Catholic Tools for Tolerance in a Time of Civil Unrest

COMMENTARY: Applying our knowledge from the doctrine of original sin, the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and the Great Commandment of love of neighbor can go a long way in repairing the damage.

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The United States of America is in the midst of a paroxysm over charges of “systemic racism.” While the killing of George Floyd in May provided tinder for everything from legitimate protests to looting, one would be willfully blind to deny that other ideological agendas have glommed on to the rightful outrage at that killing.

Catholics should and have a duty to work for justice. But, while we want to be understanding, we also sometimes must ask whether everything that goes under the name of “justice” really is. Jesus tells us to be both gentle as doves and clever as serpents (Matthew 10:16) to make sure we differentiate the wheat from the tares. Both look — especially at the start — very much alike. 

This leads us to the Gospel reading for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time and its immense current relevance for U.S. society.

Catholic thought has a lot to say to our present moment, yet we seem to be content to mouth secular nostrums rather than, like good stewards, bring out the old as well as the new. Let me suggest three things deserving to be taken out of the storehouse of Catholic thought: the doctrine of original sin, the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, and the commandment of love of neighbor.


Original Sin

Americans need to be reminded of original sin. We are all sinners. Every one of us has moral warts. Every one of us does evil. Every one of us contributes to the breakdown of social communion.

Why is that important at this moment?

Because there seems to be an almost schizophrenic mindset among the “woke” who are demanding a civilizational accounting of its systemic evils. It’s a bit schizophrenic, because while we are all supposed to acknowledge our complicity, it’s unclear why the critics seem exempt or immune from our supposed common blindness.

The doctrine of original sin emphasizes universal evildoing: None are exempt. It elicits humility rather than virtue signaling. Awareness of our common sinfulness should make each individual tolerant rather than judgmental of our brothers’ weakness: “There but for the grace of God go I.” There’s enough to fix in me without first fixing you … or even attempting the audacious effort of going back through time to fix Thomas Jefferson, St. Junípero Serra or George Washington.

Another part of the doctrine of original sin especially germane to our current circumstances is the awareness that I cannot fix this state.

The reason we celebrate Christmas is not to have a “winter holiday” or exchange presents or even gush sentimental. Christmas reminds us that, from Adam to Christ, sin reigned, and we could do nothing about it. We can sin, but we can neither forgive that sin nor repair its consequences. We can break the moral Humpty Dumpty, but all the social-justice warriors and all woke women and men (even angels and saints) couldn’t put moral Humpty Dumpty back together again. That’s why we need Jesus Christ.

The point is: Human beings will never create a totally just order without God and will not do it this side of the eschaton. It’s a realism that should temper our idealism to keep the latter from turning into radicalism. We should try to make the world a better place. But we also need to realize that, before the Last Day, the Kingdom is not in this world. We must reckon with our sinfulness and that only God can fix that.

Our current national protests exhibit a disturbing element of “intramundane eschatology.” That’s a fancy way of saying that people somehow seem to think they can recreate paradise in this world, that “we’ll make heaven a place on earth.” Alas, Eden’s gate was a one-way turnstile, and the track record of those who would make heaven a place on earth usually turn the latter into a more infernal place.


Wheat and Tares

This leads us to the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, the reading for July 19, the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Jesus is much more tolerant than some social-justice warriors. He recognizes that sin is not just a mistake or an error, but a malevolent force that combines human complicity and preternatural roots. He also recognizes that wheat and tares look very much alike, particularly in their early stages of germination. That’s always been evil’s ace: its ability to ape the good. If we didn’t see some good in evil, we wouldn’t choose it. Our wills are moved by the appearance of good.

Too zealous a weeding of the wheat field, Jesus reminds us, runs the risk of destroying the good along with the bad. God’s patience lets the field grow together … until the harvest.

Note, however, that harvest time is God’s reckoning, not ours. He decides when the day for separation has come, and he sends his agents — the angels — to part wheat from chaff, at the end of the world, not before. Justice is God’s doing, in God’s time — a time not to be sped up by servants in a bigger rush.

As Manfred Lütz argues in his new book, The Scandal of the Scandals, the Parable of the Wheat and Tares was for centuries the charter of Christian toleration. Lütz writes about many historical myths with which Christianity continues to be tarred, one of them being “intolerance.” Contrary to images of an inquisitorial Church, the truth is that for most of its history, the Church’s primary (if not only) tool to advance its views was rational persuasion, talking out our differences, building social unity by reason, not force.


Love of Neighbor

This leads us to our final point: love of neighbor. We can hate the sin, but never the sinner. Hating the sinner is not just despising him, but is also “canceling” or “erasing” him. That’s especially invidious when applied to the dead: They’ve already been judged by God. “Who am I to judge” them again?

Authentic Catholic social thought has always resisted describing the world through the simplistic lens of class conflict: The common “we” must always prevail over division into “us” versus “them.” But isn’t that exactly what we are doing in our divisions by race, sex or viewpoint?

Some people might call naïve the question: “Why can’t we just all get along?” In some sense, it is. As long as we are all sinners, unity will always be an aspiration, not a reality. But it means that, regardless of where we stand on the ideological or political barricades, we need to begin with the other as my imperfect neighbor, not my adversary. That requires a generous dose of tolerance and something of a thick skin. But it’s the only way to get out of our cul-de-sacs.

John Grondelski writes from Falls Church, Virginia.

All views expressed are exclusively his.