Discernment is important, so let’s not make a mockery of it.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 20, 2018

It is easy to make jokes about the contemporary Vatican effort to eliminate problems through “discernment”, as if discernment by itself can eliminate objective patterns of evil. Part of this is simply the tendency of Church officials to reflect instantly the favorite ideas and expressions of the current pope, which is nothing new. But the attempt to discern problems away, instead of using discernment to see more clearly how best to address them, carries a risk of confusing processes with results. Unfortunately, a justified reaction to this confusion can lead to a counter-temptation, which is to dismiss the value of discernment altogether.

The need for discernment pervades all of life, and discernment can take many forms. For example, we should seek to discern our vocations, and in many situations we must apply ourselves fairly strenuously to discerning God’s will. Authentic discernment, in the Catholic sense, is a spiritual insight aided by grace, closely akin to wisdom. But the issue today is the attempt to use discernment as a generalized solution to problems arising from objective evils—evils we are already publicly bound by God Himself to recognize, and therefore evils which cannot be “discerned” into anything else.

A category mistake

I would suggest that problematic attitudes toward discernment today are rooted in our culture’s predominant tendency to separate (rather than distinguish) the body from the soul, viewing the soul or psyche as the essence of the person and the body as a mere instrument. Or, to put the matter another way, we tend to separate “what we do” from “who we are”. Perhaps the deepest malaise of our culture today is the insistence on thinking of ourselves as good persons without seeing any need to correct our bad behavior.

This bifurcation of the human person has reached the point where criteria aptly applied to the mentally ill are routinely applied to those with normal human intellectual and psychological capabilities. Thus, we may say of someone afflicted with manic depression that neither pole of behavior accurately represents “who he is”, and we would be right. But when someone engages in behavior that is within his or her normal range of control, we cannot say this. To do so destroys the very foundation of personal growth, for we must affirm either that a person’s choices do not both reflect and further shape a person’s character, or that the person has no responsibility for how he or she behaves—no responsibility for his or her own sin and virtue before God and man.

Even without particular theories, the sad truth is that we humans have always played this deceitful game in one way or another, most frequently by refusing to challenge the evil a person does because he or she is “nice” or “important” or “fashionable” or “powerful”. This is another way of saying we regard many evils as inconsequential when weighed against personal attractiveness, personal status, or cultural approval. And what we find in the new theories of discernment offered today is that the situations typically cited as amenable to this fresh discernment involve evils which are broadly (and erroneously) accepted in our culture as either inevitable or good. This is a striking observation. How can there not be a certain gamesmanship in play?

The effort to turn evil into good, of course, is an abuse of discernment, and my point here is not that discernment is bad, but that discernment, like any other tool, must be applied to the right questions and in the right way. In assessing the personal deficiencies which underlie objectively bad human behavior, we must discern many things: Is the person psychologically disturbed? Does he understand that what he is doing is evil? Has he been coerced to do the evil in question? Does he do evil primarily out of weakness or from a real determination to do harm? What are the motives? Is the transgression inadvertent or deliberate?

In addition to this discernment of intentions and circumstances, we must also discern something about the objective character of the transgression. Is the action in question intrinsically evil? Is it something that is wrong only under certain circumstances? Is it a violation of a rule of good order, but with little or no intrinsic moral dimension (like exceeding the speed limit)? Is it a justified defiance of an immoral rule or decree?

Discernment is necessary as well in determining the punishment, or suspension of punishment, for evil (or at least legally prohibited) actions. All human courts make efforts at such discernment, and rightly so. Circumstances are taken into account, as are the apparent motives of the offender; an effort is also made to assess the danger posed to the community by various punitive or non-punitive decisions. This must be discerned not only with respect to the future actions of the offender but with respect to a judgment’s impact on the community of reference, and what the judgment communicates to that community concerning the values at stake.

In other words, discernment is essential to understanding the total context in which bad behavior has manifested itself, so that the correction can be applied in the manner that most effectively addresses the sources and results of that behavior. But discernment cannot be used to argue that the objective evil done is not evil or that there is no duty to recognize and correct the pattern of evil on the part of those involved in it.

Two common examples

As quick examples, we may compare two problems that have been much in the news in recent years: The case of Catholics who are invalidly married and the case of bishops (notably in China) who have taken office illicitly (and so been excommunicated). The first case involves decisions and commitments a person has made which violate both the moral law and the laws of the Church, including a repudiation of the Church’s foundational sacramental authority, arising most commonly from relatively selfish desires affecting personal satisfaction which ought to have been held in check. The second case involves decisions and commitments a person has made which violate the laws of the Church, a violation which could be embraced either from a desire for some sort of gain or in an ill-judged effort to find a way to more effectively minister to larger numbers of Catholics within the coercive structures of a hostile State.

Now, it is clear that the first case will require repentance which expresses itself in an exterior transformation, a transformation that enables the person to live henceforth in conformity to the moral law as well as with full acceptance of the sacramental authority of the Church. Just as clearly, the second case does not necessarily require either repentance or a clear change of life, but rather a formal commitment to papal authority over the episcopate going forward, accepted by Rome, so that the ecclesiastical penalties may be lifted. We might note in passing that there have been many conflicts between Church and State over the appointment of bishops, and these have been resolved in a wide variety of ways over the centuries, with numerous concordats to prove it.

Moreover, many men have been made bishops without being deeply committed to the interests of the Church (consider the younger sons of the nobility in the Middle Ages) and with little evidence of holiness of life. On many occasions, Rome has decided to accept inferior candidates owing to political or cultural exigencies which would have made pressing for better bishops extremely disruptive and even dangerous to the Church. So the two cases are very different in their doctrinal, moral, legal and prudential dimensions.

We can see also that the impact of “normalization” on the community of reference is potentially quite different in these two cases as well. In cases of invalid marriages, fidelity in key matters of faith and morals may be weakened in the community at large if there appears to be normalization without either (1) a specific ecclesiastical judgment which makes the matter moot; or (2) a change in living arrangements which demonstrates a renewed moral and ecclesial commitment. Yet little or none of this may be visible in any given case to those outside the family arrangement in question (especially in cases in which the brother-and-sister arrangement is adopted). Apart from the family and the pastor, knowledge of the circumstances will be limited.

Clearly, except with certain high profile cases, the impact on the community is affected more by an overall perception of how the Church handles these cases, rather than by individual situations about which we may not know enough to judge. In this case, then, we may say that the moral and spiritual correction of the invalidly married couple is more significant than the perceptions of the community at large. At the same time, because of the very serious spiritual and moral character of the familial issues at stake, the solutions open to the men and women in question are not only few but difficult to embrace.

In the case of illicitly elevated bishops, on the other hand—and again with China specifically in mind—the public impact on the community is clear and immediate in each case. Everyone knows which bishops have remained faithful to Rome and which have not. Some Catholics have taken considerable risks to align themselves with the authentic Catholic episcopacy and with Rome, while others have slipped more comfortably into the “patriotic church”.

We see here again how much discernment is required. For example, it is quite possible to determine that, for the sake of a better future relationship between Church and State, the disobedience of some “patriotic bishops” could be forgiven and the penalties removed. But even so, there must be a discernment of the impact of such a decision on the Church as a whole, and particularly on the most faithful and most deeply committed members of the Church militant in the affected region. Yet because of the primarily legal character of the objective spiritual and moral issues at stake, a greater breadth of solutions is possible, with potentially little effort on the part of the men in question, ranging from permanent rejection and exclusion from the Church to the immediate enjoyment of full episcopal rights and privileges.

Discernment does not eliminate sin

Discernment helps us to identify and combat sin while preserving the life of the sinner and protecting the faithful as a whole. It helps us reach others more effectively with the primal realities of Divine judgment and Divine mercy. It depends absolutely on the truth, but the ability to see how best to serve the truth in given circumstances can vary widely from one person to another. Thus discernment involves a prayerful effort to see as God sees and judge as God judges, but without the assurance that any particular person will discern rightly all aspects of the problem in question. Morally and spiritually, such discernment is aimed toward uncovering the neuralgic points and negative attitudes which prevent a proper embrace of God’s will, the better to help those involved to see the truth and make spiritual progress. When this discernment involves prudential decisions affecting individuals, families and communities, it must also include a weighing of goods and outcomes in order to maximize the good of all while minimizing harm.

But discernment must always be guided by the unchanging principles of Catholic faith and morals which form the basic structure of the Christian life. These and the grace to embrace them are the “givens” which discernment seeks to maximize in the lives of all who are subjected to its scrutiny, including ourselves, personally, in prayer.

The one thing that discernment cannot do is declare black to be white, by which I mean discernment cannot resolve a problem by pretending that sin is virtue. Whenever we are dealing with a situation predicated on an objective moral disorder, the core of discernment is to discover the best way to lead those involved to repent of their sin and give that part of their lives to Christ in His Church. In these cases, the question discernment must answer is how we may bring those who have weakened or broken their communion with the Church to recognize what they have lost, express sorrow, and form a firm purpose of amendment. Through discernment, we must seek to understand the sin, its causes, and the most apt counsel and assistance for the road back.

It is a sad circumstance that makes it so easy today to joke about discernment. But it would be a shame to forget what discernment is for, how often it is required, and why we should commit ourselves to it—both to know ourselves better and to assist more effectively others who need understanding, spiritual help, and sound advice. The tragedy is not that we must use discernment but that we should make a mockery of it. We mock discernment whenever we offer hasty, unsympathetic and ill-targeted counsel, but also, and especially in the Church today, whenever we conceal the spiritual and moral conditions which are seriously harming those whom it is the whole purpose of discernment to serve.

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

Sound Off! CatholicCulture.org supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 3 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 23, 2018 6:51 PM ET USA

    extremeCatholic: You raise an interesting question, but one that nobody can really answer, because it requires a judgment of motives. Remember that Pope Francis himself has refused repeatedly to clarify what he means by discernment in the solution he proposes in Amoris Laetitia. He obviously senses that clarification will limit discernment in some way, but we can only guess about his goals and his motives. The same is true of those who advocate the New (discernment) Paradigm, such as Cardinal Cupich, though in that case we may have more to go on over time, in terms of what decisions are actually made in Chicago. But few case-by-case decisions will be made by Pope Francis, if any. Ultimately this comes down to a judgment of the Pope's character, and our own grasp of the truths at issue.

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 22, 2018 7:45 PM ET USA

    I wish your article could have explored that "contemporary Vatican effort" more deeply. Is it merely "wrong" in the sense being "unintentionally incorrect", in other words, a correctable mistake, or is it intended to deny personal responsibility for sin? Our reaction, of course, depends on whether we believe it is the former or the latter.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 22, 2018 7:21 AM ET USA

    "Problematic attitudes toward discernment today are rooted in our culture’s predominant tendency to separate (rather than distinguish) the body from the soul, viewing the soul or psyche as the essence of the person and the body as a mere instrument." Indeed. This is actually the essence of modern popular culture: Gnosticism. The body is evil, but the soul is good. "Chocolate tastes so good, but I am diabolical in enjoying it." "[R]efusing to challenge the evil a person does" = "Jesus loves you".