Is Tolerance a Virtue?

One of the subjects I find myself thinking about quite often is how intolerant society seems to have become. When I say ‘society’, I don’t specifically mean English or British society, nor even Western society, but society in general, the whole mass of us as we encounter one another via modern means of communication, from broadcasting to social media. Inevitably, that produces some distortion, e.g. only those with access to the internet are able to engage with social media, but the world most of my readers know and interact with is the one I am writing about, and it is there that I note with mounting unease a hardening of opinion and an unwillingness to engage in open discussion, much less informed debate, that strikes me as potentially dangerous. Do we want a world in which we cannot say what we think or believe?

Certain views are, of course, acceptable, especially if they happen to be endorsed by a celebrity. But questioning those views, or suggesting that they might need to be nuanced is not. So, for example, my view that abortion is wrong not only marks me out as a bigot in many people’s eyes but also means, apparently, I should not have the right to say why I believe abortion is wrong. I have never been clear why that should be so. Sometimes a little bit of truth is suppressed or conveniently glossed over. For instance, when the Sultan of Brunei announced that the death penalty would not be enforced against homosexuality, there was a collective sigh of relief, and rightly so in my view, but is the death penalty still in force for those who convert from Islam to Christianity? I do not know and have been unable to find out. Is that because religion is perceived to be of less importance or because it isn’t a fashionable cause?

Occasionally, one can have a little fun with the current orthodoxies. A few days ago I was cross-examined by someone who wanted to know our green credentials as a monastery. By the time I had answered her questions — none of us has flown since 2011; we grow as much of our own fruit and vegetables as possible; our heating thermostat is set at 15 degrees C; car journeys are planned to occur when strictly necessary; we re-cycle everything we can; our habits are at least 20 years old and made of natural fibres; and so on and so forth — she had grudgingly conceded that we were actually rather greener than she was. Now, the point is not greenness or its opposite but the fact that the person who questioned me was much more tolerant than her opening aggressiveness had suggested. She had started with the idea that nuns are rather selfish and probably supid, too. By the time we finished, I think we had both learned a lot about each other. I respected her enthusiasm and her evident care for the environment; I hope she had learned that it is possible to have an argument with a nun in the old-fashioned sense. I like to think we both gained; and isn’t that the point of tolerance?

Tolerance isn’t meant to be a wishy-washy kind of refusal to engage with difficult questions — or difficult people. On the contrary, it is a process of engagement that is meant to enrich everyone concerned. It means saying in effect, ‘I may disagree, but I am happy to discuss, to be challenged and to challenge in my turn. It may be painful at times, but that is part of what being a member of society entails.’ I don’t think I would go so far as to say tolerance is a virtue in the religious sense, but accepting differences, refusing to hate because of them and being prepared to go on working for a resolution of the divisions between us, no matter how hopeless that may seem at times, does matter and is a source of strength rather than weakness — virtue in the classical sense, so to say, and much needed nowadays.


17 thoughts on “Is Tolerance a Virtue?”

  1. I don’t really know about virtues but my mind went to the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,gentleness, faithfulness and self control (from memory so possibly not quite right). Will not tolerance be an unavoidable outcome if these qualities grow in us?

    • I agree with you about tolerance flowing from the gifts of the Spirit, but I was being precise in my use of language — otherwise the intolerant might tax me with having added to the number of virtues recognized by the Catholic Church!

  2. Dear Sister Catherine
    Thank you as ever for articulating this to you normal high standard ( not discounting the effort involved) and in a way I can understand. I wish you well, especially if you are due another round of treatment.

  3. Thank you for this! I recently have had a horrible experience online trying to openly discuss beliefs about abortion. I was told i was a baby murderer and not a christian and various other lovely things- i promise i was being really respectful and not at all interested in murdering babies! Its so scary how hard and closed we have become to each other even as Christians with different viewpoints. I think both sides of these particular issues feel unheard and vilified, which leads to defensiveness and losing sight of the humanity of those who disagree, which (for me at least) is so far away from the gifts of the spirit and the love God has shown us as broken people. I will pray for your recovery from pneumonia xxx

    • I think some people genuinely do not understand that it is possible to draw different conclusions from the same facts. We are all of us inlcined to think we’re right and everyone else is wrong. I know I am! But rushing to condemn others isn’t always the best way to arrive at the truth.Thank you for your prayers — I’m much better than I was.

  4. As always, you’re right – we do need to be able to have informed discussions with each other. However, I am still left with a question – not a new one – about how or whether we should tolerate intolerance. In the end, when discussion has failed, what are the limits of tolerance?

    • As I said to Jean, the limits of tolerance are difficult and would require more extended treatment than I’d be able to give in one of my short blog posts. To some extent, I think the answer lies in whatever consensus we have as a society but that too is fraught with moral and ethical difficulty. What if a society chooses evil, e.g. anti-Semitism?

  5. I am alive because my father refused to sign my mother’s abortion consent form. She was unwell but to what degree her health and life were in jeopardy I cannot say. I was carried, birthed, and we both survived. I view myself as a survivor, blessed, as a result. Some have told me they believe her right to choose was infringed upon, even to state their continued support of abortion while sitting across from me. Like you, I have been called a bigot for my views on abortion, but I maintain the only people who support abortion are those whose mothers did not choose to terminate their pregnancies.

    I do believe the most valuable discussions involve examining the issue from different perspectives, and refraining from anger where agreement is not possible. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have such discussions as Christianity’s values are constantly derided.

    I read recently that tolerance is no longer acceptable – we must have genuine respect for the other person’s beliefs/lifestyle/whatever. Does this mean acceptance and approval? I don’t know anymore. Judaism teaches that when two people are discussing the Torah the Spirit of God is present in the space between the two. Perhaps the same is true when two people are practicing the virtue of tolerance when discussing important topics, and perhaps if both are capable of recognizing the value of the other then God is present at that time, also.

    • We are all very glad you were not aborted, Jean. Your question about the limits of tolerance is, however, a very difficult one that derserves an extended treatment of its own. Not sure I would be adequate to the task.

    • Not quite. If we accept that tolerance is a process (which is the best way I can think of describing it at the moment), then it does have an end. We arrive at a conclusion, and we may indeed decide that something is wrong/inadmissible. It is the way we get there that is important and is evidence of tolerance or lack of it. I quoted my own belief that abortion is wrong in my post and that anti-semitism is wrong in my reply to Ruth Meyer’s comment. I think it is because I do believe those things are wrong that I find myself able to argue my point with those who hold very different views. I hope I do so with courtesy and respect (St Francis de Sales is a wonderful model to try to emulate). Does that answer your question?

  6. Yes it does, Sister. As ever succinct and to the point. Courtesy and respect, as you so rightly point out, are key. Thank you.

  7. See Screwtape, ch 10! I am re-reading this after a long hiatus and finding it a healthy antidote to many of our current malaises!

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