Tuesday, December 19, 2023

It is Tuesday, December 19, 2023.

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

Part I

Did Pope Francis Really Give Blessing to Same-Sex Couples? The Complicated Disaster of the News Coming Out of the Vatican

So, did Pope Francis just say that priests in the Roman Catholic Church can give blessings to same-sex unions? That is what is being reported in headlines all over the world, and the bottom line is it’s not wrong, but it also is a big story and it’s a big story regardless of whether or not one is inside or outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Speaking as a confessional and conservative evangelical Protestant Christian, there’s a lot of stake here and we need to take a closer look at it and we need to measure what’s going on here, particularly not just by developments in Church history, but by biblical authority and the Christian worldview.

The bottom line is that this is a disaster. It’s a disaster I think on many fronts, but in particular it’s a disaster because the impact of this in the larger culture is going to be to add momentum to the very forces that are tearing apart gender, tearing apart sexuality, tearing apart civilization, tearing apart marriage, tearing apart sexual morality, and all the rest.

We have seen this pope in particular, Pope Francis, be an agent of suggestion, subversion of the Christian order by suggestion, but in this case we’ve actually gone to an official teaching which is a declaration of Church doctrine and it’s really interesting right now to hear the debate among people saying, “It’s this. No, it’s something else.” Well, we can actually look at the text and come to a pretty quick conclusion that this is a major development that demands a lot of our attention. There’s an historical background to the release of the document known as Fiducia supplicant yesterday by the Vatican, and in particular what is known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith that was formally known as the Sacred Congregation for the Defense of the Faith or the Doctrine of the Faith, and before that it was known as the Inquisition. So, this is actually the ongoing body within the structure of the Vatican under the authority of papacy that has primary responsibility for defining and defending the Catholic faith.

As it turns out in this document, I will argue there’s not a whole lot of defining and there’s even less defending. I think this is an indefensible statement in terms of the history of the Christian tradition and even the history and tradition of the Roman Catholic Church and more importantly, according to scripture. The object here is to bless what I believe scripturally can’t be blessed and shouldn’t be blessed, and what even the Roman Catholic Church continues to teach is directly contrary to creation order and the expressed will of God. So, we’re looking at something that’s not insignificant here. Now, over the course of the last several years, Pope Francis has been charting a course for the Roman Catholic Church that appears to be designed to liberalize without being as obvious and upfront and perhaps even as honest as he should be about the liberalization. I’ve often said that what you have here is the subversion of the Christian tradition by suggestion.

The Pope has done a lot of this in interviews, not so much an official papal statement. He has allowed interviewers to ask him questions to which he responds with ambiguous and suggestive answers, suggesting for instance that he could support civil unions or same-sex couples, suggesting that he would like to find a way to bless same-sex couples and to have priests of the Church offer a blessing for same-sex couples. Well, that’s exactly what’s happened, but here’s where we need to know, that if we go back just about two years, this very same dicastery is actually at that point offering the exact opposite argument, offering the argument that it is impossible for the Church to bless what scripture and the Catholic tradition condemns, which means same-sex behaviors and relationships. So, let’s ask ourselves the question, is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that say same-sex acts are incompatible with Christianity?

Yes, as a matter of fact, the current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, which means by definition its current official doctrine says the homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered. That’s an extremely strong word–that means the opposite of creation order. It means not only sin, but a rejection of what nature makes abundantly apparent.

But then you measure that over against the headlines that came out predictably yesterday, the Pope endorses the Catholic Church offering blessings to saying sex couples. That’s exactly what the Pope did, but he did it in a convoluted way and that also requires our attention. This is the very same pope that has been liberalizing his church by answering questions, by offering suggestions, by more or less winking and giving the nod to the possibility that things might be possible that right now are not possible. And here you have a situation in which the Roman Catholic Church has basically performed something very revolutionary in terms of the Catholic tradition. We’re going to talk about that in just a moment, but has also done it in such a way as to say the pope’s not changing anything, the pope is changing everything all in the same document. That’s how the game is played.

Now, I said that this is a major change in the way the Roman Catholic Church treats doctrine and that’s made very clear when a cardinal of the Church, Victor Manuel Fernandez, who is the cardinal who is the head of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, he offered an official introduction to this official statement that Roman Catholic Church. He says a couple of things. He says that for instance, it is the task of the Church to apply the teaching of the Pope in this area. He says, “Our work must foster along with an understanding of the Church’s perennial doctrine, the reception of the Holy Father’s teaching,” the Holy Father means the pope, that means Pope Francis.

Now, what’s very interesting to note here and traditionalist Roman Catholics have been pretty quick to point this out is that it has not been traditionally said that the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith exists to basically support the teaching of the pope, but rather to support the teaching of the Catholic Church. Here there’s a conflation of the two things, and that really is an innovation in this context. The political background to that is that Pope Francis basically fired the conservative who had been head of this dicastery and appointed someone far more to his liking and evidently the feeling is mutual.

But then there’s something else, and this is absolutely huge, an evangelical Christians, you better pay close attention to this. Just listen to this statement: “Such theological reflection based on the pastoral vision of Pope Francis,”–again, that’s a bit odd to quote the authority of the pope in this context, but nonetheless, the next words are what I’m pointing to–“Implies a real development from what has been said about blessings in the magisterium and in the official text of the Church.”

The key term there is implies a real development. And you could even isolate just the two words, real development. Now, why are those two words so significant? It is because the Roman Catholic Church is premised upon an argument about the development of doctrine. And the quickest way to explain this is to say that this became in essence the key issue between those who became the Reformers of the 16th century, such as Martin Luther, and the official church leaders of that time in the Roman Catholic Church. The development of doctrine or the impossibility of the development of doctrine, that turned out to be a key issue, a fundamental foundational issue. The quickest way to understand that is just to go back to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, Scripture alone as the sole final authority. So if you ask Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer, does the doctrine of the Church develop? He would say, which should only develop in terms of the clarity what’s clearly revealed by God in scripture as preached by the apostles, whatever is the faith of the apostles is to be the faith of the Church without change to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

The Roman Catholic Church developed an understanding of doctrinal development. That is exactly what the Reformers had rejected and that is the fact that doctrine does develop. It is extended, which is to say there’s actually new doctrine according to the Roman Catholic Church and that is because the Roman Catholic Church has a teaching office at the very top of which is the pope and the pope it is claimed, guided by the Holy Spirit, can basically develop new doctrine. And here you have the Vatican statement coming out yesterday saying that’s exactly what’s happened. This is a real development, which is to say it’s a new doctrine. Now in Protestant circles, you understand if you show up and say, “I have a new doctrine,” people say, “Well, no you don’t.” You may have a new clarification, you may have a new understanding, you may come to a new obedience, but you do not have a new doctrine because if it’s a new doctrine, it is not a doctrine of the Christian faith. If it is a doctrine of the Christian faith, it’s not new.

Now, for example, just consider what the Church did more than a century ago, the Roman Catholic Church, in declaring a new doctrine in this case, the immaculate conception of Mary, just to take one example. The Roman Catholic Church never claimed that the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary that that was a biblical doctrine that is to be found in terms of its basis, an explicit expression anywhere in Scripture. They said nonetheless the Holy Spirit had guided the Church into the affirmation of this new doctrine, but then again, the evangelical has to show up and say, “No, if it’s a new doctrine, it’s not a doctrine. If it is a doctrine, it’s not a new doctrine,” but the document that was released by the Vatican actually goes on to make the claim that there are things that can change and things that can’t change.

Part II

Progressing the Sexual Revolution By a Wink: The Strategy of Pope Francis to Blur the Lines of “Union” Ceremonies with Weddings

And here’s where things get really interesting because in the category of the things that can’t change, at least supposedly can’t change, includes the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on marriage as a sacrament. By the way, remember that for the Roman Catholic Church, there’s not just a doctrine of marriage, it’s the sacrament of marriage. This document makes very clear that marriage can’t change, that the sacrament of marriage can’t change. Now of course, given the theory and the practice of the Roman Catholic Church, that in essence means that it is resistant to change and probably can’t change, but in any event, the Vatican is now claiming that they’ve not changed the definition of marriage. The pope can come out by the way and endorse civil unions, but hey, they’ll say it’s not marriage and in this case we’re talking about the blessings of same-sex couples, but this is not to be considered marriage.

Now, I just want you to hold that thought because I do not believe it’s honest, but I do want to ask you to try to hold it because the Vatican wants to hold that thought and say that there can be a way for a priest to offer a blessing to a same sex couple, and that doesn’t confuse marriage. I think of course it confuses marriage. The introductory statement by the cardinal actually states the risk by basically saying the church has avoided the risk. “This declaration remains firm in the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessings similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.”

But all you have to do to understand how this statement creates confusion, and I’m going to argue I think deliberately creates confusion, all you have to do is look at the media reception at its quite confused. The opening document cites the authority of Pope Francis and his intention to offer a blessing to all, and that is to receive the gift of blessing and to give the gift of blessing. The document goes on to say that the Church, meaning the Roman Catholic Church has, “The right and the duty to avoid any rite,” R-I-T-E, “That might contradict this conviction or lead to confusion.” Again, it’s exactly nonetheless what they’re doing actually on both scores. The document comes back again and again to say that the rite of the sacrament of marriage hasn’t been changed and can’t be changed. Later, under paragraph 11, the statement actually says, “The Church does not have the power to confer its liturgical blessing when that would somehow offer a form of moral legitimacy to a union that presumes to be a marriage or to an extramarital sexual practice.”

So, they’re saying the Pope agrees with that, but at the same time, the Vatican, sometimes identified just as the pope, have adopted this new policy whereby a priest can offer a blessing to a same-sex couple. Which is it? Well, it turns out that in a sense it’s both, but the document, which is several thousand words long, it gets really, really interesting when it says that the priest can’t offer a ceremony that looks like marriage. It can’t have the appearance of that kind of formal, sacramental context of marriage and thus of a wedding. It can’t be accompanied by the kind of rites and rituals and music, but on the other hand, that’s exactly what is taking place and the pope knows it, and even as you have definitions here that look very clear, the reality is that you really don’t have to change much in the rite or in the ritual or in the music to claim that one is in conformity with what the document calls for here.

So, this is saying everything remains the same when it comes to marriage, but of course that is fundamentally untrue. Everything will not remain the same and you can’t do anything that looks like a wedding. Well, the whole point of this even has been reported in the worldwide media is that there are those who are going to say, “Look, the pope has just given the blessing. The Vatican has just given the blessing to same-sex couples and thus the same-sex unions. So hey, whether we’re going to call it a marriage or a wedding or not, that’s exactly what it’s going to look like,” and I think we all know that’s exactly what it already looks like. Particularly when you look at liberal jurisdictions in the Roman Catholic Church such as the actions undertaken by many in Germany for example, even German bishops and archbishops who have been very much proponents for the Church finding a way to bless same sex unions, if not going all the way to blessing same sex marriage, the end result going to be the same.

You would think that the document’s very specific speaking of the blessing, “Nor can it be performed with any clothing, gestures, or words that are proper to a wedding. The same applies when the blessing is requested by a same-sex couple.” So, a couple who aren’t qualified to be married or who aren’t actually married who are looking for this kind of blessing, same sex couples are put in the same category, and here we are told that it can’t look like a wedding, it can’t look like the sacrament of marriage, and yet you can quickly understand that just a couple of tweaks and changes and people are going to claim, “Look, this isn’t marriage. We’re not even try to make it look like marriage. Forget all the flowers and the candles and all the rest.”

Now, when you look at the meaty response to this, again, the headlines, Wall Street Journal, Vatican Issues Guidelines for Same-Sex Blessings. The New York Times headline, “Pope Francis Allows Priests to Bless Same-Sex Relationships.” Over and over again in both the United States and in the international coverage you have variations on a theme, the pope is going to allow priests to bless same sex relationships.

Now, almost as soon as the document was released yesterday, you had people saying, “Look, it’s not what it looks like. It is not offering a blessing to same sex relationships, rather only to people who request them,” but that’s betrayed by the fact that in the document itself you have phrases such as “couples of the same-sex.”

Part III

The Bottom Line of the Roman Catholic Church’s Blessing of Same-Sex Unions

The other thing to note is that the very same Vatican office back in 2021 (it was known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), back in March of 2021 released a statement which is directly contradicted by this new statement coming less than three years after. As a matter of fact, in calendar years, one’s could be dated 2021 and the one released yesterday, 2023. Now, just listen to this statement from 2021. So this isn’t the year 921, it’s not even 1921, this is 2021. Listen to this: “Blessings belong to the category of the sacramentals whereby the church calls upon us to praise God, encourages us to implore his protection and exhorts us to seek his mercy by our holiness of life. In addition, they have been established as a kind of imitation of the sacraments. Blessings are signs above all of spiritual effects that are achieved through the church’s intercession. Consequently, in order to conform with the nature of sacramentals when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed to be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace according to the designs of God, inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord, therefore only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the church.” That has been completely dispensed with hook, line, and sinker.

The whole point of the document released yesterday by the Vatican is to have the same office say the exact opposite thing and you’re looking here at what I think can only be described as a theological disaster, but we need to understand how this happened. In the first place, we have the problem already discussed, which is that the Roman Catholic Church claims a stewardship for the development of doctrine, which evangelicals believe is just fundamentally unbiblical. That’s not an assignment given to the Church, it’s not a power given to the Church. It is a power explicitly not given to the Church.

The second problem is having a Vatican office like this and a papacy that claimed the authority to supervise that stewardship. That’s just a huge problem. If you have a pope, this is exactly what can happen, and so cultural conservatives looked at the two titanic popes at the end of the 20th century into the 21st, looking at John Paul II and Benedict XVI, who exerted a very conservative influence in the Roman Catholic Church, but also buttress the moral teaching in the Roman Catholic Church over against liberal pressures in the larger culture on marriage, on sexuality, on gender.

John Paul II and Benedict XVI were absolutely clear and very much in line with the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, which in that sense when it came to understanding the marriage is a union of a man and a woman, understanding that God made us male and female was explicitly also established on biblical authority. Pope Francis is now the refutation of that, not officially you’ll note, but doing it by a sideways blow rather than a full-frontal attack. The Vatican here claims to change nothing, but as I’ve said on the ground, it’s going to change everything.

The next problem is what you see in Pope Francis is the separation of the pastoral from the doctrinal. Once again, we see that that’s a disaster. You say, here’s what the church teaches, yes, but our pastoral ministry can be predicated on something else. Now, what is explicitly stated in some of these Catholic documents is, look, people aren’t living up to those doctrinal standards, to those moral requirements of scripture, so, you have to meet them where they are and offer them some kind of blessing. That’s incompatible not only with what the Roman Catholic Church taught 1,000 years ago, that’s incompatible with what the Roman Catholic Church taught something like 30 months ago.

The next thing to recognize is that every single Christian institution, every denomination, everybody associated with the history of Christianity is going to be besieged by the pressures of modernity, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, most particularly the LGBTQ revolution, and there are only two ways to go, and I think that’s perhaps the most important thing for evangelicals to consider here. There are only two ways to go. You’re either going to stand on the authority of scripture and say the church has no right to change its understanding of these matters. What the Roman Catholic Church is doing here is blessing sodomy.

There are those who would be outraged by that statement to say, that’s not what’s happening, but yes, it is exactly what is happening. And in this case, the blessing is a celebration, and you don’t have to think of this hypothetically, that’s what’s going on right now in many Roman Catholic circles and places such as in Germany. It’s what liberal Roman Catholics want to take place in the United States as well. We know that, that’s not an imagination, that’s reality and has been for some time. Oddly enough, evangelicals would say that the Roman Catholic Church was absolutely right when it said back in the ancient days of 2021 that the Church cannot bless what is contrary to Scripture. And in this case, I think the references to Pope Francis are particularly important because I think this is a clear signal that it is his personal intervention in this situation that turns out to be decisive.

Part IV

The Cultural Context and Political Effects: How the Vatican’s Blessing of Same-Sex Couples Will Impact Faithful Protestant Christians Across the Globe

This is the official doctrinal application of the pastoral instincts of Francis. But that then raises another issue. I think the larger question of what happened yesterday with the release of this document by the Vatican, I think it’s just huge, not just for Roman Catholics, but it’s huge for evangelicals understanding what this is going to mean culturally in the larger context. You ask yourself the question, why the week of Christmas, by the way, why this week would the Vatican release this statement? Upon reflection, it appears absolutely bizarre. The politics of the situation are that Pope Francis faces a very interesting quandary. He’s got liberal forces that are going to go ahead and offer the blessings to same-sex couples, even those that frankly mimic marriage even if they aren’t so audacious as to call them a wedding or to call them marriage. Frankly, it’s just delusional to think that this is not going to happen because it’s already happening.

He’s got liberals like that in the church. He also has conservatives, including Roman Catholic leaders in the United States of America, very conservative leaders, very conservative Catholics who’ve been very clear about their insistence that the Church must stand against the sexual and gender revolution and must stand for what the church honestly believes about the sacrament of marriage, Roman Catholic teaching about marriage. There are very clear, very convictional, very courageous Catholic leaders in the United States who have stood over against the very thing that the pope is now doing. You also have the Roman Catholic Church growing frankly in few places around the world, and that’s largely due to a secularization that’s not only affecting the Roman Catholic Church, but all religious bodies on the planet at present to one degree or another. But you do have growth in Roman Catholic Churches and in Roman Catholic circles in places like Africa, and they are not going to be pleased with this at all.

And they’re also, I think, transparently going to see through what’s truly going on here. You may remember the old adage that you can’t buy friends, but when it comes to Roman Catholics in Germany, they’re doing their very best to do just that. Due to the tax structure that supports religious organizations there in Germany, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany has vast sums of money and it’s using that money in order to demand and bring about this change in the Roman Catholic Church. But it’s not just Germans, you also have others in the Netherlands and elsewhere who are pressing for the very same thing, and frankly, there are liberal Catholics in the United States who are going to be absolutely overjoyed by this. So, I’ve tried to deal straightforwardly is what the document actually does, what it says, how it is to be understood and what this means in terms of the big theological and moral issues.

But I want to end today’s consideration on The Briefing, and this turns out to be so important all of a sudden as we’re having this conversation on the Tuesday before Christmas Eve comes on Sunday, it just turns out to be really important that we recognize that the political effect of this is going to be huge. And so as evangelical Christians say, it really doesn’t matter to us what someone holding an unbiblical office like the papacy says, or what this Vatican office says, it really doesn’t impact us, but it’s going to, and I’m going to tell you how. It’s going to impact the way that people, especially in the larger culture, say, well, evangelical Christians who can’t go along with the LGBTQ revolution, it just turns out you are increasingly standouts. You’re the exception, not the rule. Why we now have the pope, we now have the Vatican on our side going so far as to bless same-sex couples, and you’re going to have conservative Catholics who are going to say, “That’s not exactly what the document says.”

But the point I want to make is that’s exactly the effect that document’s going to have, and I think it’s intellectual dishonesty to suggest anything to the contrary. I think the Vatican knows exactly what the effect is going to be. I think liberals in the Roman Catholic Church know exactly what the result is going to be. And so, I think as we look to begin a new year in just a matter of days, you’re going to have people who are going to say, “You know what happened back in 2023? Well, the Roman Catholic Church came to peace with the blessing of same-sex couples,” and that pretty much is going to be the whole story the culture takes. And so just to point to the obvious, evangelical Christians standing on biblical authority, the faith once were all delivered to the saints who have no room to negotiate, we’re going to find ourselves abandoned by many others in the culture who at least used to say the same thing.

And again, the Roman Catholic Church is still going to say, marriage can only be this, but they’re not going to say, these are the only couples who can be blessed by the church. And I can only hope that evangelical Christians summon enough theological courage to say we can’t bless what scripture doesn’t allow us to bless, period. It doesn’t mean we don’t love people, it does mean we cannot bless the fact that they are in a same-sex relationship. We can’t bless what the scripture condemns, that would be unfaithfulness, it in itself would be sin. So, the wake-up call for evangelical Christians is this, guess what, even greater courage is going to be required of us in days ahead. In other words, Merry Christmas.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler.

For information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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