When Tolerance Trumps Truth

DONALD DE MARCO

When Christ told his disciples that his teaching provided them with a liberating truth (“You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”), he was, at the same time, offering a blueprint for a liberal education.

In today’s post-modern world, the notion that truth leads to freedom is regarded as narrowly Catholic and intolerant of other religious views. The new blueprint in the post-modern world is that tolerance, not truth, leads to freedom. This is a crossroad and a crisis to which Pope Benedict XVI has given considerable thought and verbal expression.

When he was known to the world as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he produced a book, Truth and Tolerance that confronts this very issue of the place of truth in the post-modern world. He recognizes that so much importance is now attached to tolerance, that it has been separated from truth, which, in turn, has been relegated to the sphere of mere opinion.

To state the matter quite simply: Tolerance has been absolutized, while truth has been relativized.

Nonetheless, such a separation of tolerance from truth (or politics from philosophy) is preposterous, in the original meaning of the term. The Latin words prae (before) and posterius (after) relate to the absurd or “preposterous” practice of placing “before” that which should come “after,” like putting the cart before the horse.


Placing man first and God second is preposterous in the same way.

The preposterous maneuver, however, has a more sinister implication — it first eclipses what should be primary and then banishes it in the direction of oblivion. Thus, placing man first and God second soon leads to atheism; placing politics first and philosophy second leads to agnosticism, or the elimination of philosophy.

The distinguished Thomistic philosopher, Étienne Gilson, has made the comment that one of the essential features of Aquinas’ thinking was his ability to put things in their proper order.


To state the matter quite simply: Tolerance has been absolutized, while truth has been relativized.


In philosophy this is critical, for, as Gilson explains, if an idea is out of order it is “lost, not in the usual sense that it is not to be found where you expected it to be, but in the much more radical sense that it is no longer to be found anywhere.”

One of the more urgent problems in the modern world is the recovery of philosophy (and truth along with it) so that we understand how various realities relate to each other, whether they be God and man, philosophy and politics, the state and its citizens.

The reason, according to Cardinal Ratzinger, for the exaggerated importance given to tolerance and its promotion over truth, rests on the fact that we now live in a pluralistic world consisting of a wide diversity of values, customs and religious beliefs.

How, then, is it possible for people to live in harmony with each other and be tolerant toward each other’s differences?

If truth is invoked, it would presumably have the insidious effect of making one group appear superior to another and consequently intolerant. The answer to this problem has been the adoption of relativism and its concomitant removal of a philosophy that is anchored in truth.

Cardinal Ratzinger fully understands the dire consequences resulting from excising truth from politics and making relativism sovereign.

“Relativism,” he writes, “in certain aspects has become the real religion of modern man.” It represents, he goes on to say, “the most profound difficulty of our day.”

These austere words cannot be taken lightly, for Pope Benedict is a careful thinker and not given to hyperbole.

The experiment in trying to be tolerant in the absence of any regulatory truth has proven to be a failure. It has inevitably led to a decisive intolerance of the Catholic Church, for example, and not because she opposes tolerance, but because she refuses to accord it a higher status than truth.

In other words, the Church insists that all things be placed in their proper order. This is enough for the world to indict her for being “intolerant.”

Cardinal Ratzinger asks the pertinent question, “What meaning does belief then have, what positive meaning does religion have, if it cannot be connected with truth?”


A pagan philosopher answered this very question better than two millennia ago. Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the year 44 B.C., reasoned that religion without truth is merely superstition.


It has inevitably led to a decisive intolerance of the Catholic Church, for example, and not because she opposes tolerance, but because she refuses to accord it a higher status than truth.


“We should do ourselves and our countrymen a great deal of good,” he wrote in his treatise, On Divination, “if we were to root superstition out entirely.”

But the great statesman and philosopher, mindful of the human proclivity to throw the baby out with the bathwater, was quick to assert that he did “not want religion destroyed along with superstition.”

He urged the abolition of superstition, but the retention of religion. We do not need superstition, he proposed, but we do need religion.

The distinguishing factor, for Cicero, was natural science that revealed the truth of things.

“That there is some eternal Being,” he wrote, “who stands out above the rest, and that the human race ought to serve and admire him, is an admission that the beauty of the universe and the orderliness of the celestial bodies compels us to make. Therefore, just as religion, being associated with natural science, ought actually to be propagated, so every root of superstition ought to be weeded out.”

Simply stated, Cicero enjoined his fellow countrymen to use truth as a way of distinguishing religion from what he deemed not worth tolerating, namely superstition.


The 20th-century American philosopher Mortimer Adler reiterates Cicero’s position in his book, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth.


People live in constant fear that any gesture or statement suggesting that one thing might be better than another is not only not tolerated, but met with scorn, derision and often severe reprisals. As Pera avers, “The adjective ‘better’ is forbidden.”


He acknowledges that truth is needed to support religion as its preamble, but also points out that without truth there can be neither unity nor peace: “A great epoch in the history of mankind lies ahead of us in the millennium. It will not begin until there is a universal acknowledgement of the unity of truth in all areas of culture to which the standard of truth is applicable; for only then will all men be able to live together peacefully in a world of cultural community under one government. Only then will world civilization and world history begin.”

In an earlier work, Six Great Ideas, Adler distinguishes between the ideas by which we judge (truth, goodness and beauty) and the ideas by which we live (liberty, equality and justice). His basic point is that we cannot enjoy liberty, equality, and justice (ideas that virtually everyone endorses enthusiastically) unless we know something about truth, goodness and beauty.

For example, there can be no justice without truth. In the absence of truth, no verdict (verum + dicere — to tell the truth) can be delivered that separates the guilty from the innocent or justice from injustice.

It is a profoundly sad irony in the modern world that people are willing to ignore the very means that is indispensable for producing what they most ardently desire. They shun truth and expect justice to flower in a barren desert.


Marcello Pera, a non-believer, describes the present situation in the West as anything but the tranquility that arises from mutual tolerance, but as a “prison-house of insincerity and hypocrisy known as political correctness.”

People live in constant fear that any gesture or statement suggesting that one thing might be better than another is not only not tolerated, but met with scorn, derision and often severe reprisals. As Pera avers, “The adjective ‘better’ is forbidden.”

Philosophy, it should be emphasized, is not a luxury for the elite or an idol game indulged in at universities. Philosophy, because it is properly concerned with truth, goodness, beauty and other fundamental verities, is indispensable in providing the basis for civilization and all the benefits that flow from it, including unity, civility, justice, peace, art and science.

By setting tolerance above truth, tolerance degenerates into intolerance, while truth is abandoned altogether. The result is akin to what Plato describes in the opening of the seventh chapter of his Republic: cave dwellers who are intolerant of education, mesmerized by shadows, and closed to the light of truth that could improve their lives. The rejection of truth does not make people tolerant. As the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain has stated, “The man who says ‘What is truth?’ as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race.”

Tolerance can hardly be the first principle of human conduct. And it has never been the founding principle of any civilization. The Judeo-Christian God commands us to love, not to be tolerant.

Tolerance is not a first step or pro-active; it is acquiescence, capitulation to something to which one neither approves nor disapproves. It presupposes moral neutrality. It is a response, not an initiative, leaving the question, “Response to what?” unanswered.


It is more than a bit ridiculous to ask a man who is about to be boiled in a pot and eaten, at a purely religious feast, why he does not maintain a relativistic view toward all religions.


When it is used as a first principle, it soon contradicts itself. The Spanish government, in the interest of expressing tolerance to married couples of the same sex who have adopted children, has replaced the “offensive” terms “father” and “mother” on birth certificates with “Progenitor A” and “Progenitor B.”

What is initially tolerance toward same-sex couples soon becomes intolerance toward the very words “father” and “mother.”

Similarly the BBC ordered its writers to avoid the contentious terms, “husband” and “wife.” Many North American universities have outlawed student pro-life groups in the interest of demonstrating their tolerance toward those who are “pro-choice.”

One cannot simultaneously tolerate contraries and contradictories.

Opposition to same-sex “marriage” is not tolerated and routinely denounced as “homophobic.” To cite but one salient example, in January 2006, the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning states that do not recognize same-sex “marriages” as “homophobic.”

The implication here is that expressing a philosophical opinion on this matter is not only discriminatory, but also indicative of a psychological disorder. Relativism that is the underpinning of an out-of-control political correctness conveys the message that human beings are fundamentally incapable of grasping the truth of things, that they would rather fight than think.

It is more than a bit ridiculous to ask a man who is about to be boiled in a pot and eaten, at a purely religious feast, why he does not maintain a relativistic view toward all religions.

The mind, and even the heart, may entertain absurdities, but it is most unlikely that one would continue denying reality when his nervous system calls his instinct for self-preservation to attention. A relativist cannot afford to get too close to reality.

Relativism is a default philosophy that emerges as a result of an unwillingness to put truth and tolerance in their proper order. But it is unworkable on a practical level and creates immense, though unnecessary, stumbling blocks in the path of education, democracy, and the implementation of the natural law. In fact, it contributes, significantly, to the culture of death.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Donald DeMarco. "When Tolerance Trumps Truth." National Catholic Register. (February 17-23, 2008).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.

THE AUTHOR

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo Ontario. He also continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Acadmy for Life. Donald DeMarco has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2008 National Catholic Register




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