Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Again I say, “Discern!”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 02, 2022

St. Paul, writing to the Philippians of their joy in the Lord, exclaimed: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice!” There is no better advice, but the exclamatory word for today is “Discern!”, because Pope Francis has begun a new series of general audiences on the topic of discernment1. I am quite sure this series will contain a good deal of excellent material, as is quite common with these thematic general audience addresses.

But insisting on discernment and actually practicing discernment properly and well are two different things. We should recognize that discernment is a particular theme—and one might fairly say also a particular problem—of the current pontificate. You may recall that after Francis issued Amoris Laetitia in 2016, many Catholics, including four cardinals, asked for clarifications on the possibility Pope Francis had opened (in a footnote) for the reception of Communion by those who are living in objectively grave sin. These requests for clarification frustrated the Pope immensely; in fact, they made him angry, and he never answered them. But in occasional outbursts, and without offering any guidance, he stressed that what he was asking bishops and priests to do was to discern. His response seemed to indicate that if discernment were required, no hard and fast rules were possible.

But hard and fast rules are not the same as guidelines for discernment. It was almost as if the Holy Spirit were protecting the Pope from going too far explicitly. Pope watchers everywhere will be combing the new general audience series to pick up clues to this and other serious discernment problems that plague the Church today. But general audiences are unlikely to include specific situational guidance.

The complexities of discernment

The fundamental message of Christianity, which we must never forget, is “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Discernment is constantly needed for the success of this mission. Sometimes it is a matter of making sure we do not crush the bruised reed or quench the smoldering wick (Is 42:3; Mt 12:20), but at other times we may need the courage to make straight the way of the Lord. A concern with Christian mission is not a bad place to begin the discussion of discernment, especially since it ties in precisely with the questions many have raised about how Pope Francis thinks we should approach those whose erroneous convictions and enslavement to sin make repentance a serious challenge, especially in a culture which applauds their refusal to repent. But even in this process of outreach, discernment is a multifaceted process.

I think we can identify at least four things that must be discerned. The first is to recognize the objective reality of the sin. Without this, there is no possibility of assisting spiritual growth at all. The second is to recognize the degree of awareness the person has concerning the gravity of the sin, so that genuinely helpful instruction can be offered. The third is to perceive what the obstacles are in the person’s life which are preventing a clear recognition of the problem. And the fourth is to figure out the line of approach which seems most likely to bring the person to recognize the spiritual obstacles which must be overcome in a process of growth into unity with Christ and the Church.

But of course, even in an oversimplified form suitable to a brief essay, this is only one-half of the problem presented by discernment. The Christian missionary (that’s you and I, hopefully) must also discern much about his or her own motives, readiness for the task, strengths and weaknesses, areas of clear perception, and blind spots. I don’t pretend to be a master of discernment, and I expect to learn something from Pope Francis’ latest series of catecheses, even if for no other reason than that (in theory and tradition, at least) discernment is a particular strength of the Jesuits, of which the Pope is one. It was certainly a great strength of the Order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. So there is, if you will, a whole “science” of discernment on which Pope Francis can fairly easily draw.

At the same time, however, hubris always tries to enter in. As a general rule, each person tends to be convinced that he or she perceives (discerns) everything rightly, and everybody else is afflicted with eyes full of dust. In reality, then, discernment is likely to be a strength for Christians—even among Jesuits who have been given every advantage—only if they are (a) deeply committed to Christ and the Church; (b) generally free from all besetting sins; (c) living lives of constant prayer; and ideally (d) well-acquainted with the Church’s patrimony concerning the discernment of spirits. These requirements are not met automatically when a person puts on a uniform or habit, any more than they become present as soon as a man is ordained a priest, chosen as a bishop, or elected pope.

If we cannot discern the log in our own eye, we will be unable to discern anything at all. It is at root a question of being able to see clearly with the eyes of a soul purged as much as possible from its attachment to sin. Sadly, it has been obvious for several generations now that the Jesuits as a whole have been deeply infected by the rampant secularism which has overtaken Western culture. There are many signs of this problem in the United States alone, perhaps most obviously the Order’s treatment of the late and deeply faithful Jesuit Paul Mankowski as a pariah. An earlier generation will remember the similarly shunned counter-witness of the very feisty Jesuit Fr. Vincent Miceli and the quieter but no less effective Fr. John Hardon. All three (among others, of course) were men of truly Christian discernment, recognizing for what it was the atmospheric sawdust which blinded thousands more.

Lessons in discernment

It is therefore with considerable interest that I will follow this new series of general audiences. I expect many good things to be said, but I also expect (as we have seen so often during this pontificate) that there will be a significant disconnect between points made in the audiences and the conduct of the pontificate as a whole. While very strong on the issues of environmentalism and human fraternity (which blend so easily with the prejudices of our dominant culture), Pope Francis has tended to denounce as “rigid” those who beg for decisive Catholic action to strengthen faith, family and the Church herself against the grave evils that are undermining all three.

But we should probably begin by asking what the first step in a life of Christian discernment must be, and we can find it only in Christ’s fundamental call: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” Outside of that context, we will be not discerning but blinded by our own sins, confusions, and cowardice. We all ought to know by now that the neuralgic point is whether we have sincerely sought to know the truth in Christ, and sincerely sought the courage to proclaim His Gospel, always nourished by His sacramental Presence in the heart of His Church.

Without this, all theories of discernment are cover-ups—that is, pious window dressing. And when it comes to that sense of mission which each of us is called to embrace, we do well to first discern from the Word of God itself what is at stake. From Psalm 127 we learn:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. [Ps 127:1]

And from the Prophet Ezekiel we learn:

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds which he has done shall not be remembered; but his blood I will require at your hand. Nevertheless if you warn the righteous man not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning; and you will have saved your life.” [Ez 3:17-21]

This same point is confirmed in the New Testament in the letter of St. James, who wrote:

My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. [Jas 5:20]

The path of discernment

The essence of discernment is to see as Christ sees, judge as Christ judges, and act in each situation as Christ bids us to act. Have we drawn as close to Christ as possible, the better to respond to the promptings of His Holy Spirit? Or are we full of comfortable plans and platitudes developed in conformity to a secular culture which hides from God?

The question is critical, for authentic discernment is certainly the way to a more nimble and responsive Catholicism—a discernment of both the general and special missions Our Lord has entrusted to us, and the embrace of those missions through an ever-increasing conformity to Himself. Christ understands the needs of each one and the best ways to open each one to His healing Presence. In addition to cultivating whatever natural gifts we have, it is by becoming more Christlike—including a constant prayerful union with our Father in heaven—that our discernment of each situation will improve, along with our ability to act on that discernment wisely and well.

We must also recall that Christ was not successful in each engagement with others, but He always did the will of His Father. In exactly the same way, let me repeat that in our approach to those in spiritual need we are not called to be successful but to be faithful.

In addition, I would like to draw an important lesson from that master of discernment, the very first Jesuit, St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the most striking spiritual developments in the life of St. Ignatius was his resolution of the problem he faced in studying and learning what he needed to know to competently follow God’s call. Every time he tried to study, he was transported by rapturous heavenly thoughts, so that he made no progress. But in time he became shrewd enough to recognize these transports for what they were: Namely, distractions from his Christian responsibility. His task, in this instance, was to banish from his mind even delightful meditations if they interfered with the hard work needed for progress in his Christian vocation.

We must understand, therefore, that Satan often appears as an Angel of Light, suggesting in our minds and hearts delightful (and dare I say, in our time, non-judgmental) attitudes toward those who so desperately need someone to discern and respond to their intense spiritual needs, so that they might receive, instead of worldly platitudes, a share in the Cross which alone leads to joy and, finally, to glory.

Discernment ought to help us see not only the real spiritual needs of others but our own reluctance to respond to them. Discernment ought always to include a recognition of what is needed in each situation along with prayer for the light to know God’s will and the courage to do it. We see authentic discernment on display constantly not only in the life of Our Lord but in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Peter, Paul, James, Jude and John. Based on the teachings of Christ, they were quick to discern, quick to judge, quick to praise, quick to blame, quick to offer the gift of salvation, and quick to purify the Church so that it would truly be a lamp on a stand, a light to the world. This would have been categorically impossible without a readiness fostered by constant prayer.

We must all seek to develop a spirit of discernment which is similarly rooted in Christ’s gospel and Christ’s sacramental Presence in the Church He founded. What we need above all in discernment is a living faith. A brilliant Scripture scholar who taught well into our modern age of apostasy, Fr. William G. Most, frequently explained that the concept of “faith”, as taught by our Redeemer and expounded in the New Testament, involved three distinct realities:

  • Belief in Christ’s teachings
  • Trust in Christ’s promises
  • Obedience to Christ’s commands

This is what it means to have faith in Christ. Therefore, an important part of discernment is a recognition of not only the ordinary obstacles but the spirits which may well give rise to these obstacles, both of which we must strive to overcome. What spirits are manifesting themselves in us, and in our neighbors whom we are called to serve? A proud spirit? A cowardly spirit? A worldly spirit? A rebellious spirit? A slothful spirit? A generous or a sacrificial spirit? These can be both human dispositions and diabolic, angelic or Divine influences. There are all kinds of spirts at work in our souls, in our world, and even in the members of the Church more generally. Whether independent spirits or our own human spiritual dispositions, they are a challenge to a lifetime of constant discernment, first and foremost of the state of our own souls.

But in a missionary sense they are also a challenge to constant discernment of the spiritual needs of our neighbors in a world which is so very far from these three great principles—the principles of that complete and self-effacing faith in Christ, upon which every act of authentic discernment rests.

1 The first was on August 31st: Catechesis On Discernment: 1. What does it mean to discern?

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 06, 2022 6:44 PM ET USA

    A parallel to Fr. Most's three realities immediately popped into my mind as I read them: the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. Faith is belief, hope is trust, and charity is doing, which is the essence of obedience.

  • Posted by: loumiamo4057 - Sep. 04, 2022 6:24 PM ET USA

    "The essence of discernment is to see as Christ sees, judge as Christ judges, and act in each situation as Christ bids us to act." John 15 seems to be the best way to do that, to do what we can to always stay attached to the vine so that Jesus can abide in us and keep us from being enticed by misinterpretations and false spin.

  • Posted by: CorneliusG - Sep. 02, 2022 5:41 PM ET USA

    Jeff, your fine essays are always marked by a hopefulness that ultimately undermines them. "Discernment" in this "pontificate" is merely a tool to undermine the objective (and revealed) moral order. No more, no less.