British parliamentarian Jacob Rees-Mogg has won praise from Catholics for his conduct in a recent BBC interview with Jo Coburn, wherein he vigorously denounced those who scrutinize the religious beliefs of public officials. This acclamation is regrettable, as his argument is inconsistent with the Church’s understanding about society’s aims and obligations, which in fact require rational discrimination to secure and safeguard the common good. The Catholic reaction displays the concerning degree to which the faithful have absorbed the logic and rhetoric of liberalism, privileging tolerance above truth.
The contentious exchange began when Coburn asked whether Rees-Mogg’s conviction that marriage is meant for one man and one woman might be a “problem for many people.” Rees-Mogg replied by ridiculing the apparent limits of what he later dubbed, with dripping contempt, “liberal tolerance”:
You’re saying that tolerance only goes so far, and that you should not be tolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church. So isn’t this stretching into religious bigotry?
After protesting this accusation, Coburn pressed forward with the assertion that some “find those views difficult,” again inquiring whether they could – or should – prove a “barrier” to high office. Rees-Mogg insisted: “If we are a tolerant nation, you have to be tolerant of the views that you don’t like as well as the ones that you do.”
In the wake of the interview, Rees-Mogg has been cheered and defended by Catholics across the Anglosphere. Mark Davies, Bishop of Shrewsbury, went so far as to raise the specter of a “new bigotry” in a statement to the Catholic Herald.
Davies’ anxiety is not baseless. The public square is secularizing at a fast clip. Traditional sexual morality is increasingly seen as offensive and demeaning, perhaps dangerous. Those who openly affirm the truth of marriage and gender may eventually find themselves unable to occupy prominent positions in business, politics, and culture.
However, in response to this serious challenge, Catholics should be wary of following Rees-Mogg in adopting rhetoric that relies too heavily upon appeals to tolerance, as if it were the goal and highest good of civil life.
Obviously, temporal peace demands that society patiently countenance diverse practices and opinions, affording freedom within reason, even if this means that some evils enjoy room to grow. Yet the allowances of prudence are not infinite. Ultimately, tolerance must be balanced with discrimination. This is not only a prescriptive statement, but a descriptive statement: It is impossible that society should equally accept all conducts, creeds, and metaphysical claims. Either by law or convention, it will inevitably privilege one vision of the good, penalizing those who dissent.
The venerable judgment of the Church is that the purpose of society is not tolerance, but the cultivation of virtue and the suppression of vice. Humans establish community precisely to assist one another toward the attainment of their final end: the eternal enjoyment of God. This is especially true of political community, for it is by means of politics that we produce legislation, the goal of which is to provide some pedagogy in righteousness by regulating the common life in accord with justice. As Aquinas explains, while “paternal training, which is by admonitions” suffices for some, many require the “force and fear” that comes only by “discipline of laws.”
Therefore, it is crucial that society be willing to identify and nurture goods conducive to human flourishing, and to identify and mitigate evils that thwart the same. This mission requires that boundaries for discourse, and criteria for participation therein, be firmly set. Whether these boundaries are legal or conventional is a matter of prudence, as is the severity of punishment for transgression, although it is preferable to err on the side of freedom, inclusion, and magnanimity, except in matters touching upon the essence of human well-being. For instance, if we sincerely maintain that the end of human existence is the knowledge and love of God, and if we further hold that society should facilitate this end (or at least refrain from hindering it), reason insists that we forcefully draw attention to the philosophical commitments of an atheist who pursues public office.
Despite the aggrieved cries of Rees-Mogg, it is not “bigotry” to question whether someone is ill-suited for high office on account of his beliefs, particularly if those beliefs concern the character of man, the ideal arrangement of society, and the very nature of reality itself. On the contrary, it is an act of supreme wisdom and love. Bigotry presupposes irrational antagonism. But what is more rational than to seek to elevate those who know and serve the good, and to disqualify those who encourage evil, either from malice or ignorance?
It would have been better if Rees-Mogg had taken his stand not upon the expectation of tolerance, but upon the rights of truth. It would have been better if he had stated plainly that the human vocation is to progress in the knowledge and love of God according to authentic religion, and that societies and their governments have a duty to respect this call. Instead, he became a half-witting champion of indifference, to the point of disingenuously evading tough questions about marriage under an ideal regime.
Tolerance, wisely applied, provides a modicum of harmony, even if it indirectly obscures our supernatural destiny. But truth: Truth sets free.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!