December 2005

The Truth About Tolerance: Pluralism, Diversity And The Culture Wars.  By Brad Stetson and Joseph G. Conti. InterVarsity Press. 200 pages. $16.

"Tolerance" has become a catchword for today's trendier movements, both academic and political. Like many catchwords, as soon as it assumes such a status, its meaning is lost. A tree that receives no water withers into fuel for a forest fire; likewise, an idea that receives no reflection and no debate can whither into fuel for a cultural fire. So it is with "tolerance." It is the fuel for one of our most dangerous cultural fires: secular liberalism. And its adherents have reduced true tolerance to a slogan — with all the depth of a bumper sticker. Paradoxically, this slogan equally sways both the masses and the elites.

How should we deal with such a word? What can we do to counter the tide of the "tolerant"? Stetson and Conti show us one possibility. We can resort to the true meaning of tolerance, point out the contradictions of contemporary meanings, and defend its true meaning against these distortions. Stetson and Conti set out to do these very things, with varying degrees of success.

First, they have tried to restore the historical meaning of tolerance. From Plato to Jesus to modern America, they have tried to show the meaning of the word as it has traversed the long history of Western religion and philosophy. However, their historical methods are lacking; or if not lacking, unjustified. They have read the idea of tolerance directly into the whole of our Western history. If one is to write a history of an idea, one must justify one's reading of this history. Stetson and Conti have not done so.

Second, they have attempted to critique both contemporary secular liberal uses of the word "tolerance" and their background ideologies. Essentially, they point out the contradiction of secular liberalism, especially its adoption of the word. Tolerance, they claim, is reserved for the open-minded, the civil, and the respectful. These are not the characteristics of secular liberalism. Rather, secular liberalism can neither respect a position which is not its own nor accept any critique of its own position. Hence the irony and contradiction of secular liberalism's adoption of the word tolerance. Aside from some sweeping generalizations, these chapters offer a noteworthy critique of a dangerous phenomenon.

Third, Stetson and Conti attempt to give a contemporary definition of tolerance over and against current secular liberal characterizations. They largely succeed in meeting this goal. The last two chapters of the book describe 10 principles encapsulated by the true notion of tolerance. These chapters give a concrete guide for navigating the idea of tolerance out of the eddies of relativist thought and back to the deep waters of Christian truth. These, indeed, are waters of civility and respect. The one problem with these chapters is that they conclude, rather than introduce, the book. Until reaching these chapters, one is not quite sure whether Stetson and Conti fully grasp their own project.

- Eric Hall

Blessed Pius IX.  By Roberto de Mattei. Gracewing. 206 pages. $25.95.

Blessed Pius IX is particularly relevant to the English-speaking world, and Roberto de Mattei's biography was occasioned by his beatification in 2000. No venue would be more fitting for launching the book than the London Oratory, as one of its Fathers, Ronald Creighton-Jobe, notes in his Introduction: "We are so happy to be able to launch this book, because of the connection between Pius IX and the oratory here. In a certain sense, he [Pius IX] was the founder of the oratory. When Newman decided to become a Catholic, he went to Pius IX and he was given the wise advice to found the oratory…."

The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, which Pius IX defined in 1854, also links this Pope with the English-speaking world. It was Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308), a Franciscan, who paved the way for the Church's understanding of Mary's freedom from Original Sin. Duns Scotus studied at Oxford and was ordained there.

A professor at the University of Cassino, de Mattei divides his book into two sections: the first is an account of Pius IX's pontificate against the background of the struggle between the Church and the revolutionary forces of the 19th century, while the second part dwells upon his Magisterium, marked by three highlights: the definition of the Immaculate Conception, his Syllabus of Modern Errors (1864), and the First Vatican Council (1869-70).

Today, the English-speaking world is also the hotbed of debate on the wartime behavior of another pope, Pius XII. Abraham Foxman, of the Anti-Defamation League, asked that plans to beatify Pius XII be put on hold, after the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published a letter, dated October 23, 1946, which told French churches not to return baptized Jewish children to their families after the war. In the ensuing debate, scholars pointed to a precedent Pius IX established almost a century earlier. Here de Mattei's timely biography comes into the picture.

The author devotes a chapter to the so-called Mortara affair, named for Edgardo Mortara Levi, the son of a Jewish couple, secretly baptized by his nanny and removed from his family by the authorities of the then Papal States. Pius IX sparked an uproar with his decision not to return young Mortara to his parents.

The child was born August 26, 1851, to a Jewish family in Bologna. His parents put him into the care of a young Christian domestic, who secretly baptized the child, fearing for his death when he fell gravely ill. After receiving Baptism, the child quickly recovered. Local religious authorities ruled that the Baptism was valid. Consequently, Edgardo had to be considered a son of the Church, which was obliged to provide him with a Christian education. Since Edgardo's parents refused this, the boy was taken from his family (whose members were given visitation rights) and transferred to Rome under the Pope's protection. Controversy exploded immediately, with the Italian, French, and above all British governments accusing the Bologna authorities and the Pope of "having violated the boy's human rights." But Pius IX was abiding by a 1747 law.

The maelstrom lasted almost a year, but Pius IX stuck to his guns. With like firmness, Pius IX stood up to Bismarck's Kulturkampf against the Church. And virtually alone, he contended with other great figures of the 19th century, from Metternich to Cavour and Napoleon III.

Pius IX's resolve is better understood when seen in the context of the political climate in which he lived. De Mattei writes: "In Rome, the same revolutionary clubs who had chanted Pius IX's praises now organised demonstrations against the Pontiff, at which they shouted, ‘Pius has betrayed us' and ‘Death to the cardinals!'" The leaders of the Italian Risorgimento (the elitist unification movement), such as Cavour, Mazzini, Garibaldi, and Victor Emmanuel II, had failed to recruit Pius IX as "a Pope who conforms to our need." Pius IX fought the Risorgimento because of its secularist premises. The violent secularism of the era paved the way for the totalitarianism of the next century. Pellegrino Rossi, Pius's Secretary of State, was stabbed in 1848, and before the end of that year of revolutions, the Pope found himself in the Quirinale Palace, surrounded by a murderous crowd and defended only by 70 Swiss Guards and a handful of ambassadors.

In summary, Blessed Pius IX, rich in documentation and analysis, makes an important contribution to history that helped shape our own times.

- Alberto Carosa

A Church That Can and Cannot Change.  By John T. Noonan, Jr.. University of Notre Dame Press. 297 pages. $30.

Here it is, from the Judge! Catholic moral teaching has changed, thus it can change, and therefore it will change. And it should be changed, so we can change it. Got it?

In reviving a case as worn as an old lawyer's brief bag, Judge Noonan raises "three unavoidable issues" with respect to the Church's moral doctrine: slavery, usury, and marriage. He tries to show that what was once acceptable or embraced by the Church is now held as intrinsically evil. Indeed, that some changes in moral teachings have occurred shows that any changes in these areas can occur. This is "the rule of human life." Noonan has visited these topics before, and continues to be unpersuasive.

Slavery, he says, is now universally condemned, but in the Old Testament, God seems content that the Israelites enslave their neighbors. With the Letter to Philemon, St. Paul returns the slave, Onesimus, and urges that he be treated "as a brother," but not as a free brother.

Noonan says the Church and her popes long accepted and even engaged in slavery-related practices, and failed to condemn them. He claims that only in the late 20th century did Vatican II in Gaudium et Spes (#27) and John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor (#80) reverse the position and declare slavery an "intrinsic evil." Hence the same practice which was once acceptable is now always and everywhere immoral. But Noonan reads into these documents what isn't there. The relevant section of GS doesn't mention intrinsic evil, and John Paul II in VS cites the GS list of "crimes" generally to exemplify his opprobrium of assaults against human dignity, not to develop doctrine.

In his chapters on usury, Noonan admits the sea change in economic and legal circumstances since the Middle Ages. Yet even though differing circumstances affect the licitness of an act, Noonan is not satisfied that the rise of market economies, government oversight of commerce, and legal limits on liability can explain how the evil has been drained out of lending at interest. His case for a reversal of doctrine would need to show that the lending of the Middle Ages is of the same nature as that accepted by the Church today.

In writing on marriage, Noonan says he doesn't understand how the popes could claim the power to interfere with the marriages of non-baptized persons. But his puzzlement is not an argument. The "Petrine privilege" includes the power to dissolve a marriage between one or two non-baptized persons to allow another, baptized person to marry one of them. The current focus of debate over Petrine privilege is whether the dissolution of an otherwise valid marriage is the result of a papal act or of a divine act. From the presumption that such dissolutions are a human act, Noonan asks why there should be a difficulty with allowing any other human authority to perform the same service. Compounding his dismissal of the power to bind and loose bestowed by Christ, Noonan errs in confusing the Faith's sacramental teaching on marriage with the moral teaching on adultery.

We are told that the Ordinary Magisterium might not be infallible. We learn that the very practices of some popes (e.g., slave holding) constitute the teaching of doctrine. Moreover, since the licitness of moral acts progresses "from practice to approval," we are to understand that, if the faithful commit an illicit act often enough, the Church will eventually accept it.

Noonan's real intent is to craft an argument. It is, roughly, this: Change is healthy, and the Church should abandon what is untenable; each age helps forge deeper understanding; though a revised doctrine may itself be wrong, we needn't worry because people of the future will fix such problems. The author would have us accept that the historical, organic growth in the Church's teaching has, in these three cases, embraced actual contradiction. Yet here he abandons his own first principle for the development of doctrine: "change, in continuity with roots."

Noonan says we may be consoled if we can simply envision "the consonance of the new teaching with Christ's commandments of love." But as we know from the acceptance of so many horrors in our own time, what men will do out of love for a lesser good is often the source of profound evil. In the end, love isn't all you need.

- Jim Taylor

Back to December 2005 Issue