The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Thursday, February 2, 2023

It’s Thursday, February 2nd, 2023.

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

Part I

Sinful But Not Criminal?: Pope Francis Confuses, and Then Attempts to Clarify, Recent Comments on Homosexuality

Pope Francis has been in that office since the year 2013. And ever since he’s been in that office, it has appeared that he has been trying to undo the legacy of his two most immediate predecessors, Titanic personalities Pope Benedict XVI and then Pope John Paul II. All of this is a part of an unfolding history of the Roman Catholic Church. And on The Briefing today, we are looking at this pope and we are looking at current issues within the Roman Catholic Church because we need to understand these issues don’t stay just in the Roman Catholic Church. And what we are looking at is a pattern that will have worldwide influence.

And so we who are evangelical Christians and do not even recognize the papacy as a legitimate office, and we have after all, a very clear line of demarcation between the Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestantism, we do understand that when millions of people around the world think of Christianity, they think of the Pope and they care what the Pope says and they think it represents Christianity.

Now that poses a host of problems for evangelicals, we don’t believe in the papacy in the first place, but it also points to the fact that the character of the papacy does affect our challenge. It does shape our challenge. And that is to say when it comes to defending many issues in Christian morality, well Pope Francis presents all of us with a greater challenge than we had faced under the two previous popes. Understanding this, you need to recognize the Pope John Paul II was a key ally with Margaret Thatcher of Britain and with Ronald Reagan of the United States in forging a triumvirate over against tyrannical communism. And if you’re looking at three people to credit with the fall of communism, you have to start with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the American President, Ronald Reagan, but also the Pope, at the time, Pope John Paul II.

But as you’re looking at a couple of the other major fronts in the battle of ideas and for the battle of life and death, here again it has mattered who was Pope. And in the case of John Paul II, not only was he a stalwart defender of life and dignity over against the tyranny of communism, remember, he was the first Polish pope. He knew communist tyranny firsthand. But he also stood up for the defense of human life and every form, including every stage, including unborn human life. It was his defense of life. And of course that continued a long Christian tradition, but it was his singular influence on these issues that helped to serve as a catalyst for the recovery of the Pro-Life Movement first in Roman Catholicism, but then spreading by his influence as well into the larger culture.

When it came to John Paul II successor, Pope Benedict XVI, we are looking at a figure previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was one of the most important defenders of the very existence of objective truth in the history of the 20th century. So one of the things we need to recognize as Evangelical Protestants is that we don’t recognize the papacy, but we do recognize that the papacy has influence. And that’s why it does matter in terms of our thinking of the cultural challenge, what kind of messaging is coming from the Vatican, what kind of messaging is coming from the Pope. When it came to the Pro-Life Movement over the course of the last several decades, the Roman Catholic Church in general, but specifically through a succession of two popes, really gave a great deal of energy and intellectual substance to the Pro-Life Movement.

But right now the Roman Catholic Church is in a very different situation. The Catholics who were so encouraged by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, well let’s just say they are extremely discouraged, indeed vexed, by Pope Francis. And Pope Francis, the Argentinian Pope, who by the way is the first Jesuit pope, he clearly intends for the Roman Catholic Church to head in a very different direction than that undertaken by his two Titanic conservative predecessors.

Now, just in terms of the context of the intellectual and moral conversation around us recognize that under the papas of John Paul II in Benedict XVI, the Roman Catholic Church actually defined its doctrine on issues not only considering abortion, but also marriage and gender, and in particular homosexuality, with the official catechism which is the official doctorate of the Roman Catholic Church stating that homosexual acts and homosexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, in particular speaking of the acts.

Now as you’re thinking of moral theory, intrinsically disordered means they can’t be good in any context. They can’t be declared to be morally neutral. They are intrinsically, that is by their very character, disordered. And that’s an explicit reference to creation order and the natural law tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. And it was a consistent argument the Roman Catholicism has made for centuries. And here’s what we need to recognize, it’s a consistent argument that Christianity has made until liberal Christians in the very recent period.

Now the reality is that on these questions, John Paul II and Benedict XVI were never confusing. They were always clear. The clarity was essential and they understood it was essential. But with the election of Pope Francis, everything really did begin to change. For one thing, even as the Pope was elected in 2013, and that very same year an answer to a question about homosexuality, the Pope simply shrugged saying, “Who am I to judge?” Well, the obvious answer to that is according to Catholic doctrine and according to the Catholic Church, you are the Pope. It’s your job to judge.

In looking at the pattern of Pope Francis, we need to recognize how moral change happens in a way many Christians simply have not recognized before. In fact, many conservatives really don’t think about this. We think of moral change often happening when someone says, “Hey, I’m changing the morality.” Change is something, something that was legal is now illegal, something that was illegal is now legal. We understand how that happens. But we also need to understand that more often morality changes with a little nudge here and a little suggestion there. All those nudges and suggestions add up into a vast cultural and moral change. When it comes to Pope Francis, he hasn’t very often come out with statements that are very clear about anything.

The Pope has continued this kind of pattern of confusion. This Pope, he has had visitors to the Vatican and he has seemed to affirm them even though they’re openly gay. He’s given all kinds of encouragements to movements for gay normalization in the church. But he has also made statements saying that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. He seems to say one thing here and then to turn around and say another thing there.

But here’s what we need to note, that is where conservatives always lose because it is the liberal suggestion that gains all the applause in the watching world. If you want to have the applause of the New York Times and the Washington Post and the left wing of the theological movement, then all you have to do is just nudge a little bit in that direction and that’s where the encouragement comes. That’s where the energy comes. And frankly, if you are suggesting a change in moral structure, then all it takes at times is just someone even being confusing about an issue. And we have to say here sometimes deliberately so in order to affect a lot of moral change.

Just in recent days, the Pope has made another statement, in this case, condemning what he called unjust laws that criminalize homosexuality. These comments came in a conversation with the Associated Press, and in that conversation the Pope basically said that homosexuality is a sin, but it should not be a crime. Elisabetta Povoledo of the New York Times summarize the issue this way, “Francis said there needed to be a distinction between sin and a crime when it comes to homosexuality. The Catholic Church considers homosexual acts intrinsically disordered and a sin, but believes that people in the LGBTQ community should be welcomed with respect and sensitivity.” The Pope actually said, “First, let us distinguish sin from crime.” He went on to say, “It is also a sin to lack charity with one another end.”

Now, the point I want to make here is that the Pope basically made a distinction between what is sinful and what should be illegal or criminal. And he said when it comes to homosexuality, the Catholic Church says it’s a sin, but it should not be a crime. Now what’s in the background to that? Well, in some parts of the world, homosexual behavior, homosexual relationships are just being identified as a homosexual, can and often is a crime. And in some nations, predominantly in the Muslim world, it can be a capital crime.

Now, one of the realities we have to face is that sometimes that becomes a very helpful way of getting rid of your enemies, simply declaring them to be homosexual. Homosexuality is a capital crime, therefore you all of a sudden disappear. You’re no longer a problem to the regime. But the Pope statement has confused many, and it’s confused many in the Catholic world because what after all is the distinction between that which is sinful and that which should be illegal or criminal? Well, the Pope insinuated that the two were simply separate things.

But as we think about it, we need to recognize as Christians, they can’t be entirely separate things because even as we’re thinking about the moral order and you would think about what would have to be one of the first laws of any sane society, and that would be a law against murder, well, after all the reason that murder is a crime is because yes, murder is a sin. There’s simply no way to say, “We’re going to hold that murder is a sin, but we’re not going to make it a crime.” No, that sin has to be a crime. There’s no sane society that does not criminalize murder.

But what about other issues? Well, the Christian Church has struggled with this over centuries. When you look at some eras in Christian history, there has been a maximalist approach, that is to say we will try to put into law as much as possible. Now you say, “That sounds good to me,” but this is where Protestant evangelicals recognize we have a huge problem with that. We do not want the state to define theology. We do not want the state to establish a church, and we do not want to give the state the power of criminalizing, say, what one branch of this church might declare to be bad or false preaching.

We also rightly believe that the state must define and defend marriage, but that means that the state has to say what marriage is, and that means that the state is saying that certain relationships are not marriage. They can’t be recognized as marriage, they can’t be given the status of marriage. So that raises another question. Can we have laws about, say, sexual behavior, sexual activity? And the answer is every same society does. But how specific and how extensive should those laws be? Well, that’s a convoluted question, but we can just summarize by saying this, no society can survive if it gets the basic question and institution of marriage wrong, that it’s marriage as a privileged, exclusive, lifelong relationship between a man and a woman. Period.

To be honest, it’s hard to find any substantial argument or basis for the legal recognition of homosexual acts and homosexual relationships based upon the Christian tradition. It’s just very hard to imagine on what foundation you would build that kind of argument. But when you’re looking at the Pope’s statement, he just makes a very clear distinction between homosexuality as a sin and homosexuality is a crime. But at the same time, he has made many confusing statements about the exact nature of the sinfulness of homosexuality as he sees it or the relative lack of sinfulness of homosexuality in his own vision. And when it comes to issues in the law, well, it turns out that he has raised a question he didn’t answer in a very satisfying way. And it’s interesting to note he didn’t satisfy anyone.

So just a matter of a couple of days after the Pope had made that statement and it made the press, the Vatican had to clarify the Pope statements on sin and homosexuality. Hannah Brockhaus reporting for Catholic News Agency tells it this way, “Pope Francis has written a letter to clarify his comments on sin and homosexuality from a recent interview with the Associated Press. The Pope said this, ‘When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin.’ But he went on to say in his supposed clarification that the criminalization of homosexuality in his words ‘is neither good nor just,’ the Pope said. As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said it is a sin as is any sexual act outside of marriage. That is to speak of the matter of sin. But we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter but also evaluates freedom and intention and this for every kind of sin.” If you’re confused, you deserve to be.

But in mentioning the Jesuit father James Martin here, a major Roman Catholic figure, you’re looking at one of the liberal proponents of normalizing homosexuality. It appears at least in this context that Father Martin must have complained that the Pope said that homosexuality is a sin. But this is not what the Pope says, this is what the historic Catholic Church has said and even the most recent and prevailing catechism of the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, why are we talking about this today on The Briefing? It is simply because it is our responsibility to avoid the very kind of confusion that we see here. Every once in a while, you need to look at some kind of conversation. You need to look at a development and say, “Well, at the very least, our responsibility is not to do that.” As Christians, it is not our responsibility to confuse this kind of issue. We must be clear about it. And it’s because it is not just a matter of morality. Biblically understood in a gospel context, there are no mere matters of morality. We have to take every question ultimately to the gospel.

By the way, it’s also important from an Evangelical Protestant understanding to note that the Pope here was expressing the idea that when you are looking at something the Bible defines as sin, well, he’s making the argument, there may be circumstances that make it less sinful. This is where we understand as Evangelical Protestants, that is a form of reasoning to which we cannot give ourselves an inch.

Part II

‘The Task of the New Pope Will to Ensure Doctrinal Clarity’: Catholic Cardinals Dispute Theological and Moral Issues Sparked by LGBTQ Revolution

But this, next, is where we have to recognize that what’s going on in the Roman Catholic Church also points to issues that should be of deep Evangelical Protestant concern. And that is the future of the Christian Church and our witness on the issue of marriage, on the issue of gender, on the issue of sexuality. And here is where developments right now in the Roman Catholic Church should serve as an enormous wake-up call to American evangelicals about what’s at stake here. Just consider the fact that over the course of the last several months, it has become really, really clear even that cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church hold to diametrically opposed understandings of the most basic doctrine and morality of the Roman Catholic Church, and particularly on the issue of LGBTQ, behaviors and relationships.

Ross Douthat, columnist for the New York Times has gone so far as to describe this as the war between the Catholic cardinals, and it appears that two cardinals in particular demonstrate this extremely well. One of them is Cardinal George Pell of Australia. He is rightly described as a leading conservative churchman. He passed away just shortly after the death of Benedict XVI, the Pope Emeritus. In other words, it’s a matter of weeks ago. The other cardinal is Robert McElroy of San Diego, California.

Here is where both of them have written documents that demonstrate the great clash of worldviews that’s taking place not only in the world but in the Roman Catholic Church. And the point behind this conversation on The Briefing today is so that evangelical Christians will note what is going on and understand and be able to detect this same kind of debate and confusion in evangelical ranks.

The document that is now believed to come from the late Cardinal Pell warrants his fellow cardinals who have the responsibility for the election of the next Pope, that the Catholic Church is facing doctrinal and moral disaster. He criticizes the current Pope, Pope Francis, for remaining silent even as forces in the church, liberal forces, and just to give one example, many liberal bishops and cardinals in the Roman Catholic Church in the nation of Germany are now outright defying the Roman Catholic Church. They’re defying and denying Roman Catholic doctrine. They do not want to see the church hold the line on these issues, but rather they want to see the church ordained women. They want to see the church basically normalize homosexuality.

Cardinal Powell wrote, “An early priority for the next Pope must be to remove and prevent such a threatening development by requiring unity and essentials and not permitting unacceptable doctrinal differences. The morality of homosexual activity will be one such flashpoint.” Cardinal Pell also wrote, “The first task of the new Pope will be to restore normality, restore doctrinal clarity and faith and morals, restore a proper respect for the law, and ensure that the first criterion for the nomination of bishops is acceptance of the apostolic tradition. Theological expertise and learning are an advantage, not a hindrance for all bishops and especially archbishops.”

Now, conservative forces within Catholicism are pointing to what they describe as widespread sexual scandals even in the priesthood. And they are also pointing to the fact that theological liberals are basically trying to redefine Catholicism. This is where we need to recognize that if that happens, it will have impact elsewhere in the world, even in how people think of Christianity. And even though we accept no authority by the Roman Catholic Church, and even as we are reformation churches, we recognize that many people around the world take their doctrinal cues and their moral authority from this very source. And if we have a liberal transformation of the Roman Catholic Church, it will come with massive effects, not only in Western civilization but on Western Christianity.

Meanwhile, Cardinal Robert W. McElroy, who is the Cardinal Archbishop of San Diego, California, he makes the contrary argument and he makes it right out loud. So here you have a major American Catholic figure who is arguing for what can only be described as a redefinition of historic Catholic doctrinal teaching, and in particular on LGBTQ issues. The Cardinal wrote about what he described as “widespread calls for greater inclusion of LGBT women and men in the life of the church. And shame and outrage, that heinous acts of exclusion still exist.”

Part III

Convictional Leadership in a Secular Age: The High Stakes of Choosing Christian Leaders

So it’s at least interesting from an evangelical Christian perspective to look over at Roman Catholicism and see the debates that are currently unfolding. And what we need to recognize is that these debates will not stay there. Indeed, some of them didn’t even begin there. You look at liberal Protestants and you see the very same arguments.

So liberal Protestants and liberal Roman Catholics are both working for the redefinition of Christianity. And in particular, the driving energy for both right now is the sexual revolution and, in particular, LGBTQ issues. Now, it’s not just the doctrinal differences between Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism that are important. Those doctrinal differences lead to structural differences as well. There’s a good reason why evangelicals do not have a Pope. We do not recognize a papacy, we do not have cardinals, we don’t have a College of Cardinals, but we do face many of the same issues. And what we need to recognize is that moral arguments expand far beyond one group, either Protestant or Catholic, into the larger influence of the battle of ideas in the larger world.

It also underlines what is at stake in choosing Christian leaders, because leaders are going to lead in one direction or the other. And even those who believe they’re leading in no direction, well, number one, they’re not leading, but secondly, I assure you, there is some direction. Given the energy, given the power given the almost totalitarian impulses of the secular culture around us, if you do not exert leadership within the Christian world to defy those trends and to hold fast to biblical truth and even to creation order, then eventually you will get dragged one way or the other on one calendar or schedule or another into a complete capitulation of the Christian faith.

I’ve been interested in how many listeners to The Briefing have written in or made contact in order to say, “How are we to understand what’s going on right now in the Roman Catholic Church?” And I have given it so much time today because it’s not just important to recognize what is going on in the Roman Catholic Church, but rather to look at that and recognize the same issues in a different context appear right here among Evangelical Protestants, and it’s up to the Catholics to argue about what it means for the Roman Catholic Church to remain Roman Catholic. They’re going to have to define that doctrine. But as for evangelical Christians, we are bound by scripture. And the scriptures do not change. When it comes to negotiating on these issues, this is where evangelical Christians have to say on the basis of the soul authority of scripture, we have no ground for negotiation. All we can do is submit to biblical truth and understand that this is God’s perfect will.

But it’s really important that we recognize the moral and theological revolutionaries are found just about everywhere, and that means they’re found in Rome. It also means you better recognize they’re also found in a Protestant context in a town very close to you.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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