The Difference Between Choice and Discernment

Our secular culture and political system teach us to think in terms of choice, but in the personal and spiritual sphere, we may be better off thinking in terms of discernment.

New Zealand March for Life, Dec. 7, 2019
New Zealand March for Life, Dec. 7, 2019 (photo: Jon Lyall / Shutterstock)

The penultimate week of January was “School Choice Week,” when various groups throughout the U.S. encouraged citizens and politicians to take seriously the role of parents in choosing their children’s education, and the role of government in supporting those choices. The previous weekend was the March for Life in Washington, D.C., where pro-lifers throughout the U.S. gathered to demonstrate for an end to abortion.

These are only two of the many current issues that our society often frames in terms of “choice.” In the political world, the language of choice appears to be a near-necessity: there are few other ways to frame decisions given our form of government. Who gets to decide on the solution to a conflict or problem — Congress, the White House, the judiciary; the federal government or the states; the rulers or the people; the majority or the individual — is an important question in the political sphere, one not easily reframed.

Yet the very dominance of choice in the political sphere, necessary though it may be, can disguise the important fact that in more personal spheres, “who decides” is not usually the most important question. When it comes to my daily life, what matters is not so much whether or not I have the choice to go to McDonald’s, but how I decide whether to eat at McDonald’s. When it comes to my spiritual life, what matters is less whether daily Mass is a practical choice for me than how I decide whether to attend daily Mass. When it comes to parenting, what matters is less whether I or my husband or the children choose this or that activity, than how we decide what activity to do.

What matters, in other words, is not so much choice as discernment.

If this sounds counterintuitive, that is largely because we live in a time and a place with so much natural and technological abundance that scarcity is a foreign concept. In the days when one might need to eat the same five crops every day for months to survive, the idea of life without cheap hamburgers is perfectly comprehensible; in our modern Western country, such deprivation sounds appalling, outrageous and absurd. “What sort of countries don’t have McDonald’s? Communist countries, that’s what!” Communist countries, of course, and also every medieval principality and every modern nation, for that matter, until after the Second World War. If we did not have McDonald’s, we would do well enough without it. That is why it is less important to be able to go to McDonald’s than to discern whether doing so will really make one happy.

The same goes for weightier decisions like the question of how often to attend Mass. Just under four years ago when churches were shuttered across the world, not being able to go to Mass felt like, and was, a big deal. (One is tempted to echo, “What sort of countries don’t have Mass? Communist countries, that’s what!”) Even after most parishes resumed Sunday Mass, churches themselves remained largely closed; certainly daily Mass and Communion and Confession and Holy Hours and the rest were less available.

But once again, I submit that what really matters is not so much whether one could attend Mass, than how earnestly one desired the sacraments. Furthermore, the strength of the desire one had then can probably be measured by how often one frequents them now. What matters is less having the choice to frequent church than discerning whether or not more frequent attendance is what God is asking of you.

Are you avoiding it because your work and family duties necessitate doing so? Or are you avoiding it because it seems like too much of a sacrifice? On the other side, are you putting yourself through this or that devotion because it is genuinely helping you to grow in love of God and neighbor? Or are you doing it because of peer pressure, the sunk-cost fallacy, pride or some other human reason?

In parenting — in the personal sphere par excellence, where the stakes are also high though not explicitly religious — the questions look similar. A good deal of public parenting conversation in recent years has involved the advocates of gentle or attachment style or mutual respect parenting pushing back against more traditional authoritarian or authoritative parenting. (Everyone, modernist and traditional, agrees that authoritarian parenting is bad, but people disagree about where the line between authoritarian and authoritative parenting lies.)

But here too perhaps the important long-term question is not so much who gets to choose (for example) whether the grade-schooler wears nail polish or what sport the middle schooler plays, than how the family discerns the answers to those questions. I suspect that in the long run what matters is not so much how such questions are answered as how the decision takes place: what factors the parents consider; how the parent-child conversations work; and how much the child ends up mimicking their parents’ discernment style (or lack thereof).

(I do not mean, by the way, that everything in parenting is somehow “up for grabs” and negotiable — and even the staunchest advocate for children’s choices draws the line somewhere — but I do think that training children and teenagers into reasonable adults involves a considerable number of high quality “why this and not that” discussions.)

As the latter two examples suggest, reframing personal and private choices as things discerned can be significant, but I think such reframing matters at a deeper level even than the examples of Mass attendance and raising children suggest. Possibly even our spiritual lives depend upon it. For in matters of right and wrong too, choice matters, but perhaps less than we think. In a spiritual sense, free choice is hardly worth discussing. We have free choice whether we want to or not (the young then-atheist C.S. Lewis saw free choice as a burden, and was certainly not alone in so doing): we all have the option of choosing the good. But discerning the right thing to do can be more of a trick, and perhaps more of our merits (such as they are) than we suspect hang on that discernment.

We may at the end of the process still choose wrongly; and that matters. But what matters too, perhaps more, is that we take responsibility for considering seriously what we are about in choosing, whether that choice concerns a vocation, a career, a donation, or merely what to give up for this coming Lent.

Cardinal-elect Víctor Manuel Fernández was appointed by Pope Francis on July 1, 2023, to become the next prefect for the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

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