In recent times, there have been two very dramatic examples of a distorted understanding of tolerance. The first is the media's response to a statement by Pope Francis. On his July 29, 2013 flight back to Rome from World Youth Day in Brazil, the Holy Father answered questions from 21 journalists for almost an hour and a half. His response to their questioning about a gay lobby within the Vatican has become a modern day proverb. He is reported to have said, "Who am I to judge."
Some have been repeating the pope's words as an approbation of the gay lifestyle and same-sex marriage. They have misread the Holy Father's authentic tolerance of individuals as a general absolution of all homosexual behavior. Pope Francis prefaced his remark "Who am I to judge,' by saying, "lf they accept the Lord and have goodwill." To accept the Lord is more than intellectual assent. It is having the good will to strive to live as Jesus teaches. The pope expressed charity and respect for individuals who make an honest effort to live as Jesus teaches. The Holy Father emphasized what the Church has long preached: homosexual persons should not be marginalized.
The second example of misunderstanding what tolerance is all about comes from the remarks of Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. On Jan. 17, 2014, in conversation with Susan Arbetter on "The Capitol Pressroom," Cuomo said that those who are pro-life are "extreme conservatives" and "have no place in the State of New York." Politically correct? Perhaps. Misspoken? Maybe. Tolerant? Not at all! To marginalize those whose views are different is the best definition of intolerance.
There are many social issues that are quickly and radically changing our society. Same sex marriages. Pre-marital sex. Cohabitation. In vitro fertilization. Extra-marital sex. Abortion. Euthanasia. Americans differ radically on these issues. Tolerance, rightly understood, means that we respect, love and care for all people, even those who hold and advocate beliefs so fundamentally different from ours. It does not mean that, what we hold as wrong, we now accept as right. On all issues, there should be a rational discussion and a search for what is objectively right and moral. Truth can never be imposed.
Many in our society today hold that there is no truth outside of what an individual decides is true for himself or herself. Hence everyone's truth is of equal value and, therefore, must be tolerated. But, this makes no sense whatsoever. The statement that the world is round and the statement that the world is flat cannot both be true. Copernicus' heliocentric model of the universe and Ptolemy's model of a stationary earth at the center of the universe cannot both be true. To admit that there is objective truth is not dogmatism. It is realism. Without the acceptance of objective truth, there is no science.
If our students in high school and university buy into the culture's relativism, denying objective truth, we can expect a grim future. For, if we are not allowed to make a judgment between what is true and what is false, then we cannot make a judgment between what is good and what is evil. What if we were living next to a terrorist who believes our American society is so corrupt that it must be destroyed? Certainly we would hope that his or her mind might be changed by being immersed in our democratic republic. In this case, we may respect the individual but should reject his flawed reasoning. We would never say that the belief to destroy our democratic society is as valid as our belief to preserve it. Nor would we say that a terrorist's belief should be honored as good and protected by law.
Unfortunately, anyone today who dares to express a belief contrary to what is proclaimed as politically correct is quickly labelled a bigot and accused of hate speech. If we do not return to a proper understanding of tolerance and truth, we will lose our freedom of speech. Worse yet, we will fashion a society that is fundamentally intolerant of true diversity.