The Church, true tolerance, and the meaning of “welcome”

By Fr. Kenneth M. Dos Santos, MIC
First published in Catholic World Report. Reprinted with permission.

It’s a common belief in modern day society that all organizations be inclusive of everyone. The thought that one’s personal beliefs—and the behavior one chooses to engage in—should be accepted by everyone in the name of tolerance and inclusivity—regardless of whether this behavior coincides with natural law, morality, or religion—only furthers an ideological belief that natural law, morality, and religion have little to offer society and the public realm.

This belief has brought into current favor—through the increased secularization of thought—the active pursuit of lobbyists, politicians, and those who harbor agendas, to enact into “law” that which would “protect” the marginalized, or, those they perceive as being marginalized.  Governments, institutions, and associations are being forced to accept, include, and welcome those who would live outside the “confines” of natural law, morality, and religious belief. Further, this belief imposes upon society the limiting of personal freedoms.

True tolerance
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about these principles within the Summa Theologica:

Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred….

Hence, though unbelievers sin in their rites, they may be tolerated, either on account of some good that ensues therefrom, or because of some evil avoided. Thus, from the fact that the Jews observe their rites, which, of old, foreshadowed the truth of the faith which we hold, there follows this good—that our very enemies bear witness to our faith, and that our faith is represented in a figure, so to speak. For this reason, they are tolerated in the observance of their rites.

On the other hand, the rites of other unbelievers, which are neither truthful nor profitable are by no means to be tolerated, except perchance in order to avoid an evil, e.g., the scandal or disturbance that might ensue, or some hindrance to the salvation of those who if they were unmolested might gradually be converted to the faith. For this reason, the Church, at times, has tolerated the rites even of heretics and pagans, when unbelievers were very numerous.”1

Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, confirms this thought, while offering additional considerations, within his book, Moods and Truths:

There is no other subject on which the average mind is so much confused as the subject of tolerance and intolerance. Tolerance is always supposed to be desirable because it is taken to be synonymous with broadmindedness. Intolerance is always supposed to be undesirable, because it is taken to be synonymous with narrow-mindedness. This is not true, for tolerance and intolerance apply to two totally different things. Tolerance applies only to persons, but never to principles. Intolerance applies only to principles, but never to persons. We must be tolerant to persons because they are human; we must be intolerant about principles because they are divine. We must be tolerant to the erring, because ignorance may have led them astray; but we must be intolerant to the error, because Truth is not our making, but God’s. And hence the Church in her history, due reparation made, has always welcomed the heretic back into the treasury of her souls, but never his heresy into the treasury of her wisdom.2

The dominant point here, is that Truth is not of our making, but God’s. Thus, it is not narrow-mindedness, nor is it a bad thing, that Christians remain “intolerant” concerning any attempt by individuals, societies, or governments to subvert the Truth, that is, ignore the natural law, Divine Law, or the founding principles established and granted us by God. On the other hand, we must “tolerate” the sinner, we must forgive all of the offenses committed against us, instructing and admonishing all who have erred—with love, according to the teachings of the Church and the Gospel Truth]—that she “welcome” back into the treasury of her souls, those who were lost in error. While, at the same time, remaining always vigilant in the refusal to accept—the error into the treasury of [the Church’s] wisdom.

Justice and the common good
Therefore, what principles must be set firmly in place that a Christian abide by man-made laws? It has been established that human government, or law, has been derived from Divine Government or God’s Law. And, we are aware, in accordance with this reality, that all created law should be predicated upon the principles of justice and what serves the common good. St. Thomas affirms this:

Laws framed by man are either just or unjust. If they be just, they have the power of binding in conscience, from the eternal law whence they are derived, according to (cf. Proverbs 8:15): By Me kings reign, and lawgivers decree just things. Now laws are said to be just, both from the end, when, to wit, they are ordained to the common good,—and from their author, that is to say, when the law that is made does not exceed the power of the lawgiver,—and from their form, when, to wit, burdens are laid on the subjects, according to an equality of proportion and with a view to the common good. For, since one man is a part of the community, each man in all that he is and has, belongs to the community; just as a part, in all that it is, belongs to the whole; wherefore nature inflicts a loss on the part, in order to save the whole: so that on this account, such laws as these, which impose proportionate burdens, are just and binding in conscience, and are legal laws.

On the other hand laws may be unjust in two ways: first, by being contrary to human good, through being opposed to the things mentioned above:—either in respect of the end, as when an authority imposes on his subjects burdensome laws, conducive, not to the common good, but rather to his own cupidity or vainglory;—or in respect of the author, as when a man makes a law that goes beyond the power committed to him;—or in respect of the form, as when burdens are imposed unequally on the community, although with a view to the common good. The like are acts of violence rather than laws; because, as Augustine says (cf. De Lib. Arb. i, 5), a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.3

Man-made laws must remain rooted in Divine Law, in order that these laws be just. And, if a man-made law does not conform to this principle, it is not in favor of the common good. Nor are laws just when men seek to enact laws that go beyond the power committed to them, for example, laws which seek to legitimize and justify abortion, the so-called “right” which would seek to empower a man or woman to end the life of another human being. No man or woman possesses this “right”—only God—the Creator and Sustainer of all things possesses a “right” over human life. Other laws that run contrary to Divine Law are those that would seek to codify civil unions, transgenderism, or any attempt to eliminate gender altogether. These laws are acts of violence rather than laws; they are destructive and run contrary to the Truth, the dignity and true good of the human person. They do not serve to bring men and women closer to God and the promise of Eternal life. Therefore, a law that is not just, seems to be no law at all.

Thus, if individuals, governments, and societies have mitigated their ability to acknowledge the natural law, the moral code, and Judeo-Christian values, through the omission or commission of personal sin, which blinds one from recognizing sin for what it is—how is it even feasible to recognize this behavior as destructive, disordered, and sinful?

And, how is it possible for any organization, recognize these basic and founding principles, to welcome into the fold those who have no intention of putting an end to their sinful and destructive behavior? They who would entreat these same organizations, through the force of unjust legislation, to “welcome” them and their sinful behavior into the organization; because a failure to do so could appear outdated, exclusive, narrow-minded, intolerant, and even hateful.

The meaning of “welcome”
Here we must consider the different ways in which the word “welcome” can be used. The Collins Dictionary defines the word “welcome” as a transitive verb: “If you welcome someone, you greet them in a friendly way when they arrive somewhere.”4 In this sense of the word, Catholics and Christians can certainly “welcome” those who are not of their faith, those who choose to live outside of the teachings of organized religion.5

Yet, once this “warm greeting” is extended to those who have no intention of living out the teachings and founding principles of the organization, one would have to ponder the long-lasting purpose of the encounter. Are they resolved to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, living as He instructed His followers to live, that they be raised up by Him to Eternal life? What is the motivation behind their seeking out those who represent the organization for this warm greeting? Are they merely seeking out a “warm greeting” alone, or is something additional being sought out?

Hence, it is helpful to consider how the word “welcome” is used as an adjective: “If you say that someone is welcome in a particular place, you are encouraging them to go there by telling them that they will be liked and accepted.” And, “If you tell someone that they are welcome to do something, you are encouraging them to do it by telling them that they are allowed to do it.”6 In this sense of the word, no perpetually sinful lifestyle is “welcome” in a Christian organization. Here, a particular individual is seeking to be “welcomed” into the organization, while he persists in errant and sinful behavior. This is clearly against the Truth [which] is not [of] our making, but God’s, a reality far above the mere opinion of a single individual.

St. Thomas addresses this also in the Summa Theologica:

For this reason the Church not only admits to Penance those who return from heresy for the first time, but also safeguards their lives, and sometimes by dispensation, restores them to the ecclesiastical dignities which they may have had before, should their conversion appear to be sincere: we read of this as having frequently been done for the good of peace. But when they fall again, after having been received, this seems to prove them to be inconstant in faith, wherefore when they return again, they are admitted to Penance, but are not delivered from the pain of death.7

Here we see, upon one’s return to the Church, an errant or sinful individual must be admitted to Penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Then, the individual will have been provided an opportunity to humble himself, acknowledge that his behavior was both sinful and errant, internalize true remorse for his transgression, and implore the Lord for His forgiveness. Following this, through the cooperation of the priest, the individual receives absolution, and grace is imparted to the penitent. And, that his conversion remain constant and sincere, he must renounce his sinful behavior, avail himself of the grace of the sacraments, and possess gratitude for the forgiveness received. This will enable the individual to persist in faith.

Surely one can see the wisdom of “welcoming” members into an organization, who not only desire to receive a warm reception, but also seek to live out the instructions and teachings of that organization. Because, the good that the organization was founded to provide, is best served when its members live out its instructions and teachings.

A helpful example to illustrate this concept is found in the everyday life of a family. As a family, the parents can certainly invite relatives and friends to their home for the birthday party of one of their children. Once the guests arrive, the family can extend a warm “welcome” to those who have accepted their invitation. But, as the guests enter the home, some of them could make the choice to engage in inappropriate, destructive, and sinful behavior in the presence of children. And, if this were the case, would these guests continue to be “welcome” in the family’s home? Would not the parents who own this home be justified in expecting a certain decorum and appropriate behavior concerning the birthday party of a child at the home of a family? Would not the parents of these children confront the guests who engaged in this destructive behavior, requesting that they depart immediately from the party? Would this not be undertaken for the true good of everyone present, including those who are engaged in destructive behavior? And, following this incident, how ready would this family be to “welcome” these particular guests into their home again, without the benefit of an apology, or an assurance that this type of behavior will not be engaged in again, in the presence of young and elderly alike?

Here we must realize, the family has the right to “welcome” whomever they wish into their home. But, is it really the family in this example who establishes the ideal of what decent and appropriate behavior is in its true essence? The family can certainly discern the behavior of their guests and decide what they are willing to allow in their home, but what should they use as an example of decent and appropriate behavior—as they compare appropriate behavior to destructive behavior? One would have to conclude it is the natural law, Divine Law, and the moral code, which govern what decent and appropriate behavior is in its essence, and this should be reflected in man-made or positive laws. Thus, the natural law, Divine Law, and the moral code, exist in and of themselves, that is, whether or not the family chooses to acknowledge them. Or whether or not, man-made or positive laws take into account their existence, they exist nonetheless.

The ultimate purpose of the Church
What ramifications does this pose for the Catholic Church? The Catholic Church is a unique case as organizations go, in that the Church is a religious organization, living and enlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God Himself. Therefore, the Church is guided by the One Living and True God. And, as it has been stated above: Truth is not [of] our making, but God’s. This is not to say that Truth is something God created, just as He created the earth and all that is in it, but that—He is—Truth Itself.

Therefore, the Truth is not something man can change, man must come to recognize Truth for what and Who it is, and realize that God has existence outside of ourselves. The natural law, Divine Law, and the moral code, have been given us by God to help us to flourish, as a loving father guides his son in a manner that ensures his safety and true good.

Is this restrictive in terms of personal freedom? In a certain sense, yes; but what is the end or purpose for setting these boundaries? A father sets these boundaries for his son because he loves him and desires to see him attain happiness. Furthermore, there are many parents who do not set boundaries for their children. These children appear to go about their lives with relative freedom. But, is this a state healthy for a child, or for that matter an adult? It is not. The child ends up believing that his parents do not care about him or about what happens to him. However, the child will encounter these boundaries nonetheless, as he befriends other children who do have parents that set boundaries for their children, or later in life when he disregards the man-made or positive laws which make up the fabric of society. The fact is, these limits or boundaries assist us in living out our lives and help us to attain true happiness: “For whom the LORD loves he reproves, as a father, the son he favors.”8

Thus, does the fact that the Catholic Church expects its laws, precepts, and Commandments, be followed—necessarily mean that it should be viewed as “unwelcoming” to those who live outside of them? No, all men and women are “welcome” to follow in the footsteps of Christ, and following in the footsteps of Christ has many implications concerning the manner in which one lives out one’s life. Here, one has to consider the overarching purpose of the foundation of the Church, that is, its intent—to prepare its members for union with God in Eternal Life.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes this in paragraphs 830-831:

The word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.’ The Church is catholic in a double sense: First, the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her. ‘Where there is Christ Jesus, there is the Catholic Church’ (cf. St. Ignatius of Antioch, Ad Smyrn. 8, 2: Apostolic Fathers, II/2, 311). In her subsists the fullness of Christ’s body united with its head; this implies that she receives from him ‘the fullness of the means of salvation’ (cf. UR 3; AG 6; Eph 1:22-23) which he has willed: correct and complete confession of faith, full sacramental life, and ordained ministry in apostolic succession. The Church was, in this fundamental sense, catholic on the day of Pentecost (cf. AG 4) and will always be so until the day of the Parousia. 

Secondly, the Church is catholic because she has been sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race (cf. Mt 28:19): All men are called to belong to the new People of God. This People, therefore, while remaining one and only one, is to be spread throughout the whole world and to all ages in order that the design of God’s will may be fulfilled: he made human nature one in the beginning and has decreed that all his children who were scattered should be finally gathered together as one…. The character of universality which adorns the People of God is a gift from the Lord himself whereby the Catholic Church ceaselessly and efficaciously seeks for the return of all humanity and all its goods, under Christ the Head in the unity of his Spirit” (cf. LG 13 §§ 1-2; cf. Jn 11:52).9

The first point here is that the Church is catholic because Christ is present in her—a living breathing entity sustained and nourished by Him—now, for all time, and in the Eternal life to come. And, it is—in Christ—that she receives from him ‘the fullness of the means of salvation.’ It is beyond the powers of man to attain Eternal life, we receive this gift from the only One Who can grant it, God Himself.

The second point is that the Church is sent out by Christ on a mission to the whole of the human race. Does this not suggest that all are invited and given the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of Christ; both those who carry the Gospel message to the ends of the earth, and those who will hear the message, repent, and experience a conversion? All men and women of faith and good will experience both the sufferings which are a part of this life, and the eternal joy we hope to receive when we enter into eternal union with God in Heaven. All are made one in the unity of the Holy Spirit, and there cannot be true unity with others, or with God, when there are persistent sinners who seek to be prospective or full members of the Church, as they persist in sinful and destructive behavior.

This is surely not in keeping with the reason the Church was founded, nor will it ever foster unity with God and our brothers and sisters in Christ. Out of love, we are called to seek out those who have strayed from Gospel Truth and the teachings of the Church. But, this cannot and should not result in a one-sided pursuit. Those seeking to become members of the Church should fully understand what they are attempting to enter, and that this will never truly be obtained while they remain attached to sin.

Thus, let us internalize these words of St. Augustine:

The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost, they say that they are not ours. ‘Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?’ they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. ‘If I am straying,’ he says, ‘if I am lost, why do you want me?’ You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. You have been lost; I wish to find you. ‘But I wish to stray,’ he says; ‘I wish to be lost.’

So, you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says: Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome. Welcome to whom? Unwelcome to whom? By all means welcome to those who desire it; unwelcome to those who do not. However unwelcome, I dare to say: ‘You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.’ For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ” (cf. Sermo 46, 14-15: CCL 41, 541-542).10


  1. Thomas, and Dominican Province, Summa Theologica: First Complete American Edition in Three Volumes (New York: Benziger, 1947), ST II-II, q. 10, a. 11., (hereafter cited as Thomas).
  2. Sheen, Fulton J., 1932. Moods and Truths. New York: Century., pg. 163-164.
  3. Thomas, ST I-II, q. 96, a. 4.
  4. Collins English Dictionary, 13th ed., s.v. “welcome (tv),” accessed January 31, 2023.
  5. Ibid., “welcome (adj),” accessed January 31, 2023.
  6. Ibid., “welcome (adj),” accessed January 31, 2023.
  7. Thomas, ST II-II, q. 11, a. 4.
  8. Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Catholic Church, Saint Joseph Edition of the New American Bible (Washington, D.C. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Co. 2011), Prov. 3:12.
  9. Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church : Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text Promulgated by Pope John Paul II. 2nd ed. Vatican City Washington, DC: Libreria Editrice Vaticana; United States Catholic Conference, 1997., 830-831.
  10. Catholic Church and Franciscans. 1975-1976. The Divine Office : The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite : As Renewed by Decree of the Second Vatican Council and Promulgated by the Authority of Pope Paul. Volume IV. New York: Catholic Book Pub., pg. 290.

Photo by Diocese of Spokane on Unsplash


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