Should We Tolerate Intolerance?

The 20th, worst of centuries — if you reckon such things by as blunt an instrument as the number of civilians murdered by their own governments — was bloodied by that deadliest of things: bad philosophy. The intellectual errors of previous centuries had festered slowly in thick French and German books, still restrained by the accumulated inertia of Christian habit, prejudice, and custom. That groaning dam was finally smashed by World War I, which began 96 years ago this month. That meaningless, useless slaughter — it was a snuff version of Seinfeld, a war about nothing — ground up millions of lives, shattered international trade, and destroyed enormous quantities of wealth, making way for the mass desperation that would come with the Great Depression and usher in the Third Reich.

The war also discredited the old political and intellectual order. Suddenly, such ideological nostrums as Chesterton had genially mocked in his newspaper articles were inspiring revolutions, filling up prison camps in enormous countries such as Russia, or animating both sides of the street-battles in cities like Munich. Utilitarian socialism or eugenicist nationalism was no longer a bad idea to be combated in the college common room, but the program of an armed mob marching on the parliament in Budapest.

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Perhaps worst of all, the war coated the old ideals of the West with a thick layer of toxic cynicism that may soon, in our own lifetimes, kill it. After learning of the French and British generals who sent wave after wave of young men through poison gas to catch bullets from German machine guns, in the hope that sooner or later the guns might overheat, no one could argue with Wilfrid Owen when he sneered at pleas for patriotic self-sacrifice:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

A fitting response to the crassness of the ruling classes that launched the First World War, the traumatized pacifism of those who survived would cripple them when it came time to deal with Stalin and Hitler. Those who still broke down sobbing on Armistice Day, mourning (as Tolkien and Lewis did) Oxford classmates butchered alongside them in the trenches, found it hard to wrap their minds around the fact that some men craved another war. Or at least the fruits of war, in the form of conquest, domination, pillage, and the power to exterminate their race or class enemies.

Surely not. It must be a misunderstanding, a cultural miscommunication that could be assuaged by appeasement. So French and British politicians told themselves, inhaling a pink, anaesthetic cloud, craving the peace that suppresseth all understanding.

Two weeks ago, I pointed out how our leadership today is addling its wits and soothing its nerves when it comes to the non-negotiable agenda of orthodox Islam: an intolerant, theocratic state where non-Muslims are systematically humiliated, women are forever fixed in the status they attained in seventh-century Arabia, and other faiths are treated like venereal diseases — which must be firmly controlled if they cannot be eradicated. No, not every Muslim in the world knows his faith well enough, or practices it so devoutly, that he strives to achieve Islamic domination. There are millions who covertly drink wine, neglect to fast, and spend their money not on funding jihad but on belly-dancers . . . thank God! For us folks outside the umma, the only good Muslim is a bad Muslim, which tells me that the Holy See should drop its ecumenical outreach to Islamic clerics and instead strike up partnerships with the black marketeers who smuggle vodka into Iran.


All this thinking about what Islam really wants, and good Muslims ought to want, brings me back to the question of what good Catholics ought to want. This is quite a different question from what some people think it is politic for us to admit. There are many Catholics out there who are willing to join libertarians in the fight against an intolerant secular state, mouthing slogans about individual rights and the dangers of bureaucracy. But put a few glasses of Jameson’s into them, and they admit that what they really object to isn’t the bureaucracy or the intolerance, but the godless program it is promoting. It isn’t the use of the whip that offends them; it’s the fact that we aren’t wielding it.

I have been there myself. How many toasts to Francisco Franco I once offered at brunches after Latin Mass . . . how many blurry pamphlets denouncing the separation of church and state have I taken from the tapered claws of anti-Masonic matrons! I’m reminded of the slogan of French right-wing Catholic journalist Louis Veuillot: “When you are the stronger I ask you for my freedom, for that is your principle; when I am the stronger I take away your freedom, for that is my principle.” I’ve chuckled over that one, too, after my third “Bloody Elizabeth.”

What soured the joke for me was realizing that Veuillot’s quip could be used, word for word, by today’s Muslim supremacists. They want tolerance for their intolerance, until they are strong enough to squash us. And when you think of it that way, you realize that the sentiment is contemptible. Those who aspire to intolerance do not deserve tolerance, and if they exploit the weakness of a free society to undermine it, they ought to be systematically repressed.

It was this realization that inspired the Church at Vatican II to renounce forever the right of Catholic states to practice religious intolerance. The sheer hypocrisy of demanding liberty for the subjugated Christians of Communist Europe, while telling Spanish Protestants, “Error has no rights,” became insupportable, and the Church made a major revision in her social teaching: While the State can defend the natural law and gently promote the true religion, citizens should not be restricted in their private or public practice of their faith — apart from activities that threaten public order.

It is not the job of the state to repress religious error, defend the integrity of the gospel, or protect its “helpless” citizens from injurious ideas. In teaching this, the Church abandoned the intellectual protectionism Catholics had welcomed since the late writings of St. Augustine — when he called for Christian emperors to forcibly crush the Donatists. We went back to the writings of the early Augustine, when all he sought for the Church was liberty, a free market of ideas. As Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers complained, this Council document flew in the face of numerous papal encyclicals and constituted a major reversal of policy.

No one, I think, has claimed that any of those previous Church teachings was promulgated infallibly — or else Vatican II would be tainted by material heresy. That would call into question the authority of the popes who oversaw it, and who accepted it — that is, every pope since Pius XII. Unless we accept that, we must take the Church’s new formulation as authoritative. We needn’t cringe and live in shame about our past, but we should willingly renounce what the Church has renounced, and move on into the future — one where the freedom and dignity of each human being has a permanent claim against any repressive state, however redemptive its intentions. I for one am glad to share nothing in common with the Islamist clerics who squat beneath the protection of tolerant Western laws, while daydreaming of a theocracy which will subjugate their neighbors.

On the other hand, the minimalistic libertarian state is a rare and fragile thing, no sooner achieved than it is abused. Secularists are no better — and are frequently worse — than true believers when it comes to asking for liberty while they are weak, then seizing the power of the state to become (in Stalin’s phrase) the “engineer of human souls.” There is something in fallen human nature that will not be content with defending one’s rights, practicing charity, and otherwise minding one’s business. Cries for liberty and tolerance all too often are simply weapons in the hands of the weak — which, once they’re strong, they will gladly trade for a whip.

Photo: Reuters


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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