Tolerance v. Indifference

From time to time someone will call me a bigot for the simple reason that I am a Catholic, or they will assume that I ‘don’t really believe all that stuff’ the Catholic Church teaches. Either way, it seems, I am an idiot and perhaps a hypocrite, too. The fact that such people usually live another day after making such pronouncements is, I think, proof of my tolerance; but isn’t it odd how often we accuse people of being intolerant when what we really mean is that they don’t share our beliefs/values — and then laud indifference, not caring, as though it were a positive value?

Pope St John I, whose memoria we keep today, had an eventful life but one which exemplifies the distinction between tolerance and indifference. He had the misfortune to be pope when the Arian Theodoric ruled Rome. While detesting Arian doctrine, John had no difficulty in wishing Arians themselves well and, despite his own frail health, went to Constantinople, to ask the emperor, Justin, to moderate the civil effects of his anti-Arian decree of 523. In this he was largely successful, but Theodoric seems to have suspected some double-dealing (for which there is no proof) and had the luckless pope thrown into prison at Ravenna, where he died of neglect and ill-treatment. John was tolerant; he wasn’t indifferent.

Our experiments with multi-culturalism in the West have often ended in failure precisely because we have confused tolerance (respect for the individual and the willingness to accept difference, however painful) with indifference (an unwillingness to consider whether anything is good or bad). Being tolerant is never half-hearted, never not caring; whereas being indifferent is the lazy way out and easily slides into not bothering at all. Ultimately, tolerance means welcoming the stranger, whereas indifference means ignoring them.

The example of a sixth-century pope may seem a little remote, but I believe it is worth thinking about and asking ourselves whether we are becoming more tolerant or more indifferent. The answer may be chastening.

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