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Chapter 5: Seeking Moral Truth: Moral Judgment and Problem Solving

Question J: How Should One Discern between or among Good Options?

After what is involved has been carefully analyzed, norms have been applied, and emotional motives have been examined, moral reflection sometimes reaches a confident judgment: both A and B are good, and one or the other is to be chosen. Still, both cannot be chosen, and God’s plan for one’s life is not yet fully clear: while knowing the moral truth about what one should not do, one still lacks the full moral truth about what should be done. In such cases, discernment is needed.

By definition, all the rational reflection possible has been done, and the relevant emotions already have been checked out and found in accord with reason.40 Discernment returns to emotions, this time seeking to determine how well possibilities otherwise judged good comport with the rest of one’s individual personality. For emotions, even when fully integrated with reason, do not simply echo it. They also resonate to the bodily, organic, and psychic dimensions of the personality; and these, insofar as they are integrated with faith, also are parts of one’s better, Christian self. So, emotions which resonate to them pertain to grace, indicate God’s will for one’s life, and rightly tip the balance among possibilities otherwise judged good.

1. To Discern Is to Compare Two Sets of Emotional Motives

There is a set of emotions related to faith and integrated with it, and these Christian emotions are aroused by prayer, worship, spiritual reading, and so on. (Because retreats provide, or should provide, extended opportunities for these activities, it is appropriate to make a retreat when an important discernment must be made.) The other set of emotions includes those bearing on the possibilities between which one must discern: whether to join this religious community or that (or become a religious or not), seek acceptance into a seminary program or not (or which one), marry or not (or this or that person), and so forth. These emotions are aroused by carefully and concretely considering as fully as possible what actually would be involved in the options under consideration. (It is assumed that the necessary investigating and information gathering already have been done.) Then one’s Christian-faith emotions are compared with the sets of emotions related to each option—emotions which reflect not only the realities on which they bear but the reality of one’s hidden self. What is involved here is not some sort of objective measurement, but the effort to perceive an inward harmony. If the emotions related to one option plainly harmonize better with one’s Christian-faith emotions, that can be considered the option which pleases one’s Christian self, and one should choose as pleases this self.

2. Discernment Should Be Practiced in a Wide Variety of Cases

Discernment not only is appropriate and often necessary in regard to certain important matters, such as vocation (see 2.E.3), but relevant whenever a person has reached the judgment that one of two or more morally acceptable but mutually incompatible possibilities is to be chosen.

a) One should discern about many less important matters. Some people would consider discernment beside the point in many situations, for example, when considering how to spend their holidays. At least in such matters, they think, a person may simply do as he or she pleases when facing morally acceptable alternatives. In one sense this is true, but in another it is not. The question is: Which is the self being pleased—the better, more Christian self, or the not yet fully converted self? Since the former should be gratified and the latter overridden, it is important to settle this question even in less important matters. For instance, a man’s emotions when at his best as husband and father are those he should use to evaluate his respective sets of emotions about taking a family vacation in the back country and at the beach. On that basis, he does right in proposing the vacation which “feels right.”

b) Discernment often is needed to complete moral reflection. Discernment becomes necessary in the last stage of many of the types of cases discussed in previous questions. In particular, if other tests have been passed and one remains uncertain whether or not to accept some side effects, when both doing so and not doing so seem morally permissible, one must discern which is to be chosen. Consider the case of a pregnant woman whose uterus is affected by some pathology which would dictate its removal were she not pregnant but who might be able to sustain the pregnancy until the baby is viable. Having judged both options morally acceptable, and having examined her emotions bearing on each and found them sound, she must in the end discern which option is appropriate for her: surgery now or later. Here she will bring to bear not only her religious emotions but her family emotions, for example, toward her husband and other children if any.

3. The Effort to Discern Should Be Appropriate to the Matter

Suppose the effort to discern is not immediately successful, and neither option seems to fit better than the other. Indecisiveness, of course, can be a symptom of neurosis, but suppose that too can be ruled out. What to do then depends on the importance of the matter under consideration.

In less important matters, any option may be chosen: flip a coin, ask the next person one happens to meet, or use anything else as an index. That need not mean leaving the matter solely to chance, for, in these particular circumstances, the chance outcome also is an indication of God’s will.

But if the issue is more important and its resolution can be delayed, one should engage in further deliberation: more inquiry about the options, more reflection on them, more discussion with others who share one’s more basic commitments, and so forth. And the process of discernment should be prolonged with further prayer and consideration of what is involved in each option.41

40. St. Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 170, trans. Lewis Delmage, S.J. (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1968), 87–88, makes it clear that until all such tests have been passed, it is not time for discernment: “Authentic Christian choices necessarily pertain only to alternatives which are good in themselves, or certainly not evil, and only those which are in harmony with the practices and procedures of our holy mother, the Catholic Church.” The treatment of discernment here does not claim Ignatius’ authority but is indebted to his work, especially to his idea of spiritual consolation as explained by Jules J. Toner, S.J., A Commentary on Saint Ignatius’ Rules for the Discernment of Spirits: A Guide to the Principles and Practice (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1982), 94–121.

41. Someone might object that the account of discernment proposed here seems to omit what is central: the Holy Spirit’s action. Not so. Discernment begins with prayer, worship, and so on; when these activities are carried on by someone seeking to know God’s will, they invite the Holy Spirit to shape the whole process and make it fruitful. Many writers on spirituality seem to assume that in any authentic discernment the Holy Spirit causes elements—either key data for the discernment, insight into the data, or both—which cannot be explained by secondary causes. That assumption, which often extends to the interior life as a whole, implies that in such matters the relationship between the Holy Spirit’s action and secondary causes regularly is similar to the relationship which obtains when God does miracles in the physical world. Someone who does not share that assumption need not hold that the Holy Spirit never acts without using adequate secondary causes; rather, such a person can hold that sometimes there are miracles of grace—for example, when someone is converted from mortal sin to charity. Moreover, since God providentially plans and causes everything good, the possibility of explaining important occurrences in spiritual life by secondary causes in no way excludes the Holy Spirit’s action. All salvific divine causality is grace, whether or not its effect is a miracle of grace.