Truth and Tolerance, Again


The notion that in matters of religion, but not only in matters of religion, one must make a choice between tolerance and truth is as persistent as it is false. It comes up again in connection with a study designed by sociologists James D. Davidson and Dean R. Hoge that explores how the sexual scandals have influenced Catholic attitudes toward the faith and the Church.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

The study included a nationwide survey of more than a thousand self-identified Catholics, 60 percent of whom are registered in a parish and therefore, presumably, more active than the 40 percent who are not or are not sure whether they are registered.

“The overall picture,” the researchers report, “is one of stability, not decline, although there is more decline in some places, such as Boston. To our surprise, generational differences on the effects of the scandal turn out to be small, as were differences between registered parishioners and others.” “Catholics like being Catholic and are not very likely to leave the Church for other religious groups. Eighty-one percent of Catholics said that ‘being Catholic is a very important part of who I am,’ and two-thirds said they ‘cannot imagine being anything other than Catholic.’ Eighty-two percent said the ‘Catholic Church is very important to me personally,’ and 71 percent said they ‘would never leave the Catholic Church.’”

Contrary to a mischievous report of some years ago that only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the study finds that 83 percent of Catholics agree that in the Mass “the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ.” Belief in the Real Presence is possibly considerably larger than 83 percent, since some Catholics, while not doubting the reality, would phrase differently what they believe happens in the Mass. Also of interest, while fewer than 50 percent of Catholics can name their bishop and a substantial minority thinks lay people should have a greater say in how their parishes are run, there is little support for the kind of angry challenging of the Church’s structure promoted by groups such as Voice of the Faithful and Call to Action. Not surprisingly, on every score of adherence, belief, and practice, registered parishioners score higher than the nonregistered.

John Paul has the ability to state ideals forthrightly without closing off openness toward the ‘other,’ regardless of the other’s religion or lack thereof. Like our millennial youth, John Paul seems to respect, as something sacred, religious faith and moral commitment wherever he finds it. He sees it as a basis for the building of what he calls the ‘civilization of love.’

Then we come to the question of truth and tolerance. Davidson and Hoge suggest there is a tension, if not contradiction, between the fact that the great majority of Catholics declare themselves strongly devoted to the Church and, at the same time, sound very “relativistic” in saying that other churches and world religions “are equally good ways of finding ultimate truth.” “In short,” say the researchers, Catholics “are trying hard to be both Catholic and ecumenical in a highly pluralistic world.” But maybe it is not a question of trying to, as Davidson and Hoge put it, “balance being Catholic and being ecumenical.” Maybe they are ecumenical because they are Catholic.

In a response to the study, John Cavadini, chairman of theology at the University of Notre Dame, explored a while back exactly this possibility with specific reference to Catholic young people and their view of John Paul II: “What they see in him is perhaps something that youth of any age and period admire: idealism and commitment, tempered with warmth. John Paul has the ability to state ideals forthrightly without closing off openness toward the ‘other,’ regardless of the other’s religion or lack thereof. Like our millennial youth, John Paul seems to respect, as something sacred, religious faith and moral commitment wherever he finds it. He sees it as a basis for the building of what he calls the ‘civilization of love.’ Without wanting to minimize the problems or real inconsistencies in the position of our younger brothers and sisters in Christ, are they not, in some sense, especially the children of this pope in this regard? In their abiding affection for Catholicism, coupled with an openness toward other faiths, could we not see an intuition, not of relativism, but of a religious alternative to the indifferentism of secular culture? In place of the secular ideals of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect for difference’ simply as difference, is there among young Catholics a sense of love or charity founded on and in the Christian faith itself? On the one hand, charity makes no sense apart from the truth of the Catholic faith that proclaims the love revealed in the Incarnation as the absolute and final revelation. And yet it is that very charity that ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Cor 13:7) and so, in its very absoluteness, intrinsically implies an openness as well. This means that the evangelization of our youth should be aimed, not at undoing the ‘inconsistency’ that Davidson and Hoge point to, but at making articulate the inarticulate commitments that are implicitly folded in the ‘joy and hope’ this very striking juxtaposition seems to embody.”

There is a very big difference between tolerating others because nobody has the truth and being convinced of the truth that we are to love those with whom we disagree about the truth.


Rev. Richard John Neuhaus. “Truth and Tolerance, Again.” First Things: The Public Square (November, 2005): 61-62.

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Father Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things. He is the author of many books, including As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, The End of Democracy?: The Celebrated First Things Debate with Arguments Pro and Con and "The Anatomy of a Controversy, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross, The Second One Thousand Years: Ten People Who Defined a Millennium, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission, The End of Democracy?: The Judical Usurpation of Politics, The Best of "The Public Square": Book One, The Best of "The Public Square": Book Two, The Chosen People in an Almost Chosen Nation: Jews and Judaism in America, and The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America.

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