Why Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s 1931 Essay on Tolerance is the Key to the Synod on Synodality, and to Catholic Life in the Modern World

Why Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s 1931 Essay on Tolerance is the Key to the Synod on Synodality, and to Catholic Life in the Modern World January 29, 2023

New York, NY, USA – April 2, 2009 Church goers light prayer candles at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, New York

In October 2021, Pope Francis convened the Synod on Synodality, a two-year process of listening to the reflections, thoughts, and concerns of Catholics worldwide. Participating parishes and dioceses were expected to convene by May 2022, to reflect on where the Church is and where they feel that it is going, and to share a summation of thoughts from their community with Church leadership. Now, bishops and other Church religious and lay leaders are meeting for “continental sessions,” that will synopsize the results of the synod on each continent and prepare reports to share with Rome. This October, the synodal process is expected to conclude.

What happens after that? It’s anyone’s guess. But I can affirm, as a Catholic with a background in the academy practicing the faith in Philadelphia, that the Pope’s prayers for synodal unity are well-placed.

Because in the West, the Catholic Church is just as divided along ideological lines as the culture writ large. And that’s just among those that remain, not even counting all those that have left.

If the Synod on Synodality succeeds, it will be because it finds a way to better unify what is left of the faithful; slow the tide of defection from practicing the faith, especially among the young; and compel spiritual seekers of all faiths and no faiths to join the Church.

A Church Diminished, and Divided

Philadelphia saw a 52% decline in mass attendance from 1990 to 2018, and the United States saw a 14% decline as churches reopened amidst the pandemic. Broad and ongoing secularization has been the trend in the West for a century now. People are lonelier than ever, but they are not returning to churches to seek the communities that they so desperately need and want.

More specifically, among many Catholics and especially many young Catholics, there is a pervading belief that the Church is hypocritical on matters of morality, and especially on those of sexual morality as pertaining to people with LGBTQ gender identities and/or sexual orientations. This condemnation of the Church is particularly forceful, given its own prolonged and systemic cover-up of sexual abuse of minors at the hands of clergy.

Meanwhile, for many Catholics that are comfortable enough with the traditional elements of Catholic doctrine but find the practice of Catholicism culturally monolithic and spiritually stultifying, there is the draw of Evangelical Protestantism. Many Latin American former Catholics now worship in Protestant churches of various cultural, musical, culinary, and communal traditions.

These phenomena lead to a bleeding of bodies from the pews, in my city and across the West.

Meanwhile, among those that remain engaged in Catholic practice, there is a deep cultural division between individuals, parishes, and other Catholic institutions that mirrors the increasing polarization shaping our politics. Some of our Catholic people, parishes, and schools (and a select few of our universities) foreground a narrow and twisted understanding of pro-life advocacy in ways that feel like Republican politics as usual, but with a crucifix on the door. Meanwhile, others of our Catholic people, parishes, and schools (and nearly all of our universities) foreground a narrow and twisted understanding of social justice in ways that feel like Democratic politics as usual, but with a crucifix on the door.

These two perspectives are likely to comprise the dominant, competing narratives coming out of the synod. Many, in the Church and outside of it, will be wondering which will emerge as the future of Catholicism, in America and throughout the West. Will Rome reaffirm the Church’s allegedly intolerant teachings on sexual and other morality, or will it embrace a modern understanding of its ostensibly tolerant teachings on social justice?

I hope and pray that the answer is both—and neither.

Instead of concerning itself with the ideological proclivities of either faction within and outside the modern Church, the Vatican should reframe questions of intolerance and tolerance according to the truth, which is beholden to no ideology. This means heeding the prescient insight of the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979).

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen On Tolerance

In Old Errors and New Labels (1931), Sheen discusses tolerance and intolerance. His argument is worth engaging at length:

America, it is said, is suffering from intolerance. It is not. It is suffering from tolerance: tolerance of right and wrong, truth and error, virtue and evil, Christ and chaos. Our country is not nearly so much overrun with the bigoted as it is overrun with the broadminded…

In the face of this false broad‐mindedness, what the world needs is intolerance. The mass of people have kept up hard and fast distinctions between dollars and cents, battleships and cruisers, ʺYou owe meʺ and ʺI owe you,ʺ but they seem to have lost entirely the faculty of distinguishing between the good and the bad, the right and the wrong. The best indication of this is the frequent misuse of the terms ʺtoleranceʺ and ʺintolerance.ʺ There are some minds that believe that intolerance is always wrong, because they make ʺintoleranceʺ mean hate, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry. These same minds believe that tolerance is always right because, for them, it means charity, broad‐mindedness, American good nature…

What is tolerance? Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience towards evil, and a forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. But what is more important than the definition is the field of its application. The important point here is this: Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error….

Tolerance does not apply to truth or principles. About these things we must be intolerant, and for this kind of intolerance, so much needed to rouse us from sentimental gush, I make a plea. Intolerance of this kind is the foundation of all stability. 

The distinction Sheen draws here is between how we should treat people and how we should treat ideas.

Wrong individuals (which means, all of us, as we are all sinners) should be treated with tolerance and embraced in love. No one, regardless of the ways in which she sins, should ever be denigrated or tossed aside by a Church whose first leader himself denied Christ (as we all do, over and over).

Wrong ideas, by contrast, should be ripped apart and contradicted, clearly and fully, without regard to political correctness or expediency. The truth is sometimes inconvenient, and sometimes counter-cultural; that doesn’t change that it’s the truth.

Traditional Moralists Need to Embrace Tolerance for All People

Social justice-oriented Catholics are absolutely correct that the Church has far too often been cruelly litigious and patently unchristian toward individuals whose lives clearly do not comply with its teachings (none of our lives do, of course, but I’m referring to those in whom this failure to comply is visible). The countless stories of parochial schoolteachers fired for conceiving babies out of wedlock or engaging in same-sex relationships are enraging. The many stories of politicians denied communion for supporting abortion are confounding.

Where is the pastoral care—the love of Christ embodied, as I was taught the Church is supposed to represent—for God’s beloved children, here? In the moment of discovery—that this unmarried teacher is pregnant; that this practicing Catholic has actually been attending mass with his same-sex romantic partner, not his platonic friend; that this politician once again expressed support for the termination of preborn infants—far too many priests and bishops reject, punish, or marginalize. There is no tolerance, and less love, in such actions; they are of a fallen world, and antithetical to Christ’s life and teachings. We are all sinners, after all. That some sins are invisible (the lies we all tell, the doctrinally unsupported sexual experiences most of us have, the impatience and anger many of us show, the out-of-wedlock births that didn’t happen because abortions were procured instead) should make us merciful toward and unified with our equally holy and equally sinful neighbors, not the opposite.

Moreover, in a country where—despite vast wealth compared to most of the world—hundreds of thousands of children do not have reliable access to nutritious food, decent education, and safe streets, the world’s most influential religious institution spends precious resources on these comparatively paltry, trivial matters? It is embarrassing.

To the extent that the Church loses its faithful because of clerical and institutional failures to engage individuals as made in the likeness and image of God, whatever our faults and limitations—to be the presence of Christ in a fallen world, and show mercy to people that sin even as we condemn sin itself, as Christ did when he prevented the stoning of the woman caught in adultery and told her to “go, and sin no more”—we are sowing exactly what we have reaped.

Social Justice Oriented Reformers Need to Get Comfortable with Intolerance for Wrong Ideas

Some of the Church’s hard truths are, well, hard: 99.99+% of people are one of two sexes, not because of genitalia or societal expectation but because of every cell in the body. Marriage, as a covenant, can only exist between a man and a woman. The body is sacred; using it in profane ways dishonors God. Life begins at conception and ends at death; it is for God, not for us, to end lives. Law and order are the foundation of social justice; if we cannot distinguish between victimizer and victim, we can seek neither the repentance of the former nor the forgiveness of the latter.  Without order, there is no justice.

Arguments that contradict these truths cannot be quietly tolerated for the sake of politeness, and should openly be exposed for the lies that they are—not in a spirit of culture war or of vengeance, but in a spirit of simple truth.

Acknowledging these truths without exception is entirely—even necessarily—compatible with loving and embracing, as individuals, those that deny that truth or embrace lies. It isn’t “hate the sin, love the sinner.” The “the” in that phrase implies that the sinner is someone other than ourselves, or that some people are in greater need of God’s mercy than others. Instead, it is, “hate sin, love sinners.” Which is another way of saying, “we are all wrong; nonetheless, let’s love one another as God loves us.”

Many years ago, a close friend that has no brief for the Church’s perspective or track record on moral matters questioned me about my own adherence (or lack thereof) to various Church teachings. I told her that I had not and would not follow the Church’s laws to the letter. Given that, her question for me was: then why would you be Catholic? Mine for her was: but why wouldn’t I? I deviate from what I know is right all the time. Rightness and truth exist independent of me, and I don’t have to embody them in order to acknowledge them.

For example, love is patient and kind; I, however, am often neither. I will be mostly impatient and sometimes unkind, probably to my dying day. And if I confess my inability to be patient to my priest—even unto saying that this is just who I am and I will neither change nor attempt to change—I hope that he will respond with understanding, support, and pastoral care. If, however, I tell my priest that I dispute the definition of love because it’s painful for me to feel like I love less well than other people, I hope that he will respond by explaining that the truth exists independent of my willingness or lack thereof to acknowledge it. And that this has nothing to do with whether I am loved by God or welcome in the Church—both of which I am, like all other sinners, regardless of my shortcomings.

Catholicism in the Modern World

One of the problems we have in the West is a misconception that our ideas and actions are constitutive of our personhood. We all—conservative and progressive alike—have the narcissistic notion that how we understand the world is the sum total of our humanity. We tend to believe that our self-definition or “identity” is the deepest truth of who we are, and that everything we are or do deserves affirmation.

But for the believer, everything that we are—ideology, sexual orientation, ethnicity, profession, even vocation—is small compared to our creation in the image and likeness of God.

Our understanding of ourselves is nothing compared with God’s understanding of us. This is the spirit in which the Church ought to, per Sheen, embrace all individuals in bottomless tolerance while simultaneously meeting erroneous arguments that spurn its teachings with precise and prescriptive intolerance.

To the extent that we continue to fail at tolerating people—continue to behave, for example, as though some sins of the flesh are beneath notice but others are anathema—we will alienate ourselves from modernity and, far more importantly, from the truth of our common sinfulness and need for mercy.

And to the extent that we capitulate and fail to be sufficiently intolerant of wrong ideas—if we begin, for example, to be shy about proclaiming certain counter-cultural truths in this rapidly secularizing society—we will make ourselves indistinguishable from the nearly empty mainline Protestant churches that fail to offer anything one can’t find in a liberal arts English department and have thus become tolerant of wrong ideas unto their own superfluous irrelevancy.

On the slim chance, though, that the Church can resist each of these temptations, and begin to simultaneously embody unconditional tolerance when it comes to people and unabashed intolerance when it comes to ideas—we may yet find our best days ahead, offering an example of truthful direction and spiritual renewal in a country and culture sorely in need of both.


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