Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Is Tolerance Enough: Catholic Universities and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Issues

These comments were part of an Ethics at Noon presentation at Santa Clara University October 26, 2005. Panelists were SCU Professor of Philosophy Michael J. Meyer and SCU Assistant Professor of History/Literature/Performance Studies Michael Zampelli, S.J.

Comments by Michael J. Meyer

1. What is the context for this discussion? Is the modern Catholic University a public or a private place?
This is crucial because the value/virtue of tolerance, conceptually and historically, has it's primary foothold in the public sphere. Briefly, a modern Jesuit/Catholic University can be seen as either a public or a private place. However, tolerance remains an essential value/virtue either way. Why? i) Clearly tolerance has a place if our University is understood as a public space-more on this below; ii) But if a private Catholic University is understood as essentially not public, why is tolerance required? Basically, because it is first and foremost a modern University; and any decent modern University has enough features necessary to treat it "as if" it were a public space, private though it is in some respects. Those features include (but are not limited to): the fact that a plurality of conceptions of the good life are and should be recognized at the University, as well as the obvious centrality of civil discourse and open dialogue to the educational and scholarly mission of any modern University.1 Either way you look at the context here tolerance has a decisive place.

2. What is tolerance?
Very roughly, not prohibiting that which you disapprove of. From John Locke to John Rawls, tolerance of this sort has been increasing over time; it is also central to the very existence of the public sphere-this is so because tolerance helps disarm (violent) conflict and it makes pluralistic societies, and modern Universities, viable. It also shows respect and reasonable intellectual humility in the face of inevitable religious and moral pluralism about the content of a good life (the priest and the soldier or the artist and the advertising executive). As a virtue tolerance is an antidote to fanaticism and dogmatism. Tolerance doesn't imply indifference toward what is disagreeable but rather a carefully modulated forbearance. In the University context the pursuit of the truth (or the promotion of genuine dialogue which is the only reasonable means to many shared public truths) requires accepting that one is fallible especially about what makes a life a good life or a happy life or a meaningful life.

3. Must we tolerate everything?
Of course not. The charge that morally speaking "anything goes" once we embrace tolerance is an often used but specious argument against toleration. To embrace tolerance does not mean one must thereby be in complicity with obvious injustice. Tolerant citizens (or tolerant members of the University community) clearly need not tolerate Nazis atrocities; doing so is collaboration with profound immorality which is itself immoral. However, the tolerant person should, under some pretty specific circumstances, tolerate pro Nazi speech (not threats or history exams denying the fact of the holocaust, of course, but some expressions of clearly repulsive ideas). At times disturbing ideas and actions must necessarily try the patience of tolerant people. The hard case: toleration of the intolerant (i.e., those who would destroy inter alia the very practice of tolerance itself-Rawls THEORY OF JUSTICE). Briefly, Rawls suggests a highly context dependent prudential standard for when and how to do this. The easier case: toleration of ideas and ways of life you really don't approve of (or just have serious doubts about) but which are not themselves harming others or threatening the very existence of the practice of tolerance. In short, one absolutely should tolerate ideas and actions like this or undermine an essential basis of the public sphere and the modern University.

4. In the pluralistic, modern University what can we reasonably hope tolerance will give us?
Tolerance provides neither love nor admiration but one kind of respect; not the warm embrace of those who doubt our values or our lifestyles, but their forbearance. With tolerance we can hope to transcend some unproductive conflict but not to avoid sometimes strident disagreement. Tolerance also allows us to hope for a chance to be heard by those antagonistic toward our point of view or even skeptical about our way of life. Tolerance crucially allows us to hope for genuine dialogue. Tolerance is an important source of public peace and sometimes private peace of mind for the tolerant person who abandons his/her pointless crusade against what others are certain is a meaningful path for them to a good life. Is tolerance enough? In modern,
pluralistic societies (& modern Universities) it is clearly better than any alternative one has reason to expect.

Comments by Michael Zampelli, S.J.


After reading/listening to Mike's very enlightening reflections on the notion of tolerance and its place in the modern Catholic university, particularly with respect to lgbtq issues, I find myself wanting to share the following thoughts:

In a Catholic institutional context, it is naïve to presume that the conflict between church teaching regarding the "disordered" nature of homosexual activity will not clash with the self-understanding of lgbtq people. Putting Catholic together with Queer produces static. (Personally, I think that if we listen to the static we might hear in it some possibilities for future growth and reconciliation. But this is something that we can talk about at another time.) Though even with the static, even in an apparent state of conflict, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is quite clear that "[Men and women with a homosexual orientation] must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided." [2358] So it would seem to me that the offering of respect, compassion, sensitivity-not to mention justice-to lgbtq folks remains quite in keeping with the Church's mission to champion human dignity, always and everywhere. In a University environment, it would also seem to me that this kind of respect and sensitivity would include full partnership in the spirited conversations regarding the truths we discover as a community in pursuit of Truth. Those of us who identify as lgbtq have a particular fix on the world, and what we have come to understand about ourselves, our society, our religions, our scholarly disciplines, from this particular perspective makes an invaluable contribution to the store of knowledge. It would strike me that "a carefully modulated forbearance," that is "tolerance" of lgbtq people and their work, would be the minimum requirement for doing the work of the Catholic University.

I feel that I have learned a great deal about "tolerance" from Professor Meyer's explanation. I must admit that in recent years I have been quite dismissive of the term because, in common parlance, it is a cold word. In its ordinary usage "tolerance" does not immediately suggest to me hope for the future; rather it conjures an image of folks gritting their teeth simply to get through the present with as few scars as possible. I "tolerate" discomfort in the dentist's chair. I "tolerate" students yawning in my classroom. I "tolerate" the table conversation of some of my brother Jesuits who inhabit worlds far removed from mine. I can see now, though, that Mike is challenging us to think about the concept differently, and I am grateful for the possibilities that he opens up. I am particularly intrigued by his thought that a proper understanding of tolerance includes respect and a hopeful orientation toward engaging in genuine dialogue.

I can only go so far, however. The state of tolerance must be a temporary state of affairs that includes an acknowledgement that we are "on the road," that understanding more and becoming more understanding takes time. And, certainly, a "tolerant" environment in terms of lgbtq concerns is preferable to a hostile or "intolerant" one as we all "ease on down the road."

Thus far, I've been pretty generic in my observations. The times we are living in make a claim on me to be much more specific. So here goes:

Being tolerant of "ideas" that certain people espouse is not quite the same as being tolerant of the people themselves. I find it difficult to speak of "tolerance" in something that is so self-implicating. Tolerating my ideas about lgbtq issues is quite a different story than tolerating me as an lgbtq person. That, as a human being who exists in the world in a particular way, I must be "tolerated"-as if there were some real possibility of my ceasing to exist or my disappearing-makes no sense to me.

In this case tolerance is most certainly not enough because it seems to imply that I, in my being, am the "object of disagreement." Can one ever-particularly in the context of a Catholic university-build healthy relationships on a foundation that says, "I disagree with your existing openly in this community; however, I will practice forbearance"? (Of course, as a transitional state such tolerance is far better than being hunted out and purged from the community. But is it enough? Absolutely not.)

I am very much aware that all the press regarding gay seminarians is informing my thinking these days. In some ways I feel as if I've turned a corner and see things much more clearly than I once did. Reports on the document (that has yet to be released) speculated that the presence of gay people in seminaries is fundamentally problematic because of their nature as gay people-that our way of being in the world is incompatible with a healthy sense of religious vocation. (Of course, the way the document was publicized revealed some very sloppy thinking that is inconsistent even with traditional Catholic teaching on the subject of homosexuality. But that is, again, another conversation.) Though the possibility of gay men being denied admission to seminaries was dangled before us as a kind of cure-all for the crisis of confidence in Church leadership, reports on the document affirmed that the guideline would have no retroactive force. "If you're gay and already a priest, you're safe; we will, as we have, 'tolerate' your presence among us." Sorry. That is simply not enough for me. In this case, tolerance is unacceptable. Why? Because, I believe deeply (along with Paul in Corinthians) that "I am what I am by the grace of God." And I believe that I have particular gifts deriving precisely from this blessed but marginalized way of being in the world. What I see clearly now is my own desire: I want to be a subject sought out and valued. I don't want to be tolerated-unless it remains quite clear that this is one small first step in the process of coming to understand me.

This weekend Santa Clara is hosting the Out There Conference that seeks to provide a forum within which to discuss the challenges of doing lgbtq studies in Catholic institutional contexts. I am happy to have Mike's understanding of "tolerance" in conversation with my own as I move into a conference that embodies, for me at least, the best of what a pluralistic Catholic university is about.


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