I was reading this:

  1. A new sensitivity in today’s pastoral consists in grasping the positive reality of civil weddings and, having pointed out our differences, of cohabitation. It is necessary that in the ecclesial proposal, while clearly presenting the ideal, we also indicate the constructive elements in those situations that do not yet or no longer correspond to that ideal.

Synodal document from the Vatican published recently.

I could have sworn I've read news articles trying to use the term "positive reality" to show that there's a good deal of happy truths in modernity. I don't think I've ever read "positive reality" anywhere else so I don't have a basis for contradicting that claim. I'd think it would mean something akin to "positive law", which doesn't usually mean "laws that make one feel good".

So, what does this document mean by "positive reality" and is there a difference between "reality" and "positive reality"?

The closest thing to what I think they meant is in this Hilary Clinton quote:

"So sitting here today, I think that the glass is slightly more than half full in terms of the positive reality," Clinton concluded. "If there are things that are going to undermine quality, increase cost, than we have to know about them."


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    In this case the document appears to be trying to say (obliquely) that there may be some "positive" nature to "alternative" relationships, even though they don't correspond to the (Catholic) "ideal". In other words, they aren't totally terrible. – Hot Licks Oct 15 '14 at 17:29
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    I suspect it wasn't written to be clearly and completely understood. – Hot Licks Oct 15 '14 at 17:33
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    Every other instance of positive in this document contrasts the positive values with imperfections and limitations and exhorts pastors to start from such positives. I don't think the document intends this positive in the philosophical sense given or existent. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 15 '14 at 17:34
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    The original was written in Italian, and rather hurriedly and poorly translated into English. La realtà positiva dei matrimoni civili does literally mean "the positive reality of civil marriages" (rather than weddings; the state of being married, not the occasion of getting married) but there is no guarantee that the Italian doesn't have some nuance which is missing in a literal translation. – Andrew Leach Oct 15 '14 at 17:43
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about the precise meaning of a term in a poor quality translation. – FumbleFingers Oct 15 '14 at 17:44

Positive as an adjective has a variety of nuanced meanings. I will attempt to sum them up and interpret your quote based on a few.

1. consisting in or characterized by the presence or possession of features or qualities rather than their absence.

constructive in intention or attitude.
"there needs to be a positive approach to youthful offenders"

The Vatican is warning Catholics to be constructive in their handling of marriage issues and unmarried people living together, as opposed to their historical approach of ostracizing and casting out. This is a probable intended connotation, given positive appears in the same sentence as sensitivity.

Furthermore, the section you quote is under Part III The discussion: pastoral perspectives, which contains other headings such as

  • Proclaiming the Gospel of the family today, in various contexts
  • Guiding couples on the path in preparation for marriage
  • Accompanying the early years of married life

And the section 36 is cribbed from

  • Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation

showing optimism and confidence.
"I hope you will be feeling very positive about your chances of success"

showing pleasing progress, gain, or improvement.
"the election result will have a positive effect because it will restore people's confidence"

Unlikely, given that Church sanctioned weddings are still preferred and cohabitation (which I assume means unmarried people living together - with the further unstated assumption that they are sexually active outside of wedlock) is considered a sin. The Vatican is not optimistic about the spread or prevalence these things, and while the Catholic Church may no longer be treating it as the Devil's work, they are far from encouraging it.

2. with no possibility of doubt; clear and definite.
"he made a positive identification of a glossy ibis"

convinced or confident in one's opinion; certain.
"“You are sure it was the same man?” “Positive!”"

informal downright; complete (used for emphasis).
"it's a positive delight to see you"

This is the likely intended denotation of the phrase "positive reality". Civil weddings and cohabitation are every day occurrences in modern society, a fact that cannot be changed by any amount of denial.

The synodal document you link goes on to include the following sections.

37. It was also noted that in many countries [unmarried cohabitation is an experiment]. Faced by these situations, the Church is called on to be “the house of the Father, with doors always wide open […] where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (Evangelii Gaudium, 47) and to move towards those who feel the need to take up again their path of faith, even if it is not possible to celebrate a religious marriage.

38. In the West as well there is an increasingly large number of those who, having lived together for a long period of time, ask to be married in the Church. Simple cohabitation is often [caused by societal attitudes or norms, or circumstances beyond the control of the couple, such as poverty]. [In] such unions it is possible to grasp authentic family values or at least the wish for them. Pastoral accompaniment should always start from these positive aspects.

39. All these situations have to be dealt with in a constructive manner, seeking to transform them into opportunities to walk towards the fullness of marriage and the family in the light of the Gospel. They need to be welcomed and accompanied with patience and delicacy. With a view to this, the attractive testimony of authentic Christian families is important, as subjects for the evangelization of the family.

To me, that says the broader message is that people who pursue marriage arrangements outside of traditional Catholic norms should no longer be excommunicated, shunned or blamed. Instead, they should be counseled and encouraged to remain as active in the Catholic Church as possible. The use of the superlative positive reality may have been intentionally included by the translator to set the tone and include connotations beyond the most probable meaning that cohabitations and outside church marriages are real. But as others have pointed out, since this is a translation, we can only speculate as to the exact intended meaning in English.

All definitions taken from Google.

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    +1 "with no possibility of doubt; clear and definite" seems to be the only interpretation that makes sense in context. There is no way the current Vatican is going to actually state that civil marriage is a good thing. It is already quite something that they accept that it exists and it does not necessarily cause immediate hell-fire upon the people involved. I think it is interesting to see that many answers try to find the "hey, the Vatican says civil marriage is positive"-twist in the sentence. I'm afraid at this point in time that is wishful thinking, as well as a grammatical long shot. – oerkelens Oct 15 '14 at 19:00

If we take the second sentence as mirroring the first, it would suggest that positive as a modifier of reality (in the first) matches constructive as modifier of elements (in the second) --in both cases conveying a willingness to seek the good in a situation that is not, according to church teachings, "ideal."


I believe it's using this definition of positive:

constructive in intention or attitude : there needs to be a positive approach to youthful offenders.

or maybe this one:

showing pleasing progress, gain, or improvement : the election result will have a positive effect because it will restore people's confidence.

Both refer to the good features of the concept being discussed.

These definitions are from the Oxford American Dictionary


Like some posters above (and poor translation aside), I read 'positive' here as simply an adjective that modifies 'reality': the clear/definite/undeniable/unmistakable/irrefutable reality, and not an attempt to establish/discuss the concept of a positive reality and distinguish it from a negative reality (whatever those concepts might mean).

"Clear/definite etc reality" = Redundancy? Perhaps, but as clear/definite/undeniable/unmistakable/irrefutable/unmistakable/irrefutable as one person's reality is to him or her it probably still varies from reality as it really is. Suddenly describing reality with modifiers that might seem redundant could simply be a way to subtly admit that one's previous version of reality was flawed and that the blinders are finally coming off.

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