Monday, November 13, 2023

It’s Monday, November 13, 2023.

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

Part I

The Papal Confusions: Pope Francis Makes False Distinction Between Pastoral Ministry and Church Doctrine

There are huge changes underway in the Catholic Church, and they should be of interest to us all. Over the course of the last several weeks, there’s just been a succession of headlines, and you can just tell from those headlines that we’re talking here about major change. We’re going to be looking at this pattern and why evangelical Protestants should be paying attention here. We’re going to be looking at the big changes in our cultural terrain, and we’re going to understand that when the Roman Catholic Church begins to send a very different signal on so many of the big moral issues, that’s going to have a massive effect on the entire culture. If nothing else, it’s going to give progressives in the culture the opportunity to say, “Look, the Catholics are getting on board. What about the rest of you?”

And the historical background to that that’s so important is that over the course of the last say 30 years of the 20th century and into the 21st century, a duo of conservative Popes and a series of very clear Catholic moral statements on sexuality, marriage, the existence of truth, the dignity of life, these had a massive effect on the culture. And at least at that point, conservative Protestants and traditionalist Roman Catholics were able to say, “As you look at the Christian tradition, there is unanimity on the tradition that says that the dignity, the unborn life is to be protected. The sanctity of human life is to be respected. Marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. Human sexuality was intended to be exercised only within the bonds and within the boundaries of that marriage. The gift of children is a good thing to the marital couple.”

This was a set of truths that on both sides of the Tiber, so to speak, that’s the river that runs there in Rome, there was a very clear understanding. And as you look at the development of so many of these issues in the culture, the trajectory of so many of these arguments, it was not without effect that the Vatican was very clear on these issues of conservative morality. But this is exactly where the change is now taking place. For example, just over the weekend, headline, “Vatican backs baptism for transgender people.” Now, the big issue here, for one thing, is the recognition of transgender people as an identity. As Francis X. Rocca reported for the Wall Street Journal, the Vatican said, “Transgender people may be baptized as Catholics and can serve as godparents in the latest sign of the church’s greater openness to LGBTQ people under Pope Francis.”

The story continues, “The Vatican also said that children of gay couples, including ones who are adopted or born to surrogate mothers, may be baptized and that such couples may serve as godparents.” And that report came almost exactly a month after a flurry of headlines such as this one from the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC. “Pope suggests Catholic Church could bless same sex couples.” And this was an interesting argument because of course the liberal media makes it look as more than it is. But as I’m going to argue, they may actually be more onto this than many Catholics looking at the same reality, because even as Pope Francis in response to what was called a dubia, that’s an official question posed to the Pope, to the Vatican in this case, by several powerful bishops. The question was about the potential blessing of same-sex unions. The question was posed by conservatives, by the way, not by progressives.

It was posed by conservative church leaders who’ve been very concerned about the compromise on LGBTQ issues and compromise and even subversion contradiction of official Catholic teachings. These particular leaders reached out to the Pope with an official dubia and asked for an answer. Now, what the Pope responded with was, as we will see, characteristically unclear. And that’s in great contrast to the two previous Popes, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, both of whom were exceedingly clear, both of whom understood their responsibility to uphold the splendor of truth, to uphold the integrity of marriage, to uphold the sanctity of human life, to uphold a biblical Christian understanding of human sexuality. But when it comes to Pope Francis, let’s just say, not so much. Now, when it comes to the blessing of same-sex couples, the Pope was suggestive. And that’s one of the things we need to note.

There are different ways of pushing a liberal agenda. One of them is just a revolutionary approach in which you say, “We’re going to have to ditch all the doctrine. We’re going to have to deny all the tradition. We’re going to go ahead and violate Scripture because we demand a new morality, a new understanding of marriage, a new understanding of reality.” That’s one way to do it. The other way to do it is far more subtle and perhaps a little bit slower, but over time, perhaps more insidiously effective. And this is whereby suggestion, you raise the question, saying, “Could we possibly bless same-sex couples?” Now, it wouldn’t be marriage because the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church says that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. It’s an indissoluble union, and the Catholic Church is very clear about that. The catechism of the Catholic Church, it’s official Statement of Doctrine, is very clear about that. Centuries of Catholic tradition are very clear on that.

About the definition of marriage, the reformers were in absolute agreement with the Catholic magisterium and with the Pope. But this Pope is saying it wouldn’t be actually a same-sex marriage, because that’s impossible according to Catholic doctrine. And by the way, that means it’s impossible until the doctrine changes, and then it becomes possible. But the Pope isn’t coming right out and calling for a change in doctrine, one of the interesting moves in a liberal direction undertaken by Pope Francis, who became Pope in the year 2013, again following two legendary conservative Popes. This far more liberal Pope, he hasn’t in most cases just come out and said, “We’re going to replace conservative doctrine and conservative church teaching with liberal church teachings.” He’s just been suggestive in most cases, saying, “I wonder if this might be possible.”

In some cases, even under the pontificate of Francis, there have been clear affirmations that the catechism’s not going to change. Indeed, some issues might be unchangeable according to Catholic doctrine, but if you’re asking if they’re really unchangeable, in one sense you’re insinuating they might not be unchangeable. It’s just a matter of time.

Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis responded to a question on sexuality issues by asking, “Who am I to judge?” If there’s one statement that has become famous or infamous about this particular Pope, it is the statement or the question, “Who am I to judge?” If there’s any one statement, any one set of words that is associated with this papacy and with this Pope, it is that statement in which speaking to reporters, the Pope simply asked the question, “Who am I to judge?”

Now, the obvious answer that even a Protestant evangelical might offer is, “Well, you at least claim to be the Pope. And if the Roman Catholic Church has a Pope and you’re the Pope, you are precisely authorized and responsible to give an answer to these things and to render a judgment. What’s the point of having a Pope if the Pope simply turns to reporters and asks, “Who am I to judge?”” Now, that particular statement, however represented a sea change, but we’re looking at the subject today for three reasons. Number one, what does this mean for the future of the Roman Catholic Church? Number two, what does this mean for the future of our culture? And number three, what does it mean as something that evangelical Christians need to observe and learn from? And in this case, learn from it in order to avoid it, to detect the same kind of liberal progressive agenda and say, “Well, that’s not going to happen here. We have no control over what happens in Rome.”

One of the things you need to note about Pope Francis is that, as I said, he’s often indicated the possibility of change by suggestiveness. Sometimes with a question like asking, “Who am I to judge?” At other times by asking whether pastoral charity might mean, at least on an individual basis, a different kind of approach. And in the case of this kind of suggestiveness, which I’m going to suggest for a Christian minister’s malpractice. In terms of this kind of suggestiveness, and conservative Catholics has been very troubled about this for a long time, the Pope has said, “I wonder if this might be possible?” And he also, in terms of his personal example, has contradicted church teaching by offering allowances to people, sometimes just on an individual basis, who are clearly living contrary to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Pope also speaks in language that, unlike his two predecessors, it’s just very evasive. It’s very hard to understand exactly what he’s saying sometimes. Is he saying something or is he trying to appear to be saying something? For example, in response to the dubia, to the question, the Pope said this, “Pastoral prudence must adequately discern whether there are forms of blessing requested by one or more persons that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage.” Now, interestingly, you look at that sentence and there’s something there you might not have noticed, and many liberal Catholics and most in the liberal press didn’t notice this. The Pope actually in that statement speaks about a case by case basis and about the possibility, maybe perhaps, of a form of blessing “requested by one or more persons.”

So as you’re thinking about blessing same-sex unions, let’s just look at this text and realize the Pope actually mentioned one and perhaps two. But the Pope also, if you actually look at the document and many conservative Catholics have pointed this out, he doesn’t appear to be assuring in any way that it will be possible that there can be blessings of same-sex unions. So what’s really going on here? What’s going on here is that Catholic bishops in places like Germany have been going far beyond the official teaching of the church. They’ve actually acted in contradiction to the official teaching of the church and they’ve been offering blessings to same-sex unions. They are not able officially to offer same-sex marriage, but they’ve offered blessings to same-sex couples, many of whom are actually, according to the law in Germany, married.

The Pope also uses language like this, and this is basically working evasiveness and suggestiveness into the system. It’s something of an art form. The Pope said about the potential blessings of same-sex persons or same-sex unions, “Decisions that may be part of pastoral prudence in certain circumstances should not necessarily become a norm.” In other words, maybe this is a good idea, maybe it’s possible, maybe it’s not, maybe it’s a bad idea. It shouldn’t become the norm, but here’s the reality. Once something like this is codified and recognized, once this kind of pastoral and papal effective permission is given, it’s going to happen and it will become the norm. The LGBTQ movement is not going to be satisfied with rare exceptions to official Catholic teaching. It is demanding a change to official Catholic Church teaching. And the important thing for us to recognize is that that’s exactly what is being demanded of evangelical Christians, of evangelical Protestants. It is the same demand.

Now, there’s another wrinkle in all of this, and this is another case of unclarity. And in this case, the problem of unclarity is about the attack by the terrorist Islamist group Hamas on Israel. The Pope’s response has been underwhelming. It’s been deeply troubling to the State of Israel, and this was true even in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack when Israel was reeling from the worst genocidal attack on the Jewish people since World War II. Especially in the conservative press, there was a great deal of respect for Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It tells you something that the Wall Street Journal on October the 24th ran an opinion piece by William McGurn, a columnist for the paper, and the headline is “The Incoherence of Pope Francis.” Incoherence. That’s an incredible word and it’s used here quite deliberately, and I would argue it’s used here quite accurately.

Now, one of the big moves that evangelicals need to watch here, we need to watch lest this happen among us, is that this Pope makes a distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice that simply not only shouldn’t be encouraged, it shouldn’t be allowed. We should have our pastoral practice aligned with our doctrine, our pastoral ministry. The ministry of the church should be aligned with our doctrine. The moral teachings of the church are not just something to put in a book of official teachings. That is exactly what godly pastors are to advise and counsel and to teach and to preach when it comes to pastoral situations. But this Pope has argued for exactly the opposite. He has argued that pastors ought to be able to apply the doctrine of the Catholic Church in ways that effectively mean subverting and contradicting it. Quite honestly, there are at least some left-wing evangelicals who would try to make the same kind of argument.

At one point, this was the argument made by liberal Protestants, but then they just basically got to the point of honesty when they said they just disagreed with the classical biblical Christian tradition on these issues. Now they call it oppressive. That’s pretty predictable as well.

This Pope is not there yet, although he has encouraged many more liberal forces within the Catholic Church who pretty much are there already. A report in the New York Times about this latest paper endorsing baptism for transgender people, the New York Times includes this paragraph, “Adding to the nuances and possible wiggle room, the document says those people could be invited to witness the baptism.” This means persons not conforming to church teaching, and left some discretion to the local priest, calling on pastors “to wisely ponder every case, to safeguard the sacrament of baptism.”

Another pattern we need to watch here. Every time Pope Francis makes one of these statements, pro LGBTQ people celebrate it as a major breakthrough. It’s not enough, they’re quick to say, but it’s a major breakthrough. It’s distance between John Paul II and Benedict and now Pope Francis. It’s a sign of the trajectory of the church in the future, and they’re counting on that. And there are many who are openly speculating on the Catholic left that whatever years remain in Francis’ pontificate are likely to be more years of suggestion in the hope that he will be followed by someone who, perhaps in a younger generation, will be less reluctant to change the doctrine of the Catholic Church on these issues. There’s a lot more we could look at here, but let’s just remind ourselves, I’m speaking to you as an evangelical Protestant, a very deep Protestant conviction. I do not believe in the validity of the papal office. This was a major issue in the Reformation. I believe the reformers were right.

Part II

How Will the Progressivism of Pope Francis Influence Broader Culture? How Will Conservative Catholics Respond? What Does All This Mean for Evangelical Protestants?

I also want to recognize that the Roman Catholic Church with the Pope has had a massive moral influence in the development of Western civilization long before there was a reformation. The Catholic Church with the papacy was shaping Western civilization and a morality that was pervasively Christian, based on a biblical morality. Now, there was more to it, but there wasn’t less to it. You also have the reality that when the reformers brought such massive change to the church, even breaking with the Catholic Church and denying the authority of the Pope and the councils of the church, and even with the reformation doctrine of the scripture alone–sola scriptura–and faith alone and grace alone, in Christ alone, on the authority of scripture alone, all of this came without a major redefinition of marriage when it came to Protestant and Catholic.

It came without the slightest crack in the edifice of understanding what male and female meant. It came with the absolute understanding of the fact that human life at every point of development is God’s gift and is to be welcomed as such, and that means absolute opposition to abortion. There wasn’t a fraction of an inch of difference between the Roman Catholic Church and the magisterial Protestants, as they were called at that time. Now, liberal Protestants have come along and liberal Catholics, sometimes called Catholic modernists, have come along and the revolutions in the culture have had a shaping influence and a seductive effect on so many churches, denominations, seminaries and theologians. And what you’re looking at here is the fact that what is happening now in the Roman Catholic Church, which is giving so much encouragement to activists for a different shape for Catholicism, there are also those in Protestant circles who’ve been working just as hard, if not harder, to bring about a different kind of Christianity, as one of the authors has suggested.

And here’s the problem. A different form of Christianity than what? A different form of Christianity than the shape of Christianity for two millennia based upon scripture, is the answer. I mentioned those three concentric circles. What does this mean for the Catholic Church? I’ve spoken to that. What does it mean for the larger culture? That’s really, really big, because you recognize that the Roman Catholic Church, and again, I don’t believe in the papacy as an office, I don’t believe in the papacy as say the monarch of a state. I don’t think that’s at all helpful. I do want to recognize, however, that there are millions and millions, millions of Roman Catholics who look to the papacy for moral direction. And the moral influence of the Roman Catholic Church, not only in history, but even in the modern times is massive. It’s simply staggering to imagine what would happen if the Roman Catholic Church were to redefine marriage, to join the sexual revolution, to redefine gender and sexuality.

Evangelical Christians are bound by Scripture. We have nowhere to go and there is no Pope we recognize to authorize that doctrinal change. We are in the predicament of being absolutely committed to Scripture, and Scripture is not changing. But we do need to recognize that the challenge we face will be a lot more complicated than we have ever known in Western civilization if indeed these trends suggested by Pope Francis bear the fruit that so many on the left hope and so many on the right fear.

It’s going to be very interesting to all of us as evangelical Christians to see how conservative Catholic theologians, scholars, intellectuals, church leaders, and laypeople, how they press back on this liberalization in the church. That too is going to be very instructive.

There was, finally, one other major headline having to do with the Pope over the course of the last several days, and this was the Pope’s forcible removal of a Catholic bishop in Tyler, Texas from his Episcopal–that is to say, his bishop’s responsibility. And that was because this particular conservative bishop had pressed back against the Vatican, asking some of the very awkward questions that many others are asking, and the Pope’s response was to remove him. That tells you something about where things appear to be headed. We’ll be following the story with you.

Part III

A Concession to Political Reality, and More? Senator Joe Manchin Announces He Will Not Seek Reelection to US Senate from West Virginia

Over the weekend, one big political story above all others, and that is the announcement made by West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, that he is not going to run for another term in the United States Senate. He was first elected and took office in the year 2010 after serving as West Virginia Governor. There had been speculation that he would not run for reelection, and the speculation is at least partly based in math. Joe Manchin is a Democratic Senator in one of the reddest of red states in the United States. West Virginia voters gave Donald Trump over a 35 point margin. That’s not 35% of the vote. That’s 35% margin over the Democratic candidates in 2016 and 2020. The likelihood of Joe Manchin being elected as a Democratic Senator was quite questionable in West Virginia. But there’s more to this story.

For one thing, the experience of Joe Manchin, who really isn’t a conservative, he is kind of an establishment old-style Democrat. He’s very much committed to fossil fuels, by the way, and to some other issues and at least some version of fiscal restraint. But quite frankly, over the course of the last couple of years, he was ineffective against the White House. And at one point, the White House clearly, in political terms, just ate his lunch. And that may be why, more than any other reason, Joe Manchin is also flirting with running for President, not for the Democratic presidential nomination, but in the statement that the West Virginia Senator made and in speculation in the press, which has been fueled by many people close to him, there are those who hope that he will run as a third party Independent candidate, or in what is now called the No Labels movement, with the support of that movement, which might eventually become something like a political party.

Under normal circumstances, a third party run in the United States is dubious at best and perhaps just an irritation, but it can be a game-changer by siphoning off votes in what would otherwise be a very close election. That might be where we are in 2024, but there’s something else to keep in mind. If no candidate, and this means especially if neither the Democratic or the Republican candidate gains the requisite number of votes in the electoral college, then the question will be thrown to the House of Representatives. And in that situation, virtually anything could happen. It’s still very unlikely. The chances of it would be very low, and there are already several announced third party candidates, or at least those who are neither Republicans or Democrats. It’s going to be very interesting to see where this goes, but one thing is certain, this makes a Democratic hold on the United States Senate after the 2020 elections very, very difficult to see. But that should not give Republicans overconfidence.

It’s almost certain that a Republican will pick up that seat in West Virginia, but that does not mean that Republicans pick up seats elsewhere or hold onto all the seats that the Republicans have to defend as well. We are a long way from any overconfidence about control of the House or the Senate, and that’s, if anything, an understatement, but the statement by Joe Manchin is a concession to political reality. If it means more than that, well we’re likely to find out over the course of the next several months.

Ross Douthat, the very influential conservative columnist for the New York Times, actually suggested Joe Manchin, in an article published yesterday, that he should plan to run, and if nothing else, find out how things unfold. He concluded his article by saying, “It’s entirely possible to begin an independent candidacy and then suspend it, just ask Perot,” meaning Ross Perot, “if the situation looks entirely unpropitious.”

He concludes, “Which is what I’d advise Manchin to consider. If the donors and infrastructure are there, a patriotic attempt to be abandoned if it’s going nowhere, but to be seen through if enough of the country desires a different choice.” As I’ve already said, that would be unlikely, but we simply have to stipulate it certainly is not impossible. If nothing else, and there will be a lot more at stake here. If nothing else, the age of the likely major two party candidates is an issue unto itself, an historic development unto itself, and right now, especially when it comes to the Democratic President of the United States, Joe Biden, it’s an open worry. But frankly, when it comes to any number of candidates, it’s likely to be an open worry throughout the entire electoral campaign.

Christians need to remember, as we look at these kinds of developments, that political parties are arguments. They’re arguments that come with politicians. They come with apparatus, they come with bumper stickers, they come with buttons, they come with political conventions, but they are arguments. It will be fascinating to see how many major arguments are made in the course of the 2024 Presidential Election. It’s going to be a battle of ideas. It’s going to be more than that. It’s going to be a counting of votes. It’s going to be a hard-fought contest, but it is going to be a clash of ideas. And that’s going to be enough to keep us on our toes for months to come.

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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