The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

It’s Wednesday, March 15th, 2023.

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

Part I

‘Bewildering Ambiguity’: The Legacy and Lessons of Pope Francis as He Marks Ten Years.

Pope Francis celebrated his 10th anniversary as the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church this week, and 10 years is a long time when it comes to the papacy. The papacy is very old, but most popes serve less than the 10 years that Francis has now served. Now, when Francis was elected back in 2013, he followed two legendary conservative popes. First of all, Pope John Paul II and then Pope Benedict XVI.

And Francis was understood as a different kind of Pope. First of all, he was the first Pope ever from the part of the world he had served as a bishop and cardinal, and that was Argentina. And by the way, one of the things that is involved in the background of Pope Francis as he is now, as you think of that Argentinian history, is to understand that there was a lot going on in Argentina and there’s a lot of history there, some of which the Vatican really does not want you to look at too closely.

But after two successive conservative popes in an age in which the world was moving in a very liberal direction, the Roman Catholic cardinals chose someone who was understood to be far more liberal than his predecessors. And as it has turned out, Pope Francis has been just that. And on this 10th anniversary, it’s worth us considering some of the big issues that swirl around not only Pope Francis and the Roman Catholic Church, but by extension, other places far closer to home. And we should look very closely at some of the issues that are now pressing on Roman Catholicism, because they are theological issues that will not stay limited to the Roman Catholic world. Now just to state the obvious, evangelicals do not recognize the office of the papacy period. So for evangelicals, it’s not so much who is Pope, but the very fact that there should not be a papacy.

But Roman Catholicism is centered on the papal office and has been now for well over a millennium, and thus the Pope who was the reigning monarch within the church, not without some other powers within the church, but nonetheless, one of the last representations of something like an absolute monarch on planet earth, you are looking at the fact that the Roman Catholic Church really is the survival of a medieval era into the modern age. And the big question is what does a Pope do in the modern age? Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI intended to press back against the modern age and to defend both historic Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the reality of truth, and also Catholic distinctives. But when you’re looking at Francis, you’re looking at a very different approach. He represents so much of the muddled liberalism of the 20th and 21st centuries, and both of those words are important.

There is no doubt that he is a liberal pope. He raises all kinds of questions about the teaching and the doctrine of his own church. He acts as if doctrine is simply a matter of process rather than being a deposit of sacred truth. This is quite a distinction as you think about Pope Francis compared to Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI. But you’re also looking at the fact that many of the words he uses and the arguments he makes, they will be very familiar to Protestant liberals from, say, the 20th century. But when you are looking at this papacy and its 10th anniversary, it does raise the issue about where in the world Roman Catholicism is now going.

And even as evangelical Protestants not in the Roman Catholic Church, and in so many ways seeing the Roman Catholic Church as a very significant doctrinal challenge, at the same time, we do understand that on the world landscape, the future of the Roman Catholic Church is a very big question and its influence extends far beyond Roman Catholicism. One of the interesting aspects of Pope Francis’s pontificate is the fact that he’s raised all kinds of questions about the teaching of his own church. You have major analyses coming out on the 10th anniversary of his papacy. Again, he was elevated to the papacy by the College of Cardinals in its vote on March the 13th, 2013, so just almost exactly 10 years ago.

And as you see people doing analysis of the papacy of Pope Francis at this point, one of the things that seems to be constantly referenced is the fact that he has frustrated conservatives, but he also frustrates some liberals. And that’s a lesson for us all, because conservatives are frustrated when you have a lack of conservative leadership that will make clear doctrinal statements, clear commitments to truth, and a clear defense of the moral teaching of the church.

But liberals are now frustrated with Pope Francis, because he seems to suggest change he won’t follow through one. He seems to suggest an indeterminacy of meaning and he seems to suggest an elasticity of church teaching and policy. He seems to suggest a willingness to consider vast changes. But when it comes to making those changes, well, not so much. It seems to me that Pope Francis in many ways represents the worst possible condition of leadership in which he makes suggestions about devastating change but doesn’t follow through with them.

He has alienated traditionalists and conservatives within the Roman Catholic Church and that is, if anything, an understatement. But he has also stoked hopes for radical change in the Roman Catholic Church, and we’re going to see in just a moment what that radical change would mean. He has stoked those hopes while frustrating them at the same time. The headline this week about the Pope’s anniversary included these words, “10 years on, Pope Francis faces challenges from the right and the left.”

Jason Horowitz writing for The New York Times gets it right when he says that from the right, there’s absolute outrage about Francis. Famously early on in his pontificate, he was asked about the moral status of homosexuality and he asked the question, “Who am I to judge?” The obvious answer to that question, by the way, from at least within Catholicism would be, well, for crying out loud, you’re the Pope. Thus, The Times describes unrelenting opposition to Pope Francis from conservatives, or at least unrelenting pressure, and the conservatives are described as opposing his more inclusive style, social justice focus and de-emphasis of the sexual culture wars. But even as The Times reports that in terms of pressure from the right, it is really clear that among the most disappointed right now are those on the left. But they’re also posing right now a direct threat to Pope Francis’ papacy, a direct threat, and a direct threat to even the very idea of the Roman Catholic Church.

And thus, it may be that right now, and I speak primarily here to evangelical Christians, it might be right now, we are watching the greatest threat to the survival of the Roman Catholic Church since the reformation itself, the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. Dan Hitchens at First Things uses two words to describe the legacy at this point of Pope Francis, and that is bewildering ambiguity. Again, both of those words are important, bewildering, absolutely puzzling and confusing ambiguity.

But when it comes to developments right now in the Senate of Bishops within Germany, the German Roman Catholic Church, the situation is anything but ambiguous, and this is why we need to pay some attention to it. So Pope Francis had been trying to either steer or stall, depending upon the read, a doctrinal change or a process of vast change in the Roman Catholic Church on issues such as sexual morality, the ordination of women, you go down the list. The Pope had either attempted to guide or to stall that position by what was called the Synodal Way.

Synods, referring to national leadership of bishops and the gathering together of local national bishops and national synods to debate the issues of controversy and concern within Roman Catholicism. But this is where things get really interesting, because it has been clear now for a couple of years that the German Catholics, in particular, the bishops of the Catholic Church in Germany, they intend to bring about vast, and I mean vast doctrinal change and moral change, and they intend to bring about this vast change very fast. They want it right now. And so just in a matter of the last several weeks, Germany’s Roman Catholic bishops have voted to, for example, move ahead towards the ordination of women to the priesthood, offer all kinds of recognition on LGBTQ issues, including blessing transgender persons as transgender. There is also a call for the blessing of gay relationships and it’s tantamount to a call for same sex marriage.

Just to state the obvious, all of this is directly contrary to the official long-standing historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on issues, we should note, that the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be absolutely essential to Catholicism. Jonathan Liedl, reporting for the National Catholic Register, puts it this way, “Delegates of the German Synodal Way overwhelmingly passed measures to change church practices based on transgender ideology and to push the universal church to ordain women to the sacramental diaconate.”

 Speaking and moving forward in these revolutions or revolts against traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, the current Roman Catholic doctrine, by the way, one of the leaders of the church, Irme Stetter-Karp, who’s the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said that this is just the beginning of a process of revolution, “The church is visibly changing and that is important.”

And she went on to say, “It does not end here. It is just to the beginning.” People speaking at this German synod, including folks such as Viola Kohlberger, identified as a young adult from Augsburg, who said that there is no norm, that is absolutely no norm when it comes to gender, and that the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church is holding back progress. A professor of theology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz went on to say that the Book of Genesis is, “An inadequate basis for questions of sexual anthropology.”

So it’s important that we look at this, even as evangelical Christians, to see what it looks like when the gauntlet is thrown down. Because in this case, in the debates and developments within Roman Catholicism, we see the clouds on the horizon of battles that will have to be fought within other churches and denominations as well. There’s just no way around it.

All this is, in effect, a declaration of war upon historic Catholic teaching. But here’s where we also need to note, as evangelical Protestants, most of the issues of contention here are not just matters of Catholic doctrine, they are matters in which you have Protestant agreement, on the fact that male and female are ontological categories deeply rooted in the Book of Genesis and deeply rooted and revealed in creation order. In such teachings, such as the fact that there is only one acceptable biblical theological definition of marriage, and it is the union of one man and one woman for a lifetime period.

The historic Roman Catholic Church and the historic Protestant affirmation based upon Scripture comes down to very similar judgment, indeed, nearly identical judgment when it comes to many issues of sexual morality, including the fact that the act of sex is limited in its expression to the institution of marriage as defined by scripture and affirmed by the church.

It’s just very important that evangelical Christians understand that when you have these kinds of developments within Catholicism, the fact is that they are like intellectual viruses. They don’t stay within one circle. They tend to expand and there’s a contagion that tends to expand quickly. Now, liberal Protestant churches are actually kind of ahead of the Roman Catholic Church in this revolution, and a part of it is because they did not have all those centuries of tradition that they were claiming were continuous. You had the open acknowledgement in most of liberal Protestantism that what they were doing was a clear break with the historic past and history of their churches. They at least understood what they were doing was radical. They actually liked it because it was radical.

The Roman Catholic Church is in a very different quandary, because the Roman Catholic Church teaches that it itself, and again, evangelicals reject this out of hand, but the Roman Catholic Church claims that it is itself entrusted as the steward of doctrine and most importantly, that stewardship is located in the papacy itself, in the Pope, and beyond the Pope in the magisterium of the church.

But there’s also a claim that even as the church authorities in this sense have the power of doctrinal development, that it must be consistent. Now, that raises a very interesting question. How in the world can you have consistency if it was no yesterday and yes today? How in the world can you have consistency if marriage can only be the union of a man and a woman yesterday, but you say it can be something different today? How in the world can the Roman Catholic Church be consistent when it says that the priesthood is limited to men yesterday and now you have the German Synod calling for the fact that women should be allowed into the priesthood as well? And let’s just point out that there is no way you can make the argument that that’s continuous in terms of tradition, that it’s consistent in terms of theological judgment.

It’s radically inconsistent. Pope Francis is in that position of bewildering ambiguity. He appears to be saying, we need vast, immediate, we need broad, and we need comprehensive change in the church, but once it’s clear what that would mean, he says he doesn’t want it and that indeed, this would be in conflict with Catholic doctrine, which of course it would be. But this Pope has invited challenges to Catholic doctrine. He himself has said, who am I to judge? He has undermined the authority of his own office and he’s undermined the doctrinal authority of his own church.

Again, a warning to all of us, as we deal with the stewardship of these controversial issues. We either believe in truth or we don’t. Now remember that what we saw happen in the Church of England just in the last several weeks has been that the bishops of that church move forward with the incredibly awkward and absolutely inconsistent position of saying that they would not perform same sex marriages, but they would bless same sex unions.

That’s incoherence. You talk about bewildering ambiguity, what’s bewildering is that anyone would think you could get away with that kind of argument. But now you see something very similar when it comes to Pope Francis and for conservative Christians, it comes down to this very clear realization. We’re going to have to stand on biblical truth and pay the price for it, period. There is no way to create some kind of treaty of peace with the modern age when it demands that the Christian Church abandoned all historic Christian teachings. And when it comes to the LGBTQ revolution, when it comes to the general moral revolt of the modern age, well, a negotiated settlement is not possible, and any claim of a negotiated settlement will not last. And for leaders, it’s just a reminder that you get what you ask for.

If you argue for the openness to rebellion against the teaching of your church, don’t be surprised when that rebellion comes. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens in terms of the mainstream media and the cultural conversation when it comes to the Pope’s 10th anniversary. It’s going to be very interesting to listen to Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals argue out these issues in the public square, but it’s just a reminder to evangelical Christians that as we’re looking at this story developing inside the Roman Catholic Church, very similar challenges will be faced by your own congregation and by your own denomination in due time.

So let’s learn from this and let’s be ready to face those challenges and to do so with the full wealth of biblical conviction.

Part II

Justice Department Loses Death Penalty Argument in Terrorist Case: Scripture and Human Conscience Cry Out for Justice

Big news came out of Manhattan also this week. The man convicted of the bicycle-path terrorist attack in New York was found, of course, guilty of several counts of first degree murder, but he was not sentenced to death, even though federal prosecutors had asked the jury for that sentence.

Instead, because the jury was split on the issue with at least one of the jurors unwilling to go along with the death penalty, he was instead given the sentence of life without parole. As Corinne Ramey and Sadie Gurman report for The Wall Street Journal, “Convicted Manhattan bicycle-path terrorist Sayfullo Saipov will serve life in prison without the possibility of release after jurors couldn’t agree on whether to sentence him to death.” And the next words are important, “A blow to the Justice Department.” More on that in just a moment.

Jurors said that they were unable to reach the unanimous verdict needed to sentence Saipov to death, according to a spokesman for the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office, which had prosecuted the case. Now listen to this. “Saipov’s case was the first death-penalty trial to take place during the administration of President Biden, who campaigned on a promise to end the federal death penalty and encouraged states to pass their own laws halting capital punishment. He has said little about the issue since taking office.”

Well, he said little about it, because what he said on the campaign trail, he basically can’t stand by when he is now President of the United States and has to face two things, number one, the political judgment of the American people, and number two, the scale and enormity of the actual premeditated murders carried out by this man who was at least linked to the international problem of Islamic terrorism. So here you have the President of the United States when he was running for office and even since saying that what he wants to see is no more executions, no more federal death penalty, and even calling on the states to end the death penalty, but when it comes to his own administration, bringing the prosecution against this terrorist who is also now a convicted murderer, they called for the death penalty.

And this is described as a blow to the Justice Department, that means the Biden Justice Department, when the death penalty was not actually the sentence, because of hesitation on the part of the jury. What you see here, by the way, is a very interesting argument. Attorneys for the defendant in this case argued for a humane sentence. Now remember, we’re talking about premeditated mass murder with a car absolutely mowing down bicyclists. Specifically in this case, this man was convicted of killing eight people and injuring at least a dozen others when he took a rented flatbed truck and drove it onto a bike path in Lower Manhattan.

What’s interesting is the attorneys didn’t say he didn’t do it. By the end of the trial, they acknowledged that he did it, but they were pleading for his life over against the death penalty by calling for the nation that he had attacked to treat him humanely. This is where we need to understand that the Christian worldview does speak very clearly to this issue, and I think it speaks to the issue most especially, of course, in the clarity of scripture, but it also speaks to the issue in the architecture of the human conscience.

So let’s deal with the scripture first. In Genesis 9, in the Noahic Covenant, it is very clear that God says that when a man takes another man’s life, he forfeits his own life. That becomes a matter of the community’s responsibility based upon the fact, and the scripture’s clear about this in Genesis 9, the fundamental problem is that the murderer seeks to destroy the image of God in which a fellow human being is made. And in this case, more than one. So the scripture really is clear about this even in Romans 13, referring to the government and the power of the sword and doing so with respect. But there’s something else here, and that’s the architecture of the human conscience, and that shows up sometimes in a political reality. The political reality is that President Biden would find himself under a lot of political fire if he was known to ask for a penalty less than the death penalty, or his administration was, when it comes to such an absolutely heinous, horrifying crime.

But here’s the thing, if the death penalty is categorically wrong, then it’s categorically wrong for the Biden administration to have sought to bring about a death penalty sentence when they say that the sentence itself is unjust. You can’t make those arguments simultaneously and maintain any kind of coherence. Of course, I think what President Biden is hoping for is that Americans will look to the trial and forget what he said when he was running, but in order to regain traction with the Democratic Party and it’s left, he’s going to have to come out again and come out against the death penalty when his administration just sought it in this case. The logical point is this. If the death penalty applies in any case at all, then the death penalty is not categorically wrong at all.

So get this, you now have the Biden administration saying that the death penalty is wrong and that federal executions should stop. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reports that under this leadership, that is to say under the leadership of the current Attorney General Merrick Garland, appointed to that role on behalf of the President of the United States, listen to this: “Under his leadership,” that means Attorney General Merrick Garland, an extension of President Biden, “Officials have sought to reserve death for crimes they believed caused the greatest harm to the nation, such as hate crimes and terrorism.”

Now that is just a matter of less than an inch separated in print from these words, “Saipov’s case was the first death-penalty trial to take place during the administration of President Biden, who campaigned on a promise to end the federal death penalty and encouraged states to pass their own laws halting capital punishment.”

Now, my mother used to warn against what she called talking out of both sides of your mouth. In this case, that’s exactly what the Biden administration is doing, and the problem is this. Evidently, at least some jurors were listening to the ambiguity, and it’s also a matter of a warning to us that it’s likely a good many terrorists were hearing the same mixed message.

Part III

President Biden’s New Theological Category: ‘Close to Sinful’ — But the Bible Knows Nothing of the It

But next, when it comes to President Biden, I have to speak of another recent development. Victoria Bisset of The Washington Post reports about an interview the president gave to a former staffer named Kal Penn. The headline is that Biden tells the interviewer, “Anti-trans legislation is close to sinful.” Now, as you’re thinking about language, this is really important language. What in the world does close to sinful mean? Well, let’s just say that’s not biblical language. It might be the language of kind of a popular Catholic piety and that might explain President Biden in this case, but it makes no moral sense.

It is not morally coherent. There’s no such thing in the Scripture as close to sinful. There are sins, and then there are acts that are not sinful. But remember that the word sin, according to scripture and in the Christian worldview doesn’t just mean something that we think is bad or morally inappropriate. It is an offense against God. It breaks God’s law. It seeks to rob God of His glory. Sin, is first of all, theologically defined, but in this case, the President is seemingly expressing some kind of moral sentiment about what he defines as anti-trans legislation and, in particular, recent legislative developments in states such as Florida. But you’ll notice something else. The President uses the word sin here. That’s not a word you hear a lot from President Biden, or at least close to sin, and he credits this phrase, close to sin, not to his father, who he quotes very regularly, but to his mother.

Whether she actually said this or not, I don’t know, but the President did say it, close to sinful. It’s a way the President was expressing political outrage about the developments in Florida, but it’s also interesting that when it comes to the trans issue, Christians believe there actually is sin involved. But it’s not close to sin and it’s not the sin or the close to sin, to use the President’s expression, of being, well, clear about what the Bible says about gender and sexuality. Now, here’s what’s also very, very interesting, and at least we need to note another massive inconsistency, not just because we see it in President Biden, but because we want to avoid it as we think about our own moral consistency and moral witness, when it comes to abortion, President Biden says that he is entirely for abortion, and of course, he even made a change in the 2020 presidential race when he came out against the Hyde Amendment that prevented the use of taxpayer money for abortion.

Now he wants taxpayers not only to support abortion, he wants abortion available basically without restriction in all 50 states. He wants taxpayers to be forced to pay for abortion. He is, of course, a Roman Catholic. He makes much of his Roman Catholic identity, and the Roman Catholic Church is really clear about the sanctity of human life and about the sinfulness and evil of abortion.

The President, however, says that it would be inappropriate to bring that language and that argument into the public square, and so he uses the argument of many liberal Catholics saying, I know what I’m doing is directly contrary to the Roman Catholic Church. You see this also in former Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, another radical defender of abortion rights who also claims Catholic identity, but they claim we’ve got to make a distinction between the theological teachings of our church and public policy.

And so it’s really not appropriate to talk about sin when it comes to public policy until, all of a sudden, it appears convenient to say that anti-trans legislation, as he characterizes it in Florida, is almost sinful. The President also issued something of a moral mash on all of this saying, “It’s not like a kid wakes up one morning and says, I decided I want to become a man, or I want to become a woman, or I want to change.” The President went on to say, “I mean, what are they thinking about here? They’re human beings. They love, they have feelings, they have inclinations.”

So Mr. President, does that actually mean, because this is where you’re putting your administration on the line, that any kind of restriction on any person of any age from, well, say, having surgery conducted on that child that would be life changing, right down to anatomy and physiology, you’re saying that that is what is right? The statement also just points to that great moral divide, now very apparent in the United States, where either the transgender agenda makes sense or in the name of human dignity and protecting children, at least restricting, if not stopping, that agenda makes sense.

And once again, we see a common theme here. What doesn’t exist and what can’t exist under this circumstance is some kind of middle ground. And as for the language close to sinful, well, I’ll just say that that’s language that theologically is, well, close to sensical.

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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