Locke’s Doctrine of Toleration: A Contract with Nothingness

by Jeffrey Bond

Today we present the first installment of an essay on John Locke’s doctrine of toleration.  Though we have already published an extended analysis of Locke’s famous Letter on Toleration, the topic merits further analysis, especially given the centrality of this doctrine to American politics today. This series will focus less on the particulars of the Letter and more on Locke’s doctrine at large and our proper attitude toward it as Catholics.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in A Letter from the Romans, the Newsletter of the Roman Forum and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute, February, 1999, No. 4.


By all accounts, John Locke was one of the most influential figures of the Enlightenment.  Although he was indebted to the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes—a debt he never acknowledged—nonetheless it is generally recognized that Locke’s two most influential writings, the Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, established him as the principal founder of modern liberal society.  Certainly no student of American politics would deny the significance of Locke’s impact on the Founding Fathers, for they often cited him as an authority to justify their political prescriptions.  More broadly, it is fair to state that most modern men, whether religious or not, accept Locke’s fundamental principle concerning the proper relationship between politics and religion, namely, separation of church and state.  In fact, Locke’s doctrine of toleration, as set forth in A Letter Concerning Toleration, is the most universally accepted political-theological dogma in the West today, yet this dogma is not the benevolent and salvific solution to the problem of religious pluralism that modern men suppose it to be.

Locke begins A Letter Concerning Toleration[1] with an astonishing claim:

Since you are pleased to inquire what are my thoughts about the mutual toleration of Christians in their different professions of religion, I must needs answer you freely, that I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true church (p. 167).

In immediate support of his opening claim, Locke says that all men boast of the orthodoxy of their own faith, “for everyone is orthodox to himself.”  According to Locke, all such claims to orthodoxy are far from being marks of the true church; they are “much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another, than of the church of Christ” (p. 167).

Here, then, at the very beginning of the Letter, Locke reveals the core of his enterprise.  While cynically dismissing all claims of orthodoxy as quest for power over others, Locke himself establishes the new measure of orthodoxy for Christians, namely, his doctrine of toleration.  He is careful to wrap his bold new doctrine in the mantle of Christian humility by immediately affirming that if a man “be destitute of charity, meekness, and good-will in general towards all mankind, even to those that are not Christians, he is certainly yet short of being a true Christian himself” (p. 167).  But Locke’s identification of his doctrine of toleration with the supernatural virtue of Christian charity cannot hide the clearly self-contradictory nature of his attempt to erect a new orthodoxy on the assertion that every claim to orthodoxy is simply the expression of a man’s thirst for power and dominion.  Now, if we are to make sense of Locke’s project, we either must assume that he could not see this contradiction—which is highly unlikely given his evident intelligence—or we must assume that he was not troubled by it, a position about which we will have more to say as we attempt to unpack his teaching.  This much we can now say:  if Locke is right, that all claims to orthodoxy are disguised attempts to dominate others, then his own orthodoxy is fundamentally an attempt to dominate even while preaching the Christian virtue of charity, and his writings are nothing less than the new holy scriptures for all who profess his new creed.

In order to appreciate fully the radical nature of Locke’s doctrine of toleration, it is important to have clear in our minds the orthodox Catholic doctrine that he is attempting to replace with his own new orthodoxy.  Such clarity is not easily achieved in our times because Locke and his followers, especially our own Founding Fathers, have so successfully established the orthodoxy of toleration.  Indeed, it is rare to find anyone who can formulate a rational argument against toleration, to say nothing of actually accepting that argument as true, and yet Locke’s doctrine was not readily accepted in his lifetime.  Nonetheless, the intellectual habits of the contemporary mind, both Catholic and non-Catholic alike, are such that any challenge to this supposedly self-evident doctrine appears idiotic, if not perverse.  But at the risk of appearing both perverse and idiotic, let us reconsider the orthodox Catholic position.

Far from viewing the charge of intolerance as a reproach, the Catholic Church has always preached dogmatic intolerance because it follows from the very nature of the Catholic Faith.  After all, dogmatic intolerance is an essential prerogative of truth, and it is a universal and necessary consequence of the very existence of the Catholic religion, which alone is true and binding upon all men.  The Church, by the very fact that she is certain of possessing religious truth in its entirety, must in principle condemn all error in matters of faith and morals.  Thus, to reproach the Church with dogmatic intolerance is to reproach her for being, and for believing herself to be, necessarily true.  Obviously it belongs to truth by its very nature to exclude all that is contrary to it, and consequently not only is true religion intolerant, but so also is all true science.  A teacher of mathematics, for example, cannot pretend, nor should he, that the Pythagorean theorem is no truer than the claim that it is false.  Once one has grasped the Pythagorean theorem as true, his mind must close to the contrary view.  Indeed, he becomes doctrinally intolerant toward any and all contrary opinions on this matter, for the possession of truth makes him necessarily intolerant of what is false.

Now, at the same time that the Church is justly intolerant of all false teachings and of all vice, she makes a fundamental distinction between dogmatic toleration and practical toleration.  Dogmatic toleration, which the Church has always condemned, amounts to religious indifferentism because it refuses in principle to acknowledge any religion as exclusively true.  Practical toleration, on the other hand, is perfectly consistent with dogmatic intolerance, for although the Church condemns all errors in principle, she nevertheless recognizes that there are circumstances where errors may be licitly tolerated for grave reasons.  As the repository of all truth concerning faith and morals, the Catholic Church, in imitation of her divine Founder, discerns the need to tolerate human ignorance and weakness in certain circumstances for one of two reasons:  either to avoid a greater evil, or to attain or preserve a greater good.  Toleration in this sense belongs to the supernatural virtue of charity, which perfects the natural virtue of prudence.  Prudence, with one hand, as it were, firmly grasping the universal and unchanging truths known through natural reason, and with the other hand grasping the particulars of the here and now, judges it necessary at times to tolerate something evil.  While steadfastly refusing to grant such an evil the right to exist, prudence, especially when guided and perfected by charity, properly discerns the particular circumstances in which truth and goodness are better served by permitting error or vice to continue for a time.

To return for a moment to our example of the Pythagorean theorem, a good teacher of mathematics will understand how a student may not initially grasp its proof.  Certainly a prudent teacher will be patient with well-intentioned students who are struggling to learn.  Having perhaps struggled himself when he first learned the Pythagorean theorem, the teacher would be foolish indeed to expect all his students to grasp it immediately and surely.  In other words, the teacher would be tolerant of his students’ initial mistakes, and he would patiently guide and correct them.  In doing so, the teacher would be practicing what we have identified as practical toleration, for he would be allowing something evil—in this case, ignorance—to exist for a time in the hope that some good would come from it, namely, genuine knowledge of the theorem.  Under no circumstances, however, would a true teacher embrace dogmatic toleration; that is, he would never declare to his students that they have a right to be wrong about the Pythagorean theorem, which would be equivalent to saying that there is no objective truth concerning the relationship between the sides of right triangles.  Indeed, even if every student in his class failed to see the truth of the Pythagorean theorem, the teacher would nevertheless insist that it is true, though he might wonder about his skill as a teacher.  Similarly, in moral matters, it is a father’s duty to correct his child if his child does something wrong.  In certain circumstances, however, it may be imprudent for a father to make such a correction.  And we can see this same distinction operating even on the level of bodily health.  Although in principle food is essential to human life, the same food that is ordinarily productive of good health may, under certain circumstances, be poisonous for an unhealthy man.

The point of these analogies should be clear enough:  it is one thing to be tolerant of a falsehood or error as a practical matter; it is quite another to insist that falsehood is in principle as “true” as truth.  And certainly that brings us to the heart of the matter.  What sense does it make to say that the true position is that every position is equally true to itself?  Such a claim, which is the first premise of dogmatic toleration, makes practical toleration meaningless.  If we grant that no position is any truer than any other, then why should we be tolerant of those with whom we disagree?  Why would it be any more wrong to assault, imprison or even kill those with whom we disagree rather than put up with them?  On what basis could one defend toleration itself?  What would make tolerance superior to intolerance?  If we truly believe that no one position is better than any other, it would make just as much sense to preach intolerance.  Paradoxically, only those who recognize that the truth is dogmatically intolerant can exercise practical toleration in more than an accidental way.  Indeed, a teacher who knows the truth can exercise charity and patience in a meaningful way towards his students precisely because he knows there is truth; but a teacher who denied the very possibility of truth would have no reason, other than an arbitrary one, for exercising charity toward those with whom he disagreed.

By analogy, it is only the Catholic Church, which openly proclaims herself to be the one true Church established by God, that can exercise practical toleration in religious matters in other than an accidental way.  In other words, practical toleration belongs intrinsically to the Catholic Church because, in her dogmatic intolerance, she is the measure of all religious truth.  All other churches can at best practice toleration in an accidental manner; that is, the individuals that comprise those churches may or may not be tolerant of others based upon their individual dispositions and characters, for if they reject the very possibility of absolute truth in religion, they have no real reason to choose tolerance over intolerance either in the practical or dogmatic realm.

It may be argued, of course, that religious truths are less easily grasped than mathematical ones, and thus the analogy to the Pythagorean theorem is inappropriate.  There is some truth to this objection insofar as the truth of certain fundamental mathematical principles is self-evident to anyone who is capable of reasoning, whereas grace and faith are required for someone to grasp the truths taught by the Catholic Church.  But this merely suggests the need for greater charity in teaching the truths of the Faith since the teacher cannot simply present them and expect them to be grasped.  Moreover, the analogy holds insofar as one understand the very nature of truth, mathematical or religious.  If one grants that the Catholic Church is the one true Church which cannot teach error in matters of faith and morals, or if someone at least grants that such a church could in principle exist, then it follows that dogmatic toleration cannot be true since it is based upon the self-contradictory premise that there is no objective truth.  Surely someone cannot logically insist on the truth of dogmatic toleration, because dogmatic toleration rests on the assumption that there is no truth.  And yet this is Locke’s position, for he begins by asserting that toleration is the chief characteristic mark of the true church.  Locke, as we shall see, is careful to blur the distinction between practical and dogmatic toleration; and the fact that so few are aware of this fundamental distinction is a sign of how successful his enterprise has been, for almost all who call themselves Christian, including most Catholics, devoutly profess their faith in this one supreme dogma of Locke’s universal orthodox church.

(Continued in Part II…)


[1] All quotations from Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration are from Sherman, C., ed.  John Locke’s Treatise of Civil Government and a Letter Concerning Toleration (D. Appleton-Century, 1937).

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