So goes the popular wisdom. And, of course, as in most cases, popular wisdom has a lot on the ball. Equality before the law is important. So is toleration. These things are the beginning of any civil society.
But they are not the end of one. For where pop wisdom gets it wrong is in elevating these things to the status of supremacy over things that are greater and deeper namely, love and humility.
Consider, for instance, the common notion that equality means “each person is as good as any other.” Such a notion was absurd to the framers of the American Constitution. Why? Because they were heirs to a Protestant culture that believed all people were equally fallen. In short, they believed (as do Catholics) in the universality of human sinfulness. Indeed, the entire American Constitutional system is predicated, not on the belief that everybody is equally good, but on the notion that everybody is equally corrupt. That is why the whole thing is an elaborate mechanism of checks and balances, finely tuned to keep all us greedy, power-hungry children of Adam and Eve in a perpetual struggle so that nobody gets too much power and plays the tyrant. Not a sunny diagnosis of human equality, perhaps. Yet, significantly, the system works rather well. And it does so because, sunny or not, the founders had a grasp of one of the fundamental realities of Catholic anthropology, percolated down to them through Protestant and Enlightenment culture.
“I Tolerate You.”
C. S. Lewis shared in this view of man, which is why, with blunt, sensible (and Christian) common sense he viewed equality primarily as medicine, not food. He said, “I am a democrat because I believe in the fall of man” and regarded equality not as an exaltation of “I'm OK, you're OK” self-actualization, but as a good barrier against our sinful itch to be tyrants. His reasoning (like that of the American Founders) was basically that democracy was a pretty good way of keeping power from being too concentrated in the hands of a few. He believed it one of the most ludicrous errors of modernity to move from the belief that we are all equally fallen to the prideful notion we are all equally good.
Speaking of pride, this brings us to our other blunder, the denigration of humility and the exaltation of tolerance. As noted above, tolerance is, of course, a step in the right direction. But it is only a step, and we are required to walk a very long walk if we are to arrive in the Promised Land. And this is the irony, for the thing that will get us to the Promised Land is something we are being taught to despise as “debasing”: humility. “It lowers our self-esteem,” we are told. Nonetheless, just as the Kingdom of God demands love and not mere equality, so it demands humilty and not just “toleration.” Why? Well, imagine two lovers gazing moonily into each other's eyes. The lover glances down his imperial nose, takes the beloved's hand and says, “I tolerate you.” True love, eh?
What sort of people “tolerate” us? Not people who love us, but people who feel superior to us. Who do we tolerate? People we regard as, at best, annoyances, or, at worst, as jerks. People who are in the way. People we thank God we aren't. Thus, “toleration” that will not bend to the yoke of humility is, more often than not, a form of pride. If we exalt “tolerance” while denigrating humility we are exalting our worship of power and autonomy over all that allows us to love. For pride is the enemy of love.
Love Is Food
It would be well for modern American Catholics to keep these curious paradoxes about equality and tolerance in mind since many of us are so soaked in egalitarian rhetoric that we have nearly forgotten that love and grace are higher things. This is, for example, why so much chatter surrounding the matter of women's ordination is predicated not on the assumption that women are sinners just like men (and deserving of nothing from God, just like men), but rather upon the blither of “rights talk” that pervades American culture. Such blither is an extraordinarily dangerous ground on which to build a supposed “right” to Holy Orders or any other sacrament for two reasons. First, woman is as good as man and more's the pity for her, for man is not all that good. Second, sacraments are, by definition, gifts of God, not rights conferred by human beings.
And this holds true, in a way, for all the issues of race, class and gender which bedevil our culture. For if we make equality and tolerance the goals of life, rather than the minimum first steps toward building a civilization, we utterly miss the point of the gospel proclamation. For equality is, indeed, medicine, not food. Love is food. In a certain way, love cares a great deal about equality and rights (when they are being violated). But in another and deeper way, it knows and cares nothing about equality and “rights talk.” When a victim is defended against the rich and the proud, love rejoices at the sight of justice. But when lovers start consulting their lawyers, love mourns.