The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

It is Wednesday, August 30, 2023.

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

Part I

No, Pope Francis, Doctrinal Faithfulness is Not Reactionary Rigidity: Pope Francis Encourages Doctrinal Leftism That Has Conservative Catholics Grinding Their Teeth

When you look at the papacy of the Roman Catholic Church, you are looking as a Protestant at a great big problem. Indeed, the very existence of the papacy became one of the key issues in the great controversy known as the Reformation of the 16th century. But in order to understand that, you have to step back and say that the claims made for the papacy are often lost actually on many Catholics as well as opposed by historic Protestants. But sometimes it’s the Popes themselves who seem to be the authors of confusion about their own office, about Roman Catholic doctrine and indeed the judgment of the Roman Catholic Church on matters. And this does matter to more than Roman Catholics for a number of reasons.

Number one, because the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the world is massive and as you’re looking at a secular world and a larger world picture, when they think of Christianity an enormous number, just assume that the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church speaks for Christianity. So it’s a practical problem. Another big issue for evangelicals is recognizing that patterns of theological argument that may appear first in Roman Catholic circles, even in the Vatican, they may well be signs of arguments coming of which we need to be aware or patterns that we ought to detect. In the case of recent comments made by Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, a big issue, indeed a set of issues comes to the fore. First of all, the question of doctrine and doctrinal change.

In the theological system of the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope has the supreme role as guardian of the Christian faith. According to their definition, it is he who is the central figure. Indeed, he is the ruler of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a monarchial rule and thus as you’re looking at the Curia, and that means the entire structure of the Vatican, when you are looking at the magisterium of the church, which means the teaching authority of the church, you’re looking at the focal point undeniably being the Pope. And as you look at history, it is only in fairly recent years that there are popes who could be described as more or less liberalizing popes. You might think of John XXIII, at the middle point of the 20th century, and in particular, Pope Francis I. All you have to say in this case is Pope Francis because at this point he, he’s the only Pope Francis. Pope Francis is now making quite a name for himself in terms of declarations of intentional doctrinal ambiguity.

Just viewed from a Protestant perspective, if you are going to have the Pope as the guardian of doctrine, you would think at least he would say guard the doctrine. But when it comes to Pope Francis, you understand why conservative Catholics are grinding their teeth. Most recently, this goes back to a meeting identified as a private meeting of the Pope with Portuguese members of the Jesuits. Now remember Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. That’s a very significant development because at one point the Popes saw the Jesuits as their key enemy, especially when it came to doctrinal orthodoxy. That may play into this picture as well. But in this private meeting with Portuguese Jesuits, and the meeting was back on August the 5th, but a transcript of the meeting was just released in a Vatican sanctioned news site.

And in that transcript, the Pope, remember he was previously a cardinal in Argentina. He went on to tell the Jesuits that one of the big problems in the Roman Catholic Church is identified as, “A very strong, organized, reactionary attitude,” in particular among American Catholics. He even referred to the disposition, if not the Catholics as backward. The Pope made statement suggesting that the American Catholics who have often criticized him are reactionary and they are marked by a climate of closure. The Pope said, “Doing this,” that means holding to this doctrinal rigidity by his view, “doing this, you lose the true tradition and you turn to ideologues to have support. In other words, ideologies replace faith.” Now that’s a massively important statement, but it actually is the very same argument that many in the American Roman Catholic Church are throwing back at the papacy. That is the Pope, they’re arguing and many of those appointed by this pope who in their liberalizing are actually replacing historic Christianity in so many ways in terms of doctrines and moral positions with something that is actually itself being driven by modern ideologies.

In speaking to these Portuguese Jesuits, the Pope said, “The vision of the doctrine of the church as a monolith is wrong.” He said, “When you go backward, you make something closed off, disconnected from the roots of the church, which then has devastating effects on morality.” Speaking of the American Catholics and in particular American Catholic bishops, archbishops cardinals, he said this, “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.” The Pope was saying, the Associated Press summarizes it this way, that the right position “allows for doctrine to progress and consolidate over time.” Now, this broke just in recent days, even though the meeting was back earlier in the month, but perhaps the Pope was sending a big signal at just about the same time as he spoke in one of his weekly addresses.

In one of his Sunday addresses delivered at the Vatican, this time on August the 20th, the Pope said, “This is what God is like. He is love and the one who loves does not remain rigid.” He spoke to Catholics and said, you stand firm, you stand firm, not rigid. The Pope went on in this particular address to say that in the ideal situation, the Catholic, “Does not remain rigid in his own positions but allows him or herself to be moved or touched. He or she knows how to change plans. It’s creative love.” He went on to say, and I quote, “We Christians want to imitate Christ. We are invited to be open to change how good it would be in our relationships as well as in our lives of faith to be docile, to truly pay attention, to soften up for the name of compassion and the good of others.” Now, to put that into context, just realized that this pope has been, if nothing else, the master of equivocation and confusion.

The Pope has made very liberal statements that seem to contradict the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, when it comes to homosexuality, same-sex relations, the official doctrine that is made clear in the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church describes all homosexual behaviors as intrinsically disordered. But years ago, the Pope infamously asked the question, “Who am I to judge?” The answer to that you might think as an evangelical is well for Catholics, you’re to judge. You’re the Pope. If you’re the Pope and you don’t judge then who does. Now as you look at this, you recognize that this Pope has basically used a very interesting method. He criticizes conservatives for rigidity. He explicitly calls for doctrinal change, but you should note he doesn’t seem to have either the authority or the conviction to press forward with what would be a genuine doctrinal change.

He isn’t saying to the Roman Catholic Church, we need to revisit the issue of homosexuality. Instead, he says to homosexual persons, LGBTQ persons, he speaks using his massive global platform saying, Who am I to judge? And then explicitly judging those who hold to the doctrine of his own church. The role of the papacy, if we understand it at all, and I’m speaking, here’s an outsider and I don’t believe the papacy is a biblical office. I believe it is a profoundly unbiblical office, but the point is, if you are a church that has a pope, he had better pope. Just recently, the Pope also sent a very clear signal with an appointment that was by appointing Archbishop Víctor Manuel Fernández as the new head or prefect of what is known as the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Now, this is the sacred congregation as it has been known. This refers to the official body in the Vatican absolutely responsible for the defense of Vatican doctrine. Now, as you look at this, you need to recognize that this has been one of the most crucial positions in the Roman Catholic Church. Prior to Pope Francis the two previous popes were known for being conservatives and for upholding the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church John Paul II and his long pontificate became a major voice for the defense of the unborn against abortion, a major voice for the integrity of the family and of a biblical notion of sexuality against all new sexual revolutionary ideologies. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, made his name as the great defender of Catholic dogma and doctrine in both moral and theological or doctrinal terms. And prior to becoming Pope, he had been the prefect or the head of the Congregation for the Defense of the Faith or now what is the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

So we’re talking about a major position. You’re talking about the one who’s basically assigned to be the Vatican watchdog, but in this case not much of a watchdog. This is a far more liberal appointment and it was seen at the time as a liberalizing move by Pope

Francis. Francis X. Rocca, who’s a veteran observer of the Vatican. He writes for the Wall Street Journal, he spoke of Pope Francis and both substance and style. He said this, “Pope Francis’ changes have gone far beyond a new style. He has thrown into question church teaching on controversial topics from divorce to homosexuality, distressing conservatives with his progressive bent, though not always satisfying liberal hopes.” Now, Vatican observers like Francis Rocha tend to seem to believe that Pope Francis sees himself as a transitional figure, but he has started a liberalizing process that he might be leaving to his successor as Pope to finish.

And there’s going to be a lot of challenge faced by the Pope because you have such movements as Synodality in Germany. It’s matched by some other Western European movements that are openly seeking to absolutely revise the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage, on sexuality. They’re calling for the ordination of women as priests. They’re calling for the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and basically the entire LGBTQ array. And conservatives–and in this case, notice the Pope Francis directed his ire, his opposition, his criticism at American Catholic leaders–he says they are reactionary. Well, just as an outsider with deep, deep concern for what this means for evangelicals as well as Roman Catholics, what we see here is a pattern where you have Americans being criticized, American Catholics in this case, for actually holding to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, which is of course their mission, at least by their own job description and their ordination oath by their own words, they’re actually doing what they said they would do.

But you see the Pope who seems to associate the United States of American, in particular American Catholicism with a backward conservatism, you have the Pope here using the American Catholic leadership in order to have a foil to say they’re reactionary, but he makes a very interesting argument. Evangelicals need to pay very close attention to this because this is not relevant only to Catholics. There is urgency here behind what should be evangelical concern for the same question. The question is does doctrine change? The question is does truth change? Now, those are two different questions. The distinction between those two questions, however, is clearly evangelical. It is not so clearly Roman Catholic. Does doctrine change? Well, certainly over time we need to recognize that the way the church expresses doctrine does change.

How does it change? Well, the Protestant Evangelical would say it should only change when the church recognizes that there’s a need for additional specificity and definition or when the church says on the basis, the sole basis of the Bible, the Word of God, there is a better way for the church to declare that truth. Officially, over the course of the last 100 or so years, the Roman Catholic Church has adopted an understanding of the development of doctrine that indeed has Catholic roots back in the Counter Reformation, that was the Catholic response to the Reformation and even earlier than that, but in particular the modern Roman Catholic Church or the Roman Catholic Church in the modern age, it not only claims that the magisterium, the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is responsible for doctrinal development. It basically embraces a process of doctrinal development. And what makes a key distinction between Catholics and Protestants is that the Catholic Church actually makes the claim that doctrine may develop beyond Scripture.

This is what evangelicals profoundly do not believe. If we are genuinely evangelical, we do not believe that doctrine can develop beyond Scripture. But notice, let’s switch back to the Catholics for a moment. Here you have the Jesuit Pope more or less on the Catholic left, suggesting that conservative Catholics in the United States, including very powerful conservative Catholic bishops in the United States who have steadfastly defined marriage as the union of a man and a woman and have steadfastly defended the dignity and the sanctity of the unborn they are actually here being condemned by the Pope for holding to Catholic doctrine, which is supposed to be actually his job to enforce Catholic doctrine. Instead, this pope has become the agent of mass confusion and it cannot be accidental. The only explanation is that he deliberately means to confuse the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and that he intends to liberalize it.

But it’s also interesting to look at the current Roman Catholic claims about doctrinal development and let’s just say that that Roman Catholic doctrine of doctrinal development does not include the Pope just speaking off the cuff to these issues and asking the question, Who am I to judge? So in summary, evangelical Christians need to look at this development in the Roman Catholic Church very, very carefully because number one, the Roman Catholic Church has vast influence in the world, so much so that many people around the world seeing a pronouncement by the Pope just assume that’s what all Christians believe. That’s what Christianity is. We as evangelicals hold a very different position, but none of us has the platform that the Pope has. At the very least, we need to know what kind of confusion may be sown here. The second reason we need to look at this is that there are some who would call themselves evangelicals, who frankly hold to a model of doctrine much more like Pope Francis than I believe like to Scripture.

The Scripture speaks of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. The Scripture speaks of doctrine, the doctrine we are to hold to and believe certain beliefs that are absolutely essential. The Bible does not tell us that we should concern ourselves with a process of doctrinal development. It does tell us that we are to contend for the faith once we’re all delivered to the saints. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re just simplistic about this. We do recognize that over time that church has learned that it needs to say certain biblical truths to express certain biblical truths in a more detailed way. For instance, the church’s defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, this is clearly more complex now and was even by the second and third century than it was in the first century. Why? Well, because basic questions are being asked. Heterodox, heretical teachings are being presented and the church needed to define what it means to affirm what is scriptural when it comes to the true deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and when it comes to the biblical definition of the Trinity.

Fast-forward to the 16th century and it was the great Protestant magisterial reformers who came to the conclusion forced by Scripture that Scripture alone was the final doctrinal authority, and thus, by the time you get to the Great Reformation in the 16th century, the reformers and the Church of Rome held two very different understandings of doctrine. The other reason we need to look at this is because we live in a common world. Certainly in the modern world, we are facing the same kinds of challenges. In the modern world there is just tremendous cultural pressure away from doctrinal specificity towards doctrinal ambiguity. The press loves the Pope and so does the cultural left. There is no doubt that he has tilted the scales towards liberalism in the Roman Catholic Church and many in the secular world see him as kind of a genial doctrinal grandfather who tilts left and winks, Who am I to judge?

Evangelicals need to recognize that there is no excuse for doctrinal ambiguity where the scripture is clear. We have to understand there is no excuse for asking who am I to judge when the Scripture is abundantly clear?

But finally, I would note that there are some on the evangelical left and some who would push evangelicalism to the left who are want to say the big problem is doctrinal rigidity. The big problem is opposition to doctrinal change.

Part II

The Kremlin Loves That Pope Francis Admires Russian Autocratic Leaders: The Pope Creates an Awkward Controversy

But next, and this really is kind of a separate story, although we still have the same central figure, that would be Pope Francis. Pope Francis has also created controversy this week by appearing to champion the cause of Russian imperialism. Speaking to a gathering of Russian Catholic youth, Pope Francis actually urged them, and again, Francis X. Rocca is the reporter here for the Wall Street Journal, “To follow in the path of Peter the Great and Catherine the great whom he called rulers of a great enlightened empire of great culture and great humanity.”

Well, let’s just pause and think about the fact we are talking about two of the most famous Russian rulers in all of history, and you are talking about both of them being associated somewhat with the enlightenment that so transformed Europe, but both of them we need to note were ruthless Russian imperialists. They were also both autocrats. They were not prophets of democracy. They were both self-aggrandizing, imperialists, they crushed opposition. When it comes to Peter the Great, there seems to have been some enjoyment in watching executions from his window. But there’s another big issue here, and it points to one of the fundamental problems of the papacy, which is the papacy is based upon the assumption that the Vatican state is a state and that the Pope is head of state, and that when he speaks, he speaks not only as the leader of Roman Catholics, he speaks as a head of state.

Why would that be such a big problem right now? Well, because you might’ve noticed that Russia invaded Ukraine, and when it comes to Catholics, there are a lot of Catholics in Ukraine, and there are also a lot of Catholics in nations such as Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, who were invaded by Russia and crushed by Russia under the rule of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and so you have actual Catholics in many of those countries saying, Hey, Pope Francis, whose side are you on anyway?

When the Pope speaks, he gets a lot of press attention. The favorable press attention came from where? Well, you guessed it, the Kremlin in Russia, they loved it. Dmitry Pescov spokesman for the Kremlin said, “The Pope knows Russian history, and this is very good.”

Meanwhile, the spokesman for the Vatican was backtracking predictably on what the Pope said. He went on to say this, “The Pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in Russia’s great cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and ruling figures.” The spokesperson for the Vatican went on to say that the Pope had mentioned these famous czars, “To indicate some historical periods of reference.”

This is a pattern we can understand wherever you have a major political leader, and in this case, that’s what the Pope is functioning as a major political leader of a very tiny state that is basically a matter of a few city blocks. But this time what we have are headlines coming from the Vatican in which a spokesman comes out and says, Yeah, that’s what the Pope said, but that is not what he meant. I’m going to tell you what he meant. Oh, yeah. He seemed to celebrate Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, but he just meant to mention important historical epics. He wasn’t really talking about Peter or Catherine. Meanwhile, I’m just going to bet that the Kremlin tells the Russian people nothing about this so-called clarification. I’m going to suggest that the Kremlin’s likely to hold its story, and I quote again, “The Pope knows Russian history, and this is very good.”

Part III

How’s This For Irony? Chicago Crew Robbed at Gunpoint While Filming a Documentary On the Increase of Armed Robberies

Meanwhile, coming back to the United States, one of the problems in the US is that you have crime waves that are affecting many American metropolitan areas and cities. Now, you have headlines coming into the media saying, Hey, there’s really not much to watch here, but at the same time, even major newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times are having to cover these stories and to go into some detail. But when it comes to a TV news crew in Chicago, well, it gets pretty hard to deny the story when you become the story. As the Washington Post reported about an incident on Monday in what the Post called an ironic twist, a Chicago television crew covering a spike in armed robberies was, well, tell me, you see this coming. They were robbed.

This follows an incident in another major American city where another documentary press team that was covering this kind of spike in crime came back to find that their news van well was empty of all the equipment that was going to be used to document this spike in crime. But when it comes to this Chicago television crew, well, they were actually documenting more or less themselves as victims of a robbery. The Post reports that there were three male suspects who were wearing ski masks and displaying firearms pointed at the TV crew. “The men demanded money from the crew before stealing the camera used to film the story on robberies as well as two bags of equipment, and the photographer’s backpack.” Jose Lemus-Cortez identified as a spokesman for the Chicago police said, “The offenders then took the victim’s belongings before returning to the vehicles and fleeing.”

Without irony, the Washington Post reported, “The robbery of the TV crew comes, as Chicago police are investigating a series of at least eight armed robberies and carjackings that unfolded on Sunday night and Monday.” What’s the irony? Well, in truth, we’re not talking about at least eight armed robberies. We’re talking about at least nine, but you got to give these robbers at least a little credit for thinking on the spot. If you’re going to rob a film crew, well, here’s a clue, maybe you better take the film.

By the way, even as there are those who say there’s really no spike in crime in so many cities, the Washington Post tells us that there’ve been more than 6,500 robbery complaints in Chicago in 2023 as of Sunday. That’s a spike of 23% says the Post compared to the same time last year. There have also been more than 19,500 reports of motor vehicle thefts. That’s an increase of 99% compared with August, 2022.

A political judgment’s also embedded in this, and I think it’s incredibly questionable. A spokesman for the TV station said that the robbery was mentioned on Univision Chicago’s 5:00 PM broadcast, “But the station decided not to make the incident central to its coverage.” If we wonder why, only the station could tell us why, but the spokesman for the station said, “We don’t want to make the story about us because there were other robberies that occurred within that same period.”

I do have to wonder if one of the robbers said to another, and frankly, if you get this, you get this. If you don’t, you don’t. I have to wonder if at some point, one of the robbers turned to the other and said, “Take the camera and the cannoli.”

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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