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Truth and Tolerance: Why the Church Can’t Change Her Teaching
July 28, 2015
“The Catholic Church is intolerant.” That simple thought, like a yellow-fever sign, is supposed to be the one solid reason which should frighten away any one who might be contemplating knocking at the portals of the Church for entrance, or for a crumb of the Bread of Life. When proof for this statement is asked, it is retorted that the Church is intolerant because of its self-complacency and smug satisfaction as the unique interpreter of the thoughts of Christ. Its narrow-mindedness is supposed to be revealed in its unwillingness to cooperate effectively with other Christian bodies that are working for the union of churches. Within the last ten years, two great world conferences on religion have been held, in which every great religion except the Catholic participated. The Catholic Church was invited to attend and discuss the two important subjects of doctrine and ministry, but she refused the invitation.
That is not all. Even in our own country she has refused to lend a helping hand in the federating of those churches which decided it was better to throw dogmatic differences into the background, in order to serve better the religious needs of America. The other churches would give her a royal welcome, but she will not come. She will not cooperate! She will not conform! And she will not conform because she is too narrow-minded and intolerant! Christ would not have acted that way!
Such is, practically every one will admit, a fair statement of the attitude the modern world bears to the Church. The charge of intolerance is not new. It was once directed against Our Blessed Lord Himself.
Immediately after His betrayal, Our Blessed Lord was summoned before a religious body for the first Church Conference of Christian times, held not in the city of Lausanne or Stockholm, but in the city of Jerusalem. The meeting was presided over by one Annas, the primate and head of one of the most aggressive families of the patriarchate, a man wise with the deluding wisdom of three score and ten years, in a country in which age and wisdom were synonymous. Five of his sons in succession wore the sacred ephod of blue and purple and scarlet, the symbols of family power. As head of his own house, Annas had charge of family revenues, and from non-biblical sources we learn that part of the family fortune was invested in trades connected with the Temple. The stalls for the sale of bird and beast and material for sacrifice were known as the booths of the sons of Annas. One expects a high tone when a priest goes into business; but Annas was a Sadducee, and since he did not believe in a future life, he made the most of life while he had it. There was always one incident he remembered about his Temple business, and that was the day Our Lord flung his tables down its front steps as if they were lumber, and with cords banished the money-handlers from the Temple like rubbish before the wind.
That incident flashed before his mind now, when he saw standing before him the Woodworker of Nazareth. The eyes of Jesus and Annas met, and the first world conference on religion opened. Annas, ironically feigning surprise at the sight of the prisoner whom multitudes followed the week before, opened the meeting by asking Jesus to make plain two important religious matters, the two that were discussed later on in Lausanne and Geneva and Stockholm, namely, the question of His doctrine and the question of His ministry. Our Lord was asked by a religious man, a religious leader, and a religious authority, representative of the Common faith of a nation, to enter into discussion, to sit down to a conference on the all-important questions of religion-ministry and discipline-and He refused! And the world’s first Church Conference was a failure.
He refused in words which left no doubt in the mind of Annas that the doctrine which He preached was the one which He would now uphold in religious conference, namely, His Divinity. With words, cut like the facets of a diamond, and sentences, as uncompromising as a two-edged sword, He answered Annas : “I have spoken openly to the world . . . and in secret spoke I nothing. Why asketh thou Me? Ask them that have heard Me, what I spoke unto them: behold, these know the things which I said.”
In so many words Jesus said to Annas: “You imply by your questioning that I am not Divine; that I am just the same as the other rabbis going up and down the country-side; that I am another one of Israel’s prophets, and at the most, only a man. I know that you would welcome Me to your heart if I would say that I am only human. But no! I have spoken openly to the world. I have declared My Divinity; I say unto you, I have exercised the right of Divinity, for I have forgiven sins; I have left my Body and Blood for posterity, and rather than deny its reality I have lost those who followed Me, who were scandalized at My words. It was only last night that I told Philip that the Father and I are One, and that I will ask My Father to send the Spirit of Truth to the Church I have founded on Peter, which will endure to the end of time. Ask those who have heard Me; they will tell you what things I have said. I have no other doctrine than that which I declared when I drove your dove-hucksters out of the Temple, and declared it to be My Father’s House; that which I have preached; that which angels declared at My birth; that which I revealed on Thabor; that which I now declare before you, namely, My Divinity. And if your first principle is that I am not Divine, but am just human like yourself, then there is nothing in common between us. So, why asketh thou Me to discuss doctrine and ministry with you?”
And some brute standing near by, feeling himself the humiliation of the high priest at such an uncompromising response, struck Our Blessed Lord across the face with a mailed fist, drawing out of Him two things: blood, and a soft answer: “If I have spoken evil bear witness of the evil: but if well, why smitest thou Me?” And that soldier in the court-room of Annas has gone down in history as the representative of that great group that bears a hatred against Divinity, the group that never clothes that hatred in any intellectual language, but rather in violence alone.
All that happened in the life of Christ happens in the life of the Church. And here in the court-room of Annas I find the reason for the Catholic Church’s refusal to take part in movements for federation such as those inspired by present world conferences on religion. Happy the Church is that there should be a desire for the union of Christendom, but she cannot take part in any such conference. In so many words the Church says to those who invited her: “Why askest thou me about my doctrine and my ministry? Ask them that have heard me. I have spoken openly through the centuries, declaring myself the Spouse of Christ, founded on the Rock of Peter. Centuries before prophets of modern religions arose, I spoke my Divinity at Nicea and Constantinople; I spoke it in the cathedrals of the Middle Ages; I speak it today in every pulpit and church throughout the world. I know that you will welcome me to your conferences if I say I am not Divine; I know Ritualists throughout the world feel the need of my ceremonials, and would grasp my hand if I would but relinquish my claim to be Divine; I know a recent writer has argued that the great organization of the Church could be the framework for the union of all Christendom, if I would give up my claim to be the Truth; I know the church doors of the world would rejoice to see me pass in ; I know your welcome would be sincere; I know you desire the union of all Christendom-but I cannot. ‘Why do you ask me?’ if your first principle is that I am not Divine, but just a human organization like your own, that I am a human institution like all other human institutions founded by erring men and erring women. If your first principle is that I am human, but not divine, then there is no common ground for conference. I must refuse.”
Call this intolerance, yes! That is just what it is-the intolerance of Divinity. It is the claim to uniqueness that brought the blow of the soldier against Christ, and it is the claim to uniqueness that brings the blow of the world’s disapproval against the Church. It is well to remember that there was one thing in the life of Christ that brought His death, and that was the intolerance of His claim to be Divine. He was tolerant about where He slept. and what He ate; He was tolerant about shortcomings of His fish-smelling apostles; He was tolerant of those who nailed Him to the Cross, but He was absolutely intolerant about His claim to be Divine. There was not much tolerance about His statement that those who I receive not in Him shall be condemned. There was not much tolerance about His statement that any one who would prefer his own father or mother to Him was not worthy of being His disciple. There was not much tolerance of the world’s opinion in giving His blessing to those whom the world would hate and revile. Tolerance to His Mind was not always good, nor was intolerance always evil.
There is no other subject on which the average mind is so much confused as the subject of tolerance and intolerance. Tolerance is always supposed to be desirable because it is taken to be synonymous with broadmindedness. Intolerance is always supposed to be undesirable, because it is taken to be synonymous with narrow-mindedness. This is not true, for tolerance and intolerance apply to two totally different things. Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to principles. Intolerance applies only to principles, but never to persons. We must be tolerant to persons because they are human; we must be intolerant about principles because they are divine. We must be tolerant to the erring, because ignorance may have led them astray; but we must be intolerant to the error, because Truth is not our making, but God’s. And hence the Church in her history, due reparation made, has always welcomed the heretic back into the treasury of her souls, but never his heresy into the treasury of her wisdom.
The Church, like Our Blessed Lord, advocates charity to all persons who disagree with her by word or by violence. Even those who in the strictest sense of the term-are bigots, are to be treated with the utmost kindness. They really do not hate the Church, they hate only what they mistakenly believe to be the Church. If I believed all the lies that are told about the Church, if I gave credence to all the foul stories told about her priesthood and Papacy, if I had been brought up on falsehoods about her teachings and her sacraments, I would probably hate the Church a thousand times more than they do.
Keeping the distinction well in mind between persons and principles, cast a hurried glance over the general religious conditions of our country. America, it is commonly said, is suffering from intolerance. While there is much want of charity to our fellow-citizens, I believe it is truer to say that America is not suffering so much from intolerance as it is suffering from a false kind of tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong; truth and error; virtue and vice; Christ and chaos. The man, in our country, who can make up his mind and hold to certain truths with all the fervor of his soul, is called narrow-minded, whereas the man who cannot make up his mind is called broadminded. And now this false broadmindedness or tolerance of truth and error has carried many minds so far that they say one religion is just as good as another, or that because one contradicts another, therefore, there is no such thing as religion. This is just like concluding that because, in the days of Columbus, some said the world was round and others said it was flat, therefore, there is no world at all.
Such indifference to the oneness of truth is at the root of all the assumptions so current in present-day thinking that religion is an open question, like the tariff, whereas science is a closed question, like the multiplication table. It is behind that strange kind of broadmindedness which teaches that any one may tell us about God, though it would never admit that any one but a scientist should tell us about an atom. It has inspired the idea that we should be broad enough to publish our sins to any psychoanalyst living in a glass house, but never so narrow as to tell them to a priest in a confessional box. It has created the general impression that any individual opinion about religion is right, and it has disposed modern minds to accept its religion dished up in the form of articles entitled: “My Idea of Religion,” written by any nondescript from a Hollywood movie star to the chief cook of the Ritz-Carlton.
This kind of broadmindedness which sacrifices principles to whims, dissolves entities into environment, and reduces truth to opinion, is an unmistakable sign of the decay of the logical faculty.
Certainly it should be reasonably expected that religion should have its authoritative spokesmen, just as well as science. If you had wounded the palm of your hand, you would not call in a florist; if you broke the spring of your watch, you would not ask an artesian-well expert to repair it; if your child had swallowed a nickel, you would not call in a collector of internal revenue; if you wished to determine idle authenticity of an alleged Rembrandt, you would not summon a house painter. If you insist that only a plumber should mend the leaks in your pipes, and not an organ tuner, if you demand a doctor shall take care of your body, and not a musician, then why, in heaven’s name, should not we demand that a man who tells about God and religion at least say his prayers?
The remedy for this broadmindedness is intolerance, not intolerance of persons, for of them we must be tolerant regardless of views they may hold, but intolerance of principles. A bridge builder must be intolerant about the foundations of his bridge; the gardener must be intolerant about weeds in his gardens; the property owner must be intolerant about his claims to property; the soldier must be intolerant about his country, as against that of the enemy, and he who is broadminded on the battlefield is a coward and a traitor. The doc¬tor must be intolerant about disease in his patients, and the professor must be intolerant about error in his pupils. So, too, the Church, founded on the Intolerance of Divinity, must be equally intolerant about the truths commissioned to her. There are to be no one-fisted battles, no half-drawn swords, no divided loves, no equalizing Christ and Buddha in a broad sweep of sophomoric tolerance or broad-mindedness, for as Our Blessed Lord has put it: “He that is not with Me is against Me.”
There is only one answer to the problem of the constituents of water, namely, two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. There is only one answer to the question of what is the capital of the United States. There is only one true answer to the problem of two and two. Suppose that certain mathematicians in various parts of this country taught diverse kinds of multiplication tables. One taught that two times two equaled five, another two times two equaled six, another two times two equaled seven and one fourth, another two times two equaled nine and four fifths. Then suppose that some one decided it would be better to be broadminded and to work together and sacrifice their particular solutions for the sake of economy. The result would be a Federation of Mathematicians, compromising, possibly, of the pooled solution that two times two equaled five and seven eighths. Outside this federation is another group which holds that two times two equals four. They refuse to enter the federation unless the mathematicians agree to accept this as the true and unique solution. The broadminded group in conference taunts them, saying: “You are too intolerant and narrow-minded. You smack of the dead past. They believed that in the dark ages.”
Now this is precisely the attitude of the Church on the subject of the world conferences on religion. She holds that just as the truth is one in geography, in chemistry, and mathematics, so too there is one truth in religion, and if we are intolerant about the truth that two times two equals four, then we should also be intolerant about those principles on which is hinged the only really important thing in the world, namely, the salvation of our immortal soul. If the assumption is that there is no Divinity, no oneness about truth, but only opinion, probability, and compromise, then the Church must refrain from participation. Any conference on religion, therefore, which starts with the assumption that there is no such thing as truth, and that contrary and contradictory sects may be united in a federation of broad-mindedness, must never expect the Church to join or cooperate.
As we grew from childhood to adolescence, the one thing that probably did most to wreck our faith in Santa Claus-I know it did mine -was to find a Santa Claus in every department-store window. If there were only one Santa Claus, and he was at the North Pole, how could there be one in every shop window and at every street corner? That same mentality which led us to seek truth in unity should lead us in religious matters to identically the same conclusion.
The world may charge the Church with intolerance, and the world is right. The Church is intolerant; intolerant about Truth, intolerant about principles, intolerant about Divinity, just as Our Blessed Lord was intolerant about His Divinity. The other religions may change their principles, and they do change them, because their principles are man-made. The Church cannot change, because her principles are God-made. Religion is not a sum of beliefs that we would like, but the sum of beliefs God has given. The world may disagree with the Church, but the world knows very definitely with what it is disagreeing. In the future as in the past, the Church will be intolerant about the sanctity of marriage, for what God has joined together no man shall put asunder; she will be intolerant about her creed, and be ready to die for it, for she fears not those who kill the body, but rather those who have the power to cast body and soul into hell. She will be intolerant about her infallibility, for “Lo,” says Christ, “I am with you all the days even unto the end of the world.” And while she is intolerant even to blood, in adhering to the truths given her by her Divine Founder, she will be tolerant to those who say she is intolerant, for the same Divine Founder has taught her to say: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
There are only two positions to take concerning truth, and both of them had their hearing centuries ago in the court-room of Solomon where two women claimed a babe. A babe is like truth; it is one; it is whole; it is organic and it cannot be divided. The real mother of ‘the babe would accept no compromise. She was intolerant about her claim. She must have the whole babe, or nothing-the intolerance of Motherhood. But the false mother was tolerant. She was willing to compromise. She was willing to divide the babe-and the babe would have met its death through broadmindedness.
Excerpt from the book “Moods and Truths” (Published in 1932)
Fulton J. Sheen
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