Plinio Corręa de Oliveira
What Is Tolerance?
Catolicismo, N. 75, March 1957
Translated by the American TFP, without revision of the Author.
Loth and his daughters fleeing Sodom, burned by divine wrath (mosaic Cathedral of Monreale, Italy)
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 there passes by the town where the family lives a professor who will 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 long-term safeguarding 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 raise 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 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 compliments: magnanimous, big hearted, broad-minded, 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 a 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 in reality -- thanks be to God -- they do not have.
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.
Hawkers expulsion of the temple (Giotto)
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 modern 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 from heart attacks 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 in 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. This gives us the point of departure for the next article where we intend to examine the limits of intransigence and the thousand sophisms that surround it.