Tuesday, March 16, 2021
It's Tuesday, March 16, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Vatican Announces That the Roman Catholic Church Cannot Bless Same-Sex Unions: A Closer Look at an Important Argument about What Christians Can and Cannot Bless
There's a huge story breaking in Roman Catholicism. The Vatican issued a statement on Monday indicating that faithful Roman Catholics cannot extend a blessing to same-sex relationships, and this comes in the context of international development. What we are seeing is something like a theological civil war in the Roman Catholic church, but it's not just about that one institution. It's actually about an entire array of institutions. Also, we're looking at the fact that every single Christian denomination, every single religious institution or group is facing very similar questions.
So what exactly took place yesterday? Well, in Rome, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement known as a response to a dubium. A dubium in the Latin is a question submitted to the congregation that must be answered. It comes in the form of a question followed by an answer. The question was this, does the church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex? Now, this refers to the sacramental understanding of the Roman Catholic church of marriage as one of the sacraments and of the sacramental blessing being defined by the church in such a way that it's binding through the centuries.
Now, just to state the matter as plainly as possible, in no previous century to the 20th would such an issue even have been imaginable, but it's imaginable now, let's face it. By the time you get to the early decades of the 20th century, the normalization and legalization of same-sex marriage is advancing country by country. But there are limits to that expansion, at least in the present, and there are tensions within any religious body that holds to any form of revealed theology and then holds to any understanding of marriage that is defined by that scripture or that writing. For Christianity, of course, it is the Bible, Old and New Testaments both.
But you also have to understand that the Roman Catholic church claims the right of the development of doctrine under the authority of the Magisterium headed by the Pope, and thus eventually Pope's have to answer these kinds of questions. But there was a unique twist to what took place yesterday in Rome. The statement was released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, but at the very end of the document, there was a very clear statement of papal authority. It stated "The Sovereign Pontiff Francis, at the audience granted to the undersigned secretary of this congregation was informed and gave his assent to the publication of the above-mentioned Responsum ad dubium with the annexed explanatory note."
Now, that might not sound like anything very important to you, but that's headline news and that is an earthquake. You're talking about the fact that this Pope, Pope Francis, has been giving all kinds of indications that he just be open to some kind of redefinition of Catholic doctrine, and that would include of course the sacramental doctrine when it comes to the acceptance of homosexuality, the entire LGBTQ+ agenda. He's made very clear in some statements that the Vatican never adequately cleaned up that he's implying that at least pastorally there needs to be some liberalization of Catholic practice in doctrine.
But the statement that came yesterday means there are limits. This is where we need to understand the international dimension of what took place yesterday. It has to do with the fact that the German bishops of the Roman Catholic church have been pressing for years for a liberalization of Catholicism, and it reached the point that in the last couple of years, there have been open questions as to whether or not German Catholics, especially their elite, their aristocracy of bishops, were headed in a direction that would lead to schism with Roman Catholicism itself. There would be a divide between say Berlin and Rome.
Back in 2019, the Washington Post ran a headline, German bishops want to modernize the church. Are they getting too far ahead of Pope Francis? Well, the chronology here is really important. That was two years ago. But just in the last several days and weeks, German bishops have turned up the temperature in the expectation of what they're up to. For one thing, you had at least two of the bishops there in Germany come out in favor of what can only be described as normalizing same-sex relationships and same-sex behaviors, saying that homosexuality is actually normal. Back in 2019, the German church committed itself to what it called a synodal process, and that meant a process of conversation especially among the bishops as to whether or not Catholic doctrine should be changed.
One of the most important figures here is the Archbishop of Berlin who stated quite publicly, "The sexual preference of man expresses itself in puberty and assumes a hetero or homosexual orientation, both belong to the normal forms of sexual predisposition, which cannot be changed with the help of a specific socialization." The keywords there are normal forms of sexual predisposition. That is a statement that straightforwardly normalizes homosexuality. But wait, just a minute. The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church calls even homosexual desire or orientation intrinsically disordered. That is to say contrary to creation, contrary to order, contrary to scripture, contrary to the church's teaching and tradition.
Of course, you're looking at the fact that the Catholic bishops there in Germany are threatening what can only be described as a civil war, a revolution. You have also had a Pope that is undeniably, rightly described as liberal. So were these bishops in Germany moving in a direction at which the Pope had been winking? Well, at least some of them are going to be able to claim they had encouragement from the Vatican, encouragement as recently as recent meetings at the Vatican in which the Pope had asked for fairly liberal German bishops and archbishops to give the kinds of addresses that would set the tone for these meetings.
But what happened yesterday in Rome, especially with the Pope's statement that was added to the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, it says, "Stop, you can't go any further." It goes so far as to identify same-sex relationships as sin, same-sex unions as inherently sinful and go so far as to say that Roman Catholic priests and clergy cannot extend the blessings to same-sex unions. But at least two of the Catholic bishops in Germany had actually been coming up with the blessings for such unions they said they intended to employ.
Now, the language that I'm going to read to you is language that makes sense in the Catholic context, but it's the pattern of this argument that we need to hear very, very clearly. The document says, "In order to conform with the nature of sacramentals," that is to say with the Catholic teaching concerning the sacraments, "When a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive an expressed grace according to the designs of God, inscribed in creation and fully revealed by Christ the Lord. Therefore, only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the church."
Now, just stepping out of that sacramental theology defining marriage as a sacrament, as a Protestant, as an evangelical just taking marriage on biblical terms, the pattern of this argument is absolutely right. The pattern of the argument is this, nothing can be blessed that is contrary to nature, creation order is God's intention. God does not bless that which is contrary to his intention, not to mention, we would also say as evangelicals, the explicit testimony of Scripture and thus what is contrary to his created order cannot be blessed by those whose responsibility it is to maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
The document from the Vatican goes on to say, "For this reason, it is not licit," that is allowable, "to impart a blessing on relationships or partnerships even stable that involves sexual activity outside of marriage," that is outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman, "open in itself to the transmission of life." "As is the case," says the document, "of the unions between persons of the same sex." Now, here's another very important argument, the pattern of which we really need to pay attention. "The presence in such relationships of positive elements which are in themselves to be valued and appreciated cannot justify these relationships and render them legitimate objects of the ecclesial blessings, since the positive elements exist within the context of a union not ordered to the creator's plan." Earthquake there.
What the Catholic church is declaring in this case is absolutely right. The pattern of this argument is not applicable merely to Catholics, but to anyone who operates on the basis of the understanding that God created the universe for his glory and revealed his purposes for humanity in that creation, including making us male and female, creating the institution of marriage, and commanding us to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. The pattern of argument we need to note here is where the Vatican statement says that in these illicit relationships, there might be positive elements, but those positive elements do not justify the rebellion against creation. Objectively, the relationship is wrong. Therefore, the positive elements within the relationship cannot justify the breaking of God's command.
That's absolutely crucial for us to recognize. That means that yes, there are those who are going to argue that there are benefits that come in certain ways by same-sex marriage, for example, perhaps more social stability, perhaps a more stable context for human beings living together. There may be, of course, affection between the two individual's relationship. There may be enduring faithfulness. But the point is this, the Roman Catholic Church here very carefully in this document released the argument that the positive elements that may exist, now, I think the Catholic church would go on to say by common grace, they cannot be used to justify what directly violates God's plan and is, to use the language of the Catholic catechism, objectively disordered or intrinsically disordered.
Now, we can only hope that there are others listening to this argument. Both of these arguments are just incredibly important. Both of them, by the way, are not unique to the Roman Catholic church. The language here is uniquely Catholic. The sacramental theology is uniquely Catholic. But the logic is not uniquely Catholic. This is the argument actually that I deployed on The Briefing talking about the legalization of polyamory in Cambridge, Massachusetts on The Briefing yesterday. I talked about it then on Monday's edition of The Briefing having no idea that yesterday, that very day, the Vatican would release this document.
But the point is that these arguments are not just the Vatican's arguments. They must be our arguments. They must be our arguments that what is intrinsically disordered cannot be affirmed by faithful Christians. We can't. No claim about intrinsic goods found within these relationships can overcome the fact that they are objectively disordered. They are directly disobedient to God's plan. Those last words in that paragraph I read were that there can be no blessing to a union "not ordered to the creator's plan". Exactly right. There can be no blessing extended by the church to unions or relationships not ordered to the creator's plan.
But going back to Catholicism, it's going to be very, very interesting to watch even in coming days, weeks, and months the response to this statement from the Vatican. There's likely to be outraged from the liberal sectors of the church, but we're also likely to hear people say, "We thought the Pope was winking in our direction." That just points to a very dangerous pattern for any kind of religious leader. If you wink at this kind of liberal development, don't be surprised when people take it further than you had intended, or at least you understand you can get away with now.
As Their Churches Shrink, Many German Bishops Want to Liberalize the Roman Catholic Church: How Does the German Government Subsidize Global Theological Liberalism?
But also before leaving this, let's look at German Catholicism for a moment. You're looking at the German bishops who are watching over 100,000 Roman Catholics leave their church in Germany every year. As a matter of fact, in the last year for which full records are available, it was over 200,000, and you're looking at very liberal societies. There is no question that Germany as a part of Western Europe is now becoming a very secularized culture, and it's actually operating in open antipathy to and rejection of historic Christian moral teachings, and really any claim of supernatural revealed truth.
Like the United States and some other nations, Germany is not monolithic border to border. There is a very strong conservatism in the area of Germany known as the State of Bavaria, but nonetheless, through most of Germany, and you can just look at the location of the controversial bishops here, they are in territory where Catholicism is in retreat. Christianity is increasingly unspoken and the kind of sexual liberalization that is demanded has just become the norm. But there's another political twist to this, and this will just make you think about the contrast between Germany and the United States.
In Germany, if you identify as a member of church, then you have to pay a church tax to the government that passes that money onto the religious organization of which you are a member. Now, for the Roman Catholic church, that means untold amounts of money. But of course, that also means that if you're losing 100,000 or 200,000 members a year, then your budget is going to show it with a fall off on church tax. Now in the United States, the very idea of a church tax is not only unconstitutional, it's unthinkable. But there's more to it than that. In one sense, the very liberal German bishops in the Catholic Church been buying friends. Now, I can say that out loud. A lot of conservative Catholics have been saying it more softly. They're buying friends, including friends in the Vatican by sending millions and millions of dollars, millions and millions of Euros to other Catholic groups and other nations and that's being subsidized by the church tax in Germany.
So in another very strange and ironic twist, you actually have the German government through the church tax funding theological liberalism, by the way, only in the Roman Catholic church but also in some Protestant churches as well, in such a way that the German government is basically paying for subsidizing theological liberalism in many places that reach far beyond Germany. If you know anything about Western thought, and in particular Christian theology in the West, you understand that Germany is the very source of so many of the central teachings of Protestant liberalism.
It's not changed much in that respect, but it's not just Protestant liberalism, as we've seen it's Catholic liberalism as well. We'll be watching developments, especially the response to this Vatican statement in days and weeks ahead, because that response will reveal a great deal. Not only about the Vatican's challenge, but ours.
If You Buy Into the “Right” of Physician-Assisted Suicide, Then You’ll Accept the Entire Sequence: Christians Must Eagerly Affirm the Sanctity and Dignity of Every Single Human Life
But next, while we're thinking internationally, let's come closer to home and just go over our northern border to Canada. Religion News Service recently ran an article entitled silence is not an option, it has to do with Canada's new assisted suicide law. The bottom line in this is that Canada now, sadly, but predictably is expanding the definitions of those who legally are now said to have access to physician-assisted suicide legally so in Canada. Here's what you need to watch. The Canadian Parliament has now adopted legislation that would extend the right to physician-assisted suicide to the disabled, not to the terminally ill, but to the disabled, those whose disability does not mean impending death.
But nonetheless, they may make claim to the fact that they want physician-assisted suicide, and the Canadian Parliament have now extended the logic that they had insisted would be limited to those who had a reasonable expectation of death in short time, you've seen that that promise never is kept. Once you buy into the logic of physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia, you find yourself in almost every case just extending the logic further and further. From a Christian worldview perspective, we understand that that is to be expected because if you're going to make personal autonomy, an idolatrous God, such that we now have the right to demand that we would be in control of our own death, then you're going to find it very difficult to maintain any political will against extending that logic to anyone who for any reason makes claim upon it.
So let's just note what we have seen in nations such as Belgium and the Netherlands, is that the logic that began with physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia for those who were terminally ill was extended to adults, terminally ill. Then it was extended to adults who weren't terminally ill, but had some diagnosis that they did not want to deal with. Then it was extended to those who had a form of depression or some kind of psychiatric diagnosis. Then it was extended to children and then it was extended beyond adolescents to younger children. What we're looking at here is that in Canada, it has been extended to the disabled.
But here's from a worldview Christian understanding, we need to understand something else and it comes down to this. If you buy into the idea that persons ought to have a right to physician-assisted suicide, and the argument is made that we are autonomous individuals and we should have the right to determine how we shall live and how and when we shall die, then you're going to also find yourself dealing with the argument that there is not only a liberty to die, there's also a duty to die. That duty to die comes down to what's often just a utility or financial argument. You have people who are using up all kinds of resources. In a personal private context, you have people who feel like they are a burden on their own families, a burden of the family's time and attention, and yes, a burden on the family's finances.
Thus, the logic of this is that if you say persons ought to have a right to die, then eventually does become a duty to die. Then of course you have the slide from what's called voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide to what is rightly honestly described as involuntary. For instance, in various countries that have legalized physician-assisted suicide, we have physicians that have gone ahead and administered death when the individuals that had requested it changed their mind, and the physician overrode the objections and actually carried out the death by poison in the form of drugs.
The RNS articles cites Harold Braswell. He was asked the question, "Can you give us a brief update with the latest going on with the assisted suicide law in Canada?" He said, "We're witnessing the extension of so-called justified killing to mentally ill and disabled people in the midst of a pandemic. The situation," said Professor Braswell, "is so dire that the United Nations has, in two separate statements, condemned this particular bill, as well as the broader practice of physician-assisted suicide on the basis of disability. Nothing about this as ambiguous or complex." Professor Braswell teaches healthcare ethics at St. Louis University, and you'll note his own clarity here. He says, "Nothing in this is ambiguous. Nothing in this is complex." This amounts to killing people who have disabilities.
There's another very important statement from Professor Braswell. He says, "Conservative," and that's put in quotation marks, "physician-assisted suicide has undoubtedly primed the pump for its much less careful counterpart." Now, I'll go further than Professor Braswell. I'm just going to make the emphatic statement that if you buy the first step in this logic, you have bought the entire sequence. You may lie to the public and you may lie to yourselves. But the fact is you have bought into the entire sequence. Once you open the door of physician-assisted suicide or any form of euthanasia, you're responsible for everything that passes through that door. That means the physician-assisted killing of children, the disabled, people with psychiatric disorders, as well as those who identified with a terminal illness, which by the way, often turns out not to be terminal, at least in the sense that it was claimed at the time when the physician-assisted suicide was demanded.
Charles Camosy interviewing Professor Braswell for this article, asked him an extremely important question. He asked if the secular definition of human life can stand up to this as contrasted with a thick theological vision. Then comes this amazing response from professor Braswell. He says, "I am a secular Jew, but I work with theologians, and as I've written, I've been personally moved by religious communities that live by the kind of thick ethic you described. Theological conceptions of the good can be more inclusive of frailty, dependency and lack of control than the dominant secular alternative of liberal capitalism."
Now, what he's referring to there is the fact that the secular worldview really doesn't have any adequate defense of the sacredness of life of the disabled or those who have a psychiatric diagnosis. If humanity is worth whatever we can produce for an economy, if we are only as good as the functionalities that we possess, then the secular worldview has no way to say the human life is, in that case, sacred. By the way, sacred and secular are contradictions. But nonetheless, his next statement is even more important. He says this, "Theology can remind secular people like myself that it's entirely possible to talk about disabled people without floating the idea of killing them, or mentioning that if I were to become one, I'd want to end my own life. I think we irreligious have largely forgotten how to talk this way."
That is some of the saddest language, very honest language, I appreciate the honesty, but it's some of the saddest language I've ever heard. Here you have an admission from an esteemed professor of healthcare ethics that the secular worldview with which he identifies, "Is now no longer even really capable of floating the idea of a dignity and sanctity of life for the disabled rather than floating the idea of killing them or mentioning that if I were to become one, I'd want to end my own life." He says that the irreligious "have largely forgotten how to talk this way." Well, that statement, as horrifying as it is, should for Christians actually be a very bracing reminder and a prod to our own conscience that we make sure we are very eagerly, we are very faithfully, we are very energetic talking this way, especially with one another, especially in the church, making that talk actual faithfulness, and then speaking that same authenticity and fervor of conviction to the secular world around us.
We have to be those, if we're the last on earth, who speak up for the sanctity and dignity of every single human life at every point of development from fertilization until natural death, under every condition, without respect to functionality or disability or consciousness. It's also extremely chilling, bracing for all of us to recognize that we're here talking about the nation which is our nearest neighbor, right across our northern border. We're talking about the nations of the United States and Canada representing an exchange of ideas, an exchange of politics, an exchange, of course, that's economic, but also an exchange that comes down to worldview and morality. Don't believe for one minute that the logic that is here chillingly revealed in this action in Canada will stay in Canada. Furthermore, honesty requires that we admit that this logic is already right here, and horrifyingly enough, it's gaining ground.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
Today I'm in Jackson, Tennessee, where I'm delivering the Dockery Lectures. I'm going to be speaking on religious liberty in two public lectures, and both of them will be accessible to the public by streaming. If there is time for the posting of today's edition, we will put those links on at the website for today's edition. If not, they'll be posted in my Twitter feed during the day and time for you to participate. I hope you'll do just that.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.