One of the reasons people object to Christian morality is that it seems so negative: just a bunch of things you’re not allowed to do. It’s easy to see why this perception exists.
Take the Ten Commandments, for instance. Instead of a positive commandment like “love God,” God says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3). And then, with the exception of “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” and “honor your father and your mother,” what follows is a long list of what not to do: “you shall not make for yourself a graven image,” “you shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them,” “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” “you shall not kill,” “you shall not commit adultery,” “you shall not steal,” “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” and “you shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (vv. 4-17). In fact, even one of the two positive commandments, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, goes on to say that “you shall not do any work” on the Sabbath (v. 10). This is true of the Law of Moses as a whole, and it’s also true of a lot of Christian morality today: there are a lot of things that we’re explicitly told not to do.
But when Jesus is asked, he sums up the entire Law (including the Ten Commandments) as two positive commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). So why not just leave it at that?
The best answer is that the negative commandments are a necessary starting place, but not an ending place, for living morally. Here, it’s worth recognizing a fascinating feature of morality: that prohibitions are absolute, but positive commandments aren’t. This is true even of natural law (that is, those parts of the moral law knowable to everyone by reason alone), as Pope John Paul II points out in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor:
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 [always and in each instance], without exception, because the choice of this kind of behavior 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 neighbor. 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.
For instance, one of the positive commandments we’re called to is the feeding of the hungry (see Matt. 25:35, 40). But if someone asks you for money to buy food, you’re not always required to give it to him—but you are always forbidden from mugging or murdering him. The negative commandments are thus a helpful starting place. But they’re not enough on their own. You can go through life not mugging the hungry, and still be told at the Last Judgment, “depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food” (v. 41-42).
So why is it that sinful actions are always forbidden, but specific virtuous actions are never required? John Paul II offers three reasons. The first is that “the commandment of love of God and neighbor does not have in its dynamic any higher limit, but it does have a lower limit, beneath which the commandment is broken.” In other words, the negative parts of the moral law create a “floor”—don’t go beneath this point. But the positive parts of the moral law don’t create a “ceiling”: go as high as charity calls you! A second reason is pragmatic: “what must be done in any given situation depends on the circumstances, not all of which can be foreseen.” You can’t feed everyone on earth. Whom, and how many, you feed depends on the particulars of your life, and there’s no way to create a one-size-fits-all rule. Finally, John Paul points out that “coercion or other circumstances” may render a positive action impossible—e.g., you can’t feed the hungry because you’re imprisoned. But circumstances never permit you to do evil.
The negative commandments thus serve the positive commandments by creating some parameters for moral creativity. G.K. Chesterton famously gave the example of children on an island:
We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
A society that abandons rules of conduct creates terrible confusion, not joyous freedom. Conversely, once we know what not to do, the possibilities of what to do are endless.
But precisely because the possibilities are endless, Christians may reasonably disagree about the best ways of living out the positive commandments. This is true both at the individual level and at the societal level. For instance, “concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance” (CCC 2288). But there’s more than one way that a society can ensure that health care is affordable, or that education is available to all, or that social assistance is offered to those in need. Those goals ought to be shared by all Catholics, but we need not agree on the best means of getting to those goals.
In contrast, it’s much easier to say what a Catholic can’t support. For instance, “laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual; they thus deny the equality of everyone before the law.” Indeed, this is one reason for the lazy slander that pro-lifers are pro-birth and not pro-life: it’s much easier to identify the kind of legislation that all pro-lifers reject than the kind of legislation that all pro-lifers would support. That’s the inherent nature of the difference between positive and negative commandments.
As Catholics, it’s important that we keep this distinction in mind for two reasons. First, to avoid falling into that lazy slander ourselves: of saying that our neighbors aren’t “really” Catholic or aren’t “really” pro-life if they don’t support the particular social programs we happen to favor. Second, because we can never be satisfied with the floor of the negative commandments.
The thou shalt nots of the Ten Commandments give us a floor. Christ’s two great commandments of loving God and loving neighbor give us no ceiling, but call us to move continuously onward and upward.