A Plea for Tolerance

Author and theologian long associated with the Union Theological Seminary , where he began his leaching in 1930, REINHOLD NIEBUHR wrote his first article for the ATLANTIC in 1916 and since then has gone on to establish himself in his books, as in his addresses, as a leading spokesman for Protestants in America.



THE position of the Catholic Church in our nation can be understood and appreciated more fully in the context of the larger scene of western European civilization. In the whole of this civilization, the Church survives as a great religious institution and a spiritual power among the faithful in a pluralistic culture created by the rebellions of Reformation and Renaissance against the political supremacy of the medieval Popes and against the dominance of the Church over the entire culture.

In this modern scene, the Church is affronted by being regarded as an alien by hostile Protestant and secular forces when it feels itself to be the guardian of the moral and spiritual substance on which Western civilization grew to its present estate. Its critics may be pardoned, on the other hand, for rejoicing in the confusion of forces regarded as chaotic by the ancient Church but as creative by those who have strayed from the faith. The difference between the creativity of Britain, for instance, compared with the moribund culture of monolithic Spain may prove the thesis of non-Catholics. This argument may also blind these critics of the Church to its achievements.

The differences between the American and the European scene are as obvious as the similarities. In both cases the Catholic minorities, conscious of being protagonist of a historical, religious, and political force, were aliens in a new world created after the disintegration of the formidable medieval power which dominated the culture of Europe and possessed at once authority over the nations and the “keys of heaven.”

But the Catholic minorities in Europe are not as defensive as were the new immigrants in America, who poured into our land in the nineteenth century from Ireland and the Slavic and Mediterranean countries, and who manned our industries, tilled our cities, and encountered the hostility of “native” Americans, in them, religious prejudice against the “outmoded" creed and racial prejudice against people of other than a north European stock achieved the virulence which such religiously sanctified racial prejudices usually achieve.

The Catholic minorities of Britain might be disdainful of the new forces which occupied its ancient cathedrals and contemptuous of the new classes grown up since the industrial revolution, but the aristocratic recusant minority, depicted in Evelyn Waugh’s novels, was hardly defensive. The Catholics of Holland might deplore the occupation and the despoiling of their beautiful churches by the iconoclastic reformers, but they were conscious inheritors of an old tradition. In Germany the Catholic minority in the Rhineland and Bavaria knew only that the vulgar Prussians had spoiled their connection with the cherished Roman tradition, of which their vineyards and such edifices as the Dorn at Cologne reminded them.

The recent immigrants, who raised the Catholic minority to 36 percent of the total United States population in the nineteenth century, may have dominated our cities. But they were aliens both racially and religiously. The Protestant majority was the more aggressive because it was divided into innumerable sects, from the perspective of which the highly disciplined Roman Church seemed a political and cultural threat. Moreover, having lost since frontier days most of their original radicalism in their new affluence, they clung the more desperately to that part of their religious inheritance which committed them to eternal vigilance against Popery in all its guises. So powerful was this tradition that even in an election campaign in which a Catholic President was elected for the first time in our history the religious hate propaganda reached phenomenal proportions, including the old charge that the Pope had ordered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

There were, of course, advantages in the American pluralism for both Catholics and Protestants. Our nation knew nothing of the painful memories which were the European aftermath of the religious wars. Our anticlericalism never matched the intensity of that of Huguenot descendants in the Midi of France, nor did the Catholics have the painful memory of disabilities which the English Catholics suffered when even Queen Elizabeth’s circumspect policy found it difficult to draw a distinction between Catholicism as a religious faith and as a cover for treasonable activities in behalf of either Spain or the Catholic Queen Mary of Scotland.

Our first amendment, ordaining a rigorous separation of church and state, put an end to the fears of both Catholics and Protestants that the other side would oppress them. Incidentally, each side seems to believe that persecution is monopolized by the other side, though no evidence supports this. Catholics suffered as much under Edward VI, Henry VII Es Protestant heir, as Protestants suffered under Queen Mary, his Catholic daughter. Even the comparatively mild Elizabethan settlement did not relieve either Catholics or radical Protestants too much. Some of the persecutions belong to the mores of another age. Some of them might be re-enacted except for the constitutional guarantees of modern democracies, all of which have either achieved religious toleration or have had it forced upon them by historical forces and a concatenation of circumstances more beneficent in their effects than were the intentions of the conscious agents in history.

It is, nevertheless, a constant task to interpret the Catholic Church to America and interpret America to the Church, for tolerance in a pluralistic society requires that some of the most flagrant misconceptions be eliminated on both sides. One must leave to Catholics the task of interpreting America to the Church. It is reassuring that many of them, particularly the Jesuit order, are doing the job well. Let a Protestant be content to try to refute some of the misconceptions in regard to the Church of Rome.

THE chief indictment against the Church heard in non-Catholic circles is that it is undemocratic and therefore alien in our democratic culture. There is some truth in the adjective, if not in the indictment; because the Church does not arrange its affairs by free elections or majority decisions. It is governed by a highly disciplined hierarchy having its apex in the Bishop of Rome, the supreme Pontiff. This hierarchy interprets and defines the authoritative dogmas of the Church. If you do not agree with the Pope, speaking in behalf of the whole Church, you observe, as a Catholic friend of mine wisely noted, “a reverent silence.” Not being a Catholic, I would not be either so silent or so reverent if a supreme authority did not express my convictions. In other words, I am not prepared to pay so high a price for the boon of order and unity, more particularly since I regard the confusion of a free society as more creative than the Church does; and I believe that the acids of modernity are not necessarily corrosive.

But let us admit that if you want a disciplined order in a large community, more pluralistic than that of nation-states because it is transnational, the monarchial institutions of the Roman Church are more fitting instruments than church councils. After all, a Cluniac monk, ruling as Pope Gregory VII, the founder of the medieval papacy, was a more effective reformer than all the councils of Christian history, though inadvertently some of the genius of Caesar insinuated itself in the policies of a man who ruled as the “vicar of Christ.”

We have solved the problem of freedom and order tolerably well in the political life of the Western world. But our religious life is always lived at the edge of anarchy, despite all ecumenical movements. Even if we find it dangerous to pay a certain price for the conquest of anarchy, let us not be supercilious about a church which has paid the price, and let us not regard its forms of cohesion as vestigial remnants of a more primitive age.

Sometimes what is meant by “undemocratic” with reference to the Catholic Church is that its ethos is incompatible with our political institutions. This raises an issue which can be clarified by only the most disinterested scholarship. Both Catholics and Protestants have made some implausible claims about their respective responsibiliiy for the rise of democracy. The Catholic claim that our free institutions are rooted in medieval constitutionalism has some merit; but the claim that the natural-rights theories of our Founding Fathers were slightly corrupted versions of the natural-law theory which the Church prizes so highly is not very convincing, the less so since both theories, claiming absolute validity, bear the unconscious presuppositions of an ethos and a class; the natural-rights theory of the aristocratic class and age, and the natural-rights theory of the bourgeois class and epoch. The one took the class distinctions of a feudal age for granted; the other regarded the excessive individualism of the rising commercial classes as normative.

Many, if not most, of the Protestant claims to be either parent or midwife of democracy are not more convincing; certainly not those which claim parentage without knowing or admitting that the early Reformation, whether of Luther or Calvin, expressed an extravagant reverence for the authority of the ruler and an extravagant prohibition of resistance to tyranny. Catholics find the political absolutism of the early Reformation particularly dubious because antipapal animus and an excessive pessimism about the capacities of human nature probably inspired it. At any rale, Thomas Aquinas’ nascent Whiggery shines by comparison, as does his permission of tyrannicide in desperate cases of misgovernment.

Democracy had, as all great achievements of history, a more devious and a more tortuous path than the proponents of various dogmas admit or suppose. The later Calvinist and the sectarian radicals contributed to the idea that the authority of government must rest upon the consent of the governed. John Locke gave the democratic creed a classic, but a too optimistic, expression at the end of the seventeenth century. We may be grateful that our Founding Fathers were a mixed lot. The idealist Jefferson, Lockean in his optimism, and the radical Calvinist James Madison, whose circumspection about the virtues and vices of both the rulers and the ruled gave us the balance of our Constitution and our insurance against totalitarian democracy, were fortunately both among our Founding Fathers. They agreed in their common passion for civil rights and religious liberty. Even the wintry John Adams agreed with Jefferson, though the curious mixture of Calvinism and Enlightenment prompted him to different motives for preferring religious liberty than those of Jefferson. Liberty would prevent the various sects of Christendom from persecuting each other. At every stage of the history of democracy we are reminded that its effective agents were a curious combination of late Renaissance (Enlightenment) and late Calvinism, with the mixture of sectarian radicalism as the most effective agent, chiefly because their partly contrasting views of human nature prevented either pessimism or optimism from prevailing.

IF WE consider not the origins of a free society but its adaptation to the necessities of justice in an industrial age, the charge from Protestant quarters that Catholicism is undemocratic becomes ironic and sometimes ridiculous, particularly when uttered by Protestant individualists who have baptized social Darwinism’s laws of nature as laws of God, and worry lest the standards of justice of the modern welfare state will rob pious Christians of the opportunity to practice the only “true charity, which is voluntary charity.”

The recent papai encyclical with its affirmation that justice is the instrument of love is true wisdom compared with this kind of obscurantism, dated in the early nineteenth century, from which even the Social Gospel movement has not completely emancipated many forms of Protestant social thought. The eminence of the Roman Church in dealing with the problems of an industrial civilization is not an accident. The ethos of an organic collectivism in the feudal period, from which Catholicism could not extricate itself unaided, became a tremendous resource once the Church was free of the feudal ethos, and thus the Catholic Church used its social and moral insights in the service of a democratic industrial society. It had no question about the social substance of human existence, and it never doubted the supremacy of political authority over the economic realm, having escaped the illusions of classical economy and not sharing the confidence of laissez-faire proponents that the automatic balances of a free market would guarantee justice.

The Church, moreover, had an instinct for the right of workers to deal collectively with their problems. In America its social insights were reinforced by the fact that the recent Catholic immigrants were the victims of the injustices of early industrialism. But this fact did not prompt the concern of the Church in the first instance.

That is also shown by the intimate concern of the Church for the problems of the industrialized Rhineland in Germany, where it never lost the workingman as the more apolitical Lutheran Church did. Nor is it plausible to assume that Pope Leo XIII had his eye particularly on America when he issued the first of a series of encyclicals, Rerum Novarum, which elaborated the social theories of modern Catholicism. On the other hand, it must be admitted that social conditions in local communities do influence local forms of Catholicism. Rhineland Catholicism and Bavarian Catholicism were so different in pre-Nazi Germany that each had a separate party. One aspect of modern social Catholicism, not known or long since forgotten, is that democratic health in western European nations was frequently preserved by an uneasy partnership between socialist and Catholic parties, each anathema to stereotyped American liberals.

It may be significant that Catholicism is most creative in an environment of an industrial civilization, where it is historically least at home: in the industrial Rhineland but not in agrarian Bavaria, in postrevolutionary France but not in medieval Spain. In France, Catholicism has reached its most brilliant intellectual development. In the Rhineland and in France, it brings its ancient wisdom to bear on the problems of modern collectivism, and incidentally provides a haven for the imperiled individual in the technical togetherness of urban life. In Bavaria and in Spain, its ancient wisdom is not enough to cut through the ancient tradition of a feudal society.

The social conditions of Latin America are revelations of this weakness. Thus Mexico, the only stable Latin American country, because it had a thoroughgoing revolution, challenged the power and prestige of the established Church in the final revolutionary surge in the thirties. Even Catholic liberals were outraged and pleaded for sympathy for the Mexican Church. They might have known that any revolutionary movement in a traditional society is bound to be anticlerical.

American Catholic leaders now seem to have become more critical of the Church in a feudal order. Cardinal Cushing of Boston is reported to have lectured the Catholics of Peru rather severely in the past year on their failure to heed the social teachings of modern Catholicism, expounded in the papal encyclicals. His strictures were, of course, justified. Peru is in a prerevolutionary situation, with primitive Indians at the bottom of the feudal structure and a tight Spanish Catholic aristocracy at the top. The capital of Peru, Lima, with one eighth of the national population controls about one half of the national income. This class of absentee landlords and new moneylenders in the capital is no more likely to heed moral preachments from the Catholic Church than the Protestant industrial overlords of nineteenth-century America were inclined to heed appeals for social righteousness. There must be powerful social forces and ferments to change the social patterns of a culture. Perhaps both Catholicism and Protestantism lack the power to set revolutionary movements against deeply entrenched social power, though the worker-priest movement in France is a creative gesture in this direction.

Meanwhile, it would be a contribution to religious understanding if Protestants would cease holding American Catholicism responsible for conditions in Spain and if Catholics were not so defensive about these conditions. The difference between the stance of the American Church during the Mexican revolution and its present critical attitude toward Latin American Catholicism is a step in this direction.

PERHAPS the most frequent charge against Catholicism in non-Catholic circles is prompted by the transnational character of Catholicism. It is, after all, an embodiment of Christian universalism, though that universalism is tainted with European parochialism. Whatever its weaknesses, this spirit is a resource in an era in which the tides of nationalism rise higher and higher and the nation may become not only the most solid community of mankind but the source of its ultimate moral norms. Any community, religious, scientific, or cultural, which represents the embodiment of some transnational or universal tradition, interest, or end must be cherished as the embodiment of the humanity of man.

My first experience with German Catholicism was after World War I, when I heard a Catholic cardinal in the Rhineland addressing Catholic journalists. He warned them against the dangers of a fanatic nationalism, precisely the kind of nationalism to which Nazi Germany fell victim.

The universalism or quasi-universalism of the Roman Church as a guard against national parochialism must be appreciated, even though it must be recognized that a universal church can become the instrument of the spirit of a nation. The prestige of Cardinal Wyszynski in Poland is partly drawn from the long history of intimacy between the Catholic religion and Polish nationalism vis-a-vis Russian imperialism. Let those who will take ironic satisfaction in the fact that the two representatives of international movements, the Catholic cardinal and the Communist boss Gomulka, have both triumphed in their international bodies because they embodied the tradition of Polish patriotism.

The rather sentimental patriotic exhortations of some of our American hierarchs are less impressive.

The most vulgar form of patriotic anti-Catholicism is that which charges Catholics for loyalty to a “foreign Sovereign.” Some of these charges are prompted not so much by malice as by ignorance of history. Nothing is known of the tortuous history of the papacy and its gradual transformation from the status of the effective ruler of European nations to the modern embodiment of the unity and authority of a universal religious community, that is, a history running from Pope Boniface VIII at the end of the thirteenth century (the last undisputed master of Christendom) to the concordat between the King of a united Italy and the Pope, confining the temporal dominion of the Pope to Vatican City, the seat of the papacy.

THE elimination of all misconceptions about the Catholic Church, whether such misconceptions are prompted by ignorance or by malice, and the dissolution of the original polemics of the religious wars will, of course, not resolve the tensions arising from the fact that Catholicism, as are all cultural forces in a pluralistic nation, is competitive with other forces. Some of the reasons for animus against the Church are not merely traditional polemics or evidence of sinful bias but stem from the same causes which prompted the original rebellion against the Church by Reformation and Renaissance. The chief one of these is the religious protest of the Reformation and the rational protest of the Renaissance against the ultimacy of the claims of the Church. It is not easy to be cooperative with an institution which claims to be a “perfect society,” to be the “mystical body of Christ,” the guardian of the ultimate truth about life, and the final mediator between man and God, holding the very keys of heaven. The claim is felt to be idolatrous by Reformation spirits, as offending the “Majesty of God.” The claim of a historical institution to possess a transit istorical wisdom and knowledge seems offensive to all children of the Renaissance with their increased awareness of historical contingency and relativity, the finiteness of all human knowledge and the ambiguity of all human virtue.

Since the Church lives by these claims and wins the obedience of the faithful by their power, it is useless to seek an accommodation on this issue. One must simply be grateful that in the modern world no one forces us to accept the Catholic faith, and be appreciative of the spirit of charity and the wisdom of pragmatic adjustment to the new culture which the Church generates in spite of claims which logically would lead to fanaticism.

Another basic religious cause of tension is the increased Mariolatry of modern Catholicism. Building on Catholic piety with roots preceding even the medieval period, the Church, for some mysterious reason, has chosen to widen the breach between it and modern culture. In a series of dogmas promulgated in the late nineteenth century and extending into this very century, it has virtually lifted the Virgin Mary into the Godhead (some say into the Trinity), replacing the less historical Holy Spirit.

To Protestants this is offensive because it has no scriptural warrant. Modern critics of Christianity itself, or even of all religions, are more charitable, though their charity is touched with irony. They merely observe that biblical religion has been defective in not expressing the feminine principle in ultimate religious symbols. Bernard Shaw, in his humorous correspondence with his friend, a Catholic abbess, admirably expresses this spirit by claiming that he is more orthodox than the abbess, always having reverenced goddesses, as well as gods, in all religions.

Among the causes of friction on moral issues, the Catholic prohibition of contraception is most serious, and bound to become more serious as the weight of our responsibility for raising the living standards of the undeveloped nations grows and we find ourselves frustrated when rising birth rates threaten to undo all advances in the conquest of nature. Here even the friendliest critic of the Church is bound to observe that the Church is caught with the most naturalistic and inflexible part of its natural-law theory. The natural law is “what nature intends.” Nature intends sexual relations to be procreative. Very well. But modern doctors have defeated another intention of nature, which is to kill many babies. Modern medicine, preventive and remedial, will save them. The old balance of nature is thus destroyed. All human history is, in fact, a bewildering compound of natural impulse and necessity and human invention and intervention. These facts are so obvious in a technical age that one hopes that the Church will ultimately bow to the inevitable. The issue is at present a source of tension between the Church and modern society.

By far the most important issue between the Catholic Church and modern democracy or democratic and pluralistic nations concerns education. The issue is posed by the insistence of the Church that the educational enterprise should include religious instruction and by its assumption that the only religious instruction valid lor the faithful should be under its auspices and control. Since religious instruction without strict dogmatic presuppositions shades off to all manner of heresies and deviations, one need not quarrel with the Church’s assumption, if one understands that its vitality is guaranteed by these strict presuppositions. It would be futile, in any event, to challenge a community on a policy felt by it to be related to its survival.

Thus the problem of religion in education arises. Our constitutional separation of church and state may have aggravated the problem in America by enforcing a secular public education or one which may be quasi-religious but still questionable, and, if the latter, questionable on both religious and secular grounds. But all Western nations have the same problem, though it does not take the same form as here, where our free public schools are the pride of the nation, and the Catholic parochial schools the impressive achievement of a well-disciplined Church. In Canada and Europe, tax support for religious instruction is hallowed by tradition rather than prohibited by a Constitution. In nations such as Holland, Germany, and Canada, localized Catholic minorities ease the problem still further, though agnostic and Jewish minorities must find the tradition vexatious. Only in France, with its secular democratic but more anticlerical and antireligious tradition than our own, is the problem acute. The issue of education has kept the clerical-anticlerical tension alive throughout centuries of French history. Recently it complicated the relation of the liberal Catholic party, the MRP, child of the Resistance movement, to other political parties of similar political convictions.

In America the problem was tentatively solved by the prodigious development of the Catholic parochial school and the unchallenged development of the public school. But the more the federal government undertakes support of public education, and the higher the costs rise for parochial education, the more Lhe Catholic minority feels itself aggrieved by the issue of a double taxation, involving, in Catholic terms, the moral issue of “distributive justice.” It may be significant and ironic that the first Catholic President both heightened the issue for Catholics and eased it for non-Catholics by a policy of federal aid to education limited to public schools on the assumption that aid to parochial schools is constitutionally prohibited. Catholic grievances prompted by double burdens have therefore not been mitigated, though some loan provisions for parochial school construction may emerge in further legislation.

This source of tension involves the interests of many citizens, particularly those who voluntarily assume the burdens of support for parochial schools but find the involuntary tax for the support of public schools, not attended by their children, an unfair charge. Catholics could help to ease the tension if they calculated the effects of their maximum demands upon the school system as a whole, and upon the community. For there is no way of giving maximum relief to Catholic taxpayers without inviting the confusion of a proliferation of tax-supported religious schools for all the sects of Christendom. A religiously pluralistic community is bound to react to this threat to both the unity of the community and to the integrity of the common public school.

On the other hand, the non-Catholics would assuage the tension if they did not make such general use of the “camel’s-nose” argument in resisting any policy which would help the Catholic parent financially. The camel’s-nose argument is that if you allow the nose of the camel into your tent, the camel will soon occupy the tent. The argument is essentially an undiscriminating tool of extremism. The zealots of the right use it to prove that the welfare state is an inch toward a socialist state and that socialism is a halfway house to Communism. The argument, in short, is inimical to any discriminating weighing of contrasting but equally valid values and ends.

In this case, the camel is obviously the tax support of parochial schools, and the camel’s nose consists of fringe benefits which the general community must allow for the sake of relieving as much as possible the extra burdens of Catholic parents. The most obvious fringe benefits are common school buses for parochial and public school children, school lunches, and possibly nonreligious textbooks. If federal support of public schools should be extended, it should be feasible to allow low-interest loans for the construction of parochial schools. Some very authoritative constitutional lawyers, including many non-Catholics, think the rigorous exclusion of parochial schools in any federal-aid program is not warranted constitutionally. But, without challenging their judgment, it would be prudent to regard a longstanding custom as even more authoritative than the written Constitution. Therefore, its breach would occasion a public clamor and a rising animosity among the religious groups which might not endanger the public peace but would certainly play havoc with present amities. It is heretical to give such force to a tradition in a nation accustomed to the authority of a written Constitution. But a close reading of history, that of our own and other nations, will reveal how powerful customs and traditions are, even in a nation accustomed to explicit covenants. For this reason I welcome the fact that the first Catholic President in our history has been wise enough not to challenge a cherished tradition, even though it is not certain that the Constitution is as rigorous as the tradition.

One can only hope that both Catholics and Protestants, committed to the principle of charity toward the neighbor, enjoined by a faith which they hold in common, despite all present enmities, will not perpetuate the scandal of their mutual hatred and enmity into the indefinite future.