True Christian Tolerance

In Lent we pledge ourselves to acquire virtue. The one, perhaps the only, virtue universally honoured today is tolerance. It is a useful Lenten exercise, therefore, to examine it carefully. The abuse of an attitude often lets us see more clearly its defining characteristics. What happens if you exaggerate tolerance? A moment’s thought reveals that excessive tolerance tends to indifference. I am willing to grant Lapplanders complete freedom in their burial customs because I couldn’t care less what they do. That’s tolerant of me, but hardly virtuous. The opposite of tolerance is commitment, and we see that in its extreme form it becomes, precisely, intolerance. The more I value something the less willing I am to tolerate its opposite. The term “What a male chauvinist pig!” for example, is not the comment of someone who is willing to grant men a privileged place in society.

As Christians we have a commitment to Jesus Christ as “the way, the truth and the life.”[1] This biblical phrase was the keynote of the declaration Dominus Iesus issued in 2000 under the aegis of the then Cardinal Ratzinger:

. . . it is necessary above all to reassert the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ. In fact, it must be firmly believed that, in the mystery of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the full revelation of divine truth is given.

There is nothing novel or strange in this statement, and the document goes on to provide biblical witness to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, as in Acts 4.12—“And there is salvation in no one else [but Jesus], for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”—or Philippians 2.10-11—“At the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

This datum of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, obvious as it may seem, has eluded the understanding of critics, such as Peter J. Boyer who was “dismayed by the publication, in 2000, of Dominus Iesus.”[2] As further confirmation of the Church’s intolerant narrowness Boyer cites John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris missio, which “warned against the ‘incorrect theological perspectives’ that led to the idea that ‘one religion is as good as another.’” Boyer continues:

It was this fundamentalism [a loaded term] of John Paul that Cardinal Ratzinger was defending in his instantly famous [i.e., infamous] homily at the Mass for the election of a new Pope, on April 18th. “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism,” he said, “which does not recognize anything as certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

It is a good indication of the ignorance about religion in secular America that the New Yorker, a magazine that presents itself as the epitome of sophistication, could print this absurdly obtuse article. Less obvious, perhaps, is the origin of the absurdity, viz., confusion about the meaning of tolerance. Boyer, oblivious to the fact that everyone has a point of view is equally unaware of the implication of this fact: insofar as I am committed to a particular worldview, I say and must say “You’re wrong” to anyone who has a different worldview. Consequently, a relativist such as Boyer will tell me in no uncertain terms that I am wrong to say that Catholicism has the fullness of truth, and that other religions are valid insofar as they agree with Catholicism.[3] What, then, is intolerance? Intolerance is not allowing another person to draw his own conclusions about reality. Hence, I can be a conservative and tolerant if I do not impose my views on another person, just as I can be liberal but intolerantly require everyone else to think as I do. An instance of intolerance masquerading as tolerance occurred in the letterbox of Time Magazine:

The Rev. Mr. Ratzinger is welcome to be part of Christian conversation but not welcome to jeopardize the universal nature of the church. His sectarian pronouncement relegating hundred of millions of Christians to lesser or no standing in Christ’s church is vanity. His continuing support of tired notions like an all-male clergy, no “artificial” birth control and his community’s ownership of the Holy Communion identifies him as one more religious zealot whose myopia compromises the body of Christ. The church suffers because of him. Out of that suffering may come a renewal of open hearts and minds. Let us pray.

Richard L. Christensen,

Faith Lutheran Church,

Bellingham, Wash.[4]

In other words, Cardinal Ratzinger was wrong because he regarded the Church differently from Mr. Christensen, who cannot abide a view other than his own. Northrop Frye, a well-known literary critic of a generation ago, made the essential point succinctly: “Society is never tolerant about anything it attaches real importance to.”[5] Let me list a few of the shibboleths of our society: racism, feminism, “a woman’s right to choose,” homosexuality. For example, in the United States President Lawrence Summers of Harvard University had to resign over a simple question about gender differences. Similarly, David Howard, aide to Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, lost his job for having uttered the word “niggardly”[6] in a private staff meeting. How does this apply to Boyer & Co.? In the last analysis they are tolerant of religion in general because they are indifferent to it; it’s not really important because no one religion is really true. C.S. Lewis provides a clever parallel to illustrate the religious indifference that masks itself as tolerance:

. . . the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. . . . It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: there is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house.[7]

 The best refutation of Boyer’s article can be found in the writings of Benedict XVI himself, a profound thinker enriching every topic he touched and utterly unrecognizable as the devious opportunist described in the New Yorker.  In Principles of Catholic Theology he identified the fundamental error in the liberal re-invention of Catholicism: it is an artificial construct that, in its break with historical Christianity, implicitly denies revelation itself.

It is absurd to seek to destroy the bearer of tradition as such, to undertake an ecclesiastical space flight with no ground station, to attempt to produce a new and purer Christianity in the test tube of the mere intellect: a Church that is nothing but a manager is nothing at all; she is no longer tradition, and, in an intellect that knows no tradition, she becomes pure nothingness, a monster of meaninglessness.[8]

Revelation, as the content of tradition, is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ, who reveals man to himself. For Benedict XVI, therefore, an abandonment of Catholic truth is a form of slavery in a foolish, self-defeating attempt “to emancipate oneself from what is human.”[9] Faith, on the other hand, provides access to the totality of reality by bestowing meaning for man’s actions at both the intellectual and the emotional levels. The Holy Father’s description of faith presents it as consisting of a loving allegiance to Jesus Christ:

For anyone who recognizes the Christ in Jesus, and only in him, . . . anyone who grasps the total oneness of person and of work as the decisive factor, has abandoned any antithesis between faith and love; he has combined both in one and made their mutual separation unthinkable.[10]

Such is the thought of the theologian and supreme pontiff that journalists and malcontents would dismiss in a few hasty slogans, demolishing a straw man in their desire to create a novel form of Christianity without content or shape.

[1] Jn 14.6.

[2] Peter J. Boyer, “A Hard Faith: Pope Benedict XVI Confronts America,” The New Yorker, 16 May, 2005, 54-65.

[3] Cf. Dominus Iesus, no. 8.

[4] “The Nature of the Church” Letter to the Editor, Time Magazine, 28 April 2008, p. 9.

[5] The Great Code (Toronto, 1982), p. 94.

[6] The word “niggardly,” which means “stingy” (OED), has no racial connotations.

[7] Mere Christianity (London, 1955), pp. 24-25.

[8] Principles of Catholic Theology, M.F. McCarthy, trans. (San Francisco, 1987), p. 101.

[9] Principles, p. 94.

[10] Introduction to Christianity, J.R. Foster, trans. (New York, 1969), p. 153.