Accompaniment and Discernment

Certain words, including some suspiciously 'churchy' ones, are enlisted in all manner of nonsense


Justice Politics

Words mean something. Sadly, their overuse leaves them captive to clichés. Thus captive, they can be enlisted in all manner of nonsense. Two examples come to mind: accompaniment and discernment. Note that both of them have become suspiciously “churchy.”

Let’s start with accompaniment. Rightly used, it means “being with” another as a friend. We all need friends, of course, and the best way to have a friend is to be a friend. But there’s no shortage of counterfeits. A true friend tells us the truth, both in word and action.

The New York Catholic Worker recently published A Declaration of A Catholic Commitment To Trans-Affirmation. It’s presented as an exercise in accompaniment. But the Declaration fails badly, and for at least three reasons.

First, it rhapsodizes about love while ignoring the created nature of human sexuality. Biological sex is deeply relevant to how males and females form and nurture families. A just polity recognizes as much. Equity is not at odds with complementarity.

Second, it assumes that our bodies are somehow separate from who we are, that they are mere instruments. But we are each a unique unity of body and soul. Indeed, we remain these same unities in the Resurrection.

Third, while violence against transexuals is abhorrent, the Declaration is disingenuous about what’s involved in transexual change. Effecting this change is an act of violence; it involves physical mutilation in the name of an external plasticity.

There’s a grim irony in the Catholic Worker’s promotion of the Declaration. It is simply risible to suppose that Peter Maurin or Dorothy Day’s “clarification of thought” would require us to announce our pronouns!

Now comes our second example: discernment. It’s often linked with our first example. In a self-revealing, well, accompaniment to the Declaration, the CW reprinted an article by a man who had “transitioned” into a woman after 29 years of marriage and two children. According to the author, his associate pastor told him in confession that together they could “say a prayer to the Blessed Mother to help guide you on your journey.” Later his pastor, unschooled in new developments, told him, “I’ll need you to help me learn.” Still later, he reports, his cardinal asked, “How can I help you?”

Discernment, rightly understood, means careful thinking over a period of time and with a special regard for the sources of knowing how best to act and live in a particular context. We discern, of course, as human beings. Emotion can, and should, come into play. So should intellect. In the end we come to conscience: that is, the last best exercise of practical reason. In this process, we observe, judge, and act.

Practical reasoning — reasoning that leads to action — does not, need not, come with its arguments laid out for public review. But arguments it nonetheless has. And the more serious we are about our practical reasoning the more ready we should be to make clear to ourselves and to others what arguments guide us.

Discernment, then, is hard work. It is not navel-gazing, not stargazing, and not putting up a finger to test the wind. We need some friends, more often than not, to discern rightly — true friends, not counterfeits.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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