In recent decades the Church has tried more than ever to accentuate the positive. As a result, she talks less about rules and prohibitions than in the past. Those things are important, the thought seems to be, but they exist for a purpose, and the positive teachings tell us what the purpose is.
After all, one might say that the Church today is in mission territory. She lacks public authority, and people don’t understand her nature, role, or message. In such a setting, she needs to talk about the goods she proposes much more than the disciplines she demands or evils she opposes.
The line of thought makes sense, but it needs to be applied properly. The key is to present the positive teachings so they are actually understood. Those teachings claim to offer a better way of understanding the world and a better way of life, both of which are indissolubly connected to Christ and the Church. A presentation of the Church’s positive teachings should make those things comprehensible in a way that avoids unnecessary confusions and obstacles.
That means that the attempt to reach out to the modern secular world shouldn’t blur differences in belief and orientation between that world and the Church. Unless those differences are made clear Catholic teaching will either seem absurd and contradictory or it will be confused with existing secular views. “God” will be understood as a vague spiritual presence, a poetical way of talking about this-worldly concerns, or a magical being like the Tooth Fairy. Expressions like “social justice” and “universal love” will be taken to refer to the abolition of tradition and particular community in favor of comprehensive administered uniformity, or else they will be thought hypocritical.
A basic obstacle to communicating the Church’s positive teachings has been the depth of the differences between the Church and the modern secular world. It’s not just particular issues like abortion or homosexuality that separate the two but the most fundamental understandings.
Today’s secular world is dominated by a technological outlook that views reality as a matter of neutral resources and human choice and skill. Such a view does away with intrinsic goals and meanings in the world around us, and thus with a nature suited to completion by grace. It makes meanings something we create ourselves, and so makes it difficult to see the point of the Christian account of God becoming present in a world he created, found good, and loved. Even charity changes its nature and becomes a celebration of the diversity of human choices: we shouldn’t love what people are, since there are no settled identities, nor what they should be, since the very concept is oppressive, but instead we should love whatever they choose to make of themselves.
To make matters worse we live in an age of media overload. The result is that people don’t pay attention to what’s actually said. Instead, they handle the flood of disjointed words and images washing over them by attaching them to templates or narratives that grow more and more independent of original sense and setting. We ourselves are formed by our surroundings, and find it more and more difficult to live, speak, or even think independently of the fabricated reality that has become the medium of social life. We have come to look at the world too much with the eyes of the world and not those of the Church.
The result of all these conditions is that brief statements of Catholic belief aren’t understood, lengthy ones aren’t attended to, both are misquoted and misrepresented, and when we are presented with an opportunity to explain ourselves we grow tongue-tied.
We are nonetheless called to present our views so they make sense to people. In earlier times that task was easier. Certain doctrines may have been foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling block to the Jews, but we could assume a perception of the world as meaningful and the consequent general acceptance of natural law and theology. The seeds of the Word were everywhere, scattered through popular beliefs and non-Christian texts and practices, and needed only to be developed and completed.
That’s no longer the case. The seeds of the Word may still be present in remnants of tradition and untutored everyday beliefs and perceptions, but the public understanding of reason and reality has been scrubbed free of them. Further, the electronic media and the commercialization and bureaucratization of life have made that understanding increasingly all-pervasive.
Proclaiming the positive teachings of the Church requires us to insist on an understanding that is radically different from what you’re likely to see on TV or read in the New York Times. Many people won’t see the point, and some will assume that what we say is just code for “I hate gays” or some such current concern. Something similar though is going to be the response whenever we say something that doesn’t simply repeat the established consensus. If someone tells us we should understand the world differently in a way that matters, then he’s telling us that some things are bad that we now think good. Not everyone will be pleased by that.
Contradiction is, of course, a strength as well as a difficulty, since the established public view can’t ground a satisfactory way of life. The world is not technological, and commerce, bureaucracy, and arbitrary private choice are not enough to deal with it. The Christian understanding, which includes much more of reality, is far more adequate to experience. So we may find unexpected support if we doggedly proclaim—as we must—that man, will, and reason are naturally oriented toward goods that are implicit in the way things are.
But how do we make the pitch when everyone has been trained to view human will as the standard of the good and neutral technology as reason itself? One place to start is with the profound dissatisfactions that are inevitable in a world in which meaning, value, and identity are thought to be constructed rather than discovered. Some examples:
- Rage against the machine. People know that the established outlook is inhuman. As human beings they need to love their world and find it worthy of loyalty, but they can’t feel that way about a social world that is thought to be made up of neutral raw materials and technically rational arrangements for converting those materials into satisfactions.
- Disgust with triviality, superficiality, and manipulation. If the world means whatever we choose it to mean, it’s not interesting and we can’t take it seriously as a reality. People are not satisfied with endless snark and Internet memes. They want an understanding that goes deeper, takes them outside themselves, and connects them with how things really are.
- Loss of identity. The belief that identity is constructed makes integrity impossible. It has given us nothing but con-men, psychopaths, tattoos, piercings, ever-multiplying sensitivities, and an obsession with money, status, and career. Why accept that as the right way to live? Shouldn’t we look for the reality of what we are and what that might mean?
In order to escape from such problems people need to leave the technocratic world of modernity and recover an understanding of human nature and personal identity as real, and the world as patterned, functional, and oriented toward some ultimate good. To be happy is not to get what we want when we want it, but to participate in that world and direct ourselves toward that good. And to love man is not to love someone who believes he is Napoleon as Napoleon. It is to love him as what he truly is, with an awareness of what he could be at his best.
With those things in mind, we need to be ambitious and persistent. We need to clarify our thoughts and constantly highlight the problems with established views. Every time someone on TV says that traditional morality is hate and religion irrational opinion, we should respond quickly, clearly, intelligently, and forcefully.
Above all, we should understand the Faith and act as if we accept it. If we claim a better understanding and way of life, those things should be visible in what we say and do. People will notice, because they’re looking for something better than what they have. It follows that an emphasis on the positive also means an emphasis on the practical demands of the Faith. That is primarily a matter for the faithful themselves, but it also affects their pastors. A positive principle that matters has multiple implications, and the Church can’t accentuate the principle while ignoring its remedial and disciplinary consequences. Accentuating the positive does not mean doing nothing about problems.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Jesus Among the Doctors” painted by Paolo Veronese in 1558.