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Is Tolerance a Virtue?


Tolerance, of itself, is not a virtue.

maritain9Jacques Maritain

There are two kinds of tolerance. One is rooted in skepticism, the other in respect for truth and the dignity of others. We might refer to the first kind as pseudo-tolerance, the second as genuine tolerance.

The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain has stated that the man who says: What is truth? as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race. There is genuine tolerance, he goes on to say, when a person is convinced of a truth, but at the same time recognizes the right of others who deny this truth to speak their own mind. Such tolerance is respectful of other people and recognizes that they seek truth in their own way and may one day discover the truth they presently contradict, given their natural intellectual capabilities that are ordered to truth.

The person who is genuinely tolerant does not turn his back on truth, as did Pilate, nor does he disparage others for not having already found it. He retains his commitment to truth and respect for others as he lives in the hope that they, in their own individual way, will finally come to honor the truth that, for whatever reason, has eluded them.

Pilate's view makes it clear that if we do not know any truth, we should be tolerant of anything. But such a tolerance is based on intellectual bankruptcy. Christ makes it clear that the truth will make us free (see Jn. 8:32). This freedom allows us to hold fast to truth while patiently tolerating the actions of others who are still seeking it.

The distinction between pseudotolerance and genuine tolerance is critical because the former is often mistaken for the latter. This mistake leads to a radical devaluation of the importance of truth, especially truth of a moral nature. Consequently, a person may be accused of being intolerant simply because he holds to a truth, such as the iniquity of abortion or the disordered nature of homosexual acts.

When pseudo-tolerance, severed from any relationship with truth, reigns supreme, it is elevated to the exalted, if unwarranted, stature of being a first principle. Therefore, people will say, Who knows what is true or false, right and wrong? Let us all be tolerant. Nonetheless, as is only too evident in the world today, these disciples of Pontius Pilate can be utterly intolerant of anyone who takes a position that is anchored in truth. Pro-choice people, whose position is based on nothing but choice itself, are not tolerant of pro-life people whose position is based on the intrinsic value of all human beings.

The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain has stated that the man who says: What is truth? as Pilate did, is not a tolerant man, but a betrayer of the human race.

At the same time, it is important to recognize the limitations of tolerance, even in its most genuine form. Tolerance is a secondary phenomenon. It is a response to something that preceded it. People often ignore what initially transpired and urge others to be tolerant of it. Yet, it is critical to understand the moral nature of what took place first. It is preposterous, in the true sense of the word (prae + posterius = putting before that which should come after), to make tolerance a first principle and demote the initial action to a place of secondary importance.

In addition, tolerance does not advance the situation to its natural point of completion. An artist should not tolerate an incomplete work of art, for example, but finish it. Tolerance is not progressive. It is a status quo strategy. Vatican II pointed out that separated Christians need something more positive and dynamic than tolerance in order to advance to the truth that frees them from their divisions. Tolerance puts people in a state of moral suspension.

Tolerance, of itself, is not a virtue. Pseudo-tolerance that is founded on ignorance, cowardice, or apathy is actually a vice. In order for tolerance to avoid being a vice, it must be founded on a positive regard for truth and an abiding love for others. Genuine tolerance owes its genuineness to its association with virtue (especially love, prudence, and courage). But as mere tolerance, it is too broad and acontextual a notion to be classified as a virtue.

Presently, we hear equally loud voices proclaiming the need for both complete tolerance and zero tolerance. The secular position on tolerance is simply incoherent. Society is currently reeling from tolerance confusion (an essentially intolerable state) because it continues to ignore the fundamental question of truth. The first question we should ask is not How can I be more tolerant? but How can I come to know the truth?



demarcoDonald DeMarco. "Is Tolerance a Virtue?" Lay Witness (Nov/Dec 2005): 14-15.

Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness.

The Author

Heart-of-VirtueMany Faces of VirtueDonald DeMarco Donald DeMarco, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, Connecticut, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going MadPoetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, and How to Flourish in a Fallen World are available through Some of his recent writings may be found at Human Life International’s Truth and Charity Forum. He is the 2015 Catholic Civil Rights League recipient of the prestigious Exner Award.

Copyright © 2005 LayWitness
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