Tolerance Has Its Place, But Also Its Limits – A Brief Consideration of a Widely Misunderstood Virtue


Yesterday we discussed the intolerance of the very radicals who are forever calling for tolerance. A couple of people wrote in to indicate that they consider my stance duplicitous, since I likely support Archbishop Cordeleone’s stance requiring Catholic School teachers to demonstrate loyalty to Catholic teachings and promise not to teach to the contrary in Catholic schools. I do in fact support the good Archbishop. But I do not accept the charge of duplicity.

Why? Because, as I hope to teach, tolerance is a virtue, but it is not an absolute virtue. Too many “debates” in our culture hinge on an absolutizing of what is said. Tolerance has limits. In addition, context is important.

Regarding context, I would tolerate certain topics being discussed among adults that I would not tolerate being discussed in the presence of children. I am going to be more tolerant of a dissenter from Catholic teaching speaking in the local park or debate hall than I would be of a Catholic priest dissenting in the pulpit of a Catholic Church.

There are certain contexts in which debate and disagreement are more expected and tolerated than in others. Catholic parents pay a lot of money to send their children to Catholic schools, where they reasonably expect the faith to be handed on, defended, or at the very least not openly opposed. Bishops have a right and duty to meet this expectation and to protect minors from error and dissent. I am more tolerant of even a Catholic university allowing the spirited discussion of various ideas, but I certainly think that at a Catholic university, Catholic answers would at least be vigorously presented (and surely not suppressed as we saw in yesterday’s article). So context matters in terms of how we understand the limits of tolerance.

Second, when tolerance IS extended, we can reasonably protest if certain groups are favored over others. It is one thing to say that certain groups or activities should be tolerated legally or otherwise. But then to declare that opposing groups have no right to the same tolerance or to voice their disagreement in the same matter is unjust. Many people today mistake “tolerance” to mean approval, tacit agreement, or at least feigned indifference. This is a misunderstanding.

Permit me some further thoughts on the issue of tolerance in order to address this misunderstanding. This post is not intended as a systematic treatise on tolerance. Rather, these are just some thoughts on a “virtue” that has too often become detached from reason and justice.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines tolerance and toleration this way:

Toleration—from the Latin tolerare: to put up with, countenance, or suffer—generally refers to the conditional acceptance of or non-interference with beliefs, actions, or practices that one considers to be wrong but still “tolerable,” such that they should not be prohibited or constrained. [1]

It goes on to make a distinction that is often lost today:


I don’t find ‘tolerance’ in the list of virtues anywhere.


Second, when tolerance IS extended, we can reasonably protest if certain groups are favored over others.

One example: when someone says Christian businesses are forced by law to do something against their conscience, but Muslim women get girl-only hours at the pool to avoid the lustful gazes of First World men? :rolleyes:

And I don’t oppose the second one, either. :stuck_out_tongue:


Sometimes you need to tell people to either “grow up and actually mature” or “be forever a tool.”


Tolerance is not a virtue.

Tolerating something means you put up with the evil for some reason.

We “tolerate” traffic jams so we can get home. Should we say that traffic jams are a good thing? Of course not. But that’s what tolerance is - you put up with an evil.

Tolerance is confused with patience, which IS a virtue. Listen to most arguments about “tolerance” and it is really “patience” in disguise.



Well said.


To tolerate something, you must first decide it’s wrong or that you do not agree. Then you can tolerate it. (and continue to love the person, not the act)


A few words from Bishop Fulton Sheen:

And a few more:


"Christian love bears evil, but it does not tolerate it.

"It does penance for the sins of others, but it is not broadminded about sin.

"The cry for tolerance never induces it to quench its hatred of the evil philosophies that have entered into contest with the Truth.

"It forgives the sinner, and it hates the sin; it is unmerciful to the error in his mind.

"The sinner it will always take back into the bosom of the Mystical Body;
but his lie will never be taken into the treasury of His Wisdom.

"Real love involves real hatred:
whoever has lost the power of moral indignation and the urge to drive the buyers and sellers from the temples
has also lost a living, fervent love of Truth.

"Charity, then, is not a mild philosophy of “live and let live”;
it is not a species of sloppy sentiment.

“Charity is the infusion of the Spirit of God,
which makes us love the beautiful and hate the morally ugly.”



Tolerance of a person, hardly tolerance of wrong.
Cardinal Ratzinger: “I would say that a man of conscience is one who never acquires tolerance, well-being, success, public standing, and approval on the part of prevailing opinion at the expense of truth.” (The Priest, Autumn, 1993).

As Archbishop Fulton J Sheen has written: we “are suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos.

“A person who can make up his or her mind in an orderly way, as a person might make up a bed, is called a bigot; but a person who cannot make up his or her mind, any more than one can make up for lost time, is called tolerant and broadminded.”
**Address of Papal Theologian on Natural Moral Law
The Moral Natural Law: Problems and Prospects **
“In fact, in the Western world, at least in the public sphere, there is bleeding atrophy of understanding what is natural and what is not, leading to changes in ethical mores that are amounting to a profound revolution of the foundations of civilization. These changes are not taking place in the name of some forceful ideology, capable of mustering the support of crowds – as was the case with nationalism and communism, both of which had an altruist element within them – but in the name of pure hedonism and anti-rationalist skepticism, hidden under the mask of tolerance

“What is perplexing, however, is that these new concepts of new virtues are nebulous or ambivalent, and deprived of any rooting in coherent and certain knowledge about the human person, about human nature and its finality. If in the name of tolerance, no certain knowledge may be had about anything, if no one is entitled to declare that he holds any truths as true and therefore universally binding, there is no place for any virtue at all, and all supposedly value-charged statements are in fact empty.”

To quote Dr Jeff Mirus:
“…universal tolerance means the acceptance (and therefore tacit approval) of all behaviors, irrespective of their impact on the common good and on human flourishing. To put the matter simply, tolerance perceived as a virtue always rewards vice….The invocation of tolerance as a virtue will always undermine prudence, the real and necessary virtue that enables us to match proper solutions to particular problems.”


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