Positive and Negative Precepts

Several years ago, Eve Tushnet wrote, “you can’t have a vocation of not-gay-marrying and not-having-sex. You can’t have a vocation of No.” This need to focus on the positive side of Christian discipleship has often been echoed by other Spiritual Friendship writers. Most recently, Melinda Selmys said, “If we are going to say ‘no’ to gay marriage, we have to provide gay people with human relationships where we offer love, fidelity and mutual support.”

stations-of-the-cross-460271_1280-1024x511This focus on the positive vocation to love is not an original formula we came up with. It is a basic element of Christian and Catholic teaching, applied to the particularities of ministry to lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons.

For example, in his discussion of the natural law in Veritatis splendor, Pope John Paul II wrote (section 52, bold text added):

The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception, because the choice of this kind of behaviour is in no case compatible with the goodness of the will of the acting person, with his vocation to life with God and to communion with his neighbour. It is prohibited—to everyone and in every case—to violate these precepts. They oblige everyone, regardless of the cost, never to offend in anyone, beginning with oneself, the personal dignity common to all.

On the other hand, the fact that only the negative commandments oblige always and under all circumstances does not mean that in the moral life prohibitions are more important than the obligation to do good indicated by the positive commandments. The reason is this: the commandment of love of God and neighbour does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken. Furthermore, what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen; on the other hand there are kinds of behaviour which can never, in any situation, be a proper response — a response which is in conformity with the dignity of the person. Finally, it is always possible that man, as the result of coercion or other circumstances, can be hindered from doing certain good actions; but he can never be hindered from not doing certain actions, especially if he is prepared to die rather than to do evil.

Of course, the primacy of the positive command to love goes much farther back than John Paul II.

The Church in Corinth was one of the most difficult of the Churches founded by the Apostle Paul during his missionary journeys. He wrote more to address the problems in Corinth than he addressed to any other Christian community in the ancient world.

Much of what he had to say to the Corinthians concerned adherence to the negative precepts of God’s law (including the prohibition of homosexual acts in 1 Corinthians 6:9). However, his letters to the Corinthians also contain perhaps the most moving statement in all Scripture of the primacy of the positive commandment to love:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

Everyone—from the lowliest layman or deacon to the most exalted pope or apostle—is called above all to love: to love God first and to love both our neighbors and our enemies. Without the love described for us here, all our efforts at preaching or knowing the Gospel are worth nothing.

But the most definitive statement of the primacy of the positive precept comes from Christ Himself. When asked what the greatest commandment was, He did not pick any of the negative precepts: You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness. Instead, He singles out the two greatest positive precepts: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

In all three synoptic Gospels, this teaching about the Great Commandments comes out of a confrontation between Jesus and the Scribes or Pharisees. In Luke’s version, the man who has challenged Jesus, seeking to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied:

A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, “Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.” (Luke 10:30-35)

It is likely that the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side because those who touched a dead body were made unclean (Leviticus 21:1-3; Numbers 19:11-13). They were thus most likely obeying a negative precept of the Old Law which forbade them from touching a dead body; if they could not tell if the man was alive, they chose not to risk contact with him.

Yet Jesus asked the expert in the law, “Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” The lawyer replied, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

If you study Jesus’ confrontations with the Scribes and Pharisees in the Gospels, you will find that, over and over again, they focus on adherence to the negative precepts at the expense of the positive. Of course, the negative precepts matter: John Paul II echoes Christ’s teaching that murder, sexual sin, theft, and lying are always wrong, and are not excused even by seemingly good motives (see Veritatis Splendor 52, Matthew 19:17-18). But even with regard to these exceptionless moral norms, the positive command to love remains more central to the Gospel than the various negative commands to avoid sin.

The positive command to love is revealed, above all, in our vocation, the particular role in the Body of Christ that God has called us to, and given us gifts through which to bless His people (see 1 Corinthians 12). Our vocation is, first and foremost, a response to God’s call. And as Aelred of Rievaulx points out, truly spiritual friendship arises only between those who are seeking God’s will first rather than any advantage in this world. Thus we have sought to explore how friendship and marriage can be ways of fulfilling God’s call in our lives.

According to the Catechism, both marriage (2360) and friendship (2347) lead to spiritual communion. John Paul II taught that our obedience to the natural law builds up the true communion of persons and, by God’s grace, helps us to practice charity, “which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col 3:14). On the other hand, when we either do not know or deliberately disregard God’s law, our acts damage this communion (see Veritatis splendor, 51).

There is no question that obedience to God’s commands requires an asceticism, even a willingness to suffer martyrdom for the sake of God’s will. Yet it is a profound mistake to focus only on the cost of obedience to God. The suffering is real, and it can be discouraging to continue to struggle year after year, sometimes with little support or affirmation from others in the Church.

I’d learned the cost of following God’s law long before I heard of St. Francis of Assisi. What I learned from him, however, is that responding to God’s call can be a heroic quest, even a kind of romance. We can learn to see the beauty of God’s creation and the beauty of God’s plan for human love with new eyes.

2 thoughts on “Positive and Negative Precepts

  1. Pingback: Ministry That Helps (Part 2) | Spiritual Friendship

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