The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, May 6, 2021

It’s Thursday, May 6, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Clash of Two Rival Orthodoxies—And President Biden and Speaker Pelosi Are Right in the Middle of the Controversy

There’s a looming standoff in the United States, and we need to pay very close attention to what’s going on here. On the one hand, you have Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, but he’s not just alone, indeed he is the most Reverend Salvatore Joseph Cordileone. He is the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco, and with him are a majority of the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church.

On the other side, let’s just take two illustrative examples. The President of the United States, Joseph Biden, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives, San Francisco Representative, Nancy Pelosi. Both of them are Roman Catholic and both of them are now in a standoff over against the majority, the bishops of their own church. This is a story that extends far beyond Roman Catholicism. This is a standoff that should have the attention of every single person in the United States of any kind of moral concern, because the key issue here is abortion. The standoff is over abortion rights, and the standoff is between the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and the president of the United States, only the second Catholic president of the United States, and the speaker of the house who until recently was the highest ranking woman in American political history.

You’re looking at the fact that you have Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi on one side, Archbishop Cordileone and at least the vast majority of his fellow bishops on the other side. A major salvo was issued on the first day of this month that is a pastoral letter on the human dignity of the unborn, Holy Communion and Catholics in public life. It was released by the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco. The title of the paper, “Before I Formed You in the Womb, I Knew you.” As the paper makes very clear that is language drawn from the opening chapter of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you before you were born. I dedicated you a prophet to the nations. I appointed you.”

Now, as the paper written by the Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco unfolds, the Archbishop goes to the fact that they are now as Catholics facing an especially crucial time, “This is especially a time for us Catholics, whose faith calls us to advocate for the universal good of a consistent ethic of life in every stage and in every condition to call our country back to respect for human life.” He goes on to write, “And this is especially so for Catholics who are prominent in all walks of public life, entertainment, media, politics, education, the corporate world, and so forth, as they have such a powerful influence on shaping the attitudes and practices of people in our nation.” Now, what you have here in this face off is nothing less than what Robert George has called, “The clash of orthodoxies.” That’s a good way to put it.

Here you have the political orthodoxy of the democratic party over against the theological and moral orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic Church. And about that standoff, there can be no question. When it comes to the political orthodoxy of the democratic party, that party has effectively expunged any kind of pro-life influence, or position, or policy whatsoever. Going so far as we saw during the 2020 race for the Democratic presidential nomination to force Joe Biden into the position of now denying support for the Hyde Amendment, which he had bragged about supporting for a number of decades. The new pro-abortion orthodoxy of the Democratic party accepts virtually no exceptions, and it takes no prisoners. It is an absolute orthodoxy enforced by the high priests of abortion, for whom abortion itself is the great sacrament.

On the other side, you have the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and there can be no doubt about it. Even though the Pope of that church sends some very mixed signals, there is no mixture of signals whatsoever in the official dogmatic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. It teaches that every single human life from the moment of fertilization is sacred, it possesses dignity, and it is to be protected. It makes very clear that elective abortion is a grave moral sin, and so is complicity in abortion. But why abortion rather than other issues? Are other issues on the same moral scale as abortion? Here once again the Archbishop Bishop is very helpful. He writes, “Abortion is the axe laid to the roots of the tree of human rights. When our culture encourages the violation of life at its youngest and most vulnerable condition, other ethical norms cannot stand for long.”

That’s poetic. It’s also profoundly true. Abortion is indeed the ax laid to the roots of the tree of human rights. We discuss that often on The Briefing. We discuss the fact that once you begin to negotiate away the dignity and sanctity of human life, then every other claim you may make under the name of human rights becomes absolutely nothing more than a statement, than a sentence. If you separate human rights and human dignity from the basic moral status of the infinite worth of every single human being, then you begin the inevitable slide towards the absolute subversion of every single human right. By the way, there’s also no doubt about the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to gender, that is human beings made as male and female, and the reality that as the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church says, “Even same-sex sexual desire is inherently disordered.” That is in the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

But what we’re looking at here is the fact that the two rival orthodoxies, and I’ll expand it beyond saying a clash between the orthodoxy in the Democratic party and the orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic church, what you have in an expanded vision is a clash of orthodoxies between the new secular orthodoxy and any kind of orthodoxy that is tied to the historic Christian tradition on these crucial moral issues and cultural fronts. The Roman Catholic Church has been quite consistent in saying that it is not only that an act of sin, but complicity in a sinful act is sin itself. As the Archbishop wrote, “We all have a moral duty to avoid cooperating in evil as much as possible,” but later in the document, he gets even more to the point when the Archbishop writes to summarize, “It is never morally permissible to cooperate in a formal way in an evil act. It is never morally permissible to cooperate in an immediate material way in the act itself.”

So where are the sparks coming from in this entire conflagration? Well, what you’re looking at here is the fact that it’s communion. It is the Roman Catholic mass, and it is whether or not Catholics who are defying the official teaching of their church, and they are morally complicit in grave evil, whether or not they should have access to the mass, and that means most particularly to what the Roman Catholic Church defines as Holy Communion. Now, let me be clear, as an evangelical Christian, I do not believe in the sacramental teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and we have fundamental theological differences on an entire range of issues from the authority of scripture, and justification by faith alone, and all of the Solas of Reformation over against the Council of Trent and the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, but what we are talking about here is a shared moral conviction, a shared moral conviction on the sanctity and dignity of human life.

This represents the vast mainstream of all of the historic branches of Christianity throughout virtually all of Christian history. But the Roman Catholic Church does consider communion to be a sacrament, and forbidding a Catholic to come to the sacrament is a way of forbidding, according to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, access to the sacrament as a means of grace. But the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church makes clear that communion may be denied to those who are standing in opposition to the teaching of the church and are cooperating in what the church believes is grave moral evil. Now, the Roman Catholic Church would say, “There is no one who can come to the sacrament of Holy Communion, according to Catholic doctrine, without sin.”

But at the same time it says that, “There are those who are complicit in particularly grave sins who can rightly be denied communion.” And you understand that what the Archbishop of San Francisco has stated in the document by saying that abortion is the ax that is laid to the base of the tree is that abortion is not just another sin, it is a sin of such a fundamental and heinous nature that cooperating in that sin is different even in effect from cooperation in other forms of sin. Toward the end of his letter, Archbishop Cordileone says, “With regard to Catholics in public life who participate in abortion or seek to advance it through legislation or advocacy, precisely because these are actions of which many people are aware, it introduces another consideration. Scandal.”

Now, when you hear the word “scandal,” we tend to think of something that is salacious, and something that gains public attention because of the public and salacious nature of the sin, but in official Roman Catholic teaching scandal means something else. As the catechism of the Catholic church defines scandal, it is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil.” A very technical, very interesting definition of scandal, but one that is absolutely crucial to the argument being made by the archbishop. An argument that comes down to the fact that Catholic politicians who are complicit in the grave evil of abortion should not present themselves for communion. And if they do present themselves for communion, they should be denied access to the sacrament.

That’s the argument being made by the archbishop of San Francisco. Now notice again, this isn’t incidental because he is after all the Archbishop of San Francisco, and the speaker of the house of representatives, and ardently pro-abortion and famously Catholic identified, Nancy Pelosi, is indeed elected by a congressional district in San Francisco. So we’re talking about someone who as archbishop actually does have pastoral authority over those who might in San Francisco as Roman Catholic priests have to decide whether or not the speaker of the house of representatives should be allowed access to communion. When it comes to the president of the United States, now by elevation to that office the most famous Catholic layman, if not in the world, that at least in the United States, when you are looking at his situation, he lives right now…. Well, you know the address, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. That comes under the archdiocese of Washington, but his historic home is in Delaware, his home parish in the Roman Catholic church.

The fact is that the bishops of both of these areas have indicated that they do not intend to deny President Biden access to communion, but it’s also very interesting that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is now poised to adopt a policy statement saying that political leaders and public figures who are Roman Catholics, and who are complicit in abortion, should not present themselves for communion. And it is a very direct reference to the president of the United States and the chief officer of the United States house of representatives. Liberals in the Roman Catholic Church are of course absolutely aghast. They’re embarrassed that anyone could actually believe so much in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and believe that it’s authoritative and binding that Roman Catholics in office should be obliged to agree with the teaching of their church, or at least not to violate it in grotesque ways lest they be denied communion.

But what we are witnessing here is the fact that there’s a civil war in the Roman Catholic Church, worldwide to some degree, but also in the United States. You have two rival visions of Catholicism. One of them is basically wedded to the moral values of the secular revolution. And for that matter, the moral revolution that comes down to the sexual revolution and all of its attendant parts right down to the letters LGBTQ. But you’re also looking at the fact that, at least for now, the majority, the bishops in the Roman Catholic Church as represented in the US Conference of Bishops, they intend to hold the line on this issue. They represent a vision of Catholicism that is indeed doctrinal and tied to historic moral teachings.

So we’ve seen two rival orthodoxies, and now we see civil war within American Catholicism. You might just say that Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden are on one side, the majority of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church on the other side. The very week that President Biden was inaugurated, the chief of that conference of Catholic bishops made very clear that his elevation to that office was putting the Catholic church and the United States in an extremely awkward position.

Part II

There’s a Civil War Within the Catholic Church: Which Vision for the Future of the Roman Catholic Church Will Prevail?

But at this point I also want to offer a bit of history, and this takes us back to the most famous political family in the United States, and that is, at least in modern times, the Kennedy family, also the other very famous Catholic family in the United States.

And of course, we’re looking at the fact that John F. Kennedy in 1960 was elected the first Roman Catholic president of the United States. And there was a great deal of controversy about it at the time. And you’re also looking at the fact that shortly after the Kennedy administration, his brother, Robert Kennedy, formerly attorney general under John F. Kennedy, was elected to the United States Senate from the State of New York. Even before that, John F. Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts had been taken by his youngest brother, Edward Kennedy, known familiarly as “Teddy.” The Kennedy family was, don’t miss this, famously pro-life, even as they were famously Catholic. For example, in a letter to a constituent dated August 3rd, 1971, Senator Edward Kennedy said that it was the duty of his generation of public servants to, “fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” but everything changed shortly thereafter, and Senator Edward Kennedy and other members of the Kennedy family turned actively pro-abortion, pro-abortion rights.

How did that happen? Well, we now know because some of the participants in a meeting held in the early 1970s at the Kennedy Compound Hyannis Port. We come to understand how the position was changed. And it was this, you had liberal Catholic moral theologians advising the Kennedy family. The Democratic party was even then along with liberal constituencies in their own base, they were moving in a pro-abortion direction. If the Kennedys were obligated to hold to a pro-life position, they themselves are going to be out of step with the rising political left. They couldn’t let that happen, so these very liberal Catholic moral theologians came up with an interesting and very deadly distinction. They said that a Roman Catholic political figure could maintain fidelity to Catholic moral teaching concerning, for example, the sanctity of human life and the wrongness of abortion, but could state that in public office, in the particular responsibilities of public office, it was not necessary to apply that Catholic conviction to public policy.

That position became even more public in 1984 in a famous address given by the then Democratic governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, at the University of Notre Dame, in which he made clear what became known as basically the Cuomo policy that a Catholic political leader could make a divide between the private and the public, and in private at least state allegiance, or at least non-opposition to the teaching of the church. And yet in the public sphere could be that advocate for, even the sponsor of legislation that would inevitably lead to the legalization and to the actual conducting of abortions, the killing of the unborn. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see this unfold, to see if the US Conference of Catholic Bishops continues along the lines of adopting the policy that is expected, saying that Catholic politicians who hold to a pro-abortion, or what they might even call a pro-choice position, and are thus complicit in abortion, should not present themselves for Holy Communion.

And on the other hand, the absolute orthodoxy of the secular movement in the United States that says, “Abortion must be legal under any circumstance for any reason or for no reason at all.” Furthermore, just to keep pace with this argument, the democratic party has now solidified its position that taxpayers must also be coerced into paying for abortion. The government must not only be pro-abortion in its policies, but it must basically pay for abortions in order to achieve an equity in the access of abortion on the part of all women in the United States. But wait just a minute, those moral revolutionaries have also said, “You really can’t use the word woman here, rather people who might be pregnant.” But for evangelicals, this is not only a matter that is of interest, it is a matter that must be theologically and ethically clarifying for evangelical Christians as well.

We’re looking at a debate within the Roman Catholic Church, but we also see the mirror image of these two orthodoxies when you look at liberal Protestantism on the one hand, very much just like liberal Catholicism on these issues, and where you see evangelicalism Christianity on the other hand or confessional Protestantism, and you see a continuing commitment to Christian orthodoxy, you see this clash of orthodoxies, a secular orthodoxy and a theological and moral orthodoxy. No church can hold both of those together, not for long. That’s why Massimo Faggioli, author of the new book entitled Joe Biden and Catholicism in the United States, says that these issues have now divided Catholicism in a very deep way, “bringing the US Catholic Church close to a situation of soft schism.” Now, the difference between soft schism and hard schism or division is that the hard division leads to two different churches, that hasn’t happened yet.

The soft schism or soft division means you have a lineup within one institutional church of two rival visions. And we need to understand that is not happening only in Roman Catholicism. And now as these very issues must be clarified amongst some who would call themselves “evangelicals,” but basically are also moving at least in these same directions towards the left. We’re about to find out whichever evangelical leaders have a courage like that demonstrated right here in this document by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of the Diocese of San Francisco. Evangelicals will disagree with this Catholic Archbishop over any number of fundamental issues, but here’s what’s also true, there’s a fundamental theological courage displayed here, and one we need to watch very carefully and admire.

Part III

The U.S. Birth Rate Continues to Plummet: There’s Much More Going on Here Than Just Economics. The Central Issue Is Moral

But next, as we’re looking at an issue very much tied, as you will understand to abortion, yesterday, headlines told us that we now know that the birth rate in the United States over the course of the last year reached the lowest percentage birth rate in the history of the United States of America, at least as has been recorded, but that is almost assuredly now inclusive of the entire history of the United States because the following birth rate in this sense was only possible since the advent of modern contraception and birth control, basically, looking at the development of the pill in the early 1960s. In other words, we really do have the data, and the data is very dangerous. It comes to us with a great deal of warning.

Sabrina Tavernise writing for the New York Times cover story tells us, “The birth rate declined for the sixth straight year in 2020,” that reported by the federal government on Wednesday, “early evidence that the Coronavirus pandemic accelerated a trend among American women of delaying pregnancy.” Well, that’s written pretty carefully, and I think it’s accurate. This is further confirmation of the extension of a trend that was already present before the Coronavirus hit.

There were those who were arguing, by the way, several months ago that the birth rate might go up under the conditions of people being more at home in the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown. But it turns out that that was not the case. The numbers are now clear all the way through the month of December, and the birth rate in the United States is down to 1.64. Now 1.64 is well beneath what we would consider to be the replacement rate for a civilization. This is a flashing red light. This is a very important warning sign, because when you’re looking at birth rate like this, you’re not looking merely at economic issues. Although there are people who would make that case, you’re looking at even more deeply seated and deeply rooted moral issues. If you look at this particular downturn, as the New York Times tells us, “This is a downturn over several years,” but it’s a downturn that is specifically dated back to about 2007, 2008.

There was a great recession during that time, 2008, 2009, the American birth rate went down. It was expected that the birth rate would come back up at least to some extent after the recession was alleviated, but that did not happen. The economy came charging back, but the birth rate did not. But here’s where even at the time we had to point out that economics alone really can’t explain this. Yes, in times of economic depression or recession there often is a dip in the birth rate, but it’s clearly tied to an economic urgency, and families quickly get back to the business of having babies, raising children, the birth rate goes back to normal or even an elevated rate, but that’s not happening. And what we’re looking at is the fact that through human history, there are people who have lived under far more dire economic circumstances that still went on to have babies.

There were families that thrived even under situations that were worse than the Great Depression in the United States. What we’re looking at here can’t be merely economic, even though there are many who want to make it just an economic issue, the moral issues come shining through even in these news reports. For example, an indicative woman profiled in the New York Times article was Molly Sharp, a 25 year old, “who works for a women’s health research group at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City.” Now wait just a minute, here’s what you need to know, this is the New York Times, and you’re looking at a Manhattan social location, but the woman that is being mentioned in this article is not in Manhattan, but is rather in Johnson City, Tennessee, one of the Tri-Cities of East Tennessee.

The 25-year-old told the New York Times, “I’m far too young to be responsible for a child. I’m still learning about myself and being an adult. There’s just no way I could take on that responsibility of having kid right now.” Well, just to put the matter as clearly as possible, human civilization found a way for women far younger than 25 to successfully become mothers in generations and centuries past. Now, here’s where there’s another major divide in the United States, a divide between those who think that it is a good thing that women are having fewer babies and are delaying motherhood far beyond where motherhood had arrived in the past. You have an article here in the New York Times, also another one in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other newspapers suggesting that millions of American women are now putting off motherhood until their thirties. That is not even to start having babies or having children in the family until their thirties.

We also know from other data that the decline in the marriage rate and increased age at first marriage is also leading to the fact that the family itself is becoming a weaker institution. And the expectation of children is now seen as a lifestyle choice rather than as either a social and moral obligation, nor as part of what is intended in marriage in the first place. Remember that even as human beings are made in God’s image in the book of Genesis, male and female, they are given a responsibility that begins, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth.” There are other countries that have an even more dire situation with the following birth rate, look at countries such as Japan, for example, but there is no doubt that the United States is, if more slowly, moving in the same direction.

And I’ll end The Briefing on this note, there is no doubt worldwide and over time that a higher birth rate is associated with deeper theological identity. As Christians understand, that isn’t, indeed it can’t be, an accident.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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