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On Prudence and the Tyranny of Tolerance: A Case Study

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 11, 2010

Our coverage of the decision of a Catholic school not to enroll a student being raised by lesbians has stimulated a vigorous exchange of ideas (see Denver Catholic school: Lesbian couple’s child may not re-enroll, and Archbishop Chaput defends school’s decision not to re-enroll lesbian’s children and my commentary, Teaching with Blood). Many readers offered opinions on the question of whether the school was right or wrong to exclude the child, with some holding that the school was wrong. These argued that the school should have admitted the child despite the deeply immoral structure of his “family”.

Alternative Approaches

Those who disagreed with the school’s decision can be divided into four groups. The first group proposed that it would have been strategically more effective to tell the self-professed lesbian guardians that the child could remain in school, but the school would continue to teach that lesbian relationships are seriously disordered. They argued that this would be the best tactical decision because it would enable the school to avoid a public relations problem, allowing the chips to fall where they may without any violation of Catholic principles. Let’s call this “Solution 1”.

A second group argued that it is impossible for the Church to fairly judge the Catholicity of the parents as a basis for enrolling their children. After all, even Catholic schools with very high Catholic doctrinal standards and policies of Catholic family commitment must inevitably enroll students from families suffering from our culture’s endemic problems, such as divorce, the use of contraception and the support of pro-abortion politicians or even of abortion itself. Therefore, this group suggested that it was unwise to try to draw a line in this case. Here we have “Solution 2”.

A third group argued that, first, we must hate the sin and love the sinner and, second, the sins of the “parents” should not be visited on the children. Therefore, since the admission of the child does not directly bear on the sin of the guardians, the school should have re-enrolled the student. We’ll call this “Solution 3”.

A final group argued that tolerance must trump other considerations, not only for its own sake, but because being perceived as intolerant causes grave problems for the Church. The presumption here is that Jesus would have welcomed everybody with open arms. Therefore, surely the child should be enrolled. Hence “Solution 4”. Note that all the alternative solutions have the same result—a decision to re-enroll the student in question—but they are worth examining separately because each presents a different argument.

A Prudential Decision

This is a fascinating case of prudential judgment at work. Indeed, perhaps the most important point is that each correspondent—even those with the strongest views—seemed to recognize that this is a prudential question. In fact it is necessary to recognize that we are in the realm of prudence here. In a problematic situation the Catholic Faith does not demand that we admit or not admit any particular student. The right decision depends on many circumstances. But precisely because this is a prudential issue, it is worth examining the various lines of argument as a sort of case study of how good Catholics ought to reason things through. So let’s look at each solution more carefully.

The reasoning behind solutions 1 and 2 is quite similar, and would seem to have much to recommend it. A decision reached for tactical reasons (Solution 1)—that is, to minimize damage in a potentially hostile cultural situation—gathers strength from the very difficulty of drawing accurate lines of exclusion as noted in Solution 2. And a decision reached because of an inability to apply just rules of exclusion (Solution 2) gathers strength from the tactical advantages proposed in Solution 1. Both solutions also envision that, despite the unfortunate pressure readmission would place on the child, it might well do some good in the long run to expose the child to Catholic teaching.

In a diocese which positions its schools to serve all comers, whether Catholic or not, presumably the thinking involved in solutions 1 and 2 would carry the day. But the problem is complicated in the Denver situation because of the diocese’s specific determination to promote not only faithful Catholic teaching but the creation of a supportive Catholic community among the families involved in the schools. Most parents who care deeply about the Catholic formation of their children consider more than just the orthodoxy of the curriculum; they also examine the student environment and the nature of parental involvement. These are perfectly legitimate concerns; indeed, for good parents one would think they are mandatory. Surely parents—and the diocese as a whole—should have the right to set up their school system to actively secure this preferred environment.

This goal raises the vexing question of how to ensure a strong Catholic school community. Typically such schools will have “purity policies” not because they can or will be enforced with complete uniformity, but to serve as a publicly-stated rule, embedded in the institution’s purpose, to be applied in “flashpoint” cases which, in the judgment of the school administration, would otherwise significantly weaken the school community’s ability to achieve its purpose. The abandonment of this line of defense is seldom taken lightly by concerned parents, and should never be taken lightly by any school. The point is not at all to ensure that every parent is a perfect Catholic. Instead, the purpose is twofold: First, to serve notice to all who seek admission that a commitment to Catholic principles is expected by the school; second, to provide a basis for rejection in extreme cases.

Is the case in question an extreme case? Is it more extreme than divorce and remarriage, the use of contraception, or the failure of some parents to accept all that the Church teaches? This is again a prudential judgment, but there are certainly good grounds for answering in the affirmative. Homosexual “rights” and same-sex “marriage” are at the forefront of the culture wars at present. They are critical issues affecting the very existence of Catholic services, and they are the most likely occasion for the persecution of Catholics for hate speech and other “crimes”. Moreover, these issues are so sensitive in the present culture that it is difficult to conceive of a lesbian “couple” wishing to enroll a child in a Catholic school without in some way wanting that enrollment to serve as a direct challenge to the values of the Catholic Church.

For all these reasons, solutions 1 and 2 can be judged prudentially optimal only if two conditions can be met: First, it must be reasonable to foresee that more good than harm will be done to the child by permitting him to be placed in this moral and cultural crossfire. Second, it must be reasonable to foresee that, all things considered, the admission of this “family” to the school community would not generally weaken the community’s understanding of and commitment to the Church’s teaching on marriage. Of course solutions 1 and 2 could also be preferred, with their logic intact, if all available alternatives could be reasonably argued to be significantly worse.

Faulty Principles

Solutions 3 and 4 are more problematic, not in their result (which is the same as for solutions 1 and 2) but in their reasoning. First, both solutions come too close for comfort to attempting to solve this admissions question on the basis of absolute principle. I have already said that all correspondents seemed to recognize the fundamentally prudential aspect of the case, but there was at least a hint in some opinions that either the principle of love or the principle of tolerance should somehow override other considerations, rather than simply add to the required list of considerations.

Turning to Solution 3, which emphasized loving the sinner and the children of sinners, the problem I find is that the principles it invokes are not adequate to resolve the issue. Questions concerning the admission of a student into a school do not revolve solely around our love or hate for the guardians or the student, or even our fairness or unfairness to the student (who clearly is not responsible for the sins of his guardians). Rather such decisions must be taken in the context of the common good of the entire school community. Worse, it is not at all clear that greater love is shown to the parents or the student by admitting or not admitting the student. “Love” and “protecting people from the consequences of their actions” are not the same thing. And despite the obvious benefits of a Catholic education, it is not clear in this case that the greater love is shown by offering that education to this student under these circumstances. Thus the aphorisms cited in Solution 3 invite us to think further about the question of fairness to both the guardians and the student, but they are simply inadequate in themselves for the purpose of generating a wise decision.

We come, then, to Solution 4, which invokes the overarching and uniquely modern principle of tolerance. The idea of tolerance is often invoked, and in many different situations, as the guiding principle which trumps all others. In fact, tolerance is typically introduced as the only possible answer to the question of how Jesus would have acted in any given situation. It is the classic rhetorical WWJD response. But it seems to me that this notion must be discredited before it does any further damage to authentic human culture, and so I feel compelled to raise two critical points.

The first point is that Jesus was not tolerant. He was quick to forgive whenever forgiveness was sought, which is a very different thing. But he was formidably intolerant of unrepentant sinners, of those who refused to change in response to the proclamation of the Kingdom. The New Testament repeatedly reinforces this intolerance of the unrepentant, in both the gospels and the epistles. Indeed, if a public sinner will not change at the behest of the Church, he is to be avoided and excluded as a “heathen or a publican”.

The second point, as may be easily imagined from the fact that Jesus did not practice tolerance, is that tolerance is not a virtue. Patience is a virtue. Courage is a virtue. Faith, hope and love are preeminent, supernatural virtues. But tolerance is merely a good or bad prudential decision, based on circumstances. There can be no appeal to tolerance as to a general principle of right order. The only possible question is whether, with respect to any particular difference, tolerance or intolerance is the course most conducive to the common good, that is, to the well-being of the whole community. In other words, it may or may not be the best course to admit the student despite his irregular “family situation”, but the solution must be determined by an examination of all the goods at stake in the context of the specific range of available options. It cannot be determined by proclaiming tolerance a virtue in and of itself.

Where tolerance is deemed a virtue rather than a prudential decision, it is not only impossible to build a virtuous society, it is impossible to build any kind of cohesive society whatsoever. This is so because universal tolerance means the acceptance (and therefore tacit approval) of all behaviors, irrespective of their impact on the common good and on human flourishing. To put the matter simply, tolerance perceived as a virtue always rewards vice. Thus, while I began this discussion with the the purpose of elucidating the way complex prudential questions should be resolved, along with the perfectly legitimate differences of opinion which can result, I close it almost gratefully with the proclamation of an inflexible principle: The invocation of tolerance as a virtue will always undermine prudence, the real and necessary virtue that enables us to match proper solutions to particular problems.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Thomas429 - Jul. 18, 2010 10:10 PM ET USA

    "Tolerance" has led us a long way down a bad road. I wish there seemed to be a way to turn around. I know that in public life shunning those who are in error is often impossible.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 14, 2010 10:06 PM ET USA

    The last four paragraphs of this post are the best explanation of the role of tolerance that I have ever seen. I wish there was some way to make this required reading for every Christian who is confronted with modern social problems. Thank you so much!

  • Posted by: - Mar. 12, 2010 5:31 PM ET USA

    Overall, a very good article. You have given a clear and concise statement about tolerance in the closing paragraphs.