Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Discernment: The First Rule

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 04, 2020

Sometimes when reading the Pentateuch—that is, the first five books of the Old Testament attributed to Moses—one has to be either an actuary or a liturgist to appreciate the text. This is because there is so much in these books which describes population sizes and rituals. Here we find the details of priestly service, the adornment and treatment of the Ark of the Covenant, rules regarding ritual purity, and the nature of the offerings and sacrifices—in addition to the population figures for each of the family groupings which made up the Jewish people in the Exodus period.

When reading for the tenth or twentieth time, one begins to skim for particular elements in the text which jump out as having greater application to our lives today. One thing I noticed recently was the mechanism for discernment which the Lord gave to the Jews on their trek through the wilderness to the Promised Land. This mechanism is spelled out in Numbers, chapter 9, verses 15-23. Here it is explained that from the time the tent of the covenant was set up, a cloud covered it by day and the appearance of fire was over it by night. This was a sign of God’s Presence, of course, but it was also a means of discernment for the people:

And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tent, after that the sons of Israel set out; and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the sons of Israel encamped. At the command of the Lord the sons of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they encamped; as long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. Even when the cloud continued over the tabernacle many days, the sons of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and did not set out…. At the command of the Lord they encamped, and at the command of the Lord they set out; they kept the charge of the LORD, at the command of the LORD by Moses.

The entire passage is a bit longer, and emphasizes the steadfast patience that was required of the Israelites in order to keep their place until the sign from the Lord came to move on. While today we have access to many more gifts from God than the Israelites had, when it comes to undertaking or holding back from any particular purpose in our lives, we do not have this one. Therefore, where the Israelites discerned through supereminent physical signs, we must typically discern spiritually. This is not always easy, but it does take the same sort of patience, as we try to “move” only in accordance with God’s will.

The First Rule of Discernment

The choice of a vocation or even of a job is seldom clear to us from the first, nor the conclusion about how best to engage in apostolic work, nor the decision about when to intervene personally in a difficult human situation, let alone how best to handle it. But despite its emphasis on cloud and fire, the Book of Numbers still gives us the single most important rule concerning discernment: That is, discernment of correct moral decisions “at the command of the LORD”. The difference in our own case is surprisingly simple: Whereas the Jews accepted that the command of the LORD was known through Moses, Catholics accept that the command of the LORD is known through the Church.

In this case, “through the Church” does not refer to the opinions of different groups of Catholics, who may or may not discern properly, but to the authoritative teaching of the Church as known implicitly through Scripture and Tradition (the sources of Divine Revelation confided to her care), and explicitly, in matters of uncertainty or dispute, through her Magisterium. The First Rule of spiritual discernment, then, is simply this: To recognize and obey God’s commands as made know to us not through Moses, but through the Church.

It takes a lifetime of prayer to grow proficient in discerning God’s particular will among a variety of morally acceptable options in daily life—how best to help someone in need, what profession to follow, what studies to undertake, which particular spiritual opportunities to pursue, when to change jobs, whom to marry and how many children to have, whether or not to enter a particular religious community, and even which of the principal vocations to follow. But more important than all of these is the simple daily commitment to avoid sin and do good as known by the command of the LORD through the Church.

Telling Examples

Some examples: It may be difficult, for example, to recognize the appropriate course of study to pursue, and which college to choose for this pursuit. But it ought not to be difficult to recognize the moral obligation to remain chaste at college and to take steps to learn more about the Faith as one learns more about secular subjects. Similarly, it may be difficult to choose a job or profession, but it ought not to be difficult to discern the moral dangers directly related to a job or profession and whether they can be reasonably avoided. Again, it may be difficult to decide how best to participate in politics and to determine the most prudent policies to support or enact in furtherance of the common good. But it ought not to be difficult to grasp absolute moral norms which may not be violated as known by the command of the LORD through the Church.

No: One has to be either incredibly ignorant morally (which, of course, many are in a secular society) or remarkably disingenuous (as many are, especially in politics and business) to pretend that it is difficult to discern God’s will regarding His moral precepts, for they are made known to us through the Church even when many ignore or undermine them. In fact, they are made known to us now even more clearly and precisely than God made known the Ten Commandments, the ritual law, and the right time to enter the Promised Land.

We need a prayerful spirit to learn God’s particular will for us within the range of perfectly moral choices, or in doubtful matters. We need study and experience to understand the full range of realities and reasons which underlie the moral law. But a moral life is difficult for us primarily owing to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the Devil. We may fall and fall again, but to recognize what the LORD tells us to do through the Church is actually quite simple: It requires only an obedient heart. To put the First Rule of discernment into practice, then, we need to face one question squarely, and one only: Are we willing to accept that we are supposed to do what God tells us to do through the Church?

Consequences of the First Rule

A great deal follows from this simplicity of the First Rule—a great deal which tells against bad “Catholic” habits that have spread like wildfire in our culture over the past several generations. There is no great difficulty, for example, for priests, bishops, cardinals and popes to state clearly the Church’s teaching in any given area of morality. Nor is there any reason to pretend that the concepts or the situations in which they come up, are so confusing and complex that Catholics who publicly refuse to accept particular teachings ought to be allowed to remain in communion with the Church. All this does is create a miasma in which those who tend to be spiritually lazy (or sincerely confused) find it more difficult to discern the moral law.

Which is, and ought to be, very easy: It is one thing to struggle with a temptation against any commandment of the moral law (or, for that matter, any formal Catholic doctrine). It is quite another to refuse to recognize what the LORD tells us to do through the Church. The first situation means we are human; the second means we are perverse. Any word or action by those in ecclesiastical office which make this recognition difficult is a grave scandal, and a grave sin.

Sure, discernment is a complex and even subtle process overall. But the First Rule of discernment is simple: It is to recognize and obey what the LORD tells us to do through the Church.

Next in series: Second Rule of Discernment (or) How we rescue the Church

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: tmschroeder2790 - Apr. 25, 2021 4:22 PM ET USA

    Like a breath of fresh air, this essay breezes in to remind me of the beauty of Truth and the steady hand of Mother Church. Deo Gratias!

  • Posted by: susana8577 - Dec. 04, 2020 10:54 PM ET USA

    I have been trying to address liturgical abuse in my Archdiocese. One of the things that occurred to me recently was that while in general knowing God's will can be difficult, knowing His will in the Liturgy is easy: say the black and do the red. You put it so well: "...the command of the LORD is known through the Church." Thank you for this wonderfully, timely piece. It encourages me to continue my work. God bless you!