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The Culture of Tolerance

Giancarlo Pani SJ - La Civiltà Cattolica - Mon, Apr 13th 2020


The issue of tolerance and intolerance has, for centuries now, been one of the most debated issues.[1] A number of important events occurred in 2019 that touch on this problem in a new way. Two in particular should be mentioned: the Year of Tolerance proclaimed by the United Arab Emirates, and the publication of the Abu Dhabi Document.

The UAE declared 2019 the Year of Tolerance and drew up a Declaration of Principles of Tolerance, based on the 1996 UN guidelines. It reads: “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the richness and diversity of the cultures of our world, […] it is harmony in difference. […] Tolerance is a virtue that makes peace possible and helps to replace the culture of war with a culture of peace.”[2]

Pope Francis has often spoken about tolerance, especially with regard to respect for others, the marginalized, the poor and refugees. The theme was prominent in the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Life Together, signed in Abu Dhabi February 4, 2019, by Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmad al-Tayyeb. It states: “We, who believe in God, call upon the leaders of international politics and the world economy to work strenuously to spread the culture of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.”[3]

But what is a culture of tolerance? In order to talk about it, it is necessary to articulate a discourse that embraces a considerable number of topics, because this theme has interested many people, particularly since the Enlightenment. Today, “tolerance” is still widely discussed, but often with no great depth of understanding.

The terms “tolerance” and its opposite “intolerance” date back to the time of the Reformation and it is not easy to define them, because in history they have had different meanings with contrasting nuances. One can try to describe them, along the lines that “tolerance” means the right of the citizen to hold ideas or engage in behavior considered wrong or otherwise harmful to society, while “intolerance” means their clear condemnation and punishment both by physical violence and by other means. Originally, such behavior was monitored by civil authority in relation to the lawfulness or non-lawfulness of the repression of religious dissent in a society where there were conflicting religious groupings.[4]

However, the reality they express has its roots in antiquity and in the history of Christianity: tolerance and freedom of conscience are distinctive features of the Gospel message and Christian life. The author of the Epistle to Diognetus noted this as early as the middle of the second century: “[God] sent his son to save, to persuade, not to cause violence, for there is no violence in God.”[5] This teaching has been taken up by many Church Fathers, and some apologists, including Tertullian and Lactantius,[6] who called loudly for the imperial authority to respect freedom of conscience. Later, tolerance was strongly reiterated by Augustine,[7] and in the Middle Ages by Abelard and Innocent III.[8] During the Enlightenment, tolerance and freedom of conscience were defended by John Locke in his Letter Concerning Toleration[9] and reiterated in Voltaire’s Treatise on Tolerance,[10] to quote the most famous authors.

Tolerance, however, also involves its opposite, intolerance, and this also has its origin – however paradoxically – in an interpretation of the Gospel proclamation. If the truth is in the Gospel and in Christ, it does not admit ambiguity or compromise, it is “intransigent” or, if you like, to a certain extent, “intolerant.” Hence there was the aspiration of Christianity to be the only true religion, and the consequent intolerance toward other religions present in the Roman Empire. The two practices – tolerance and intolerance – during the course of numerous events mark the history of Christianity from its origins to the present day.

Tolerance and dialogue

From the legal point of view, tolerance today means the public recognition of the right of an individual not to be violated in the intimacy of his or her ethical and religious world, and therefore not to be prevented from expressing his or her individual feelings and ideas. The concept and experience of tolerance as a legal status enjoyed by a person derives entirely from his or her inner self: tolerance is the willingness to dialogue, and intolerance is the refusal to converse, to communicate with others on an equal level.

Bear in mind that in ordinary conversation, when we talk about tolerance, we assume a relationship of inequality, because tolerating a person implies power, and the tolerated individual is in a position of inferiority. Hence the need for mutual respect. So, at the outset, tolerance is a condition of openness of spirit much more than a formulation of rights due to individuals and their living in a society.[11]

On the basis of this explanation of tolerance as a willingness to dialogue, anyone who recognizes at least publicly an individual’s freedom to think as they wish and to spread their ideas, but then excludes certain groups of people from the conversation, can turn out to be deeply intolerant. This kind of behavior is quite common toward those of faith, who, for many non-religious people, are people they talk about and do not talk to. It is clear that this attitude, whatever the pretexts under which it is defended and justified, must be qualified as intolerance.

Tolerance as such has the task of confirming its own authenticity as a legal and political approach. It should be noted, for example, that a willingness to engage in dialogue implies something more than the rights discussed above, because it also includes the extra possibility of forming one’s own convictions. And this extra is very important, particularly from a cultural, legal and political perspective; and it is not true to say that this extra dimension is simply the correlative of the right to speak.

We must be realistic and take into account how the formation of an individual’s opinions and choices is conditioned by too many circumstances, too much bias and doubt, for freedom of speech on its own to safeguard it. When, for example, one excludes from a university library books that belong to a certain ideology, one commits an act of intolerance, because in this way one refuses to converse with a whole group of people who have every right to be heard, and prevents a specific category of students from forming their beliefs according to that ideology. It is an intolerance that does not prevent anyone from speaking, writing or publishing, but prevents them from listening. For example, it happens that in Italy, the libraries of the faculties of Literature and Philosophy often lack recent critical editions of the Bible. And vice versa, the classical texts of the Enlightenment and secular culture are sometimes absent from the libraries of the Faculties of Theology. 

Freedom of thought and minorities

An individual’s right to decide on their own beliefs applies in precise circumstances. If people are nominally given the faculty to think the way they want, but at the same time they are forced to live as part of a minority or even in isolation because they choose not to accept a set of imposed attitudes and ideas, then violence is being used against them, which has precisely the name of “intolerance.” The strength of will to be in the minority, to resist the threat of  isolation, is a difficult virtue; to impose it on one’s neighbors is tantamount to not respecting their right to freedom.

Man cannot live alone, as we read in the Bible (cf. Gen 2:18.20); we do not know how to be alone,[12] and therefore end up conforming to others, precisely because of our innate need to converse and communicate. The Christian spirit is inclined to take everyone seriously and not to simplify, for the sake of ease, relations with others; but it also knows that it is obliged to continue the dialogue and not to form an everlasting judgment on others, because people do not remain the same, and instead they turn to the good or toward evil; and also because one can never be sure that one has fully taken into account everything that others have to say.

Such openness obviously has its limits.  This is a fact that tends to make the boundary between tolerance and intolerance sometimes difficult to discern. It is not possible to prolong the dialogue indefinitely, nor to converse with all people who exist on the face of the earth; even those closest to us can only be engaged with to a large but still limited extent.

These restrictions are clearly applicable in matters of faith. Contrary to common opinion, the space available to the Christian conscience for conversations and discussions on this subject is vast, because the variety of theological schools and spiritual orientations provides for a wide range of freedom.[13] At a certain point, however, it is inevitable that there are limits to any discussion and that it will not be possible to go further. Any religion has such limits, and the dogmatic debate that takes place internally cannot extend beyond the community without undermining its own premise and becoming something other than what it is. Any reality is susceptible to change; indeed, the possibility of change is a constant; but when change goes beyond certain critical points, that reality ceases to be itself and becomes another.

This critical point in the conversation could be called “the insuperable boundary”: further on, in fact, you move from that network of conversations and end up somewhere else. But while for Christian consciences there is a tribunal (once it was the Holy Office), for a secular conscience the “tribunal” is a much more personal act: every single conscience is itself a tribunal. It also has an authority that demands intransigence and rejects compromise, and it is a permanent institution. There is a common attitude among non-religious people, leading them to make these decisions based on clear and rigorous beliefs, like a judge on the bench.

To understand the importance of this tribunal in the world we live in, an example may be useful. There is a sort of modesty that prevents some from approaching confidently the Bible (at least a good edition), the Fathers and ecclesiastical writers, the ancient and recent classics of Christian literature, all books apparently that a “cultured” person is better off not knowing about. While on any other subject it is not very sensible to speak without having first documented oneself, for a secular conscience ignorance in things concerning the faith (including Christian faith) and the freedom to discuss them without being informed constitute almost a point of honor.

Tolerance in the secular world

The non-religious have also developed their own concept of tolerance: “From the conviction that dogmatic and theological differences have a secondary value before the fact of our common origin and the fundamental principles of revelation accepted by all, the idea of tolerance arose in some Christian circles, partially out of charity, with a view to the reconciliation of opposing groups. But in other environments and in other circumstances, tolerance is a consequence of spiritual attitudes closer to skepticism, or syncretism. This may derive from the conviction that reaching the supreme truth is humanly impossible, for no person has the right to proclaim the absolute truth of one doctrine in comparison with others, or that the truth itself can be reached by different means, each of which has its own justification.”[14]

The first journey just described is that of Christian tolerance; the other gave rise to the secular concept of tolerance as religious relativism. This is the kind of intolerance that is hidden, protected and passed off as tolerance. Its first formulations were those of religious naturalism: the true religion is the natural one,[15] while the explanations of documents and positive religions are completely accidental. “The dedication of religious souls to the will of God does not depend at all on the concept of religion that the various religions have made of Him.”[16] Dogmatic choices are entirely relative: what matters is the human, even if brought back to Christianity, but to a Christianity reduced to the lowest common denominator of all religious experiences. What counts, it has been said, is “the desire of the soul,” that is, the dynamic of religious aspiration, regardless of any consideration of the final term of that dynamic.

It should be noted that the term “religious relativism,” to which the secular experience of tolerance refers, also has a precise dogmatic content: that which makes it possible to exclude as irrelevant any specifics that are added to natural religion through Revelation. This dogmatic content includes at least, through the exclusion of Revelation, the thesis that God has the right to speak and to speak in human affairs; in fact, it is said, all the alleged revelations have led to absurd fratricidal wars between peoples.[17] God can exist, as long as God does not intervene in human affairs. We are thus exactly at the opposite extreme to biblical experience, where God directly appears in history and guides us to a goal freely set by him.

These dogmatic developments are widely suggested in the works of the Enlightenment, but – an absolutely characteristic fact! – there was no possibility of discussion and they were taken as givens, at least among those who accepted the light of reason. But when they escape discussion under any pretext (and it takes a very specific pretext to deny God the right to speak), one is intolerant; and all the more intolerant the more one claims to place oneself outside and above any dogmatic controversy.

This intolerance is manifested in practice through a very stern refusal to engage with the religious theories of others, justifying this by the fact that those who accept a religion are fools, and it is useless to talk with fools; but above all it is manifested in the inability to understand positive religions, and especially Christianity, in their context, in their own light. It is clear that this way you easily get to make other people’s beliefs strange and ridiculous. Of this game, which smells of superficiality or bad faith, the most brilliant master is Voltaire: it is the game of voluntary misunderstanding, and therefore of pure intolerance.[18]

On the other hand, ridicule is always a refusal to talk, as well as to understand. For the Enlightenment, certain conclusions are regarded as evident in the eyes of the ordinary person: without taking into account that the judgments of the ordinary person are influenced by countless factors, which are not all based on reason. To be ridiculous, one can solicit unobjective reasons for consent, and one can usually exclude the dispassionate and respectful attention that is necessary to arrive at a proper judgment.

The Manichean soul that inspires these writings makes it much easier to mock and polemicize: words and texts of the opponent are sketched according to a division of light and darkness, obtaining an effective picture, or isolating within any image the dark and the bright part, and using one or the other depending on what is convenient during the discussion. It is a process that Voltaire uses very much when he documents his speech historically.[19]

Tolerance and verbalism

Put in these terms, the issue of tolerance goes back to the issue of verbalism.[20] There is no doubt that on the Enlightenment side – and with the Enlightenment the secular spirit came of age – more ink has been used than on the Catholic side in favor of something called “tolerance”; but we have already seen that a voluntary misunderstanding of the point of view of others is one and the same thing as intolerance.

In this regard it should be noted that for the problem of tolerance this lack of willingness to be open to the spirit of others is much more important than the meeting or disagreement of opinions. The gulf between Catholics and the non-religious, and between the two respective concepts of tolerance, is less about dissent and more a contrast of spirits and dogmas. Dogmatic controversy engages the spiritual conflict, but never fully adapts it: it gives it a body, a pretext, nothing more. The real difference is in the soul, not in the thesis. The soul is more or less sincere, more or less closed, more or less willing to dialogue.

Christians are often accused of giving too much importance to the doctrinal aspect of Revelation, and this may be true. But what is striking about the discussion is never the criticism, however bitter, but rather the heart that has become impenetrable and hard as a rock, and seeks only an excuse to hit one in the face. Today there are Protestants with whom it is possible to speak in full communion of spirit, in mutual awareness of disagreements on many points. This is proof that the reason for the opposition is in the spirit and not in the exegesis of some biblical passage. Exegesis alone can lead to two conflicting goals: either to deepen, in substantial objectivity, the gift that comes from God; or to defend oneself, behind the letter of a text, from the genuineness of the Spirit and holy friendliness.

For the Enlightenment, it was beyond doubt that religious choices were only different opinions in matters of theology, and so there were polemics against the intolerant who wished to impose their own opinion. Reducing religious choices to opinions is a controversial diminution. Regardless of whether they are more or less true or more or less false, religions lead to an underlying option that is quite different from the formulation of an opinion. 

Tolerance and the Second Vatican Council

The Church too, in its long history, has often been intolerant, but with the Second Vatican Council it accepted a new attitude to the problem. The term “tolerance” is not used in the documents because – as has been said – it seems to imply a superiority over others, which would hinder the meeting. The Council goes beyond this language, affirming respect for all in fraternity, the foundation of human relations and peace.[21] In particular, two Council documents represent the turning point in the history of Christianity: the declarations Nostra Aetate, on relations with non-Christian religions, and Dignitatis Humanae, on religious freedom.

The latter categorically affirms the freedom of conscience of every person in the religious field: no one can be induced or forced to act against his or her conscience. Moreover, religious freedom is based on the dignity of the human person and is a civil right that emerges both from human reason and from the Word of God.[22] Every person has the right to seek the truth in the religious field by following the dictates of conscience: a truth that must be in conformity with the dignity of the human person in his or her social nature, in freedom, in dialogue and in mutual respect. “God calls us to serve Him in spirit and in truth, hence we are bound in conscience but stand under no compulsion. God has regard for the dignity of the human person whom He Himself created and we are to be guided by our own judgment and we are to enjoy freedom.”[23] The declaration presents the Lord Jesus as a teacher and model who, yes, has borne witness to the truth, but has not imposed it on anyone and has never used force.[24]

The apostle Paul states in his Letter to the Romans: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”[25] This maxim became the official axiom that supported the rights of conscience over the centuries, both morally and legally. The formula “from faith” (ex fide) indicates what comes from good faith, and this requires one to follow the dictates of one’s conscience under pain of sin.

Already around the year 1200, Pope Innocent III, commenting on this passage of the Letter to the Romans and resuming Abelard’s interpretation, argued that it is preferable to suffer excommunication rather than go against one’s conscience.[26] But we waited until Vatican Council II for the idea to become a universal doctrine of the Church.

The prospects opened by the Council, the  UAE Year of Tolerance and the Document on Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Living Together, truly lay the foundations for a “culture of tolerance, coexistence and peace.”[27]

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 03 art. 9, 0320: 10.32009/22072446.0320.9

[1].    Cf. F. Battaglia, “Tolleranza” in Enciclopedia Italiana, vol. XXXIII, Rome, Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1937, 980f; C. Gallicet Calvetti, “Il problema della tolleranza” in M. F. Sciacca, Grande antologia filosofica, vol. VIII, Milan, Marzorati, 1964, 1708-1716; H. Kamen, Nascita della tolleranza, Milan, il Saggiatore, 1967; J. Lecler, Storia della tolleranza nel secolo della Riforma, vol. I-II, Brescia, Morcelliana, 2004 (or. 1967); F. Lomonaco, Tolleranza. Momenti e percorsi della modernità fino a Voltaire, Naples, Guida, 2005, 7-26.

[2].    See

[3].    Cf. Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Life Together,

[4].    Cf. W. Post, “Tolerance” in Sacramentum mundi, vol. VIII, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1997, 364-375.

[5].    Epistle to Diognetus, 7:4.

[6].    Cf. Tertullian, Apologeticum, 24, 6; Ad Scapulam, 2, 2; Lactantius, De Institutionibus divinis, V, 19, 11-13.23.

[7].    Augustine, Commentary on the Gospel of Saint John, homily 26:2. “It may happen that someone enters the church against his will and, against his will, approaches the altar and receives the Sacrament, but he cannot believe if he does not want to.”

[8] .   Cf. M.-D. Chenu, Il risveglio della coscienza nella civiltà medievale, Milan, Jaca Book, 2010 (or. 1969), 32f.

[9] .   Cf. J. Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).

[10].   Cf. Voltaire, Traité sur la tolérance (1763).

[11].   Freedom of expression in community and society is nothing other than the extension of the experience of tolerance to the sphere of public relations, just as life in society is the expression and fulfilment of individual aspirations.

[12].   “No man is an island entire of itself,” wrote the English poet John Donne. Cf. M. Walzer, Sulla tolleranza, Rome – Bari, Laterza, 20032, VII; T. Merton, Nessun uomo è un’isola, Milan, Garzanti, 1988.

[13].   For example, among the theological schools the divergence in philosophy, in biblical or spiritual theology and in liturgy is so great that it seems like an abyss, and one would say it would tend to swallow everything except some essential aspects of faith.

[14].   F. Battle, “Tolerance” op. cit., 980.

[15].   Natural religion entails the certainty, ordinarily achieved by demonstrative means, that God exists, that He is infinite, that He created the world and governs it through His Providence; that man is bound to recognize God and worship Him, that public worship corresponds to man’s social nature and to his need for sensitive manifestations even in his relations with God.

[16].   G. E. Lessing, Nathan der Weise, Act III, Scene 1. This play is a classic on the theme of religious relativism. In the eighteenth century it often happened that religious issues were discussed through plays. Cf. G. E. Lessing, Teatro, Turin, Utet, 1981, 238; K.-J. Kuschel, “L’Ebreo, il Cristiano e il musulmano s’incontrano”? “Nathan il saggio” di Lessing, Brescia, Queriniana, 2006, 42-44; 187-189.

[17].   Cf. Voltaire, Treaty on tolerance, op. cit. 62. The fundamental thesis of the Treaty, with regard to the intolerance of Christians, is clear: “Tigers only fight to eat, while we have exterminated ourselves for paragraphs.”

[18].   Voltaire has the great ability to expose the facts in a way that mocks Christians. His themes are always proposed in terms that are unacceptable to those with whom he discusses; so that there is no real discussion, only invective. And what is more, he does so in a refined way: he insults without shouting, slanders without getting flustered, he renounces insult to seek only the most effective formulas to make accusations.

[19].   Cf. Voltaire, Treaty on tolerance, op. cit. The text is one of Voltaire’s masterpieces, in which the philosopher proposes his themes in terms absolutely unacceptable to those with whom he discusses them. If on the one hand violence, intolerance, prejudice and stupidity are rejected in them, on the other hand there is an accused who always receives his invectives. And the accused – who is the Christian, or the Christian conscience – never speaks in person, but only through the texts of the sentence. However, the universal prayer with which the text closes has a particular value, that “prayer to God” which asks that “all men can remember that they are brothers!”

[20].   Cf. S. Corradino, “L’uomo e la parola: la tentazione del verbalismo” in Civ. Catt. 2018 IV 447-458.

[21].   Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dignitatis Humanae (DH), No. 14.

[22].   Cf. DH No. 2.

[23].   DH 11.

[24].   Cf. ibid.

[25].   Rom 14:23. Omne quod non est ex fide, peccatum est, “those who do not act from faith, that is in good conscience, sin.” Another translation reads: “for whatever does not proceed from conscience is sin.”

[26].   Thus the pope responded to the Archbishop of Bourges, as is documented in the Decretals. Cf. M.-D. Chenu, Il risveglio della coscienza nella civiltà medievale, op. cit., 32f.

[27].   Cf. Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Life Together, op. cit.

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