The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

It’s Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

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

Part I

Theological Revolt in Germany Over Blessing of Same-Sex Unions — Is the Roman Catholic Church Headed for Civil War?

The biggest theological story right now worldwide, by far, is coming from Germany. In Germany, you now have outright rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church by not only a handful, but a significant number of German Roman Catholics operating from the Catholic left, and you’re also looking at the fact that there is a synodal process going on right now in Germany that could, within a matter of just the next year, lead to what amounts to schism with Rome.

Now, you’re thinking Germany, schism with Rome. Yes. You’re thinking 500 years ago, the Protestant Reformation that took place in the 16th century. But we’re not talking about the news from the 16th century. No, we’re talking about news from the 21st century. The issues are, of course, not exactly the same, but what we are looking at right now in this biggest of theological stories of the current moment is the fact that the LGBTQ issues are now, on the part of so many in liberal religion, the reigning orthodoxy, and that’s exactly what we see taking shape in Germany.

Now, strangely enough, the figure of Pope Francis plays into this because he has been offering all kinds of hints and suggestions that he’s trying to move the church in a more liberal direction. A more liberal direction from what? This is just very important, and it’s important not only to Roman Catholics. When you’re looking right now at the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, it says that all same-sex sexual attraction, relationships, behavior, it is intrinsically disordered.

That’s a huge argument. It’s actually a right argument. Inherently disordered means what? It means disordered from creation. That’s the point. It is a rejection of what Luther, that great Reformer of the 16th century, would call the orders of creation. On this, the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers were in absolute agreement.

As a matter of fact, throughout the history of the Christian church, just about everyone has been in agreement with that issue and, of course, it’s not only deeply rooted in a theological tradition, it’s more explicitly made clear in Scripture. Just think of Romans 1. The apostle Paul there clearly says that a woman desiring a woman or a man desiring a man is against nature. That’s not presenting nature just as some kind of brute, naturalistic fact. It’s presenting nature as God’s creation. It is a violation of God’s creation order and his lordship over all creation.

Now, this has been coming to a head for a long time. We’ve been seeing the conflict, the conflict of the modern secular orthodoxy and liberal progressivism over against any form of theistic faith. And thus you see the collision, and it’s not just Evangelical Christianity. It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church. It’s Orthodox Judaism, it’s traditional Islam, and it is historic Christianity that is now at odds with this modern leftist orthodoxy.

But this new orthodoxy is taking no prisoners. It is absolutely determined to clear the entire field of any competing worldview and that means any form of binding theism. Now, as I said, and I’ve said this before, Pope Francis deserves a great deal of blame for the fact that liberals in Roman Catholicism had thought he was trying to push things their way. But when push does come to shove, Pope Francis is bound by the catechism and the official doctrinal teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. He doesn’t have much room for negotiation. And when you’re looking at the fact that he is, according to Roman Catholic doctrine, responsible for the stewardship of the faith, he really doesn’t have any choice but to do what he did just a matter of weeks ago.

The Sacred Congregation, that’s the official doctrinal body of the Vatican, issued a response known in the Vatican as a dubium. It is the answer to a question. And the question was posed, “Is there any way for same-sex unions to be officially blessed by the Roman Catholic Church?” The Vatican responded with a very clear, indeed an emphatically clear, “No.”

And it’s not just the Vatican as if you could say somehow, this was done without the Pope’s knowledge. No, the Pope went so far as to put his name on the answer that was given by the Sacred Congregation. This has papal authority. It has authority of the Sacred Congregation. It has the authority of 20 centuries of Christian teaching. And in this issue, the Roman Catholic Church is in full agreement with biblical Protestantism.

But at the same time, it is not in agreement with many of the more liberal Catholic forces around the world. And if you’re looking for one location where that liberalism becomes very clear, you’d be looking at the nation of Germany. Now, just remind yourself, in the last half of the 20th century, Germany was split in two between the communist East Germany and a democratic West Germany. After the fall of the Soviet Union, eventually, there was the reunification of Germany. And we also have to face the fact that when you’re looking at Germany, you are seeing a nation that increasingly represents the center of European identity, and it is a very liberal and very secular European identity. It is an identity that actually sets itself explicitly over against the European past, including the historic influence of Christianity.

Pope Francis has been arguing for the legitimacy of something called the synodal process. That’s a process in which you have national senates of bishops trying to decide many of these issues, but they’re supposed to do so on the basis of binding doctrine. But now, we face the fact that the senate of German bishops is poised to do exactly the opposite, to break with the Vatican on the issue of granting legitimacy and even sacramental recognition and blessing to same-sex relationships and beyond that, the entire range of all the issues and identities, behaviors, and relationships included in the letters LGBTQ.

I said this is the biggest theological story anywhere on the planet right now, and it really is in its urgency, but also in its significance. And on this past Sunday and Monday, you had many German churches, German Roman Catholic Churches defying the Vatican by holding same-sex blessing ceremonies. As the Washington Post reports, “German priests across more than 100 churches have blessed gay relationships in recent days in a coordinated and sometimes live-streamed defiance of a Vatican order signed by Pope Francis.” The Washington Post goes on to say, “For gay Catholics who have long felt marginalized by Catholic teaching, the events have been celebratory marked by sermons on inclusivity and rainbow church decorations, but the events also amount to an open rebellion and a test for a pontiff whose tenure has been marked by divisions over hot button issues, especially the church’s stance on homosexuality.”

One of the priests in Germany, Hans-Albert Gunk of the Dominikanerkloster St. Albertus Magnus, he told congregants, “The rainbow is a political sign. God excludes no one from his love.” There’s got to be an explanation for the Monday as in Monday of this week, and it comes down to the fact that on the Roman Catholic Church calendar, it is a day that is identified with Noah, and God gave Noah the rainbow sign and thus, Roman Catholic liberals in Germany decided to fly the rainbow flag on the day associated with Noah.

Now let’s just stop and remember for a moment, the rainbow was a promise of God’s covenantal faithfulness. It had nothing to do with the legitimization of unbiblical and ungodly forms of sexual behavior or sexual identity period. But we know that now the rainbow has been co-opted by the larger LGBTQ movement as a sign of the normalization and celebration of gay relationships and identity.

Francis X. Rocca, reporting for the Wall Street Journal, tells us that these blessings have become increasingly common, though they were generally done privately and underground. They were not done in public. The act of public defiance is what represents a new level of the rebellion against the Vatican on the LGBTQ+ issues. The Journal cites the Reverend Christian Olding, a Catholic priest, we are told, in the Northwestern German town of Geldern. He said he’s blessed about 10 same-sex couples over the last eight years, “It always has been a little bit kind of a secret.” “This is the first time,” he said, “that we’re going this way in society to do it visibly for everyone.”

There are so many instructive lessons we need to understand here. One is what happens when you suggest the possibility of some kind of moral or theological change when it comes to biblical morality. Pope Francis is guilty of having made those suggestions. He’s now reaping the whirlwind of what he himself has sown. Those who are looking at Pope Francis sympathetically as observers will say, “Well, he has himself in a very difficult position. He has conservative Roman Catholics and the very clear conservative teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this issue.” But if he persists in defending those doctrinal positions, he’s going to lose millions and millions of Catholics in much of the liberal portions of the earth, and they’re going to take with them millions and millions, even billions and billions of dollars.

And just about anyone who understands modern Germany knows that that is exactly what is at risk. You’re looking at the secular identity of Europe now predominating over any kind of theological identity in all but the most unusual cases. In the Roman Catholic Church there in Germany, you do have some continuing conservatives, but there is no doubt that generationally, the conservatives are going to be outnumbered by the liberals.

And when you get to the most urbanized portions of Germany, well, you’re also looking at what becomes the most secularized, and little footnote here, that, of course, is what we often remind ourselves of in the United States. It is the same phenomenon. The situation in Germany is a little more complex in that Germany actually offers tax support or tax dollars for churches, but they’re based upon the identification of German citizens who are paying their taxes. A part of the taxes of German citizens are sent to the church with which they identify. And that means that Catholic citizens paying taxes, identifying to the authorities as Catholic, have a bit of their taxes diverted and that, again, amounts to hundreds of millions of American dollars. And that means that the German church is extremely rich, even as it is extremely liberal, and yes, sometimes those two things do go together.

But just speaking frankly, as an evangelical observer, it also means that the German liberal Catholics have been buying friends elsewhere in the world. They’ve been sending some of those millions of dollars elsewhere, and nothing buys a certain level of friendship like money.

Next big issue, look at the fact that you’re going to have to pick sides here. That’s the necessity. Pope Francis eventually had to be very clear about where he stood. He had been trying to offer just suggestion here, suggestion there, telling reporters, “Who am I to judge?” But when it came down to it, well, he’s the one to judge. He put his name on that official doctrinal answer because eventually, he had to.

The same kind of decision, the same kind of eventual clarity is going to come from every single church and every single pastor. It’s going to come from every single Christian institution. Eventually, you’re going to have to say, “Here’s exactly what we believe.” My argument has been from the very beginning you better say that upfront, and you better say that early, or you’ll be responsible for the confusion that you yourself produce. And by the time you clarify things, you’re likely to disappoint the people who thought you might be headed in a different direction. Of course, there are only two directions. Either, we’re going to stand with the clear authority of Scripture and the Christian teaching of the church when it comes to these issues, or you’re going to join the liberal secular progressivist revolution.

Another observation is that there is just no middle ground. When you’re looking at these same sex blessings, you’re looking at a blessing, but you’re also looking at a theological argument. That’s a bigger issue, and that’s why I say this is the biggest theological story anywhere on the planet right now. That’s because the German Catholics who are moving ahead with the same-sex unions made a theological argument. What argument did they make? They made the argument that the love of two people of the same gender, the same sex for each other in a committed relationship pleases God.

As one of the Catholic authorities there in Germany said, “The love of homosexuals is something good.” Now what could be the argument behind that? Well, the argument is something we need to track. It’s an argument that says this. God made human beings in His image, and He made human beings as relational as loving beings. God might prefer, though some are unwilling to even say God would prefer that a man would love a woman and a woman would love a man, but it’s love itself which is the good thing. The form of the relationship is a secondary and nonessential issue, but here’s where we need to be emphatically clear. And speaking as evangelical Christians, we’re clear because of the clear teaching of Scripture which is our authority.

Beginning in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, God makes emphatically clear that yes, he made us in his image and yes, he made us relational creatures, but yes, he made us to relate to one another sexually in one and in only one way: a man and a woman coming together in the covenant union of marriage, monogamous for a lifetime. That is God’s plan from the beginning, and we have it not only from Genesis 1 and 2 in the Old Testament, we have it from the Gospel of Matthew from the words of Jesus himself in the first gospel of the New Testament. “It is God’s plan,” said Jesus, “from the beginning that a man and a woman should be married period.”

The Bible could not be more clear that sexual expression or even sexual relatedness in any context other than biblical marriage as the union of a man and a woman is illegitimate and indeed, it is sinful. And here’s what we need to know. You’re looking at two rival faiths here. You’re looking at two rival Catholicisms here. But the argument that we are noting in Germany is not limited to Germany. This is the same argument that liberal Protestants have used elsewhere, but it is interesting that the argument now comes in this form with this force with the threat of open civil war in the Roman Catholic Church.

And in that sense, it’s a different issue than if the same doctrinal question were to arise among Evangelical Protestants because we do not claim as evangelicals a worldwide magisterial authority. Indeed, we deny that such thing exists. We don’t recognize the papacy, but to state the obvious, the Roman Catholic Church does. And you actually can’t have a Roman Catholic Church without a Pope. You can’t have a Pope without a Roman Catholic Church. And the key word there, other than Roman, is Catholic which means it’s supposed to be the same Catholicism and everywhere at all times. That’s supposed to be the main responsibility of the Pope, or to put it another way, you really don’t have a Catholic Church if marriage which, after all, the Catholic Church claims is a sacrament is one thing in Germany and another thing in Georgia. And that’s where the current Vatican is in a massive quandary.

It comes down, perhaps, to the metaphor of three different rivers. The Tiber is the river in Rome, and the Vatican is sometimes referred to as the Tiber, and someone converting to Roman Catholicism is sometimes described as swimming the Tiber. The Tiber is that ancient Roman river that represents the ancient claims of the Roman Catholic Church. But there are two other rivers that are now fighting for supremacy and the future of the Roman Catholic Church. Those rivers are the Rhine and the Zambezi.

This Zambezi is in Africa, of course, and when you’re looking at Catholicism in much of the world, including Africa, you’re looking at a very traditional, very classic Catholicism. To put the matter of bluntly, Roman Catholics in most of the world aren’t confused at all about the definition of marriage or God’s intention for human sexuality and something like what took place in Germany is not only not going to happen in those areas, it’s unimaginable.

But the other river is the Rhine, and the Rhine is that most famous of rivers associated with Germany, and the Rhine has been running liberal for a very long time. And it’s not just in Catholicism and Protestantism too. Theological liberalism really has to be traced back to Germany. In almost every sense, it was some kind of German influence that became the impetus, if not the origin, for the impulses of theological liberalism in Protestantism as well as Catholicism, higher biblical criticism which meant the academic study of the Bible as if it’s just ancient literature denying its divine inspiration and origin.

Rudolf Bultmann, the infamous New Testament scholar in Germany, his process was called demythologization. That was basically stripping out all the supernatural from the New Testament. As one academic noted, when the liberal age dawned just about every liberal university was in Germany or wanted to be.

Part II

Three Rivers Tell a Theological Story: How the Tiber, the Rhine, and the Zambezi Explain the Catholic Predicament

But this is where those who are determined to hold to the tradition and to the biblical teaching find ourselves in a very unique predicament. We’re also looking at some very unusual, if not unforeseen, developments.

Rod Dreher, writing at The American Conservative, writes about those he calls the “Zombie Catholics of Germany.” “Speaking of these same-sex blessings,” Dreher writes, “these are the last rites of a dying liberal national church.” As you might expect, one of the most insightful Catholic responses to this story comes from Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times. His article, “Pope Francis faces another German reformation.” He writes, “For most of the Pope Francis era, the Pope himself was the most turbulent figure in Roman Catholicism, dropping rhetorical bombshells, making unexpected gestures and appointments, and using his power and influence to reopen debates his predecessors closed. Over the past two years, writes Douthat, “however, the sources of Catholic turbulence have shifted.” He says, pointing to the latest turbulence, “The latest and starkest example is happening this week across Germany where Catholic priests are now offering mass blessings to same-sex couples in a calculated act of defiance of the Vatican.”

Is Ross Douthat, by the way, who first coined the metaphor of those three rivers, the Zambezi and the Rhine and the Tiber looking at the Catholic predicament, but he says that the church doesn’t exist in a vacuum. And he says that this current situation is in the context of what he describes as, “The triumph of secular progressivism in Western culture.” And that is, of course, exactly what it is.

Part III

There’s No Middle Ground on Sexual Morality — And Christians, Like the Apostle Paul, Must Be Clear about the Biblical Teaching on Marriage and Sexuality

But of course, looking at the United States, you won’t be surprised to know that there are some liberal observers who are just thrilled with this development in Germany, hoping that the same thing will happen in the United States amongst the liberal Catholics here.

David VonDrehle, in an article published yesterday in the Washington Post ran a column with the headline, “German Catholic Priest Blessing Same-Sex Marriages May Be onto Something Divine.” Championing those liberal Catholics in Germany, he writes, “I don’t know if God is doing a new thing and those German priests have gotten the message or if the Vatican is correct about what God wants, but I’m pretty sure the statement, ‘God cannot fill-in-the-blank.'” In this case, that was the statement, by the way, that God cannot and will not bless same-sex unions. He says, “I’m pretty sure that the statement God cannot fill in the blank is just the sort of thing a powerful group of humans might say before God cuts them down to size. A humbler Christian,” says VonDrehle, “the apostle Paul, was more cautious when he observed of God how unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways.”

I just can’t let that pass because, of course, the Apostle Paul did say that in His famous benediction that concludes Romans 11. But hear that number again, Romans 11. We have to go back to Romans 1 to hear the Apostle Paul clearly condemn same-sex sexual relationships and even same-sex sexual attraction as being indicative of the universality of human sinfulness, acts in relationships and affections that He holds up saying, “This is an example of what the human rebellion against God looks like. It’s a rebellion against creation. It’s also a rebellion against the Creator, against nature,” said the Apostle Paul.

The Apostle Paul did not throw up his arms and say, “We have no idea what God wants. We have no idea what the gospel is. We have no idea who Christ is. We have no idea what the Creator’s intention for sexuality in marriage are.” He said the exact opposite, and he said it over and over again in passages such as 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. The Apostle Paul didn’t say that the church had ambiguous understandings because God had given us an ambiguous revelation. No, exactly the opposite.

Later in the article, he writes this, “God cannot bless sin.” That’s the quotation from the Vatican statement. But then he says, “The statement makes sense in terms of human theology, but it begs all the larger questions for only God fully knows God. Only God can say what God cannot do. And only God knows the boundaries of grace and sin.” He goes on and concludes, “Blindly invoking so much authority, maybe the Vatican should invest in crash helmets.” Well, this isn’t a message only to the Vatican. This is a message also to evangelical Christianity coming from the Washington Post and from its columnist.

The argument is that when you make a declaration very clearly on a moral issue like this, you’re speaking out of bounds because, “for only God fully knows God. Only God can say what God cannot do.” Well, the word cannot there is never the right theological word. The right theological word is what God does not do. And in this case, we know what God does and does not do because even as it’s true that only God fully knows God, God has revealed Himself to us in His word.

And furthermore, God’s revealed Himself to us even in the structures of creation which, again, is Paul’s point in Romans 1. And that puts us in the evangelical predicament, the Protestant predicament, the biblical predicament. Yes, we dare not speak where God has not spoken, but it is equally and emphatically true. We dare not fail to speak where God has spoken.

And God’s word is not up for negotiation in Germany or anywhere else. Anytime.

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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