotes a tolerance that does not distinguish between right and wrong, truth or error, or virtue and vice; the Church does indeed express intolerance but it is an intolerance of specific wrong and evil principles and behaviors, however, and whenever they are displayed.
For example, the secular culture has embraced a militant profession of sexuality from infidelity to homosexuality and its variants such as same-sex marriage and self-proclaimed gender identity. In turn, our current culture has reached the point where there is social and political acceptance of abortion, euthanasia, and an emerging transhumanism and human cloning. These all redound to the “father of lies,” as Jesus calls Satan in John 8:44. All of these lies contradict Church teachings and should not be tolerated but confronted.
There are many political and cultural principles and behaviors that require prudential judgment where the Church expresses much tolerance. However, there are specific areas where the Church rightly expresses intolerance. It has defined dogmas based on the truth from God. They are not based on relative social norms. Consequently, it cannot and should not be tolerant of the expression of those principles or behaviors that go against that truth.
The Magisterium, as the teaching authority, has a sacred obligation to teach and uphold those dogmas. The Church, as a consequence, should not be complicit in advocating or accepting societies’ norms that go against the truth and are sinful. The Church cannot in good conscience profess a “go along get along” approach to cultural norms.
Definitions of tolerance speak of showing respect for others’ views even if they are different from one’s own. That respect is meant to be given to the person and his/her right to hold a different view, not the view itself. The Church preaches and practices the old saying “Love the sinner but hate the sin”.
As an example, the Church cannot respect nor accept the view (the principle and the behavior) that abortion is OK. Yet, it does show tolerant respect for a person’s right to that view in the hope of dialog that will change his/her view. However, when intolerance is expressed by the Church against a given view, such as aborti, the culture wrongly interprets it as showing injustice and ill-treatment to the person holding that view.
Consequences of not being intolerant
We live in a polarized environment. Toleration is seen as a cardinal virtue by the secular society. The greater culture is not only tolerant of certain principles that go against the truth but also tolerant of behaviors representing those principles. Thus the coercive power of both society and by the government is being applied in a way that exceeds the demands of toleration, a way that leads to forced acceptance of certain principles and behaviors.
The tolerance of a view (principle) and behavior that goes against the Church’s teaching of the truth follows a predictable trajectory. There is a transition from tolerance of a view (principle and behavior) to -> allowing a particular behavior to -> forced acceptance to -> requiring that the view and behavior be promoted and practiced.
Here’s an example of such a transition, the gender identity movement:
- contemporary culture first called for respecting the notion that an individual can define his/her own sexual identity;
- this was followed by allowing “so-called” transgender individuals to act out their fantasies of gender change;
- the next step was a forced acceptance of self-identification in schools and the workplace;
- finally, there is now being instituted a forced requirement in some schools and worksites to use politically correct pronouns in addressing individuals and to allow “transgenders” to use any bathroom they want.
- within some schools, sex education curricula teach a forced acceptance of transgenderism as a legitimate definition of one’s self-identity.
The necessity of being intolerant
The media paints a picture of the Catholic Church as being intolerant. However, Catholic intolerance is not a generic trait but highly specific. For 2000 years, the Catholic Church has stood up to kings and nations as a witness to the truth. In our contemporary secular culture, it is necessary to proclaim the truth and to be intolerant of those principles and behaviors that defy the sanctity of life, the sanctity of marriage and the sanctity of our God-given human nature as men and women. The Church is and will continue to be at odds with many current social norms. We need to be intolerant in those areas because we are Catholic.
Christianity over the ages has been characteristically countercultural. In this respect the Church is called to confront and convert the culture, not to conform to the fashions of the time. If we remain silent out of fear of being labeled intolerant and allow a given view and behavior to go unquestioned, then we are in effect permitting such behavior, and this will lead society to believe that we condone such behavior.
Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil, and the sight of misery you cannot endure. Why then, do you gaze on the faithless in silence while the wicked man devours one more just than himself? (Habakkuk 1:13 )