What is “affirmative orthodoxy”?

The phrase was originally coined by John Allen to describe the particular theological trajectory of Pope Benedict XVI:

By œaffirmative orthodoxy,  I mean a tenacious defense of the core elements of classic Catholic doctrine, but presented in a relentlessly positive key. Benedict appears convinced that the gap between the faith and contemporary secular culture, which Paul VI called œthe drama of our time,  has its roots in Europe dating from the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, and the Enlightenment, with a resulting tendency to see Christianity as a largely negative system of prohibitions and controls. In effect, Benedict’s project is to reintroduce Christianity from the ground up, in terms of what it’s for rather than what it’s against.

This spirit of œaffirmative orthodoxy  was clear in Benedict’s first encyclical letter, Deus Caritas Est, in which the pope laid out a philosophical and spiritual basis for the church’s teaching on human love. His encouragement for the International Theological Commission to set aside the hypothesis of limbo offers another example. Without softening the traditional teaching that Christ’s grace, normally mediated through baptism, remains essential for salvation, Benedict nevertheless put the accent on hope.

In the Holy Father’s own words:

Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer, that man and woman are made for each other, that the scale of sexuality, eros, agape, indicates the level of love and it’s in this way that marriage develops, first of all, as a joyful and blessing-filled encounter between a man and a woman, and then the family, that guarantees continuity among generations and through which generations are reconciled to each other and even cultures can meet. So, firstly it’s important to stress what we want. Secondly, we can also see why we don’t want something. I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this. As far as abortion is concerned, it’s part of the fifth, not the sixth, commandment: œThou shalt not kill!  We have to presume this is obvious and always stress that the human person begins in the mother’s womb and remains a human person until his or her last breath. The human person must always be respected as a human person. But all this is clearer if you say it first in a positive way.

Affirmative orthodoxy, then, is a particular way of approaching the Christian faith. Rather than being defensive or defining itself by what it isn’t, AO proposes that which is true and invites others to follow that truth in their lives. This starts with a recognition that this invitation is open to all — including (especially!) those who already follow Christ — in order that they may be made perfect, “just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). In this way AO is connected to the New Evangelism preached by Pope John Paul II, which called for a renewed emphasis on transforming both individuals and cultures through the preaching of the Gospel.

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