Overview:

Is it possible that Pope Francis just doesn't want there to be Catholics in his religion anymore?

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Across the length and breadth of Christendom, discernment means the ability to tell if something is divine, earthly, or demonic in nature. As one might expect in an ideology consisting of nothing but false claims, Christian leaders all have their various ways of teaching this system to their followers. Pope Francis is no exception to that fact. For years now, he’s been teaching Catholics how to tell if they’re hearing from Jesus or something else when they pray. What he’s teaching is absolutely disastrous, however.

Maybe Pope Francis just doesn’t want to stop Catholicism’s nonstop plunge into irrelevance. Maybe he just doesn’t like having Catholics even sporadically warming Catholic church pews. Whatever his motivation is, today we’re going to examine his advice about discernment—and see why it will only be disastrous, for him and Catholicism at least.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: Discernment

In Christianese, discernment simply means being able to tell if something is divine, earthly, or demonic in nature. The “something” can be a factual claim or assertion, but it can be anything, like a situation or something in media. Christians use discernment in the place of real critical thinking skills, for reasons that will become abundantly clear in a few moments.

If you’re wondering what processes go into discernment, don’t. There really aren’t any. Feelings and comparisons to Bible verses are about as far as processes go. As a result, discernment is an entirely subjective method of assessment. As such, it produces predictably disastrous results when used in the place of real critical thinking skills.

Often, Christians do possess real critical thinking skills, at least to some extent. They just don’t tend to use them on claims relating to their beliefs. (Where’d be the fun in that? It’d just show that their beliefs aren’t based in reality!)

Pope Francis: The discernment pope

For some years now, in fact almost from the first moment that he became pope in March 2013, Pope Francis has styled himself the discerning pope. In September 2013, a Catholic site asked Francis what it meant to be the first Jesuit to be made pope. And Francis replied, “Discernment,” explaining thusly:

Discernment is one of the things that worked inside St. Ignatius [of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order]. For him it is an instrument of struggle in order to know the Lord and follow him more closely.

Thinking Faith, September 2013

Ever since being made pope, Francis has stressed discernment. As an example, he stresses the importance of discernment in this 2014 homily. In it, he compares people’s hearts to “a local market where you find everything.” This fact, he says, “is precisely the reason why the constant work of discernment is so needed, in order to understand what is truly of the Lord.”

By 2021, another Catholic site, Crux Now, declared:

Since the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Francis has gone out of his way to push the concept of “discernment” – a much-beloved process in Jesuit spirituality – as key to the spiritual life, yet according to one expert, while the term is used often, not many people actually know what this means.

Crux Now, April 2021

Let’s just say, that writer was not kidding about that last bit.

How Francis advises Catholics to use discernment

Luckily, in that 2014 homily Francis offered a way to understand “what is truly of the Lord”:

It is so simple: if what you desire, or what you think travels down the road of the Incarnation of the Word, of the Lord who comes in the flesh, it means that it is of God. However, if it does not travel by that road, then it does not come from God. [. . .]

Therefore, if a thought or a desire leads you on the road of humility, of self-abasement and of service to others, it is of Jesus; but if it leads you on the road of self-importance, of vanity and of pride, or on the road of abstract thought, it is not of Jesus.

Pope Francis Homilies, July 2014

It’s so simple! Really!

By March 2018, Francis was calling discernment “an affinity, a resonance–with the spiritual.” (If you already know that supernatural and spiritual both just mean imaginary, you’re already ahead of the game.)

And by July 2018, NCR Online, a Catholic site, was pushing discernment as a method “for coping with spiritual battles,” all amid tons of quotes from Francis.

Really, declares the Catholic Apostolate Center (which I first misread as “Catholic Apostate Center,” and thought: Yeah, I reckon they do need one) in July 2018, “Discernment is key,” attributing that quote to Francis himself.

Yes yes, but what does discernment look like?

As I mentioned above, discernment is largely a completely subjective way to judge anything. And for all that Francis thinks discernment is “so simple,” he still hadn’t actually told Catholics exactly how to do it, or to tell that it was done correctly.

Don’t worry! In May 2020, he offered what Aleteia, another Catholic site, called a “mini-lesson” in discernment. Specifically, he sought to teach Catholics how to tell the difference between demonic voices and Jesus’ voice. (No word on how to tell if the “voice” is just the Catholic’s own, but since that’s what both previous “voices” are, I guess it doesn’t matter.)

Specifically, Francis has Catholics asking themselves various questions of the “voice” they think they’re hearing. These questions involve freedom, flattery, forward-looking, ego-searching, the “voice’s” “aftertaste,” and greater trustfulness “in God and others” rather than paranoia.

(Gee, greater trustfulness in an organization full of criminals that has shielded and protected child-rapists for centuries! What could possibly go wrong?)

But strangely, Francis never offers any actual methods involved in discernment in this “mini-lesson.” Instead, he offers only questions to ask of a situation or impulse.

No, really, how it is actually supposed to work

Francis draws upon Ignatius of Loyola, as you might guess, for what he thinks he knows about discernment. Yet another Catholic site, the very pro-Francis group Where Peter Is, explains it all here in a post from June 2021:

Pope Francis approaches the world and all of its complexity through the lens of discernment drawn from Ignatian spirituality. Therefore, to understand Francis’s way of thinking, one must first understand Ignatian discernment, which is rooted in the movements of the Holy Spirit.

Where Peter Is, June 2021

You can see the equally useless non-instructions Loyola offered here. Interestingly, Catholic-style discernment works about the same as evangelical-style discernment does.

To use it, Christians should concentrate on exactly what they’re wondering about. Then, they should pray extra-hard at the ceiling to ask Jesus to tell them what he thinks about it.

Then, Christians should think about what an outside observer would make of the matter. Or perhaps, they can imagine how they’d advise someone in their own situation. They should, of course, consider how they might feel about their potential decision on their own deathbed.

In this manner, they should wrestle with the matter until they feel “inner clarity” about one particular potential decision. Once they feel that, they should pray again to make really sure that Jesus really gave them that clarity. And if they really think he did, then they should run with that decision.

Captain Cassidy’s Christianese 101: The Holy Spirit

We’re about to cover Francis’ advice regarding the Holy Spirit, so let me run through a definition of it beforehand.

In Christianese, the Holy Spirit is one part of a triune god. The other two parts are the Father and the Son. (So yes, this is Trinitarian heresy, which Oneness Pentecostals reject. But they still use the term as an aspect of their conceptualization of Yahweh.) Christians reckon the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of their god’s power. As such, the Holy Spirit or Holy Ghost is sort of the gettin-shit-done side of Yahweh. It’s the part of Yahweh that made the earliest Christians begin speaking in unknown languages during the Feast of Weeks in Acts 2, exactly 50 days after Easter in Jerusalem. It is also the part of Yahweh that fills believers when they first convert, thus making them “born again of the Spirit.”

Christians always capitalize the words Holy Spirit. Sometimes, they just say “the Spirit.” They don’t tend to use “Holy Ghost” like they used to, but it means exactly the same thing. They never say “the Ghost.” But it’d be funny if they did.

When Christians talk about fruits of the Spirit, they refer to the visible behavior of a Christian. The Holy Spirit is supposed to make Christians behave in demonstrably better ways than heathens. So they should bring forth visible fruit like kindness, honesty, and loving behavior. Fruit like racism, cruelty, and dishonesty point to a completely different spirit filling them. Sometimes, you’ll hear evangelicals call themselves “fruit inspectors.”

Christians often characterize the Holy Spirit as a dove descending from the sky, which is where they think Heaven generally is.

And now, we come to Francis’ disastrous Pentecost advice about discernment

Last week, on a minor Christian holiday called Pentecost, Pope Francis trotted out his usual discernment blahblah. But this time, according to Catholic News Agency, he couched as a way to “recognize the Holy Spirit’s voice.”

And Francis’ advice might be the worst I have ever seen any Christian leader give to anyone. I’ll let him take it away from here:

On the Solemnity of Pentecost, Pope Francis offered advice on how to distinguish the voice of the Holy Spirit from “the voice of the spirit of evil.” [. . .]

“The Holy Spirit will never tell you that on your journey everything is going just fine. … No, he corrects you; he makes you weep for your sins; he pushes you to change, to fight against your lies and deceptions, even when that calls for hard work, interior struggle and sacrifice.”

“Whereas the evil spirit, on the contrary, pushes you to always do what you think and you find pleasing. He makes you think that you have the right to use your freedom any way you want.”

Catholic News Agency, June 5, 2022

Then, we get the kicker of all kickers: Francis declared that the real Holy Spirit leaves behind particular emotions, while fakes leave behind whole other emotions:

“Then, once you are left feeling empty inside – it is bad, this feeling of emptiness inside, many of us have felt it – and when you are left feeling empty inside, he blames you, becomes the accuser, and throws you down, destroys you. The Holy Spirit, correcting you along the way, never leaves you lying on the ground, never. He takes you by the hand, comforts you and constantly encourages you.”

Catholic News Agency, June 5, 2022

Holy cow. There’s more, but it’s all along the same lines. It all means the same thing: judge the rightness or wrongness of a decision by how it feels. I cannot imagine a worse thing to tell Catholics.

Chasing tingles⁠—right out of Catholicism

I don’t know how I’d even tell Francis that that exact line of thinking is exactly how I left Catholicism at 15 to join a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church. Nor do I know how I’d tell the pastor of that SBC church that that’s exactly how I left his church to join Pentecostalism.

Nor do I know how I’d tell my two Pentecostal pastors that “this feeling of emptiness” was what led me to get into worse and worse trouble, more and more extremist behavior and thinking, all aimed toward finding a Holy Spirit that would finally “take [me] by the hand, comfort [me], and constantly encourage [me].”

Of course, since the Holy Spirit is imaginary anyway, I never reached that point. It doesn’t exist. Instead, I found more oppression and cruelty⁠—and more dishonesty.

Reality-based beliefs are what finally filled my heart with wonder and gladness. False beliefs led to emptiness, guilt, self-blame, and feelings of being thrown down. It wasn’t till I left those false beliefs behind that I could begin to heal the damage that all those flavors of Christianity had done to me.

And now here’s Francis telling Christians to abandon that which makes them feel “emptiness,” and to embrace that which makes them feel optimistic, grace-filled, and joyful.

Boy oh boy, wait till his followers tangle with their first tongues-talkin’ evangelical church service. They’ll leave Catholicism so fast they’ll leave skidmarks.

The sheer solipsism of discernment

Telling Christians to chase feelings sounds like the worst possible thing to advise, from Christian leaders’ standpoint at least. But here we are.

Francis’ ultimate problem is that he can’t think past his own experiences. He’s defined them as the standard. In his world, his flavor of Catholicism makes him happy. It makes him feel fulfilled. It makes him feel his life is meaningful. (Or at least, he’s willing to say all that.)

If a Catholic said that Catholicism did none of that for them, as it didn’t for me, Francis would likely declare that their discernment was off-base. Yep, they were just listening to what he called “the spirit of evil” in that Catholic News Agency post. Instead, they needed to listen to “the Spirit,” which “leads us to love, here and now.”

And that destination is his take on Catholicism.

The danger of false beliefs, yet again

In Christianity, a popular Bible verse runs like this:

Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart.

Proverbs 21:2, English Standard Version

It means that people will go to extreme lengths to justify whatever it is that they want to do, but it’s not always what Jesus wants them to do.

The problem Christians have with discernment is simple: all of the advice Christian leaders offer about how to exercise it involves ultimately judging matters by how they feel and how well they can use Bible verses to justify what they really want to do.

It doesn’t matter if a Christian guy is trying to rationalize asking his longtime wife for a polygamous marriage (a question posted many times on HBO’s forum for its show Big Love), or if a Christian’s trying to decide if she ought to open a fast-food franchise in Waxahachie, Texas, or if an impressionable young Pentecostal lass is trying to figure out if Jesus wants her to marry the bombastic love of her life (ahem).

Strangely, weirdly, bizarrely, Jesus almost always seems to agree with whatever option appeals most to the Christian who must make the choice.

(But see this obscure bit of evangelical Christianese: a check in my spirit. It’s a bad feeling about something. Christians conceptualize this feeling as their god telling them to avoid or reject that thing.)

Because their beliefs do not tether to reality, there’s not a way for Christians to make decisions regarding those beliefs without relying on subjective evaluations. They can’t use real critical thinking skills without accidentally dismantling their entire belief system.

When discernment goes hideously wrong

So now the Pope is on record as telling Catholics to chase good feelings and to consider “emptiness” a mark of ickie grody non-Jesus-y influences.

Well, there’s no way that can possibly go wrong. Nope. None at all.

I mean, it’s not like Catholicism’s decline has only accelerated in the wake of the pandemic. It’s not like Catholics themselves have noticed that their faith is in serious decline.

I come to you with diagrams in hand:

The Decline of American Catholicism,” uploaded around April 2022. This diagram appears about 10 minutes in. Interestingly, the real plummet began around the time their big huge child-rape scandal hit the big time, in 2003. If you listen to the linked video, do not miss his condemnation of Christians scared of catching COVID-19 from church attendance, which happens around 13:30. He himself is a sign of Catholicism’s dysfunction and a reason for its decline.

Or this diagram, provided by the same guy:

The Decline of American Catholicism,” uploaded around April 2022. This comes in around 16:30. He calls this diagram “frightening.” I reckon it should be, to a Catholic. If you’re wondering, this guy ultimately blames Vatican II, which ended Latin Mass. That historic shift began in 1959, and hardline American Catholics like him are still big mad about it. He thinks going back to a Latin Mass will 100% totally fix everything.

But don’t worry. Catholics are largely responding just like evangelicals did to the 2015 Pew Research Religious Landscape Survey: by blaming all the fake Christians who’ve left, and praising the obviously TRUE CHRISTIANS™ remaining in the pews.

In other words, there’s not a chance in hell that they’ll even accurately identify their problems, much less fix them in time to make any difference. It’s not like Francis could help anyway. If he’s telling Catholics to chase happy feelings and eschew emptiness and self-blame, he can’t really push them out faster than they’re already going.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...