In his homily at the beginning of the 2005 conclave, which would elect him pope, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger delivered a now-famous line: “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” This phrase not only accurately described the situation of that moment, but presciently encapsulated the essence of the movement that would take place in Western cultures in the short time since then, often under the banner of “tolerance.”
This notion of tolerance as the new summum bonum was described by Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey this way: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This right has been expanded in a variety of directions since that line was written, primarily focusing on the attendant requirement of non-interference: if I have a right to define meaning and existence for myself, that right is without substance unless I can be free from others’ attempts to impose their own definitions upon me.
This necessarily morphs from a freedom from compulsion to a right for compulsion: in order to fully realize my right to define my own existence, I must have the right to compel others to acknowledge it. Thus we see people invoking the power of the State to force others to participate in the weddings of same-sex couples or share a bathroom with men who believe themselves to be women.
At a certain point this sort of tolerance becomes impossible and intolerable. Not all differences can be tolerated in a society, because the very notion of society requires shared spaces, shared ideas, shared values. Tolerance itself cannot be the supreme value, for in the end it negates all other values.
What results is wordplay, a swapping out of one set of terminology for another. Right and wrong, good and evil have been rejected as dogmatic, judgmental, harsh, unfeeling, unrealistic—in a word, intolerant. But what results is not a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values,” but a new set of values. Synderesis is a standard feature of the human psyche: all human beings have the sense that we must do good and avoid evil. But as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” An “excusable” evil is one that should be “tolerated;” but in our case the idea of evil is transferred from the thing being excused to the notion that the thing needs excusing in the first place.
Tolerance decides what is acceptable beforehand—it has no tolerance for “intolerance,” only denouncement and punishment. Examples abound, but some are especially instructive. That a well-respected scholar such as Charles Murray could be met with violence at Middlebury College, and that news organizations would blithely label him as “branded a white nationalist” (would they write a headline describing Barack Obama as “branded a terrorist sympathizer” simply because someone is foolish enough to say it?) speaks volumes about the perspective of academia and the media. When Australian cartoonist Bill Leak, whose cartoons on topics from third-world poverty to same-sex marriage were met with controversy, passed away recently, his death was met with harsh and hateful words on social media from individuals who normally apply to themselves the descriptive “tolerant.” One commenter summed things up by coldly stating “Of course I’m glad he’s dead.” And singer Chrisette Michele had a song dropped from a Spike Lee production for the crime of performing at a presidential inaugural event. It seems the only acceptable thing to hate is a person with the wrong opinion.
The new view of tolerance gives us a radically different view of the good. Tolerance identifies goodness with willfulness, skipping the question of what is good—or at least assuming that consent is the sole criterion of the good. It sets one’s own judgements as the final arbiter of what is good and right. Conscience is king—or at least, a certain view of conscience. In this conception, conscience is not “knowing with,” that is, judging according to the received moral law, but rather, as Joseph Ratzinger put it in his essay on “Conscience and Truth,” “subjectivity’s protective shell, into which man can escape and there hide from reality.” This idea of conscience “does not liberate, but enslaves. It makes us totally dependent on the prevailing opinions, and debases these with every passing day.”
This is not a truth that simply stands and judgment and determines what is adequate or inadequate. That is the tyranny of tolerance. Rather, this is a truth that judges, but also calls to conversion, and forgives. Ratzinger writes, “This is the real innovation of Christianity: The Logos, the truth in person, is also the atonement, the transforming forgiveness that is above and beyond our capability and incapability.”
Ratzinger wrote of the consequences of this kind of morality in Truth and Tolerance, written shortly before he was elected pope:
When the existence of God is denied, freedom is, not enhanced, but deprived of its basis and thus distorted. When the purest and most profound religious traditions are set aside, man is separating himself from his truth; he is living contrary to that truth, and he loses his freedom. Nor can philosophical ethics be simply autonomous. It cannot dispense with the concept of God or dispense with the concept of a truth of being that is of an ethical nature. If there is no truth about man, then he has no freedom. Only the truth makes us free.
One of the great weaknesses of the cult of tolerance is one of the great strengths of Christianity. When C.S. Lewis was asked what the most distinctive belief of Christianity was, he replied, “The forgiveness of sins.” But in the modern mindset the sin of intolerance is the unforgiveable sin. How many public figures have been taken down by accusations of having made an “intolerant” joke or comment years or even decades before? No apology or repentance is acceptable or possible. Intolerance leaves an indelible mark on the soul, a stain that cannot be washed away. And as the canons of tolerance are not set by fixed ideals but by “the evolving standards of decency” (to quote Justice John Paul Stevens), one can never be sure that condemnation is not just around the corner.
Chesterton also tells us that a heresy is usually a truth that has grown out of proportion to all other truths. The current cult of tolerance has placed upon tolerance a weight it cannot bear. Only within the Christian worldview can tolerance make sense. We tolerate out of respect for the free choice of the person who holds that view, and in hope that they will come to the truth, uncoerced from without and convinced by their reason from within. We love the sinner and hate the sin. We hope and pray that someone will turn from their sin and embrace the truth and love of God. Ratzinger writes, “Forgiveness is, in fact, the restoration of truth, the renewal of being, and the vanquishment of the lies that lurk in every sin; sin is by nature a departure from the truth of one’s own nature and, by consequence, from the truth of the Creator God.”
A chief biblical image of the Christian mindset is that of the Prodigal Son, the repentant sinner forgiven and embraced. The biblical model for the cult of tolerance is the Mark of Cain, where the unrighteous is branded and doomed to isolation. Which of these two truly shows greater tolerance?