Tolerance is the chief virtue in the modern hierarchy of values. The enlightened man is the tolerant man; he may certainly have his own convictions, but he understands that others have their convictions, too, and they are as certain of theirs as he is of his. This attitude leads him to hold his convictions in a sort of vague and non-dogmatic manner, for to insist too strongly on any particular point of belief would imply the rejection of non-complementary values, which is the fundamental sin against tolerance. Thus while the tolerant man may not commit certain sins himself, he must not be too strident in condemning sinful activities in others. He may not personally affirm a certain philosophy or political belief, but his tolerance keeps him from arguing too vehemently for his own. It must never seem that there is not room for every man and creed under the big tent of pluralism. Tolerance effectively keeps such a man from taking a stand for anything – except the virtue of tolerance, which must be consistently asserted above all things.
We are all used to this reprehensible modern idea. But, as we have seen in other cases, this modern definition of tolerance is merely a cheap counterfeit for what was once an actual Christian concept. This is nothing new. Christian liberty is replaced by the secular concept of liberty; the Aristotelian-Thomist philosophy of nature is dethroned by a Freudian-biologist assessment of nature; the classical ethos of love is transformed into the debased, passion-driven thing that now passes as love. This bait-and-switch has also happened with the concepts of the State, faith, justice, worship and almost every other aspect of Christian thought. It is no different with tolerance. The purpose of this article, then, is not to be another invective against false tolerance, but an examination of the older, Christian virtue of tolerance that the modern counterfeit has replaced.
Christian tolerance is a related to the cardinal virtue of fortitude. Fortitude is the habit of the soul whereby a person is able to endure difficulties resolutely in pursuit of the good. Tolerance is one aspect of fortitude and related to patience. When we encounter an obstacle or difficulty, patience is the virtue that helps us to maintain our inner tranquility in the midst of the difficulty, thus enabling us to persevere in God’s grace undisturbed.
This is related to tolerance, but tolerance is a further refinement of patience. There are many kinds of difficulties one can encounter in life – a storm may knock a tree on your fence, a reckless driver may rear end your vehicle, a co-worker may irritate you by grinding their teeth non-stop, or you may come down with a nasty case of gall stones.
We are called to be patient in every adversity, but tolerance is a special kind of patience that we exercise when the source of our adversity is a moral agent, because the free will of the agent endows the obstacle or adversity with another degree of value – personal culpability. Whereas patience helps us to maintain our tranquility in the face of any obstacle, tolerance helps us persevere in charity when faced with the culpable failings of others; it moderates our responses to such persons and enables us to react with charity and forgiveness instead of harshness.
Thus, tolerance can only be exercised towards moral agents. I can be patient when the tree falls on my fence, but I do not exercise tolerance towards it. A man can be heroically patient when passing a gall stone, but he is not practicing tolerance. Tolerance is exercised, however, when we continue to be charitable and friendly towards our co-worker despite his annoying personal habits; it is a work of tolerance to smile and continue undisturbed in our tranquility when the clumsy teenage driver rear ends our car. While we are patient in every adversity, tolerance is a special kind of patience that must be exercised when our adversity comes from a culpable moral agent.
Humility is necessary for tolerance; in fact, tolerance is motivated by humility. We are quick to overlook the irritating traits or faults of others because we know that we, too, have such faults. Tolerance grounded in humility stops us from rushing to judgment and losing charity in a particular sort of adversity.
But there is one further distinction to make: Tolerance is exercised in face of difficulties that come from a culpable agent, but which are not in themselves immoral. For example, we can be tolerant of a co-worker’s constant teeth-grinding, a family member’s unpleasant body odor, a friend’s habit of picking his nose, a customer who irritates you with his inane chatter. St. Therese of Lisieux mentions a nun who consistently splashed her unintentionally while doing dishes, and an old nun who had a habit of “sucking her cheek” during Adoration. These sorts of actions are the proper objects of tolerance; it helps us to maintain our charity in the midst of the annoyances and irritations we inevitably encounter when dealing with other human beings. The patient endurance of these foibles of human nature is what Christian tradition has called tolerance.
But notice that none of these things are immoral in themselves; they are morally neutral acts whose unpleasantness comes not from the fact that they are evil but that we personally find them irritating. Morally evil actions are not the proper objects of tolerance; we may be tolerant of a friend who always carries around a disgusting chaw-bottle to spit his tobacco in, but we should never be tolerant of a friend who steals or blasphemes. We may be tolerant of a customer who wastes our time with banal chit-chat, but we should not be tolerant of a customer who offends our ears with sexually explicit jokes and provocative or harassing speech.
The same can be said of formal error or heresy. St. Bernard of Clairvaux was extremely forgiving of the personal faults and irritations of his brothers but was relentless in condemning the heresies of Abelard. The same can be said of many other saints and doctors.
In short, sin or error can never be the proper objects of tolerance. No saint ever spoke of tolerating heresy or exercising tolerance towards the adulteries of the sinner. In such cases, we have an obligation to “preach the truth in season and out” (2 Tim. 4:2) and to “admonish the sinner”. It is not tolerance to refuse to condemn a wicked action or expose the errors of heretical or harmful philosophies. Modern “tolerance” is not tolerance but indecision.
It is not a coincidence that the idea of tolerance has been perverted to mean refusal to take a decisive stand against something; tolerance was originally about us. It was originally about my reactions to something, maintaining my tranquility and my charity. Its purpose was to help maintain is in a specific, objective state of grace in the face of daily annoyances. It used to be known as Christian forbearance, as St. Paul says "forbearing one another" (Col. 3:13, Eph. 4:2). But modern tolerance is about the other; it is about not offending someone else, not disturbing them. And this shift to the other is a shift to the subjective, both because it is no longer focused on maintaining ourselves in an objective state of grace, but also because it is irrelevant whether the other’s perceived offense may be rightly or wrongly incurred. The mere fact of their possible offense is to be avoided at all costs; it is of no consequence why they are offended or whether they are right to be so. So we see in the modern corruption of tolerance of profound shift towards the subject that has robbed the concept of all its objective value.
And that is a profoundly harmful shift that we should have no desire to tolerate.