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The Cult of the “Positive”

We have already discussed the distortion of morality which follows from this-worldliness. Now we have to go into the following: with the catchword “positive” as opposed to “negative” the illusion is introduced that the avoidance of a sin is morally much less important than a purely positive moral deed. One criticizes the decalogue for containing too many prohibitions. One reproaches the Christian with overemphasizing the avoidance of evil and underemphasizing the doing of positive good. Thus today one constantly hears the demand for improving the world by fighting against poverty and for peace, but one hears little about overcoming our pride, about the struggle against temptations to impurity, the struggle against pharisaism, in a word, little about our own sanctification.

Here we have to distinguish between two different errors. First there is the this-worldly tendency to substitute work towards improving the world, for the sanctification of ourselves. Of this we have already spoken; it is the catastrophic tendency to concentrate our interest on improving the world instead of on glorifying God by our sanctification, and to fail to see the incomparable superiority of moral values over all merely morally relevant goods.

But is a second error which we want to deal with here the foolishness involved in the catchword “positive.” Let us consider first of all the superiority which a purely positive deed (such as giving aims) supposedly has over a deed which is considered negative such as resisting sin (of course negative here does not mean negative in value any more than positive means positive in value), it is not the antithesis between good and evil which is at stake here, but rather that between positive deeds and omissions, the difference between yes and no.

One overlooks the fact that the conscious renunciation of sin is a fully positive act and possesses high moral values. Of course the mere objective absence of a sin desirable as this is in itself does not possess a moral value. We can be pleased that someone has not murdered another, but we cannot rightly consider him as possessing moral values as a result. If he never came into a situation in which he was tempted to kill another, then the fact that no sin, no great moral wrong was committed is indeed desirable. valuable. but it is only a pure absence of moral evil. With the absence of the murder there is of course also the absence of a great objective evil for the one who would have been the victim. But it is only a potential value which we find in the pure absence of a possible evil; there is no positive moral value in it. A person does not become endowed with moral values simply because he is not stained with some grave moral disvalue.

But the absence of a moral disvalue comes to possess a high moral value as soon as this absence is not just an objective fact but the result of a conscious renunciation of all moral evil, of a full “no” to the temptation to do moral wrong. The conscious rejection of all moral evil is inseparably bound up with a will directed to the morally good. Thus purity, which comes from a conscious rejection of everything impure, of every misuse of the sexual sphere, is a high positive virtue. We have to understand once and for all that a value response which rejects something, such as indignation, is just as positive as a value response which affirms some good.

The term positive loses all meaning as soon as one no longer looks at the object to which a given attitude refers. For, the kind of response we give. must and should accord with the kind of object which we are responding to. It is just as much required of us to reject error as to assent to truth. The rightness or adequacy of our response is determined by the nature of that to which we respond. If we prescind from the object to which it refers, a “yes” has no priority over a “no.” Indignation over something evil is just as much a pure value response as enthusiasm for something good. Because both of these responses are fitting and appropriate with respect to their objects, and are indeed required by them, and because furthermore they both belong together, they both have a value, they are both something positive. As soon as one separates a “yes” or a “no” from the object to which it refers, and confers a value on the “yes” as such, then “positive” takes on a totally different meaning. When I said above that it loses all meaning when separated from the object, I intended to use the word “meaning” in the sense in which it can be applied to the relation between a response and its object.

Of course, in eternity there will no longer be any actualization of indignation because there will be no more moral evil, nor any suffering. But this absence of indignation in heaven does not come from the fact that indignation, being an act of rejection, is bad. but rather from the fact that there will be no more objects endowed with those disvalues which demand indignation. The infinite superiority of a situation in which there are no more evils and therefore nothing fit to be rejected by our response, must not be taken as proof that it is always better for us to say “Yes” than to say “No.”

Furthermore, enthusiasm for the good is a source of happiness, whereas indignation over evil is not. The fact that some good with its objective value is realized is in itself a source of happiness and calls for the response of joy. The fact of an evil. especially of a moral evil, is in itself something infinitely sad, and demands the response of grief and pain. And apart from the joy in the one case and the pain in the other, the ability and “right” to be joyful is in itself a source of happiness, whereas the necessity and duty of being indignant is in itself a source of pain.

But this never justifies us in detaching “yes” and “no” from the objects to which they refer. And besides, the “no” to evil and error is potentially present in every “yes” to the good and the true.

Here we have to make an essential distinction between the rejection of evil when it confronts us as a temptation, and the rejection of it when we see it in other persons. Saying “no” to all sins which I could commit has a high moral value and is something thoroughly positive. Indignation over the sins of others is indeed also a response which is morally called for and is also thoroughly positive but it does not have the same moral value. Saying “no” to temptation and sin is a central part of the moral life of man; so is hatred of sin in general. Indignation over the sins of others, over the offense which they give to God, belongs in a different category of morally positive attitudes and does not play the same central role which is played by the rejection of temptation.

Still another important distinction is the following: the rejection of sin in my own life is a pure act of my free will, whereas indignation over the offense given to God by others, as well as enthusiasm for their good deeds, is not in the same way subject to my will, even if it is not beyond all freedom. (Cf. Chapters 20-26 in my Ethics, which deal with freedom.)

But there are without a doubt types of persons who have a disposition to say, “no.” There are men who feel better when they are rejecting evil in others. Their disposition is analogous to that of revolutionary types. They feel stronger and more independent as soon as they can protest; they would be unhappy if there were no opportunity to protest. It is as if they needed the existence of evils in order to come fully to themselves. They, of course. do not give a pure value response. It is a perversion to find it more satisfying to say, “no” than to say, “yes,” to feel stronger in protest, revolution, in negating, to think that it is more serious and necessary to denounce evil than to affirm the good. These men also see evil much more than good; they often overlook everything that is good and desirable, and even morally edifying, but they see clearly everything that is wrong.

Now this disposition involves a regrettable and unfortunate lack of objectivity. But the opposite disposition is just as wrong: men who are so harmless and unsuspecting that they overlook evil and who are enthusiastic without reason, are also unobjective. Even if this attitude is more agreeable than the one which sees evil everywhere and is full of mistrust (just as the optimist is more agreeable than the pessimist), it is nevertheless morally just as defective. It involves a disvalue because of its lack of objectivity and blindness, and it does not have ultimate moral earnestness. This “positivity” is no value at all.

But let us now consider the type to which we are referring in this chapter, the one who is not at all objective, who separates himself from the nature of the objects of his responses, and who approaches the world in an attitude which he has assumed long before approaching it. Here we enter the realm of prejudices, the realm where we speak of optimists and pessimists, where a purely subjective temperamental disposition modifies our relation to the world and replaces those meaningful responses which are dictated by the objects of our responses. This lack of objectivity is a disvalue. The optimist is perhaps a more agreeable person than the pessimist. but they are both caught up in a lack of objectivity which is a disvalue.

This lack of objectivity is much worse in the case of the man who is by temperament constantly annoyed without reason and who inclines to complain about everything. But the disvalue which lies in the unobjectivity of annoyance and as distinguished from anger, annoyance is never a value response but always contains an unobjective element of subjective irritation does not prove that it is always a mistake to say, “no,” and does not prove that there is something wrong with the meaningful and required value response of indignation.

Let us just mention still another way of rejecting evil which must not be confused with a value-responding rejection such as indignation. There is a pharisaical way of preferring to reject evil rather than to affirm the good. Sometimes such a person enjoys his superiority by dwelling on the mistakes of others, sometimes he regards himself as morally outstanding by energetically condemning evil. All pharisaical self-enjoyment is incompatible with the spirit of true value response and is morally damnable. It possesses a great moral disvalue. But this disvalue is not found in every gesture of rejection, it is not found in that indignation which is appropriate to and called for by some immorality, but only in pharisaical self-enjoyment that should be immediately clear to anyone.

And so we have to emphasize again: the rejection of evil and of sin is a response which is purely positive and morally called for, and it possesses a high moral value. One cannot truly love God, without hating the devil. One cannot really love the truth, without hating error. One cannot find the truth and grasp it clearly as such, without seeing through errors. Knowledge of truth is inseparably linked with knowledge of error, with the unmasking of error! 61 All talk about the superiority of “yes” over “no,” about the “negativity” of rejecting that which should be rejected, is so much idle chatter.

In earlier times there were of course moral theologians who overemphasized the avoidance of sin and who underemphasized performing morally good deeds. Especially with regard to the whole sexual sphere, they spoke much of the disvalue of misuse, and often warned against sexual sins. but neglected to unfold the values of right use. One did not speak of the mystery of this sphere, of the mysterious union and self-donation in the consummation of marriage, of the great beauty of this “becoming one flesh,” which is an organic expression of spousal love and a fulfilment of the desire for union with the beloved (of this union our Lord said. “And the two shall become one flesh”) which is rooted in spousal love. One emphasized onesidedly the disvalue of misusing sex because one failed to see the grcat value of this God-given fulfilment of spousal love and the great value of this mutual self-donation in marriage. Not until the wonderful allocutions of Pope Pius XII was this positive aspect of the sexual sphere fully recognized, not until then was the value of the bodily union in marriage and its relation to spousal love. proclaimed by the highest Church authority. 62

But in the entire literature of the great theologians St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Duns Scotus, St. Francis de Sales, Moehler, Scheeben, Gratry, Newman we find no emphasis on the avoidance of sin at the expense of good actions and attitudes.

Here we come across an important point in the nonsense surrounding the catchword “positive.” One forgets that there is a hierarchy in our duties toward God: our first duty is not to offend God by sin; our second is to glorify Him by good deeds. We can express this philosophically by saying that our first moral task is not to introduce morally relevant evils into the world, and not to destroy morally relevant goods for instance, not to torture or kill a man, not to commit injustice, consciously to spread error, or work for apostasy. Our second task is the mitigation or elimination of those morally relevant evils which we find for instance. relieving the suffering of our neighbor, helping a sick person, fighting injustice, freeing those who are unjustly imprisoned, and above all. helping someone to find his way to God, helping him to convert to the holy Church. Only in coming to man's third moral task do we come to the producing of morally relevant goods for instance, providing some happiness for another person. helping a gifted person to complete his studies, doing good for one's neighbor in different ways. 63

This hierarchy has a definite character. It is not a hierarchical order which says that what comes first has a greater value than what comes second and third. It is rather a hierarchy which refers to our tasks, our mission. What is the first thing which is morally demanded of us, or as we could ask, “What is the minimum?” The answer to this question is not necessarily that which is most important.

Avoiding moral evil and we commit evil in producing morally relevant evils or in destroying morally relevant goods although it is something negative, has priority over the realization of morally relevant good, which is something positive. This priority of the negative over the positive is an objective fact and has nothing to do with the negative attitude of moral pessimism, nothing to do with an overemphasis on disvalues. It is no sign of a negative attitude to emphasize the priority of avoiding sin. We avoid offending God by sin when we abstain from bringing into being morally relevant evils, as well as from rebellion against God and all negative attitudes which make a direct gesture of defiance against God, such as cursing, indifference to God, etc. This omission of what is morally bad and of sin is an eminent expression of obedience and love of God it is a definite value response. It is a total misunderstanding to call this omission negative in comparison with bringing morally relevant goods into being, or with actively relieving the need of another or working to improve the world.

There are of course sins which come from neglecting to do some good thing. These play a great role in the Gospel, as when Christ says, “I was thirsty and you did not give me to drink. naked and you did not cloth me” (Mt. 25:35). These belong in the class of our second moral task, the mitigation of the evils which exist. But is is deeply meaningful that in the ten commandments the negative ones, the prohibitions the second, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth play such a great role; and that Christ, too. gives us prohibitions when he condemns pharisaism, pride, detraction. The tendency today to speak little of avoiding sin and to emphasize doing good all under the slogan, “We want to be positive” is a clear distortion of the moral sphere, it is at bottom a utilitarian lack of interest in moral values as distinguished from morally relevant values. These are so many symptoms and consequences of the disastrous this-worldliness.

Natural and Worldly Goods

We mentioned above that there is a certain disposition which sees everything negative more clearly, and then the opposite disposition which sees everything positive first of all and more clearly, and we also discussed the lack of objectivity in the pessimist and the optimist. Now we want to emphasize how important it is from a religious point of view to see objectively the whole situation of our earthly life and of the world as far as we know it, that is, to see objectively the two really existing aspects of the world. Here we see how wonderfully the holy Church has expressed the existence of both aspects in her liturgy. Earth is called a “vale of tears,” and yet it says in the Gloria, “heaven and earth are full of your glory.” Even earth contains great goods which proclaim the goodness, glory, and beauty of God.

In the phrase, “vale of tears,” the tragedy of human life is fully recognized, especially the fearfulness of death, the disharmony which was brought into the world by the fall and which continues even alter our redemption by Christ, the tragedy of the temporary triumph of evil, all the unhappy marriages, all children who have gone astray, all disappointments and most of all, as the greatest human cross, the death of beloved persons. On the other hand, when it says, “heaven and earth are full of your glory,” the magnificence of creation is recognized, the beauty of nature, which speaks to us of the infinite glory of God, the deep happiness which is conferred on us by the beauty of nature and of all great art, the unspeakable glory of a great human love! What an invention of God is marriage! How marvelous that there exists such a fulfilment of spousal love, that such a union between persons is possible! What a great gift of God it is that, as the beautiful Fulda Ritual says, the coming into being of new human beings is entrusted to the sweet love between man and woman. And what a gift is the ability to know; here I speak not only of the general ability to know which belongs to the nature of the person, but also of the ability to attain systematic knowledge, and especially true philosophical knowledge. Of this Socrates says in the Apology (no. 41), referring to his condition after death: “But then I will be able to continue my investigation of true knowledge and of pseudo-knowledge; and just as in this world I have tried to find out who is wise and who only says that he is without really being so, so I will continue this investigation in the next world.” Indeed, what a gift is being itself, our existence as persons, as well as what Goethe calls “des Lebens holde Gewohnheit.” We cannot continue here going through the magnificence of creation, the riches of all great natural goods (which are different from merely “worldly goods.”) Let us just refer to some of the saints and holy men in the Church who have sung the praises of the message of God to be found even in the natural creation: St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, Pope Pius XII.

But in order fully to understand and duly to appreciate the great natural goods, we have to understand the following. First, we have to distinguish these real natural goods from merely worldly goods, such as wealth, power, fame, influence. All these are only utenda (things to be used), never fruenda (things to be rested in and enjoyed). Here I can only refer to my detailed discussion of this in my book, The Sacred Heart. Worldly goods are by no means bad in themselves, but they contain great danger; they are to be used as means to something else, to be used in order to do good, to bring things of value into being, but not to be aimed at for their own sake and to be enjoyed.

Secondly, real natural goods show their ultimate value only in Christ, that is, only when their message from God and His infinite glory is understood, as for instance St. Francis of Assisi understood the beauty of nature. Natural goods are really understood only when we see how they point beyond themselves to something infinitely higher and seem to say to us, as St. Augustine puts it, “We are not the source of ultimate happiness.” It is a great mystery that they show us their innermost depth, their ultimate value, only when we do not regard them as the highest good, when we do not take them just in themselves, separate from everything else, but see them in the light of infinitely superior supernatural goods, in the light of the infinite beauty and holiness of Christ.

Thirdly, everything gets its true background. its ultimate proportions, from the revelation of Christ, from knowing the meaning of our life, knowing that life is a status viae (state of pilgrimage), knowing the truth of the “promise” which lies in all great natural goods. For all these goods point beyond themselves and contain as it were the “promise” that there must be an eternal life, an absolute world, of which they are just messengers. If there were no life after death, no eternal blessedness, then all these great earthly goods would be merely a facade, an illusion, they would promise something which does not exist.

Plato had a deep intimation of this. But it is not until the revelation of Christ that we learn of the full reality of that which the natural goods somehow promise. Only the revelation of Christ triumphs over the deep tragedy which surrounds these goods because of death and because of their transitoriness. And, above all, the redemption of Christ opens for us the way to a world of glory which does not pass away, a world where God wipes away all tears.

The revelation of Christ has not only disclosed to us the world of supernatural glory, the world of holiness, which infinitely surpasses the beauty of all the greatest natural goods. Our redemption through Christ's death on the cross, and the communication to us of a supernatural principle of life in baptism, has opened for us the way to eternal blessedness, and has given us hope of it. This radically changes the nature of the “vale of tears.” Of course in one sense the seriousness of life and the tragedy of the “vale of tears” is heightened by our knowing of the true situation of man, by knowing of the alternative of eternal blessedness or eternal punishment in hell. In addition to all natural suffering there is added for the believer the holy fear of eternal damnation; as we say in the Dies Irae, “quod sum miser tunc dicturus, quem patronum rogaturus cum vix justus sit securus” (“O what will I then say in my wretchedness? What protector will I call to my defense, when even the just are hardly safe?”). But still, our whole life in slam viae (on pilgrimage), in this “vale of tears,” is filled with light because of our hope of the beatific vision for all eternity, our hope for an indestructible communion of love face to face with Christ.

The primacy of joy over all suffering is revealed to us in Christ, and thus the joyful aspect of creation, as distinguished from its “vale of tears” aspect, necessarily presupposes the primacy of supernatural goods over all natural goods, even the highest ones. As soon as the absolute primacy of supernatural goods is no longer seen, and the glorification of God through our sanctification no longer concerns us more than all natural goods, then we become blind to the true value of natural goods and to the happiness which they give, we lose a sense of their hierarchy, and even of the difference between worldly and natural goods. Thus the shift of stress to this world in no way involves a deeper appreciation of real natural goods. The “positive” attitude toward the world which goes with this-worldliness, is in reality, although some are so proud of it, that unjustified optimism which Bernanos rightly called “a substitute for hope designed for idiots and cowards.” This “positive” attitude comes only from forgetting the words of Christ, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul” (Mt. 16:26).

Let us summarize: First: the chatter about the priority of the “positive” the slogan, “We must approach positively the tendencies of our time"; “It is better to affirm than to deny"; “The anathema and excommunication are too negative” is a foolish and dangerous error. For to reject what is false and untrue is just as positive as to affirm what is true. To reject what is evil is just as positive as to affirm what is good and besides, both are inseparably linked. The affirmation of truth and the love of what is good is implicitly contained in every rejection of untruth or evil which la objectively justified, and vice versa.

Secondly, every “positive” action and attitude which is not meaningfully directed to some object, is just as bad a prejudice as a “negative” action or attitude which is not meaningfully directed to some object.

Thirdly, one can understand that the world is full of the glory of God only in understanding that it is a “vale of tears.” As soon as one is denied at the expense of the other, both the positive and the negative are distorted.

Fourthly, true understanding for natural goods is so linked with the absolute primacy of supernatural goods that the shift of emphasis to this world does not deepen our grasp of the value of natural goods, but renders it mediocre. Although we supposedly leave our ghetto by primarily emphasizing the improvement of the world, this is in reality no “positive” attitude but rather a loss of true positivity. We attain to true positivity only in directing our glance to eternity, only in being concerned with the glorification of God through our sanctification, only in leading a life that is permeated by the realization that we are redeemed by Christ and have hope of seeing Him in the beatific vision: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to you.”

The true mission of the Church is not to improve the face of the world but to glorify God by the sanctification of men, and to secure their salvation. To shift the emphasis from eternity to the future, to devote all our energies to a happier earthly future for mankind, for progress toward a better world, to mobilize men for this ideal to neglect the glorification of God, the sanctification of the individual, and his eternal blessedness would not only deprive the Church of her raison d'etre (reason for being), but would condemn mankind “to sit in the shadow of death.”

In order to see clearly the use of positive and negative as slogans, let us, in conclusion distinguish this from another and legitimate use of these terms. In the history of the Church there have been two different attitudes toward great natural goods: the one has been called the positive way, the other the negative. In his book. Abbot Butler has referred to these two ways in the Church.

According to the negative way, total abandonment to Christ necessarily involves a turning away from all natural goods. One should love only God for His own sake, all natural goods are only means for this. Only God is a true object of frui (resting in and enjoying), all other things are only objects of uti (using). This was the view of St. Augustine right after his conversion at the time of his Soliloquies. But later he changed his attitude toward natural goods and required only that one love them all in God, and love God infinitely more than them; as he said: “Husband, love your wife, and wife, love your husband but love Christ still more.” 64

We find this “negative” attitude to natural goods in Dionysius the Areopagite, in the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, in St. John of the Cross; we find the “positive” attitude in the later works of St. Augustine, in St. Bonaventure, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Francis de Sales, and Cardinal Newman. Both attitudes have been recognized in the Church as completely compatible with the Christian Revelation. I must admit that in all my works I have defended the “positive” attitude to natural goods by showing the mission which natural goods have to lead us to God, and by emphasizing the possibility and value of amare in Deo (loving them in God).

But the terms “positive” and “negative” have here a totally different meaning from their meaning as slogans; and both the positive way and the negative way in the Church are equally and radically opposed to that shift of emphasis to this world which is praised as “positive.” For we find the absolute primacy of supernatural goods in both of the two classical ways. In neither one of them is there any shift of emphasis to this world. In the representatives of the positive way we find concern with glorifying God, with commerce intime with Jesus. Both ways are directed to eternity and not to an earthly future, in both there is the same passionate love for holiness, the same striving for sanctification, in both contemplation plays a great role next to action, in both our first moral task is seen to be the avoidance of offending God by sin. So we see that “positive” and “negative,” as designations of two different attitudes towards great natural goods, have nothing to do with the use of these terms in the slogan: “Let us above all be positive, let us concern ourselves less with the condemnation of heresies and with opposition to sin, and more with the improvement of social conditions in the world.”


61. Thus Cardinal Newman says in his Grammar of Assent: “I would maintain that fear of error is simply necessary to the genuine love of truth.”

62. Cf. my book, In Defense of Purity: An Analysis of the Catholic Ideals of Purily and Virginity (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1970).

63. Thus St. Augustine, in his City of God, XIX, 14: “This moral order imposes on man, first the duty not to harm anyone, and then, secondly, the duty to be of help to everyone where possible.”

64. Cf. Dr. Alice Jourdain, Uti and Frui (Master's Dissertation, Fordham University, 1946).


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