Friday, January 06, 2012

Discernment and Dithering

Michael Hannon has an excellent post on the current Catholic fad of "discerning one's personal vocation." For those of you who are not Catholic, "discerning your personal vocation" is Catholic-speak for "dithering about what you should do with your life." I find this bit of faddish Catholic-speak largely exasperating, because in fact almost everything that goes into what's known as the 'discernment process' really is just trying to make people dither. The point of true discernment, as opposed to this fakery, is to come to a clear decision on the basis of the kind of information that's needed for a good decision. For some people this will take some time, yes, but for others it won't. What people don't need are stupid exercises and long drawn out excuses; they need good, clear information in the form in which they can best understand it. That's it.

The fact of the matter is that every Christian already knows how to discern their vocation; every Christian has the vocation of their baptism, which is to be Christ in the world, to love God and neighbor, and to stand for the faith and all else that is good, true, and beautiful. (The three properly understood come to the same thing.) All other vocations are merely secondary extensions of this. As Hannon says,

The Christian ought to make major life decisions as he ought to make all decisions: by evaluating how he can serve God, by choosing a course of action accordingly, and by having the courage to follow through and do it.

Here's a checklist on how to decide if your vocation is marriage:

1. There's no fundamental impediment to getting married.
2. You've met someone really great.
3. You think you'd like to be married to them.
4. They think you're really great.
5. They think they'd like to be married to you.
6. You could meet your responsibilities as a married person and they could meet theirs.
7. It wouldn't be an act of stupidity in general or a harm for yourself or the other person for you to marry them.

Here's another checklist on how to decide if your vocation is priesthood:

1. There's no fundamental impediment to ordination.
2. You are interested in being a priest.
3. You could fulfill the responsibilities of a priest without scandal.
4. You are willing to commit to putting other people's good above your own, and especially God above yourself.
5. It wouldn't be an act of stupidity in general or a harm for yourself and others for you to become a priest.

Of course, these aren't even universal; there have been arranged marriages and there have been times and places where congregations forced promising young men to be priests. But, again, it's really not that difficult to make decisions.


Given this discussion, I should probably clarify:

(1) The checklists are not really intended to be rigorously reductive, since they are really intended to be checklists for finding out what one needs to know in order to make a decision and not algorithms for making the decision itself (I don't think any possible checklists would suffice for that). Taken this way I think that at a very general level they cover all that's usually necessary, barring special interventions by God, rare circumstances, and deliberate human perversity. I am afraid I was being somewhat sarcastic, though, in making the point that discernment of vocation is perfectly ordinary practical reasoning, albeit about a very important thing; and this no doubt obscured the intention.

(2) Strictly speaking it is possible to be Catholic and have both a vocation to marriage and a vocation to priesthood; it happens fairly commonly among Eastern Catholics (they only have the celibacy requirement for bishops), who are, of course, Catholics in good standing. And the discernment of both could overlap; I know at least one person for whom I think this was the case. It is, of course, not possible for Roman Catholics (and Eastern Catholics, to avoid confusion, avoid it in areas dominated by Roman Catholics), because of Roman canon law, except under unusual dispensations arising from conversion (usually from Orthodoxy or Anglicanism), which wouldn't be relevant to Catholic discernment. So the incompatibility is not a general one, but depends on the Catholic tradition to which one belongs and the canon law governing it. It is certainly true that if the checklist is not taken to cover this already under its weasel clause of "act of stupidity or harm" then it would have to be amended to include it as something you would need to find out if you didn't already know. This is a good example, actually, of how 'discernment of vocation' is concerned with practicalities. What one 'feels God is calling them to' may well be such a practicality, as one's own interest certainly is; but most of real discernment deals with things like whether it's legal or whether it would cause confusion, matters that require clear information and objective analysis.


  1. Catherine Hodge11:13 AM

    This is probably the most common-sense analysis of the subject I've ever seen. There's a kind of silliness in the idea of discerning a vocation in the abstract. It's all very well to say, "I'm called to be married!", but it doesn't mean anything in the absence of a particular person whom one wishes to marry (and who has a reciprocal desire). It seems to me that many young Catholics attach a magical significance to the process of discerning, as if one needed signs or rose petals before one could be expected to know what life course to take. This "wonder-based" discernment does a disservice to the fact that every baptized person ought to be living out a vocation based on their current state of life, and to the faculties of sense, reason, and conscience that God has given man in order to make such momentous decisions. 

  2. branemrys11:55 AM

    Exactly. I think there are several confusions involved in the current way of talking about the subject:

    (1) It ignores the fact that part of what constitutes the vocation to marriage/priesthood is the very decision to commit to it. It's certainly not the only factor, but it's commonly not treated as a factor at all -- people expect to have the vocation simply handed to them by God rather than recognizing that divine providence usually acts here as it acts elsewhere, cooperatively (even if not always cooperatively in the way we want).

    (2) It ignores the fact that the vocation 'to' marriage or the priesthood is utterly minor in importance compared to the vocations of marriage and priesthood, and that they are not the same. People talk as if you are already in some sense a priest or a spouse before you actually become one, and just have to discover that fact. But neither priesthood nor sacramental marriage are that trivial; we are not slotted into them from the beginning, we are in some sense made into them by God -- once we have actually decided on them.

    (3) It often treats the whole thing as if it were a purely subjective process, whereas much of real discernment is objective. Impediments to marriage and priesthood are objective; whether we will be accepted is absolutely essential and is an objective question; and the single most important question to ask is whether you are actually able to do what you would have to do as a spouse or as a priest, which is an objective question, however hard it may sometimes be to answer. Indeed, I think the decisions to marry or to become a priest are often very hard decsions, but they are usually hard not because vocations are elusive things requiring special discernment but because it's hard to be genuinely honest to ourselves about our own character, and thus about what sort of good we can actually do in this role.

    I like your point about the impossibility of discerning a vocation in the abstract. At least, any such 'vocation' is little more than a wish. Real discernment has to be entirely practical. Because big practical decisions are complicated, it won't necessarily be easy, but the goal should always be to make a decision -- not have it handed to you on a platter, not randomly meander around until you make up your mind, but  systematically to go about finding out precisely what you need to know in order to make a reasonable decision. Discernment without decisiveness is a contradiction in terms.

    I just remembered the following cartoon I saw once, which sums up things very well:

  3. John Perry10:28 PM

    An excellent exposition of the matter!

    Here's an important aspect few people discuss: who decides that someone is called, or that it's an act of stupidity, etc.? Very often, people don't think about it at all until someone prompts them with the suggestion, You would be a good priest/brother/sister. I've known a number of priests and religious who said that suggestion was the impetus to get them thinking about it, and I've read often that one reason the Church has so few vocations to Orders is that fewer and fewer people suggest this. They think it's something the individual ought to recognize on his own, if s/he is called.

    When I left seminary, the faculty and some of my vocations directors went out of their way to let me know they were convinced that I was called to Orders. I had been in seminary for a year and a half, and as far as I can remember, that was the first time in my life anyone had taken the time to tell me that, but it was too late. By then, I had become convinced that it would be, in your excellent phrasing, an act of stupidity in general or a harm for yourself and others for you to become a priest. <img></img> (And there was no shortage of people dropping hints that I did not have the call.)

    There's a lot more I could write about this, and I could elsewhere, but the mentality that it's up to the people involved, and that fellow Catholics have no part in the vocation (which is, after all, a call) is a big part of the problem. Lots of people are waiting for a sign from God, and that sign is often a fellow communicant taking him or her aside and asking, Have you ever thought about priesthood?

  4. branemrys9:41 AM

    That's a really good point.


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