Listening to the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of the Age?

COMMENTARY: The Holy Spirit’s role in our lives, whether we are at the Synod on Synodality, at home or at work, is to remind us of our mission, which is to conform ourselves to Christ.

Pope Francis leads prayer to begin the morning session at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 13 in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican.
Pope Francis leads prayer to begin the morning session at the Synod on Synodality Oct. 13 in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

There has been a lot of talk at the Synod on Synodality about listening to the Holy Spirit to see where it is that the Spirit wants to guide the Church. But what is not being mentioned is just what, exactly, this means.

Furthermore, little has been said about how to distinguish within ourselves between the Holy Spirit’s authentic voice within us and other “spirits” that are not from God and which can lead us astray. There is instead a kind of vague concept of the Holy Spirit as a kind of oracular voice within us where a conflation takes place between my own feelings about my experiences and the Holy Spirit’s promptings. 

Therefore, there is a grave danger that, in our culture, with its therapeutic view of the self as the creator of its own “truth” and a hyper-individualistic concept of the moral conscience as the generator of its own moral truths, that the category of individual “experience” is being given more weight than it deserves. 

There is at the synod much talk about the need for “discernment” in all of the synodal conversations. However, no spiritual methodology has been given for a proper Catholic understanding of how one does this. It almost seems as if the discernment spoken of is its own end and its own justification. 

In other words, the process is the point. But is this not rather vacuous? Are we not therefore a bit justified in wondering if the word “discernment” is code for the relitigating of various “opinions” that the Church has, repeatedly, and over many centuries, frowned upon or even denounced as grave errors?

The Church has a long and profound tradition of great spiritual masters who have developed over the centuries proven methods for how to properly discern the Spirit. And in all of them there is a marked emphasis on the need for ascetical discipline, the purgation of vices, prayer, fasting, lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), spiritual direction and contemplation of the doctrines of the Church, before one can reliably gain some assurance that one can discern the Spirit speaking to them.

It is strange indeed, since the Pope is a Jesuit, that there has been no mention of one of the greatest spiritual methods ever put forward for discerning the Holy Spirit: the Ignatian method for reaching a state of “indifference” toward my own feelings, opinions and subjective dispositions, before one is ready to finally hear the Spirit. I myself have made a 30-day Ignatian retreat led by a wonderful old Jesuit that finally led me to understand the Holy Spirit’s promptings within me. And it eventuated in me leaving the seminary and deciding to pursue an academic theological career as a layman. 

Discernment in the Spirit

The retreat was a grueling and profoundly painful process requiring a deep death to the false self of my own self construction in favor of a more “missional” understanding of my true vocation. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as the “Paraclete,” which is probably best translated as “the Comforter.” As such, he comforts the troubled soul and calms the spirit, which then opens our eyes to the “truth” (15:26). 

But what truth? The truth that God has revealed in Christ and which the disciples have witnessed for themselves. The Holy Spirit will enlighten their minds, bring back into memory those momentous events, and thus propel the disciples forward in their Christ-given mandate to make disciples of all nations. 

In other words, the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives is to remind us of our mission, which is to conform ourselves to Christ and his law, thus making us capable of an evangelization grounded in truth. 

What emerges in the biblical witness is the Holy Spirit as a mission-driving and mission-guiding divine power within us. Even in the life of Christ we see that Christ does all that he does, in accordance with the Father’s will, “in the Spirit.” It is the Spirit who compels Jesus into the desert for 40 days, it is the Spirit who anoints him in the Jordan River with John the Baptist, and it is the Spirit who guides him to his missional destiny on the cross. And most instructive of all, in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asks his Father if this cup could be taken from him. 

In other words, the human Christ desires another pathway to salvation for humanity if there be one. That, in a sense, is his subjective “feeling” as a human being. That is his “lived experience in a complex set of circumstances.” But being also divine and filled with the Holy Spirit, he immediately submits to the Father’s will, and not his, and goes to the cross.

And if this was true for Christ, who was sinless, how much more do we need to be on guard against identifying our own “feelings in our lived experience” with the movement of the Holy Spirit? Christ went into the desert and fasted and prayed for 40 days to discern in the Spirit God’s missional truth for him. How much more do we need an ongoing purgation of our “opinions” to discern God’s opinion on things? 

Discernment in the Spirit should refer us back to Christ and his public Revelation and the manner in which that Revelation has been unfolded in Scripture, Church teaching and in the lives of the saints. It is precisely the bearing witness to that Revelation that is the Church’s one and only mission. And if it departs from that mission to foreground instead the spirit of the age, then it renders itself irrelevant. 

Of course, many of the progressive members of the synod will say that they are following the Holy Spirit and bearing witness to Christ, by trying to discern the movement of the Spirit via the pathway of dialogue and listening to the “People of God.” But, personally, this is what I find most irritating about so much of the jargon and verbiage that has emanated from the synodal process. 

The Synod and the Spirit

Devoid of references to the proven pathway of discernment as developed by the Church’s spiritual masters, and riddled with vacuous circular logic and ambiguity, it has resorted instead to some of the most superficial buzzwords of modern culture drawn from pop psychology and the potted nostrums of our confessional talk shows. The nomenclature employed is the same as one would get at a workshop for insurance executives at a posh hotel in the Bahamas on how to foster better corporate “group dynamics.”

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, in some remarks this week to the media covering the synod, stated the following:

“If we want a synodal church, we need to ask ourselves if we believe that the Spirit manifests freely through all persons and their life stories, even in points of view that are completely different and diverse from our own position.” 

This is all well and good, and on their face these remarks are relatively benign. And most certainly it is a great virtue to be able to listen most truly to the thoughts of others in order to more empathetically enter into their experience of life. However, as a description of the synodal way — a way that is being promoted as a new way of “being Church” — greater precision is needed about the criteria that the Church is to use to adjudicate between experiences that are more in tune with the Gospel than others. 

Are all experiences equal in that regard? Are they the voice of the Holy Spirit simply by virtue of the fact that they are indeed someone’s, anyone’s, experience? Granted, the Holy Spirit does indeed speak to all of us. But that speaking is more often than not jumbled up into a hot mess of conflation with my own benighted and sin-distorted thoughts and feelings. 

The Church must truly listen to people. But she must also teach, guide and help us to sanctification by holding up the truth of Christ as the only proper metric in our spiritual lives. Anything short of that is to abandon us to our various confusions and idolatries, which can be legion. And those idolatries can foster dangerous illusions that leave us miserable and trapped in the slavery to our destructive sins. 

It is no mercy therefore, and no virtue at all, to listen to people but to then leave them as they are under the false pretense of being more “welcoming” and “affirming” that God loves them “just as they are.” Of course he does, but the Holy Spirit in the New Testament also “convicts” us in order to provoke us to “come up higher,” which includes progress toward the truth. 

The Holy Spirit, in other words, does not lead us into open-ended conversations where the truth is always in a state of bracketed suspension. The Holy Spirit comes with content. The Spirit is not a substanceless gas of positive vibes. The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and it is only the truth that will set us free. 

Holy Spirit and Unity

I spent 20 years teaching theology to typical modern-day undergraduates. And of course I spent a great deal of time listening to them and even quite often counseling them about problems in their lives. But after the listening was done, about 90% of my job was to deconstruct the assumptions that animated their lives and to expose them as illusions. 

I saw my job as mainly involved in “flipping the script” that was in their heads about what life is all about. And the script they had in their heads was drawn from their culture and seemed most real to them. That was their lived experience. And for most of them, their lives did indeed involve “complex circumstances.” 

How remiss I would have been to have left them with the thought that the script in their heads, and the experiences that script engendered, was the Holy Spirit speaking to them. And how foolish I would have been to say to myself that since that was their experience, then, most likely, that was the Holy Spirit speaking new truths to me through them.

So, with all due respect to Cardinal Tobin, some opinions are not just different from mine. Some opinions are just wrong. And he is correct to point out that the Holy Spirit can bring unity to the Church, just as it did at Pentecost, even in the midst of these differences. But the Holy Spirit did not bring unity to the fledgling first Christians by affirming that they were all correct. It brought unity in spite of the differences by enlightening their minds to the truth of Christ. 

Thus, the Holy Spirit at Pentecost overturned the linguistic fragmentation of Babel. And that fragmentation, it should be remembered, was caused by the sin of hubris. The disunity of those first Christians therefore was a product of sin and not a positive expression of the rainbow kaleidoscope of human diversity — diversity that the Spirit blesses and then uses as a springboard to unity — as if the diversity was an unalloyed good to be celebrated. 

But it would seem that the synod wishes to embrace Babel and to bless it as a positive expression of the movement of the Holy Spirit. And it is Babel that is the greatest danger that this synod has unleashed. 

True pluralism in the Spirit creates unity by refocusing our attention on that which we hold in common, thus integrating the various views into an integrated whole around a central axis: Christ. But a false pluralism is not of the Spirit and threatens to turn the Church, not into an integrated whole, but rather into a mélange of ill-assorted fragments. 

Come, Holy Spirit!