briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Wednesday, January 22, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Impeachment Update: What Happened Yesterday in the Impeachment Trial of the President of the United States? (Answer: Not Much)

Not much to say today about the impeachment trial of the president of the United States in the United States Senate. Everything up to this point has been basically procedural and what we’ve been watching is something of an orchestrated dance between not only the House impeachment managers and the leadership of the Senate, but also between the two different parties in the Senate. At this point, it looks like the Republican majority of 53 senators is going to remain intact and thus be able to put into effect in basic form the rules via resolution adopted by the Senate for the trial to unfold. These were basically the work of the Senate majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. In basic form, the procedures promoted by Senator McConnell are extremely similar to the procedures undertaken in the late 1990s in this Senate impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton.

I mentioned yesterday that the original formulation of the rules called for both sides to have 24 hours of time for opening arguments, but Senator McConnell’s original plan was that both sides have 12 hours on two successive days. The nature of the debate yesterday well into last night may be a sign that senators wanted and received the 24 hours in three days of eight hour sessions each rather than the two days of 12 hour sessions. That is not a monumental change, but nonetheless it is going to elongate the trial for at least two days. There may be more to consider on The Briefing tomorrow, but the likely unfolding of this process is that we are going to be looking at day after day in which nothing monumental happens, but we’ll be watching together and we’ll see exactly what does happen day after day.

Part II

The “Good Pope” and the “Bad Pope” on Priestly Celibacy: A Cultural Storyline Not Limited to an Oscar-Nominated Netflix Film

Secondly, I want to turn to a news story that hasn’t received a great deal of attention amongst many in the United States and elsewhere because it seems to be at first a Roman Catholic issue and of course it is. We’re talking about controversy within Catholicism over the requirement to priestly celibacy and what has been represented to the international media as a disagreement between the current pope, Pope Francis, and his predecessor now known as the Pope Emeritus. That would be the former Pope Benedict XVI. The headlines tell us, for instance, in the international edition of The New York Times, “Two Popes Take Differing Views on Priestly Celibacy.” Similar headlines were appearing in different newspapers and media outlets across the world. First of all, anyone under normal circumstances looking at this headline would be shocked by the very first words, “two popes.” How in the world do you end up with two popes? That’s a part of the story, but what I want us to focus on primarily is what this development tells us about the nature of theological change, especially as driven by liberal forces within any religious body, and then also how a watching rather liberal culture looks at two opposing arguments in an organization like the Roman Catholic Church, a liberal argument and a more conservative argument, and immediately decides that the liberals are the good guys and the conservatives are the bad guys.

I’ve been talking about this pattern that we’ve been noting of good religion and bad religion. Good religion, as seen by so many in our society, is a vague spirituality or a very liberal theology that makes minimal truth claims, if any, is absolutely open-minded with no doctrinal substance, and no particularly problematic moral positions given the LGBTQ revolution. It’s basically a religion of liberal individual autonomy simply transformed into a new spirituality. And thus as we have seen already, you have the list of the naughty and the nice in the part of the liberal society. You have the naughty which represents conservatives and the nice which represents all those very friendly liberals.

When you look at the two popes in the headline, “Two Popes Take Differing Views on Priestly Celibacy,” you come to understand in a Roman Catholic context exactly how this has been happening for years, and we need to look at it because evangelical Christians have a lot at stake in watching these processes. First, the process of theological change and pressure, and secondly, the process of how a culture tends to try to even intrude on that process from the outside with this kind of argument about the good guys and the bad guys. But just about everyone to some extent wants to be a good guy not a bad guy. But it turns out that if you’re going to hold to any form of theological or moral conservatism in this society, the more liberal forces in the cultural creatives, in academia, in politics and economics, and perhaps especially in Hollywood and the media, they’re going to see us as the naughty rather than as the nice.

Jason Horowitz and Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times report the story this way, “The theologically fraught relationship between two living popes fictionalized in a current movie is beginning to have very real consequences for the obligation of celibacy for priests in the Roman Catholic Church.” The reporters go on to state, “It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Pope Benedict XVI, the first Pope in the modern era to retire promised when he stepped down in 2013 and took the title Pope Emeritus, that he would remain, ‘Hidden to the world.'” But the unfolding story tells us that the Pope Emeritus has not remained so hidden when at least initially he was identified as the co-author of a new book, defending priestly celibacy in no uncertain terms at the very same time that the current pope, Pope Francis invoked a convocation of church leaders at the end of 2019 and appears to be moving towards the ordination of at least some married priests in some regions, particularly in the region of the Amazon where there is an acute priest shortage.

But the big story here is the two popes and how the world is presenting them as the good pope and the bad pope. The good pope is Pope Francis who famously said, “Who am I to judge?,” when asked about homosexuality. And he is a pope that has been basically pushing the Roman Catholic Church through both suggestion and formal teaching in a more liberal direction. Pope Francis clearly thinks that the Roman Catholic Church is going to have to change fundamentally if it is going to have a way in the modern world, especially in the advanced nations, the particularly liberal nations of Europe and North America. If that’s going to happen, Pope Francis seems to say, the Church is going to have to change. One of the ways that he has openly suggested the change is in making a distinction between the formal doctrine of the Church and the pastoral application of that doctrine.

Now to evangelical Christians, that’s a horrifying concept, but to evangelical Christians, there are a lot of horrifying concepts in this story. We’ll look at them in turn. But the other way that Pope Francis has suggested this change is leaving many of the policies of the Church to local bishops’ conferences, and that would mean that one geographic area, the Roman Catholic Church might actually operate by different pastoral or theological policies than other geographical regions of the Church. Now to those who are conservative Catholics, that’s again, absolutely anathema because the very meaning of the word “catholic” is universal. How can it claim to be a universal church holding the universal truth under the common leadership of a monarchial pope if different regions of the church can operate according to different rules.

For Roman Catholics, the issue of priestly celibacy is tied to the Roman Catholic sacrament of orders and the understanding of the priesthood itself. Evangelicals hold to a very different, and that’s an understatement, a very different understanding of ministry. The Catholic understanding of the priesthood is that it is sacerdotal, that it is representative of Christ, even physically in the reality of the priest. That is not the belief of Protestant evangelical Christians, and of course it’s tied to the larger superstructure, not only in the difference of our understanding of the ministry, but of the formal principle of Sola Scriptura to which evangelicals are committed. And that means not only, not two popes, but no pope. No papal authority, no papal office, no magisterium of the Church, but rather simply the Word of God operating as the control and sufficient as the governing authority within the Church. The Church is ruled by and reformed by the Word of God.

Back in 1992, Pope John Paul II declared that the requirement of priestly celibacy would be unchanging. By the way, a little footnote here, the word “celibacy” does not require the absence of marriage, but rather the absence of the marital act. But in any case, the Roman Catholic Church has said this means no marriage. And in 1992, Pope John Paul II described the doctrine as unchanging. But at the same time, Pope John Paul II stated that the requirement of priestly celibacy is, “Not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood.” Now, why would that be said? Well, just consider the New Testament. By the way, that’s where the reformers pointed immediately. Peter, for example, as he appears in the gospels, was obviously at least during that time married. Furthermore, when Paul writes to Timothy and to Titus about the requirements for  ministry, he speaks of the teaching elder, the presbuteros, as the husband of one wife.

But the development of the sacramental and sacerdotal understanding of the priesthood within Roman Catholicism became clear as early as the Senate of Elvira in the year 305 and it was again affirmed at the Council of Carthage in the year 390. So, we’re talking about a very long standing requirement of the Roman Catholic Church. Now, if you fast forward to the 21st century, there are some married Roman Catholic priests, but there are exceptions made possible by Anglican priests who were married and convert to Roman Catholicism and also a very few in the autonomous churches of the Eastern-rites. But that’s a very small exception. In reality, for the Roman Catholic Church, the priesthood means celibacy. Again, John Paul II said that the teaching is unchanging. But it’s also clear that Pope Francis is considering at least in some cases offering an exception to that unchanging doctrine.

And thus it did make international headlines when a book was announced coming out from two authors and that would be Cardinal Robert Sarah, a Ghanaian who is the head of the congregation for divine worship and discipline of the sacraments. He served in that role since 2010 and is understood to be something of a conservative watchdog in the Roman Catholic liturgy. His co-author none other than the Pope Emeritus, the former Cardinal Ratzinger, who had been the head of the sacred congregation and the defender of Roman Catholic doctrine who became at the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, his successor as Pope Benedict XVI. But then he did what no recent pope, and by that I mean for centuries had done, he resigned or retired taking the title as Pope Emeritus. His successor was elected as Pope Francis, the first Pope from South America.

But when the book was announced, there was outrage on the part of many defenders of the Vatican and particularly those pressing for a more liberal direction in the church. And in response the Pope Emeritus asked that his name be withdrawn from the book and there were even those close to him who suggested that Cardinal Sarah had taken advantage and that the aged Pope Emeritus had not actually intended to be understood as a contributor to or much less the co-author of the book. Cardinal Sarah in his own defense then presented lengthy and abundant correspondence and documentation to indicate that he was not at all taking advantage of the Pope Emeritus rather the Pope Emeritus had indicated his affirmation of the project and his own authorship of a good deal of the material.

Arguing in a very passionate way for the requirement to priestly celibacy, even arguing about the “impossibility of a marital bond for priests,” and thus it appeared that the stage was not only set, but the play was in action with two popes opposing one another. The current pope moving in a more liberal direction and his living predecessor is Pope Emeritus defending a more conservative position. Now, if you think you have seen this movie before, it’s because it actually is, in one ironic sense, a movie.

At the end of 2019 a movie was released that was entitled, “The Two Popes.” It has now been nominated for at least one Oscar. It stars Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI. The director is Fernando Meirelles, and the point of the movie, which is by the way extremely well done, is clear. You are looking at the unprecedented reality of two men now living, both of whom are identified with the papacy as popes—one the current Pope, one the Pope Emeritus. And they clearly do represent fundamentally different theological positions.

Cardinal Ratzinger who became Benedict XVI was the staunch defender of doctrine against the relativity of truth. He took a very strong stand over against postmodernism and of course all kinds of efforts to move the Church in a more liberal direction. It was at least speculated by many that his retirement had to do with the overwhelming nature to him of the priestly child sex abuse crisis that was rocking the Church and other challenges, moral and financial as well as theological inside the Vatican and the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. In the movie by the way, Pope Francis played by Jonathan Pryce, who has been nominated for the Academy Award, is presented as kindly and progressive and relational, having a sense of humor. Pope Benedict, in contrast, is presented as completely lacking in a sense of humor, lacking in a sense of relatedness, lacking in human touch and feeling, and instead being a Teutonic German cardinal who as the defender of the faith rose to the papacy due to his service to Pope John Paul II.

So what are we looking at here and why does this deserve so much of our attention? Well, first of all, it is incredibly ironic that this new story emerged in the aftermath almost immediately of this major motion picture that was released on Netflix. And it is a storyline that appeared first as fiction, but then showed up in the media just a matter of days later as fact. The movie depicts fictionalized conversations between the two men. And even though the historical fact is that Pope Francis followed Pope Benedict upon his resignation, the actual storyline presented in the movie is fictional, not fact. But it tells the story—and here’s the point—the way that Hollywood believes the story should be told. And then the story, the controversy breaks out as an apparent disagreement between the current pope and the Pope Emeritus and the media respond with coverage that is almost just like the Hollywood movie.

That tells us a very great deal, not only about how the larger culture looks to the Roman Catholic Church in this circumstance, but how they look to any religious body, any form of Christianity or any kind of Christian identity, any form of theological conservatism when appeared with theological liberalism, and one of the things we need to note is that the logic turns out to be essentially the same. The logic, the argument for theological liberalism is that the teaching of the Church must change. The doctrine of the Church must change. The pastoral application of the doctrine of the Church must change. The moral stance of the Church must change or we will have no place in the modern world. And then the modern world comes along in the form of Netflix, Hollywood, and all the rest, including the international media to say, “Did you get the storyline? Do you understand? Good pope, bad pope. Do you understand? Good preacher, bad preacher. Good evangelical, bad evangelical. Good Christian college, bad Christian college. Good seminary, bad seminary.” Yes, we get the point.

We come to understand that this is a storyline that isn’t limited to one movie. It’s the storyline to which our culture is increasingly committed.

Part III

A Moral Revolution on the Dance Floor: The Necessity of Determining Convictions Before the Dance Ever Begins

And then as we follow how these issues unfold in the public square, we turn next to one of the most bizarre headlines that I have ever dealt with on The Briefing. This is a recent headline that appeared in just this week in The Salt Lake Tribune. The headline is this, “BYU,” that is Brigham Young University, “Will Allow Same Sex Couples to Ballroom Dance.” Courtney Tanner is the reporter and I’m just going to let her tell the story in the opening paragraphs, “Tyler Keith Wilson has danced in many ballroom competitions at Brigham Young University through the years gliding with his partner over the glossy floors while she turned in a dress that looked like cotton candy. The decorated dancer, a Utah native, will be there again this year too when the school hosts the nation’s Top Amateur Ballroom Championship, except this time for the first time at the Provo Campus, Wilson will be dancing with another man.”

The report then goes on to state, “The event will be historic for the conservative college, which is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. To host the coveted showcase, which it has every year since at least 1997, BYU was required to lift its ban keeping same sex couples from competing this spring.” Well, that’s a bizarre opening to a bizarre story. The headline signals to us, this is an unusual situation, but what we’re looking at here is actually perfectly in line with the trajectory of what we just talked about in the previous story. This has to do with Brigham Young University, Mormonism’s prize academic institution. An institution that holds to a conservative honor code for students related to sexual activity prohibiting all, not only homosexual activity, but all same sex expression, including explicitly ballroom dancing.

Here you see BYU forced by its logic into the position of having to allow an exception to its own honor code so that it can host this dance convention or competition. Well, as the story unfolds, it turns out that when there was a challenge to Brigham Young’s restrictions, limiting ballroom dancing to a man and a woman with the man leading and the woman following, Brigham Young initially decided that it would continue to host the competition, but stay firmly committed to its honor code. And thus the event would not be officially sanctioned. But just more recently, the university announced that it decided that the event would be a fully nationally sanctioned event and thus they would adopt the policies of the sponsoring body and they would allow, on their campus, this competition to include same sex couples, men dancing with men, and presumably women dancing with women.

That’s a moral revolution right there on a dance floor.

The Associated Press reports the story this way, “Brigham Young University will allow same sex couples to compete in a national ballroom dance competition hosted by the school. A move that goes against the institutions code against gay relationships.” And the Associated Press says that BYU was required to do this, to lift its ban on same sex couples competing in the U.S. National Amateur DanceSport Championships. Now, I’ll be honest, until this story appeared, I did not know that there was such a thing, much less that there would be a controversy about such a thing. But nowadays there’s controversy about everything, especially when it insinuates, let’s just recognize here, for very good reasons, heterosexuality. Now some of the background to ballroom dancing is the fact that it has been rather aristocratic in culture. And this reminds us by the way that the aristocracy, which was after all entrusted to maintain moral stability has become instead over the course of the last century, an engine of moral revolution and transformation.

And of course this is reflected into just about everything. I went to the website of the National Dance Council of America to find that its current motto is this, no kidding, “Where your freedom to dance lives.” You wondered where it lives? Well, evidently, according to this motto, your freedom to dance lives at the National Dance Council of America and that was the council that put the pressure on Brigham Young University. By the way, the policy that Brigham Young is evidently putting in a ban is a policy that says without exception, “A couple in the traditional ballroom dance genre is defined as a male and a female with the male dancing the part of the lead and the female dancing the part of the follow.”

But now given this pressure from this organizing and sanctioning organization, that after all gives all the cultural cachet to this ballroom dance competition known as DanceSport, Brigham Young has held to its policy that Brigham Young students may not dance in violation of their policy, but other competitors will, and that tells us that there’s going to be a very interesting picture on the floor of the competition there at Brigham Young University. There will be activities going on visible to the public and to everyone who can see that are in direct conflict to the stated moral convictions of Brigham Young University and Brigham Young University’s authorities will have to take responsibility for that. But looking at this in worldview analysis, I want to go further and point out that once that picture is allowed on the campus, it by its very nature begins to subvert the moral authority of the university.

The university can claim, and rightly so in this sense, that coercive pressure was brought upon it to change its policy and allow the exception, but the reality is they had to choose. Brigham Young University had to choose between having this officially recognized dance event or bearing the cultural pressure of not doing so and that on the basis of their stated convictions. Here again as a parable for all of us to see. In this case, this is about Mormonism’s prize university, Brigham Young University, but it could just as easily be about any other religious institution. The same kind of pressure is assuredly going to be brought and that pressure is not only going to come from organizations that I honestly did not previously know to exist, such as the National Dance Council of America. Again, “where your freedom to dance lives.” But also in organizations such as the NCAA or for that matter, prominent athletic conferences. At some point, those conferences and the NCAA are almost certain to bring coercive action against Christian institutions when it comes to LGBTQ issues, when it comes to admission and hiring and housing and the entire gamut of policies. You don’t have to wonder if that’s going to come. It is only a question of time.

But I want to turn this away from Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution, and instead address evangelical Christians. You better understand that if you were in charge of an evangelical congregation or for that matter, most importantly a school, a university or a seminary, you had better figure out in advance what your convictions are and you had better determine in advance that you’re going to hold to your convictions. You better have that decision very much made and for that matter, very much public before the dance begins.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website You can find me on Twitter by going to For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to For information on Boyce College, just go to

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

Subscribe via email for daily Briefings and more (unsubscribe at any time).