The Charles De Koninck Project

On Tolerance: The Benignity of the Christian

On Tolerance: The Benignity of the Christian


The Church of Rome cannot be tolerant in dogmatic matters without renouncing itself. Does it follow that religious and moral errors must be prevented, whenever it would be possible to prevent them? In effect, is it not in itself an immoral act to tolerate religious and moral error?

Addressing himself to Italian Catholic lawyers in 1953, Pius XII answers that:

Pio_XII_PacelliMoreover, God has not given even to human authority such an absolute and universal command in matters of faith and morality. Such a command is unknown to the common convictions of mankind, to Christian conscience, to the sources of Revelation and to the practice of the Church. To omit here other Scriptural texts which are adduced in support of this argument, Christ in the parable of the cockle gives the following advice: let the cockle grow in the field of the world together with the good seed in view of the harvest. The duty of repressing moral and religious error cannot therefore be an ultimate norm of action. It must be subordinate to higher and more general norms, which in some circumstances permit, and even perhaps seem to indicate as the better policy, toleration of error in order to promote a greater good.

Adherence Without Coercion

What is the foundation of the distinction between dogmatic intolerance and civil intolerance, upon which is grounded the rejection of this second type of intolerance? The distinction between these two types of intolerance is founded upon the difference that exists between the immutability of Divine truth, on the one hand, and the only manner in which men can, on the other hand, adhere to that truth, that is to say, by a form of adherence without coercion. The dignity of the Faith is incompatible with a lack of respect towards the freedom of the rational creature, that is to say, with the denial of the freedom of consciences. It would be contrary to the dignity of the faith to force someone to adopt the faith contrary to his will. That is, a political community which required as a condition of citizenship the adoption of the Christian Faith is condemned at the outset by this teaching of the Church.

However, the temptation to want to bring the whole world to the Catholic Faith by any possible means is great. This is why Pope St. Gregory the Great  (6th-7th century) warned us:

If, animated by a right intention, you desire to bring to the True Faith those who are outside the Christian religion, you must use persuasion, not violence. Otherwise, the minds which would be easy to illuminate by your words would distance themselves as a result of your hostility. All those who, under the pretext of rescuing men from the cult of their religious traditions, conduct themselves otherwise, show by this that they are seeking their own personal will instead of that of God.

Pope Gregory IX explained (in 1233) that “Christians must conduct themselves towards the Jewish people with the same benignity that they would want someone to show towards Christians living in a pagan country.” As has been the practice Catholic countries through the ages, it remains “contrary to the Christian religion that a man be forced, without ever having willed it and despite his absolute opposition, to become and to remain Christian.” (Pope Innocent IV)

After having cited these texts, and many others, after having recognized that

the medieval Inquisition has persecuted the freedom of consciences and that, after the Reformation, the representatives of the Catholic Church had frequently praised the princes who implemented the Counter-Reformation even by violent means; after having recognized, equally, that the immediate meaning of a great number of the expressions employed by Gregory XVI and Pius IX are obviously contrary to religious liberty,

Cardinal Lercaro admits at the same time that the examination of their texts

do not give the impression that one has put emphasis on the distinction . . . between dogmatic tolerance and civil tolerance, but rather on that certain total intransigence towards the theoretical plan to the point of causing Catholics to exclude every unprompted acknowledgement of freedom for those who think otherwise.

The Archbishop of Bologna correctly says “unprompted acknowledgement.” Is it necessary, then, to expect the day when the recognition of “freedom for those who think otherwise” will be imposed on us by force?

Natural Truths

Every Catholic must admit that someone cannot force someone else else, against his will, to adopt the Christian Faith. One can, however, ask if we must respect an analogous freedom opposed to certain natural yet fundamental truths such as, for example, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul, the teachings touching the foundations (necessary in themselves) of morality.

In other words, can civil society directly or indirectly force its members to publicly profess the existence of God, Sovereign Judge, or explicitly profess the natural law in the terms that we formulate it? In short, can the political community at least impose upon its members what we call natural religion?

If we knew the truths of the Faith intuitively, we would not have the theological virtue of faith; it would be impossible not to adhere to these truths. On the other hand, are the most fundamental natural truths so evident that nobody could be ignorant of them without being in bad faith? In order to maintain this, it would be necessary to be unaware of the history of philosophy, above all that of the past four centuries. This history has served to make us more attuned to the difficulty of knowing in a rational manner the most fundamental natural truths. The human condition being what it is, such a strictly rational knowledge is, for the greater part of people, practically impossible. Do not forget that the greatest doctors of the Church have advanced arguments as demonstrative proofs of the existence of God, arguments which, according to St. Thomas, prove absolutely nothing.

Who would dare to affirm that a man does not acquire civil rights until the day when he is rationally convinced of the truths without which man, as well as civil society, would be absurd? In order to maintain this, it would be necessary to ignore the manner in which man attains knowledge of fundamental truths, even natural ones.

If the state recognizes the freedom of consciences in matters of supernatural and natural faith, is it agnostic as a result? Not at all. The state which would oblige me to behave publicly as an agnostic would be as intolerant as the state that forced me to be Christian.

If a man accepts supernatural truths—those beyond the view of reason—if he confesses them on the faith of another, his natural capacity of belief also demands free consent. Coercion would be just as opposed to the dignity of natural truths—those which we are speaking about—as it is to the freedom of the human person. The benignity of the Christian must be extended even to agnostics. And one need not know if a man can truly be agnostic. I do not have to depend upon the answer to such a question in order to say openly that society does not have the right to force my fellow citizen to say what he does not believe—or at least he thinks he does not believe. If we do not have the right to impose by force even that which is true, he who is our neighbor has a corresponding right not to be so forced. The freedom of consciences, which Pius XI distinguishes from the freedom of conscience, is likely to be guaranteed by civil legislation.

We do not concede this juridical freedom of consciences in order to approve of positions to the contrary, nor to encourage them, but out of pure respect for the truth and out of the respect of the manner in which men come to know it. This is not a manner of according rights to ignorance or to error. That which we must respect is the person who bears rights despite his ignorance, despite his errors concerning fundamental questions. The state has no right to promote hypocrisy.

Civil authority did not institute the natural law. In fact, it recognizes therein certain unwritten precepts without which civil life would be impossible. The citizen, even the agnostic, conforms himself to the human laws of civil society, implicitly accepting those which we call the precepts of the natural law. Ought I say to my neighbor who declares himself agnostic that I tolerate him? This word “tolerance” often has a purely negative sense, as if he who is tolerant ought to be esteemed superior and as if, at the height of his superiority, he makes a provisory compromise with those who think otherwise, imposed by circumstances.

I take an entirely different attitude towards my neighbor who calls himself agnostic when I see and let it be known that the positions upon which he and I must be able to be understood are, in effect, difficult to discover, and when I explain and affirm that it would be odious to want to coerce my neighbor (who calls himself agnostic) impinging in this way upon his interior forum. I am unable to plumb the depths either of the reins or the heart, even my own. There is no benignity without humility, without effort to place oneself in another’s skin, as it were. One lacks human dignity to the extent that one does not explain for another and for himself the difficulty of knowledge.

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(Editor) Other sources to consider:

A reproduction of De Koninck’s French text is available here (accessed 1/9/14).

Pius XI, “Non abbiamo bisogno,” (29 June 1931). The encyclical is written to Catholic bishops about Catholic Action movements in Italy; the pertinent passage is n. 41:

It was in consideration of this double right of souls [to procure for themselves and others the “treasures of the redemption”] that We lately declared Ourselves happy and proud to wage the good fight for the liberty of consciences. No indeed (as someone, perhaps inadvertently, has represented Us as saying) for ‘the liberty of conscience,’ which is an equivocal expression too often distorted to mean the absolute independence of conscience and therefore an absurdity in reference to a soul created and redeemed by God.

See also Pius XII’s “Ci Riesce,” translation by the Vatican Press Office, and “Dignitatis Humanae” n. 13.

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