Sixteenth in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
Intolerance is a harsh term. It is stern, rigid, almost brutal. It makes no compromise, combats à outrance and exacts blind and absolute obedience. Among individuals, tolerance should prevail; man, should be liberal with man, for the Law of Charity demands it. In regard to principles, there must and shall eternally be antagonism between truth and error, for justice demands it. It is a case of self-preservation; one destroys the other. Political truth can never tolerate treason preached or practiced; neither can religious truth tolerate unbelief and heresy preached or practiced.
Now, our faith is based on truth. The Church is the custodian of faith, and the Church, on the platform of religious truth, is absolutely uncompromising and intolerant, just as the State is in regard to treason. She cannot admit error, she cannot approve error; to do so would be suicidal. She cannot lend the approval of her presence, nay even of her silence, to error. She stands aloof from heresy, must always see in it an enemy, condemns it and cannot help condemning it, for she stands for truth, pure and unalloyed truth, which error pollutes and outrages.
Call this what you will, but it is the attitude of honesty first, and of necessity afterwards. "He who is liberal with what belongs to him is generous, he who undertakes to be generous with what does not belong to him is dishonest." Our faith is not founded on an act or agreement of men, but on the revelation of God. No human agency can change or modify it. Neither Church nor Pope can be liberal with the faith of which they are the custodians. Their sole duty is to guard and protect it as a precious deposit for the salvation of men.
This is the stand all governments take when there is question of political truth. And whatever lack of generosity or broad-mindedness there be, however contrary to the spirit of this free age it may seem, it is nevertheless the attitude of God Himself who hates error, for it is evil, who pursues it with His wrath through time and through eternity. How can a custodian of divine truth act otherwise? Even in human affairs, can one admit that two and three are seven?
We sometimes hear it said that this intolerance takes from Catholics the right to think. This is true in the same sense that prisons, or the dread of them, deprive citizens of the right to act. Everybody, outside of sleeping hours and with his thinking machine in good order, thinks. Perhaps if there were a little more of it, there would be more solid convictions and more practical faith. Holy Writ has it somewhere that the whole world is given over to vice and sin because there is no one who thinks.
But you have not and never had the right to think as you please, inside or outside the Church. This means the right to form false judgments, to draw conclusions contrary to fact. This is not a right; it is a defect, a disease. Thus to act is not the normal function of the brain. It is no more the nature of the mind to generate falsehoods than it is the nature of a sewing machine to cut hair. Both were made for different things. He therefore who disobeys the law that governs his mind prostitutes that faculty to error.
But suppose, being a Catholic, I cannot see things in that true light. What then? In such a case, either you persist, in the matter of your faith, in being guided by the smoky lamp of your reason alone, or you will be guided by the authority of God's appointed Church. In the first alternative, your place is not in the Church, for you exclude yourself by not living up to the conditions of her membership. You cannot deny but that she has the right to determine those conditions.
If you choose the latter, then correct yourself. It is human to err, but it is stupidity to persist in error and refuse to be enlightened. If you cannot see for yourself, common sense demands that you get another to see for you. You are not supposed to know the alpha and omega of theological science, but you are bound to possess a satisfactory knowledge in order that your faith be reasonable.
Has no one a right to differ from the Church? Yes, those who err unconsciously, who can do so conscientiously, that is, those who have no suspicion of their being in error. These the heavenly Father will look after and bring safe to Himself, for their error is material and not formal. He loves them but He hates their errors. So does the Church abominate the false doctrines that prevail in the world outside her fold, yet at the same time she has naught but compassion and pity and prayers for those deluded ones who spread and receive those errors. To her, the individual is sacred, but the heresy is damnable.
Thus we may mingle with our fellow citizens in business and in pleasure, socially and politically, but religiously - never. Our charity we can offer in its fullest measure, but charity that lends itself to error, loses its sacred character and becomes the handmaid of evil, for error is evil.