The other day one of my more peculiar Jesuit friends emailed me an article written fifty years ago by Bishop Fulton Sheen who, contemplating the sharks and villains of his era, had lamented, ‘Our country is not so much overrun with the bigoted as it is with the broad-minded.’
After glancing at the opening I laid the article aside as a piece of history to read later when modern villains like Washington politicians weren’t providing so much entertainment.
But the next morning, when I opened the News & Observer, there was a story about how a tribe of modern broad-minded folks had body-slammed, pilloried and sent packing a preacher from Atlanta who was to pray at Obama’s inauguration because he’d once said homosexuality was ‘a sin in the eyes of God.’
So I pulled out Bishop Sheen’s article and read it.
And I’ve decided the Bishop had a more sophisticated way of looking at tolerance and intolerance than we do. He started started out explaining, ‘A bigoted man is one who refuses to accept a reason for anything; a broad-minded man is one who will accept anything for a reason.’
Then he got right down to brass tacks laying out exactly what he meant by tolerance: ‘Tolerance is an attitude of reasoned patience toward evil and forbearance that restrains us from showing anger or inflicting punishment. But what is more important than the definition is the field of its application. The important point here is this: Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to truth. Intolerance applies only to truth, but never to persons. Tolerance applies to the erring; intolerance to the error.’
I guess that’s like what the Baptists mean when they say, ‘Hate the sin but love the sinner.’
Now there’s not much doubt we’ll go on arguing over gay rights for a while, maybe for years – but if you stop and take a deep breath and get beyond inflamed emotions and political posturing, running a preacher out of town on a rail for his beliefs isn’t exactly broad-minded – while letting him pray for Obama would have been a pretty good example of old-fashioned tolerance.