The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, January 5, 2023

It’s Thursday, January 5th, 2023.

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

Part I

An Unprecedented Event in the History of the Roman Catholic Church: Pope Francis Set to Preside Over Benedict XVI’s Funeral

Well, a great deal of attention is going to be directed today towards St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome where something unprecedented is going to happen, and that is that a current pope is going to preside over the funeral of a former pope. For all kinds of historical reasons, that’s something new and especially in the age of the modern papacy, we’re talking about something that until recently would’ve been unthinkable. The reason it would’ve been unimaginable is this, popes are understood to hold the office until their death. Upon their death, their funeral, which is generally a very long period of observance, is presided over by the College of Cardinals, and only after that funeral does the very same body, the College of Cardinals choose the next pope.

But in this case, the unprecedented has happened precisely because Pope Benedict XVI resigned or retired in 2013. That’s something that hadn’t happened in the Roman Catholic Church for over 600 years. And in terms of this retirement, Benedict XVI was doing something no previous pope had basically done, at least on terms of retiring and continuing to be known in some sense as a pope, taking the title of Pope Emeritus. Benedict XVI just created this particular pattern himself and the questions that inevitably arose about what to do with the Pope Emeritus continued all the way past his death on Saturday, and the questions included, how exactly do you conduct a funeral for a former pope or a Pope Emeritus? But, the funeral of a Pope is usually a multi-day affair and it includes a lot of international observers precisely because the pope is considered to be a head of state, the head of the Vatican state, and thus other heads of state, or at least their international representatives generally come to the funeral of a pope, but not for a Pope Emeritus.

In this case, the international delegations are limited by the Vatican II, and one of them is Germany because Benedict XVI was born as Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger on the 16th of April in 1927 in Germany, and not just in Germany, but in the most Catholic part of Germany, which is Bavaria. Now, the papacy is itself one of the main issues of division between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and especially when you think about Protestant evangelicals and the affirmation of sola scriptura and a biblical and New Testament ecclesiology. The differences with Roman Catholicism loom absolutely large and the papacy is one of those, well, just unavoidable obstacles, but as you’re looking at the papacy, we as evangelicals need to recognize that the influence of a pope in the Roman Catholic Church does matter and the influence of Benedict XVI as measured, for example, in contrast with the influence of his successor Pope Francis, well, this is something that we need to think about even as we consider how we understand the role of Christianity in an increasingly secular age, and that just points to something else.

You have conservative evangelical Protestants and you have conservative Roman Catholics in unprecedented conversation. Now, R. C. Sproul I think was absolutely right about this, a stalwart, evangelical defender of the faith, when he pointed out that as you think of a distinction between say, gospel and law, when it comes especially to law, we have a great deal of common ground and a great deal to discuss with Roman Catholics, and this means in the issues that confront us in an increasingly hostile culture, hostile to Christianity, hostile to theism, hostile to the very idea of objective truth.

We also, speaking as evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, but particularly of more traditionalists or conservative Roman Catholics, we do share a great deal of doctrinal common ground, just to state the most emphatically clear, it would be the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no Catholic doctrine of the Trinity as compared to an evangelical doctrine of the Trinity, but the differences between evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism date not only back to the Reformation, but they continue unto today and the papacy is one of those matters of ardent argument. But on the other hand, as evangelicals considering the death of Pope Benedict in his funeral today, what we need to think about in this sense is the fate of Christianity in this increasingly secularized age and the meaning of a papacy, not only for the Roman Catholic Church when it comes to Pope Benedict’s funeral, but also through the fate of Christianity in an increasingly hostile era. In order to set the stage for our consideration of Pope Benedict, I need to speak a bit biographically here.

I don’t often do that, it’s rather necessary here. Back in the 1980s, I was a doctoral student studying systematic and historical theology. Now, if you’re going to study systematic and historical theology and especially historical theology, you’re going to have to reckon a great deal with Roman Catholicism just given the history of Christianity. I felt that I had an inadequate understanding of Roman Catholic tradition and Roman Catholic theological method. So, even as external study was required by my doctoral program, I decided to do part of that external study studying Roman Catholic theological method within a Roman Catholic graduate institution, and so I did that, spending months studying Roman Catholic theological method as taught by Roman Catholics, but I wasn’t merely being taught by Roman Catholics, I was being taught by very liberal Roman Catholics. I quickly came to recognize that, and yet I learned a great deal in terms of Roman Catholic theological method.

I learned something else. There was one particular Roman Catholic figure that these liberal Catholics ardently disliked, and if anything, that’s an understatement, and that was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Cardinal Ratzinger was the very man who became Pope Benedict XVI whose funeral is today. Cardinal Ratzinger was at that time known as the prefect of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith. He was in so many ways under the pope, the chief doctrinal and moral officer of the Roman Catholic Church, defending the faith, the definition of the faith, what should and must Catholics believe, and what does the Roman Catholic Church teach. The reason why these liberal Catholics disliked Ratzinger so much was that Ratzinger was in their minds unbelievably, unimaginably conservative.

Part II

When the Papacy Pushed Back Against the Increasingly Hostile, Secular Age: What Cardinal Ratzinger Taught Me About Confronting Liberal Protestantism

But even as I was reading Ratzinger, I recognized that his critique of liberal Roman Catholic theology was absolutely devastating, but at the same time, I recognize something else as an evangelical Protestant, and that is that his indictment against liberal Roman Catholic theology had to have a parallel and an indictment against liberal Protestant theology.

The patterns of liberal thought were very much the same. The patterns of liberal theology, including mutual dependence as the Roman Catholic liberals and as the Protestant liberals quoted each other and taught alongside each other, the problems of liberalism were common. You saw the same pattern in both Catholicism and in Protestantism, and this meant that there was all of a sudden an opportunity for some very interesting conversation between conservative Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants who at least understood two common challenges. One of them was the increasingly secular age, and the second was secular thinking invading the church in the form of theological and doctrinal liberalism. So, all that to say as an ardent evangelical, and I’m very clear on that fact and indeed holding to the fact that the papacy is a false office, it’s an unbiblical office, but nonetheless, it has influence and even as an evangelical, we need to understand that it makes a difference whether or not a pope is a more conservative pope or a more liberal pope.

And, this is especially true as you think about other regions of the world such as say Europe, and that was much of Cardinal Ratzinger later Benedict XVI’s concern, but it also leads to another anomaly, which is the fact that right now the greatest influence held by Benedict XVI is probably among conservative Roman Catholics in the United States of America. Thus, it really helps us to understand Pope Benedict XVI and his legacy and who he was in the most important and influential era of his life, I would argue, and that was before he became pope, when he was the prefect of the Congregation for the defense of the Faith, and basically the man that liberals in the church called God’s Rottweiler, referring to his German heritage, and that was not said with appreciation. Ratzinger was the great defender of objective truth, of the knowability of truth.

He argued against the surrender to subjectivism and to a culture of moral relativism, indeed not just moral but theological relativism, a general relativity of truth that was affirmed by so many in a modern secular society, in particular by those on the left. Cardinal Ratzinger, who did become Pope Benedict XVI in the year 2005 following Pope John Paul II, in his early statements, he was very clear about continuing his concern about relativism, referring even to what he called a dictatorship of relativism in the West, in Western civilization, threatening the very pillars of that civilization itself. When it comes to many issues on the front lines of controversy today, we need to recognize that a lot of the conversation, even some of the vocabulary in arguments that we use as evangelicals, we need to concede that a lot of those arguments were hammered out by conservative Roman Catholic theologians before evangelicals often address them.

And, that is particularly true in terms of the massive intellectual defenses of the sanctity of life and the integrity of marriage to which we need to credit figures such as Cardinal Ratzinger, later Benedict XVI.

Part III

The Dictatorship of Relativism and the Challenge of the Secular Age

Many people think of Pope John Paul II as the great defender of the unborn, and he was, but at the same time, Pope John Paul II was more a philosopher than a theologian. Pope John Paul II’s effectiveness in the defense of the sacredness of marriage and the sanctity of life, much of that came because of the intellectual ammunition that was provided by the man who was then at his side, Cardinal Ratzinger, who became his successor Benedict XVI. Make no mistake, Benedict XVI was a stalwart defender of what he saw as Christianity, but also of the Roman Catholic Church, and furthermore, when it comes to the theological spectrum and even theological method, he was still in a position in which by some measures he still considered himself to be a progressive, but a progressive, as he said, who struggled with his church, not against his church.

And, here we have to look at a bit of history because this is not just his history, this is our history. The history turns on one hinge of particular concern right now, and that is the year 1968. Beginning in Europe, but also then in the United States. 1968 became the year of revolt on college campuses that spilled out under the streets as leftist students began a massive protest, not only against particular issues, but also against basically the heritage of Western civilization. This also came with the rise intellectually of what became known as the new left, drawing upon many Marxist elements from what was known as the Frankfurt School, and you’ll recall that’s a city in Germany.

Germany was in so many ways ground zero for the student unrest, but Ratzinger was then not so much concerned about the students, but about the faculty in German institutions and the fact that so many in the academic world and particularly on the academic left, they just joined the spirit of the age wanting to be popular with the youth, joining this new left, and basically setting themselves in a subversive way against the entirety of Western civilization and within Christianity against the historic biblical structure of the Christian faith, and within Catholicism, against the doctrine in teaching and even the doctrinal authority of the Roman Catholic Church. That turned Benedict XVI, then as Cardinal Ratzinger, from what he saw as a progressive into what the world would understand to be a conservative and not only a conservative, but one of the most powerful conservative intellectual forces in the last half of the 20th century and into the 21st. Conservative evangelicals in the United States need to recognize that similar patterns happened here.

Many of the people who became leaders in the conservative movement in the 50s and the 60s and the 70s, they became conservatives precisely because they had seen themselves as liberals, but then they understood where liberalism was going, in a headlong rush into a secular left. Now, one of the figures in the United States who fits that is the man who became the 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. While we as evangelical Protestants understand that decidedly we are not Roman Catholics, we also understand that we live in a theological, political, and cultural world in which what the Roman Catholic Church teaches matters for the larger culture and it matters in terms of theological conversation. It’s important that we recognize that the life story of Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI, is not just an important story for the Roman Catholic Church. It has parallel importance for us.

We are outsiders to that story, but we are very interested in what it means, not only for Catholics, but also for evangelical Christians. One of the things we need to recognize is that the most important years of Benedict’s influence came long before he was pope. When he was a theological professor in Germany, later when he was the archbishop of Munich, and then ultimately when he became head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith there in Rome. In that role, Ratzinger reinvigorated and lit massive intellectual credibility to the conservative resurgence that dared to defy theological liberalism and most specifically Marxist-infused liberation theology. The most significant question that remains is whether Pope Benedict or Pope Emeritus Benedict mostly in his years before the papacy changed the doctrinal direction of his church, or will be seen as a temporary but formidable obstruction to an inevitable progressive victory within Catholicism.

In other words, especially when you consider that after his retirement, Benedict was followed by a far more liberal pope, the current pope, Pope Francis, you understand that liberals believe that they will win eventually because they will outlive conservatives and undo every conservative achievement. That’s a warning to us all, that is not just a Catholic reality. As we think about this, we need to recognize that contemporary developments within Catholicism, including the liberalizing influence of Pope Francis raise real doubts about any lasting check on radical developments in the church. A quick glance at recent Catholic developments in Benedict’s own home nation, that’s Germany, reveals the issue. German Catholics are about what they call the Synodal Process, and they’ve announced to what amounts to a doctrinal and moral revolt against Rome, even going so far as to demand recognition of same sex unions, basically the normalization of LGBTQ relationships and orientations, and the ordination of women and gay Catholics.

In many ways, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany has become so liberal that Pope Benedict became an embarrassment even as Pope Emeritus, and you can see that in the media coverage about Benedict coming from his home nation of Germany. In the United States, Catholic conservatives generally see Pope Benedict and formerly Cardinal Ratzinger, as a great intellectual and theological hero. I want to cite one paragraph, in an article by Jason Horowitz published in the New York Times about the late pope, and in this paragraph we read, “He acted as an enforcer, conservative compass and cultural warrior, veering the church away from what he ultimately came to consider the liberal overreach of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. He sought to suppress the social activism in the church that he suspected of Marxism. He crushed dissent among the more liberal theologians and drew a hard line against gays. He helped promote clerics in his and John Paul II’s mold.”

Now, there’s where you see that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, later Pope Emeritus became and remains today a very divisive figure in the Roman Catholic Church, and that’s a hard role to play when you’re holding the office of the papacy, which again, evangelicals do not believe is a biblically justifiable office. But at least in intellectual honesty, we can admit that there are times in which it would be convenient to have a conservative pope to settle issues. The problem is, as we see with the current pope, that a conservative pope may be followed by a liberal pope who can basically at least attempt to undo almost everything the conservative pope achieved. All of this should also remind us as evangelical Christians of the basic Protestant principle of sola scriptura because if you are looking at the pope as the top of a magisterium, which is responsible for the development of tradition as a source of revelation in the church, well then the papacy becomes such a focus of attention precisely because you want that doctrine and tradition and revelation to develop in your direction.

But, that’s where Protestants understand revelation we would assert is in the word of God, in the holy scriptures, and sola scriptura means in the word of God, the holy scriptures alone. There were and will continue to be many other issues and controversies about Benedict XVI, but it’s really important for us to recognize as media attention around the world is today directed to Rome with many people in our secular age confused about what all this means and many people in our aggressively secular age basically very glad to see someone like Benedict XVI pass from the scene because they want to see new liberal and evermore progressive leadership follow and take the helm. In that light, the events taking place today in Rome and the media attention surrounding it are not only interesting, but also important. And if nothing else, Benedict XVI was absolutely right about one of the central challenges of our age, the challenge behind the abortion crisis, behind the sexual revolution, behind the dissolution of so many of the structures and authorities in our civilization.

It is the rise of a dictatorship of relativism, and it is going to take all of our energies for the rest of our lives to confront and to oppose that dictatorship.

Part IV

The Criminologist Becomes a Criminal? In a Fallen World, Sinners Can Give Themselves to Sin Such That It Consumes Them. How Else Can We Understand a Criminologist Who Becomes a Serial Murderer?

And thus now we’re going to shift to a very different issue. The headlines come back to the United States with the arrest of a suspected murderer. And in this case, one of the things we need to recognize is that if moral relativism is true, we don’t know anything about what’s right or wrong, even when it comes to something like premeditated, diabolical mass murder, or at least in this case, multiple murders that took place on the night of November the 13th, 2022 in the university town of Moscow, Idaho, four young college students murdered in bed.

It was a hard crime to understand, and as a matter of fact, law enforcement there in Idaho and federal authorities involved in the investigation appeared to be largely stumped about the motive for the crime, the meaning of the crime, and perhaps most urgently the identity of the murderer. But an arrest was made just in recent days, it wasn’t made in Idaho, it wasn’t made in the West, it was made in Pennsylvania where a man by the name of Bryan Kohlberger was arrested and charged with the four murders. He has since voluntarily been extradited to Idaho where he is being held and charged and where presumably he will face the bar of justice in a criminal trial. But from a Christian worldview perspective, there’s certainly a few things that should have our attention here.

Number one, the man who was arrested has a graduate degree in criminology, seems to have had an inordinate interest in criminal investigations, has openly asked what’s on the mind of criminals as they conduct criminal acts, and was in the process of undertaking a PhD degree in Criminology at a neighboring university, in his case, Washington State University, which is just a matter of a few miles from the campus near where the murders took place at Idaho State University in Moscow. So, let’s just think about this for a moment. How exactly did the arrest take place? Well, we now know what law enforcement officials didn’t say at the time. They had a long standing interest in one particular vehicle that numerous witnesses had identified as being in the vicinity of the apartments where the murder took place. Now, here’s the thing, and it just points out that no matter how smart a criminal thinks himself or herself to be, the fact is that the evidence is there somewhere.

And in this case, even as law enforcement were speaking of the evidence, they were already doing two things we know about now. Number one, they were tracking and looking for that vehicle, and they eventually found the vehicle in Pennsylvania at the house of the parents of the suspect, and it turns out that he had, with his father, driven the car all the way across the country, and they had actually been stopped twice by law enforcement for traffic issues in the state of Indiana. But in other words, there had been a long surveillance of this vehicle, and as one criminologist put it about this criminologist who is now accused of murder, he said, “You know, you would think that if you are indeed skilled in criminology and in criminal investigation, you wouldn’t take the car you’ve been driving in the commission of the crime and allow it to be found,” as this criminologist said, “In your mommy’s driveway.”

But, it’s also important to recognize that law enforcement was using DNA genetic evidence, and here’s where there’s something else that’s interesting. They were using at least in large part at one point in the investigation publicly accessible genetic material from genealogical websites. Now, that doesn’t mean that the suspect had participated in offering any of that evidence at all. It just points to the fact that when you are now able to go to programs where you can trace your own heritage by means of a genetic sample, that genetic sample is out there and it can be tested and used to help to identify, and for that matter, to disqualify certain kinds of suspects for certain kinds of crimes. You can do all kinds of things to change your identity, but you cannot change your DNA. There’s something deeply biblical about that. This is a very dark story, and it raises a huge issue for the Christian worldview that we need to recognize, and that is first of all, the absolute objective reality of good and evil, and that means the absolute evil of murder.

And in this case, it also points to something that we understand that is nearly diabolical about the human mind. There are sinners who give themselves to sin in such a way that their sin consumes them, even to this kind of horrible crime. Paul talks about this in Romans chapter one even in terms of God’s judgment. God gave them over to a depraved mind, and it turns out that that’s about the only way we can possibly understand how someone can plot and even perhaps enjoy and then contemplate his successful conducting of this kind of horrible crime, but it also leads to something else, and that’s our understanding of the fact that when you are looking at something like this, our entire society, an increasingly secular and morally theologically confused society, it’s a society that still within itself in individual consciences and hearts and minds, has a deep desire, and that’s an understatement, a fervent, insatiable desire for the accomplishment of justice.

And, this is where Christians understand that that’s explainable only in terms of the image of God. God made us in his image. Even as he is righteous, he has put within us a desire for righteousness and justice, and he’s put even within us an insatiable desire to see wrong punished, and evil overcome. And of course, that points us to the fact that only Christ, Christ alone can be victorious over that evil and salvation and the forgiveness of sins is found in Christ and in Christ alone. But as we’re thinking about the dark recesses of the human heart, it tells us something, that the suspect in this case was a man who studied criminology at the level of the PhD.

At least in part, we now understand in order to conduct a crime, not to solve it. That’s not only a matter of moral fascination, it’s a deeply humbling reality about humanity.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Orlando, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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