How to Accentuate the Positive

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.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    What did the Apostles preach?

    (1) the age of fulfilment has dawned, the “latter days” foretold by the prophets (Acts 2:16; 3:18, 24); (2) this has taken place through the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; (3) by virtue of the resurrection Jesus has been exalted at the right hand of God as Messianic head of the new Israel (Acts 2:33-36; 4:11; 5:31); (4) the Holy Spirit in the Church is the sign of Christ’s present power and glory (Acts 2:17-21, 33; 5:32); (5) the Messianic Age will reach its consummation in the return of Christ (Acts 3:20; 10:42); (6) the preaching of the gospel closes with an appeal for repentance, the offer of forgiveness and of the Holy Spirit, and the promise of salvation (Acts 2:38; 3:19, 25; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43).

    This teaching is summarised in the Creed, of which Bl John Henry Newman said that it “remains now what it was in the beginning, a popular form of faith, suited to every age, class, and condition. Its declarations are categorical, brief, clear, elementary, of the first importance, expressive of the concrete, the objects of real apprehension, and the basis and rule of devotion.”

    In other words, their preaching was categorical, not argumentative; concrete, not abstract; concerned with facts and actions, not ideas or notions. It is the Gospel, or “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον) a word that occurs some seventy-five times in the New Testament.

    • Mutantur tempora, and you have to deal with whatever comes up. That’s why the development of formal doctrine and theology was not simply a mistake even though it’s not how the Church started.

      We live in an age of abstraction, ideology, and propaganda, and must somehow respond to the situation. So even though (as I say) the most important thing is for Christians to be Christians, a concrete and non-argumentative approach, we can no longer rely on ground that has been prepared as the Apostles could. Indeed, it’s been plowed with salt. Hence my suggestions.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour

        So far from being a mistake, theology is inevitable and no one realised this better than Bl John Henry Newman – “Revelation sets before it certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.” But he knew, too, that “The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.

        The Apostles, too, encountered misunderstanding. In Acts 17:18, some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers thought St Paul (“this babbler” they called him) was a “’proclaimer of strange deities,’– because he was proclaiming the good news of ‘Jesus’ and ‘Resurrection.’” [They thought that Jesus and Resurrection were the names of two divinities –: a point often lost in translation, because in the Greek, the article is used with both: τὸν Ἰησοῦν and τὴν ἀνάστασιν as it often is with proper names] St Paul appears to have been undeterred – “facts and actions, beings and principles” were the sum and substance of his preaching.

  • ForChristAlone

    “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.”

    #1 YES! Yesterday at mass the priest/celebrant and I were talking about this very topic and he commented that if Catholics really understood and lived out their faith in the redemptive Christ then there would be unmistakable joy in our mien. I agree. We need to allow ourselves to really experience what has happened to us in our being born again into Christ Jesus.

    #2 “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.”

    I think this really hits the nail on the head. Technocratic man is consumed with his machines – electronic and otherwise. Man no longer is his own master and is in a desperate search for something that resembles meaning. (Just view people’s Facebook postings for proof of this.) But I remember from my days treating alcoholics that it was futile to talk meaningfully to them while they were still under the influence. It does seem that if any inroads are to be made with communicating our Christian ethos, people WILL “need to leave the technocratic world of modernity” which creates a serious and almost impenetrable block to what is truly meaningful.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    We are bombarded with ‘voices of persuasion’ that say “do this, buy that, worship this, elect those men etc.”. The Catholic Church has become a voice among the other voices ‘pitching’ us. This is what is meant by ‘the spirit of Vatican II’ – a church that stands on a box in the crowd next to the Scientologist and the man selling a new kind of egg-beater.

  • fredx2

    “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.”

    People don’t think anymore. They are conditioned by the unending stream of consciousness to respond as the crowd responds. There is no time for thought or individual opinions. Those just get in the way of the flow.

  • kmk

    How timely, thank you. Just last night our catechism class barely touched upon this crucial issue. We can all offer endless examples of our cesspool culture, but become quiet when it’s time for solutions and/or an action plan. Gratefully, we are reminded each week at Mass – ‘Go, in peace, to love and serve the world’.

  • jcbathtub

    This article is made up of too many words for speak the truth, live the truth. If you don’t know the truth, learn it. Speaking and living the truth demands that the consequences for not living the truth be emphasized. The consequence of sin (the result of not living the truth) is unhappiness, since we are made for the truth, and ultimately eternal damnation.
    The Church needs to emphasize sin and it’s consequences and never should have stopped.
    Christ came to forgive sin and told the sinner to change his ways. He is the Church’s example. That is a huge and missing truth.

    • Sophia G

      What church doesn’t teach the consequences of sin?
      We are created by God to be living with Him in his Kingdom of Glory simply by seeking truth living it by accepting His son Jesus Christ…who died in payment for the whole of man who sin on earth. This was the only way for God to prove HIs Love for us humans. We trust and obey…or we choose our own way. Simple. Repentance produces fruit through genuine trust and seeking Gods truth, not our own. Our own ways began in the Garden of Eden…. Trusting our own understanding and not trusting God. Adam n Eve walked another path…thus they chose to leave Gods way to eternal Life. Jesus Christ is our only salvation. No one can come to God except hrough Christ Jesus. St Paul’ teaching Christ’ s ,,” Good News”.

  • AnnieOfArc

    Mr. Kalb, I think this is your best piece yet. Most of my friends are atheists, and arguing is tiring but educational. I’ve noticed the place where I make the best progress is not when discussing the sexual revolution, but when I dig into the first principles and then take them to the transhumanist conclusion.

    You said “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. ” When things are put that way to people they seem to think twice about the implications of their assumptions. They seem to want to be machines which live forever consuming pleasure, but they’re not even happy now.

    I’ve always thought Moses and his people in the desert offers one of the clearest example of the choice given to the world. We don’t trust God, we want earthly happiness and so we pursue it relentlessly – make things better, faster, stronger, ‘funner’, easier. Yet when we stop to think we realize we’re miserable – because our ends are actually in God. Nature is a companion to be a steward of, not a tool to wield so we can defy God in an earthly Utopia. They claim to love nature and science, but truly they only set up their own idols. Joy cometh – through the Cross. Thank you.

    • guest

      “Joy cometh through the Cross” you say?

      Is that your answer to scarcity? Get enough people to sign up for that slogan–suffering is your ticket to heaven–and you have found a way to ween a few billion people away from the idea that in a world with limited resources, not everyone can have what they want.

      There are plenty of expatriates who have discovered that being happy meant not being miserable…and I doubt that you are a suffering servant with a heavy burden.

      You got 5 bravos from the choir.

      • Guest

        What does this mean?

      • AnnieOfArc

        I’ve been a servant my entire career quite literally, actually. It is good for me, and there are interesting things one learns about the type of people who desire power and pleasure above all else. As for the rest of your comment, the terms are not defined clear enough for me to be sure of what you’re implying but I suspect we have different perspectives. Peace be with you.

  • Amidst our many justifiable concerns about how the world is going, let’s not forget what Saint John Paul II is quoted as saying to God each night: “It’s your world, Lord. You take care of it now. I’m going to bed.”

  • Fred

    Thoroughly enjoyable, thanks. There are no doubts lots of way to express it, but I think your points are spot on. Who among us really believes that anybody will really convert or change their life to follow Christ based on a single encounter, or by being preached at. I know I have faults at suppressing my own rage when faced with the seemingly ever expanding celebrations of immoral behavior, but I know in my heart that rage will never bring anyone to understand his love for us, and will most assuredly have the opposite effect. Our Pope touches on some of these same themes in his recent statements about achieving happiness, including being less overt in our zeal for convert others but relying instead on evangelism through living our faith boldly happily sharing our joy. I think I’m still a work in progress.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      “Who among us really believes that anybody will really convert or change their life to follow Christ based on a single encounter, or by being preached at.”

      Who knows? As St Augustine says, “We see that people are variously moved to believe when the same facts are shown or explained to them. For example, Simeon believed in our Lord Jesus Christ when He was still a little child, for the Spirit revealed the truth to him. Nathanael heard but one sentence from Him, “Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree I saw thee” (John 1:48); and he replied, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.” Long after, Peter made the same confession, and for that merit heard himself pronounced blessed, and that the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven were to be given to him. His disciples believed on Him when by a miracle in Cana of Galilee water was turned into wine, which the evangelist John records as the beginning of the signs of Jesus.

      He stirred many to believe by His words, but many did not believe though the dead were raised. Even His disciples were terrified and shattered by His cross and death, but the thief believed at the very moment when he saw Him not highly exalted but his own equal in sharing in crucifixion. One of His disciples after His resurrection believed, not so much because His body was alive again, as because of His recent wounds. Many of those who crucified Him, who had despised Him while He was working His miracles, believed when His disciples preached Him and did similar miracles in His name.

      Since, then, people are brought to faith in such different ways, and the same thing spoken in one way has power to move and has no such power when spoken in another way, or may move one man and not another, who would dare to affirm that God has no method of calling whereby even Esau might have applied his mind and yoked his will to the faith in which Jacob was justified?” – To Simplician, 14

      • Fred

        I know Michael, but I speak of what I experience in others and even myself. I kept Christ at arms length until my mid 50’s, and seemingly miraculously he now feels my life. It’s hard to say what prompted the conversion but I attribute to being open to receiving the holy spirit in God’s plan for me. The point being I suppose is that we can help draw people into a relationship by living our faith boldly and with joy, but when and if others chose to follow is not for us to determine.

  • Vinnie

    The “rage,” “disgust,” and “loss of identity” are all true but I see them as having become a type of addiction. I think people will need to “hit bottom” first before they will seek and digest what we have to say.

    • Probably true. But if you haven’t laid the groundwork before impact, you won’t be ready when you CAN make a bigger difference faster. This is the top priority of every serious counterculture. What Kalb is saying, is that you are one now – Rome 2.0.

      It’s a very wise set of points, phrased well. I’ll add that they track closely with what the early Christians did. It took a while, but what happened to Rome? Throw in the idea that progress along these lines can happen beyond the USA to create positive change (even China), and suddenly joy doesn’t seem like such an outlandish idea.

      I know Pope Francis isn’t always the most popular guy here, but many of Evangelii Gaudium’s chapters are very applicable to creating a viable counterculture. Give it another read with Kalb’s article in mind, and see what insights appear.