Vermeersch on Tolerance

An extract from Tolerance, by Rev. A. Vermeersch, S.J., Doctor of Laws and Political and Administrative Science, and Professor of Moral Theology and Canon Law. Translated by W. Humphrey Page, K.S.G., Privy Chamberlain to H.H. Pius X.

Imprimi Potest: Aemilius Thibaut, S.J., Praepositus Provinciae Belgicae.
Imprimatur: Edm. Can. Surmont, Vicarius Generalis, Westmonasterii, Die 8 Augusti, 1912.

Nihil Obstat: Remigius Lafort, S.T.D., Censor.
Imprimatur: John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop Of New York. New York, October 21, 1912.

R. & T. Washbourne, Ltd. London, 1913. pp. 26-29.

It is a delicate question, how we ought to behave in the philosophic or religious controversies in which we take part, and the problem becomes extremely perplexing when our adversary declares that he shares the faith for which we write or speak. This embarrassing subject requires some remarks which will fitly conclude the first part of this work.

A man may err in good faith, or he may make profession of belief without sincerity. Ambiguous or obscure language may be used to conceal a clever trap, or may be the result of ignorance or carelessness. The profession of religious faith reveals the inmost soul, but a false profession of faith may be made to cover the most insidious designs. Freemasonry formerly numbered priests among its members, and not half a century ago it filled the confraternities of Brazil. About 1850 at Brussels it was able to command religious services. If it is wicked to calumniate, or disseminate unjust suspicions, it is necessary at times to have the sense and courage to cry "Wolf” before it is too late.

A private individual has no right to accuse another of being in error - by which is meant religious error - except after mature deliberation. He has no right to speak in the name of the Church. He is not infallible, and cannot without presumption claim for himself any special orthodoxy. He must avoid the self-conceit which sometimes disguises itself as religious zeal, the attachment to his own opinions which may be the motive of his ardour in preaching submission. Does it not seem sometimes - in the case of the condemnation of a published work, for example - as if the writer cared less about being on the side of authority than having authority on his side? On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the decisions of the Church or the Holy See lay down directions which must not be exaggerated or overstrained, but which a loyal Catholic will refuse to evade by quibbles or minimizing interpretations.

In the perplexities which arise in such circumstances, how useful it is to listen to the counsels of toleration! Be just, they say to each of us, and see if the man or the work in which you detect errors does not show too much Catholicism to fall under suspicion. Be equitable, and in case of doubt give your brethren the benefit of that presumption of correctness which is laid down in the oldest laws, and of which St. Ignatius writes in these express terms in the beginning of his spiritual exercises: "Every good Christian is more eager to justify than to condemn a statement of his neighbour; and if he cannot justify it, he asks the author for an explanation. If the author explains it ill, he corrects him with charity; and when that is not enough, he endeavours to the best of his power to find an acceptable meaning which will save the proposition." History itself attests the opportuneness of this caution: rigorous judgments, though long accepted, are reviewed by the light of fresh study. A more careful examination sometimes shows that time-honoured imputations of heresy rest on expressions badly used, badly understood, or badly translated.1

Be kind; do not seek the malicious satisfaction of having discovered an additional enemy to the Church. The bitterness of some men's writing is very exasperating, and irritation will sometimes bring down a tottering structure which a little kindness might have saved. What would have become of Abelard without the gentleness of Peter the Venerable?2 Charity has good, not evil, for its object; it would rather win hearts by gentleness than humiliate them by an assumption of superiority. Be courteous; in the fight against error treat your adversary with deference. And, above all, be scrupulously truthful.3 To all, friends and foes alike, give that serious attention which does not misrepresent any opinion, does not distort any statement, does not mutilate any quotation.

We need not fear to serve the cause of Christ less efficiently by putting on His spirit. In our own day especially, when men love to make a show of sincerity, and when so many honest but mistaken souls are yearning for the truth, let us count Christian loyalty as one of the most powerful influences to induce men to accept the gift of faith. Defective arguments weaken sound propositions; false statements embitter disputes, perpetuate controversies, multiply misunderstandings, and give an opening for crushing rejoinders. An arrogant and uncompromising tone in an author makes men reluctant to listen to his arguments, and anxious to see him proved to be wrong. We do not establish a truth by showing that there is little evidence to support it; we cannot eradicate error by making it look like truth; and we cannot hope to persuade a reader if we begin by exciting his antipathy. There is much sound sense as well as humour in the words of St. Augustine: "Wolves sometimes disguise themselves in sheep's clothing, but that is no reason why sheep should change their skins.”4 Those victories alone give glory to Christ which are won by the weapons of Christ, for these are the weapons of justice.5 To wish for no other victory, we need great self-control, perfect confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth, zeal untainted by unworthy motives; and this self-control, this confidence, this zeal, enhance the private virtue of tolerance, and invite the admiration of all men.


1. See, for example, the doctoral dissertation of Professor Lebon on certain Monophysites (Le Monophysisme Sévérien, Louvain, 1909). The Panegyric dedicated by St. Gregory Nazianzen to St. Athanasius is worth reading. The holy doctor relates how, in the fourth century, the whole world was nearly rent in twain by a quarrel over syllables: the Easterns drew a distinction between substance and hypostasis, while the Westerns used the same word for the two ideas. The dispute was carried on with great bitterness, but St. Athanasius calmly weighed what each side had to say, and showed at the Synod of 362 that both sides were perfectly agreed on the main point. And “at this time of disputes and controversies," said St. Gregory, “it would be a great pity not to draw attention to an example, which our contemporaries would do well to follow” (M.P.G., t.35, cols. 1125, 1126).

2. See, in the dictionary of Vacant-Mangenot, the article “Abélard," by Father Portalié, S.J.

3. "Be truthful in all things; be scrupulously sincere. You will deserve to be faithful on important occasions, if you have been faithful in things that seem unimportant, sinceri filii Dei. The love of truth is a great grace, only obtained by fervent prayer" (Ruinart, Abridgment of the Life of Dom. J. Mabillon, 1709, p. 392).

4. De Sermone Dei in Monte, 1, I, chap. ii, n. 41 (M.P.L., t.34, col. 1287).

5. Per arma justitiae - By the armour of justice, on the right hand and on the left (2 Cor. vi. 7).