By Christopher Kaczor

Discernment is the process of determination about how to carry out God’s will in a concrete situation. Questions of discernment can be difficult, particularly when there are serious consequences for ourselves and others resulting from our decision. In matters of religious freedom, these questions are often especially difficult because they tend to be complex. For example, a conscientious objector who is drafted into the military not only has to make a judgement about the use of violence in war, but also must make a judgement about civil disobedience to the legal draft. The objector’s judgement about violence in this context takes on a public significance, which must be taken into account as part of the discernment process. 

An Exercise in Discernment 

Intrinsically Evil Acts 

Let us for the sake of illustration look at a concrete case of a discernment process. Let’s imagine that you are part of a group that runs bible studies for college students. The group has a men’s bible study every Monday and a women’s bible study every Wednesday. Chris, a student who is well known on campus and identifies as transgender, signs up to join the women’s bible study. Chris is a biological male and was known as a man freshman year, but Chris now as a sophomore wishes to be acknowledged as a woman. Should you allow Chris, a biological male who wishes to be considered female, to join the women’s bible study?  

When discerning what to do, the first rule is ask whether the action under consideration is intrinsically evil. Pope St. John Paul II pointed out that intrinsically evil acts are wrong to do “always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances. Consequently, without in the least denying the influence on morality exercised by circumstances and especially by intentions, the Church teaches that ‘there exist acts which per se and in themselves, independently of circumstances, are always seriously wrong by reason of their object.’” (Veritatis splendor 80). Proper discernment is never about whether to do an intrinsically evil act. If the act in question is intentionally killing the innocent, committing adultery, or denying Christ, then the act in question should never be done under any circumstances. So, we should not “discern” whether or not to do such acts. Discernment concerns matters about which a person is morally free to act or not to act. Properly speaking there is no Christian discernment about matters that are intrinsically evil. There is no Christian discernment, for example, about whether to commit adultery or to murder an innocent person. Intrinsically evil acts should never be done, even under threat of death. 

Unfortunately, in the course of history, there have been many cases in which governments have attempted to force believers to do something that is intrinsically evil. For example, in 1532, the Oath of Supremacy declared that King Henry VIII was the supreme head of the Church in England rather than the pope. St. Thomas More could have lied and said that he believed that King Henry was the Supreme Head of the Church in England, but he knew that it was always wrong to deny his faith and to act against his conscience. St. Thomas More was beheaded because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy. 

In 1943, in Nazi Germany, Blessed Franz Jagerstatter refused to take this oath, “I swear to God this holy oath that I shall render unconditional obedience to the Leader of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, supreme commander of the armed forces, and that as a brave soldier I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this oath.” In conscience, Jagerstatter could not promise Hitler unconditional obedience which is due to God alone. From jail, Jagerstatter wrote, “These few words are being set down here as they come from my mind and my heart. And if I must write them with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will.” So, if the action in question is intrinsically evil, such as denying faith in Christ, a person of faith is called never to do such things, even if threatened with death. 

Now, is allowing a biological male to join a women’s Bible study group an intrinsically evil act? Pope St. John Paul II citing the Second Vatican Council mentions the following intrinsically evil acts, “Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.” Does allowing a biological female to join a male group fall into the same category as these kinds of acts? 

It is possible to imagine a case of letting a biological male join a women’s bible study group that is not only ethically permissible but perhaps even obligatory. In World War II, if a Jewish man wanted to hide himself and pose as one of the group in a female Christian bible study in order to avoid getting captured by the Nazis, is allowing the man to join the otherwise female group be intrinsically evil? This is hard to believe. It seems that allowing a male to join the female group is not intrinsically evil, an act never to be done whatever the circumstances. Indeed, we can imagine less dire situations in which it may make sense to allow people to join a group that typically they would not be allowed to join. For instance, if no other bible study will work into the person’s work or class schedule, it may (or may not) be a good idea to allow that person to join a bible study of the opposite sex that does work. Put simply, there does not seem to be anything intrinsically evil about allowing a female to join a men’s bible study or a male to join a women’s bible study. 

A question, then, to consider is this: in allowing Chris to join a female group, what am I doing?  What sort of action is this?  Would letting a male join a female group be a kind of lying? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “By its very nature, lying is to be condemned. It is a profanation of speech, whereas the purpose of speech is to communicate known truth to others. The deliberate intention of leading a neighbor into error by saying things contrary to the truth constitutes a failure in justice and charity. The culpability is greater when the intention of deceiving entails the risk of deadly consequences for those who are led astray” (CCC 2485).  

Indeed, it would indeed be wrong to lie. And what is a lie? “Lying consists in saying what is false with the intention of deceiving one's neighbor” (CCC 2485). In the case at hand, if you think Chris is man, it would be a lie to say, “Welcome, everybody, there is new woman joining our group whose name is Chris.” But simply letting Chris join the group is not, in itself, asserting anything by written or spoken word. Nor is letting Chris join the group done with the intention of deceiving anyone, given what was said before that it is well known in the community that Chris identifies as a transgender person and that fact may also be obvious from Chris’s appearance.

Practical Wisdom

In order to explore the issue further, let us assume for the sake of argument that it is not intrinsically evil to allow a man to join a group normally reserved for women or vice versa. If a proposed act is not intrinsically evil, then that act may be permissible in some, perhaps very rare, circumstances. Punching someone in the face is almost always a bad act, but there are very rare circumstances like personal self-defense or defending the innocent from harm where it is permissible to punch someone in the face. If an intrinsically evil act is not in question, then we have to use the virtue of practical wisdom to figure out what we ought to do here and now in our current circumstances. 

In describing practical wisdom, let us consider the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologiae. St. Thomas teaches that practical wisdom presupposes a good end, such as helping a friend, cleaning up the house, or working to support your family. Given the concrete situation, practical wisdom helps us answer the question, “what means should I choose here and now in these circumstances to serve this good goal which is ultimately tied to loving God and neighbor?” If the end in question is evil, there is no true practical wisdom. The assassin in thinking about how to kill an innocent person may be clever or shrewd, but the assassin lacks practical wisdom as Aquinas describes it because the end in mind (murder) is contrary to love of neighbor and God.  

The first thing that a practically wise person does is to consider various options. After excluding any intrinsically evil acts, the practically wise person considers the remaining options. In this case, there are many possible and ethically permissible options including, but are not limited to, the following. You could let Chris join the group that Chris wishes to join. You could ask Chris to consider joining the other Bible study group. You could offer Chris a personalized Bible study, one on one. You could ask Chris to consider joining some other co-ed activity. You could make all the bible studies co-ed. You could make the bible study Chris wishes to join co-ed. You may be able to think of other options as well.  

The second thing to do is to eliminate any option that upon further reflection does not seem like a good means in these circumstances to serve love of God and neighbor well. Maybe a particular means is too costly. Maybe a particular means is unlikely to bring about the desired good end. Maybe a particular means will cause lots of trouble as an unfortunate side effect of our cultural situation. Then, among the remaining options, the practically wise person chooses an option, a fitting means for the good end in mind. Finally, the practically wise person does not merely think about what means is the right one here and now to use, but does the act in actual practice. Practical wisdom is not just about thought but is also about action. The practically wise person carries out in real life the good concrete decisions that were made. 

In coming to a good decision about the means to use to a good end, Aquinas thinks the practically wise person makes use of memory, teachableness, foresight, circumspection, caution, and counsel. Each one is relevant for making a practically wise decision. 

With memory, the practically wise person thinks about prior experiences that might illuminate the current situation. What past interactions might help us to understand the current situation better? How can we learn from what has happened to us and others like us before and move forward in the current situation on the basis of that knowledge? How have others dealt with transgender issues? What happened in those cases? 

Teachableness is the willingness to learn from others, particularly those with more experience, those who are further developed in the spiritual life. So, when coming to an important decision, it can be very helpful to talk about the whole situation with a wise priest or spiritual mentor. Lay out all the details of the situation and listen carefully to whatever advice is given. There is an old Latin saying, Nemo judex in causa sua, no one is a (good) judge in his own case. It is hard to be objective when we are the ones involved in the situation. So, the idea is to get objective feedback from a wise third party who is not directly involved. Indeed, we can even sometimes help ourselves by imagining and writing down what a wise, holy, and experienced person would say about our situation. Especially with important decisions, the practically wise person is open to the greater experience, wisdom, and objectivity of mentors, parents, and spiritual elders.  

The practically wise person also needs foresight, the ability to make reasonable conjectures about the likely outcomes of a decision. If Chris is directed to join another group, will this help Chris’s spiritual well-being and the well-being of the group? If Chris is accepted into the group, will this aid spiritual growth and development for Chris and for others in the Bible study? Will there be adverse legal and campus consequences for either decision? A practically wise person attempts to think through the likely consequences of a decision.  

For St. Thomas, circumspection is also part of practical wisdom, “For in acts we must take note of who did it, by what aids or instruments he did it (with), what he did, where he did it, why he did it, how and when he did it” (Summa theologiae I-II, q.7, article 3). Circumspection is “looking around” the act to take into account all the relevant factors and circumstances that are relevant to making a sound decision. This “looking around” can be aided by considering a proposed action from a variety of perspectives: legal, social, spiritual, ethical. A practically wise person considers the perspective of those who are most directly impacted by the action. The practically wise person considers what would happen if everyone in similar circumstances would make the same decision.  

The practically wise person also makes use of caution. Is one choice more risky than other choices? Are the consequences of one choice more or less likely than the consequences of another? Is one choice more likely to bring about serious bad consequences for the individual and the group? Rather than rush into an action, the practically wise person takes due deliberation in coming to a decision. 

Finally, and most importantly, the practically wise person draws on the gift of the Holy Spirit called counsel. Counsel is God’s gift of inspiring a person about what to do to move towards God’s highest and best for us in a concrete situation. St. John Henry Newman offered this great poetic prayer to receive God’s counsel in making decisions: 

Lead, Kindly Light, amidst th'encircling gloom, 
Lead Thou me on! 
The night is dark, and I am far from home, 
Lead Thou me on! 
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see 
The distant scene; one step enough for me. 

We make decisions one at a time, and we need guidance little by little to move us in the right direction. The practically wise person makes use of the gift of counsel, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit given in the Sacrament of Confirmation, by calling on God’s guidance in daily ways, choice by choice, one step at a time. Sometimes the right decision is to delay a decision until the counsel of the Holy Spirit guides us to a greater sense of confidence about what to do.  

In coming to a practical decision about what to do about admitting Chris to the group, or any other matter, the practically wise person makes use of memory, teachableness, foresight, circumspection, caution, and counsel to come to a good decision about what means to use to serve love and God and love of neighbor. Aside from cases in which an act is intrinsically evil, there are no exceptionless norms governing how to live out love of God and neighbor. People with practical wisdom choose means that promote the Kingdom of God in their own concrete circumstances. 

Discernment, Religious Freedom, and Missionary Discipleship 

As noted at the beginning of this chapter, religious freedom issues often involve an added degree of complexity, because they include another dimension, namely, the public witness of religion. For example, suppose your group decides that you cannot admit Chris to the women’s Bible study, but by doing so, you would violate your school’s non-discrimination requirements for student groups on campus. Discernment on the issue of gender would not simply be an issue for a private group. It can potentially bring your group into a public conflict. Taking this dimension into account leads to a further step in our discernment. 

This process of discernment may conclude that you have a duty to take a particular action. While it should go without saying, it is crucial that one assert a right in order to fulfill a duty. And the assertion of a right is a public act of political significance. Therefore, one part of discernment in asserting the right to religious freedom would include an examination of conscience and a purification of intention. If I am going to take a stand on some issue, often a controversial issue, I need to be clear that I am doing so because I am conforming my conduct to the truth. It may be the case that I need to look in the mirror, so to speak, to be sure that my motivations for undertaking this course of action are right. Such an examination of conscience is a matter of personal integrity and public witness.  

As missionary disciples, we want to live as authentic witnesses to the Christian faith. A conflict over religious freedom presents an opportunity to bear witness to one’s religious convictions. When we think of the ultimate possible cost of living a life of faith, we often think of martyrs, the women and men who have suffered because of their faith. The term “martyr” comes from the Greek work that means “witness.” When we take a stand, we are making a declaration about the truth. Therefore, in our discernment, we should also account for the kind of witnesses we are bearing. We don’t assert the right to religious freedom for selfish reasons, and we don’t bear ill-will towards those with whom we disagree. Rather, with patience and charity, even in the midst of a conflict, we ought to bear witness to our hope in Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God.  

Dr. Christopher Kaczor is Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University.