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Andrew Greenwell on the False Tolerance of Secular Liberalism

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.
December 21st, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

In vaunting tolerance as the public virtue par excellence, secular  liberalism really re-defines tolerance from how it was traditionally understood.  In fact, the tolerance advocated by secular liberalism is so counter to traditional notions of tolerance that the philosopher Don DeMarco states this substitution for one form of tolerance for another has engendered "acute tolerance confusion."

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - Moderns pride themselves on being non-judgmental.  This, we are led to believe, is a socially progressive characteristic.  Of course, all this fits in well with that greatest of all liberal personal and civil virtues--tolerance. 

We might point out, however, that in vaunting tolerance as the public virtue par excellence, secular liberalism really re-defines tolerance from how it was traditionally understood.  In fact, the tolerance advocated by secular liberalism is so counter to traditional notions of tolerance that the philosopher Don DeMarco has stated that this substitution for one form of tolerance for another has engendered "acute tolerance confusion."

The tolerance advocated by secular liberalism is no virtue, though the liberals act as if it were one.  From a classical perspective, tolerance it is not a virtue in and of itself, and so tolerance "must be combined with the virtue of prudence if it is to be exercised properly," explains DeMarco.

Traditionally, therefore, tolerance was always regarded as governed by the virtue of prudence.  Thus tolerance as classically understood was perfectly compatible with a view of the world that believed in objective right and wrong. 

For example, in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas recognized that, in some instances, promulgating and enforcing civil laws that prohibited certain vices would result in a greater overall evil to the common good than would legal toleration of those vices. 

The common good or good of the community is the end of all law.  For this reason, St. Thomas urged that human laws must not seek to proscribe all vices, but ought to prohibit only those vices "that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained," and those vices "from which it is possible for the majority to abstain." (ST IaIIae, q. 96, a. 2

Elsewhere, he is even more concrete.  Those in authority, St. Thomas states, "rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred" in an effort to extirpate the vice through force of law.  He ends his analysis with a striking quote from St. Augustine's De Ordine: "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust."  (ST IIaIIae, q. 10, a. 11)

In being tolerant, a person or public authority is, in a sense, even acting like God.  "Although God is all-powerful and supremely-good," St. Thomas observes, "He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent."  The reason God allows these evils is that "without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue."

That is traditional tolerance.  But this is not liberal tolerance.

In fact, traditional tolerance is considered by secular liberals to be a form of intolerance.  That is why John Rawls, in his influential text A Theory of Justice--Liberalism's Bible--excoriates St. Thomas for not having "even a limited tolerance."

The unbelieving and liberal Rawls really has the hubris to think, at least in this regard, to be more enlightened--indeed personally and politically more virtuous--than St. Thomas.

In Rawls's eyes, it is not "even a limited tolerance" to tolerate prostitutes to ply their trade, as St. Thomas might where the community is not sufficiently virtuous, because it would be worse for the common good entirely to extirpate the vice.  It is intolerant so long as you continue to hold the belief that prostitution is wrong.  Similarly, it would not "even a limited tolerance" to allow homosexuals the liberty to sodomize in private, so long as you continue to hold that homosexual activity is evil.

Liberal tolerance demands much more from us than just tolerance of an evil justified by reference to the common good.  To please liberalism, we must not only bite our tongue, as traditional tolerance might be characterized, we must bite it off and spit it out.

Jesus taught that we must conform to the natural moral law and not vice versa.  And he taught it with one of the more vivid images of the New Testament: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."  (Matt. 5:29)

Liberals teach the exact opposite of Jesus.  For Jesus, the soul is more important than the eye.  For liberalism, the eye is more important than the soul.  That is why secular liberalism is so offensive to anyone with a modicum of authentic morality.  This, generally, is why conservatives tend to be anti-liberal.  This is particularly why Catholics--who believe in an objective moral order--must be opposed to secular liberalism.

Liberalism says that the natural moral law--which it would call a "comprehensive moral doctrine"--must conform to it.  It must be said to not exist, and least in any significant concrete way.  So in liberalism, you don't pluck out your eye, you pluck out the notion of "sin," and it is the notion of sin that you "tear out and throw away." 

Liberalism doesn't care if we have a lot of people in sin.  All it cares about is that we all have our eyes--equality--and that we have them to sin with if we wish--liberty. 

Liberal tolerance therefore demands from us a concession, a change of heart which traditional tolerance never did.  Actually, in asking for this concession, this change of heart, liberalism wants possession of our souls.  Therefore, this concession, this change of heart is without question evil, even demonic.  Only God has the right to our soul.  Liberalism--a false god--does not.

To please modern secular liberalism, he who wants a public role or wants to avoid ridicule must give up notions of an objective moral order--of objective right and wrong, of objective "better" and "worse,"--and he must adopt, at least in the public square, moral relativism.  He or she must, in short, become a practical--if not theoretical--moral relativist.  This explains phenomena such as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.

That fundamental demand that secular liberalism makes of its devotees is what makes it fundamentally incompatible with Christianity and what makes it evil.

When truth is made relative as it is with secular liberalism, then anything can be justified by reference to liberalism.  Everything is measured by its utility to liberalism.  So Scripture (or the Catholic Social Doctrine, for that matter)--which a liberal would normally disdain--can be invoked if it helps or advances the cause of liberalism. 

For this reason, even the most secular liberal is quick to invoke Scriptural warrant against the Christian who dares suggest that some external act or omission is--from an objective moral standpoint--evil.  It is one Scripture every liberal seems to know: "Judge not, lest you be judged."  (Matt. 7:1)

I certainly would want to be the last to quarrel with our Lord's words.  In fact, because I do not quarrel with our Lord's words but want to understand them as the Lord intended, I quarrel with the modern liberal use--or, rather, abuse--of them. 

We might point out two of the more flagrant abuses.

First, whatever Jesus intended in those words, He certainly never advocated moral relativism by them.  We are in no way prohibited by these words from taking public opinions that certain acts are intrinsically evil.  We are in no way prevented from being loud and uncompromising about it, either. 

There is nothing in the Gospel that says we cannot call a sin a sin.  Nothing.

The words that are the favorites of liberals are part of Matthew's presentation of Jesus' sublime moral teachings found in his Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus says, in no uncertain terms, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. . . . Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called lease in the kingdom of heaven."  (Matt. 5:17-19)

Obviously, these words recruited by the left in no way abrogated the commandments.  So, if I state publicly that homosexual activity, or adultery, or divorce and remarriage, or sex before marriage, or lying, or greed, or secular liberalism as a political theory is intrinsically evil I have in no way violated the letter or the spirit of the Lord's injunction: "Judge not, lest you be judged."

Second, I find the liberals who abuse these words are not even consistent in their abuse of them.  In other words, they are hypocritical in their abuse.

If one is not allowed to judge something as evil, then it follows that one is not allowed to judge something as good.  Assuming, then, the liberal abuse of the Scripture, if I am not allowed to say, for example, that homosexual sexual activity is an intrinsic evil to be proscribed, then the liberal is not allowed to say that homosexual sexual activity is a good to be encouraged or a good to be protected.

Yet though the liberals use the "judge not, lest you be judged" Scripture to squelch opposition, they never use it against themselves to squelch themselves or to squelch laws that protect what they want and enforce them against their opponents. 

They abuse Scripture, and they are rank hypocrites.  So, next time you hear that liberal unpack those precious words of our Lord to justify his or her sins or his or her policies, bring out the Old Bard who spoke about Old Scratch:

The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!"


Shakespeare, "Merchant of Venice," Act I, sc. 3.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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