1. We have seen that Christian conscience has an important, creative role to play in working out the specific affirmative norms which shape one’s personal vocation and its execution in the course of life (27‑D). We also have seen how the counsels of perfection contribute to prudence’s work of determining one’s personal vocation (27‑H). The present question provides a clarification of the discernment necessary prior to making any vocational commitment.
2. There is no question of personal vocation unless one considers one’s life in the light of faith, and with at least some awareness that one’s fulfillment lies, not in individualistic well-roundedness, but in communion with the Lord Jesus and one’s fellow Christians. With these suppositions, one also must know one’s own talents and limitations—the special gifts the Spirit has given one. Further, one must think about the opportunities for service which are offered by the world in need of Jesus; one must attend to the points at which the life of Jesus in the Church can use one’s hand and one’s talents.
3. Having done all this, one still needs special help from the Holy Spirit. But this creates a problem. How can one distinguish between inspirations from the Holy Spirit and those from other sources? In traditional terminology, the problem is that of the discernment of spirits. Scripture, teaching that there is need for this (see 1 Jn 4.1–6; 1 Cor 12.10), takes solid faith according to the norm of apostolic teaching as a standard by which one can discern. Although this is central and basic, the problem requires closer examination.
4. It is important to be clear about what sort of problem discernment presents. The question is not how to know what is true in matters of faith or what is right in matters of morality. These questions can be settled by learning what the Church teaches and making a direct, reasoned application of it. The problem of discernment, by contrast, is one of recognition.
5. Quite apart from faith, people must be able to recognize their own good or bad motives. Also, without judging others, one must form probable opinions as to whether it is possible to rely on them and cooperate with them. Someone thinking of marriage, for example, must decide whether the other party is being completely forthright and is likely to live up to the responsibilities of married life.
6. The discernment Christians need in respect to vocation is only required because they are living within the structure of Christian faith, moral teaching, and Church order, and can take this structure for granted in forming their lives. Assuming all this, discernment is necessary whenever one must make an important judgment in a unique or fresh instance about whether to take something concrete as having a particular significance for one’s Christian life.
7. Discernment is practiced, first, by using the indications of one’s faith, Christian moral convictions, and ecclesial life; then by prayerful preparation and close attention; and finally by following one’s inclination or predominant impression.
8. The New Testament offers guidance regarding the use of the framework of one’s Christian life for discernment.6 First, it is necessary to ask what faith suggests with respect to the alternatives. For instance, what sort of attitude toward Jesus and his self-oblation does the possible commitment suggest? (If the attitude is not in accord with his reality as faith makes it known, something is wrong.) Second, what fruits are to be expected? (Are they good or bad in the light of Christian moral teaching? Does that which needs judging seem to conduce to genuine charity, to generous love of neighbor? Or is it attractive because of the gratification it promises?) Third, what alternative offers the prospect of building up the Church, of making her apostolic work more effective?
9. Remaining options can be narrowed to one and moral certitude reached that one’s discernment is conclusive by applying further, subjective criteria. Does the prospect of accepting and acting along the line of a particular possibility give a sense of light, joy, and peace? Do various signs in experience seem to confirm the discernment? Does one have a sense of recognizing God’s will in it? As one reflects on such questions all options but one drop away. At this point, one’s vocation is clear and one should make a commitment in accord with the Christian norm that one should follow God’s clear call.
Because this process goes beyond general rules and even beyond reflection which one can articulate propositionally, it seems mysterious. A great deal has been written about it, under such headings as “discernment of spirits” and “being led by the Spirit,” as though the Spirit were at work in instances of this sort but not in cases in which one sees the intelligible demands of duty and fulfills them or sees that certain kinds of acts are always wrong and avoids them. Actually, whenever one proceeds in the light of faith and strives to choose and act out of love of God, the Spirit of God is fully at work in one’s heart. His work is not limited to filling the gaps between reflective acts of the mind.
Conversely, a process like the one used in eliminating options to arrive at one’s proper vocation is conducted in many ordinary decisions. For example, one might consider taking a vacation, and after eliminating many possibilities for various reasons, have two left between which to choose. At this point, one imagines oneself taking each vacation, and chooses the one which has the best “feel.” (The Spirit is at work here as truly as in one’s discernment of one’s vocation, provided that one’s choice of a vacation implements one’s vocation.)
6. See Jacques Guillet et al., Discernment of Spirits (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1970), 44–53; National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Statement on Charismatic Renewal (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1975), 1–3; St. Ignatius Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises, trans. Lewis Delmage, S.J., (New York: Joseph F. Wagner, 1968), 152–64. It is easy to make too much of discernment as conceived by Ignatius, who clearly assumes that all issues of right and wrong have been settled prior to this process.