Wednesday, January 10, 2024

It is Wednesday, January 10, 2024.

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

Part I

The Ripple Effects of Moral Change from the Vatican: Evaluating the Global Response to the Pope’s Blessing of Same-Sex Couples

We spend a lot of time thinking about what goes on in places that evangelicals really didn’t have to cover before, and that includes, most importantly, the Vatican. A major shift in the experience of most Protestants in the United States is that we find ourselves talking about developments in the Roman Catholic Church. And it’s not because historic confessional doctrinal Protestants are closer to, say, traditional Orthodox Roman Catholics.

It’s because of two things. Number one, it’s because of the global influence of the Roman Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church, for the last several centuries has made, well, in effect what are headlines. But the second thing has to do with the fact that, in a secularizing world, Protestants, confessional Protestants, Protestant-Protestants find ourselves on the same side of the great secular divide–that is the divide that separates Christianity from secularism, at least institutional Christianity, doctrinal Christianity. Well, you can just say that Roman Catholics on moral issues and many theological issues, including such things as, say, the doctrine of the Trinity. We find ourselves on one side of a great divide and thus it matters more.

Now, that means that things have gotten particularly dicey over the course of the last several years with the pontificate of Pope Francis. Now, Francis will go down in history as the very first Jesuit to become Pope, and I think that’s not irrelevant in the case of many of the controversies now attached to him. He will also go down as, in recent centuries, the only Pope to come outside of European circles, but it’s not just that. Pope Francis is understood as a liberal after two major conservatives. As a matter of fact, a liberal in the sense that Roman Catholicism has not had a liberalizing pope at least since Pope John XXIII in the middle of the 20th century.

Pope Francis is, thus, regularly in the headlines and at least at this point it’s interesting to note that those who are pleased by Pope Francis in general are the very people who were displeased by his two conservative predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. We have talked about the Pope just recently because of the announcement from the Vatican and its central teaching authority that the Roman Catholic Church will allow priests to bless individual Catholics in same-sex unions. As we discussed, this is a very awkward and indirect, intellectually dishonest, but nonetheless very effective shift of the church towards blessing same-sex marriage.

Now, officially, that’s exactly what the church did not do, because at this point the doctrine of the church is that marriage is and can only be the union of a man and a woman. But by blessing other unions, even with all the caveats that the Vatican announced will be put into place, it is clearly understood as a way of moving the church towards the final acceptance of same-sex marriage. Recent headlines have come out even in days since that December announcement. This is how fast these changes are taking place in the Roman Catholic Church. And, again, for evangelical Christians, it’s extremely important that we watch these changes and it’s also important we understand what the consequence of these changes will be, not just for Roman Catholics but for our own cultural context.

Now, for example, when the Pope and the Vatican were very clear in their affirmation of the ability of priests to bless same-sex unions or that’s more properly said to bless individuals in same-sex unions, but, yes, same-sex couples supposedly showing up spontaneously asking priests for blessings. The priests now have Vatican authority for extending those blessings. Now, again, that obviously raises huge questions and, well, the most obvious of those questions is, how can you bless something that the Roman Catholic Church’s official doctrine says is objectively disordered? That would be homosexual sexual activities. How can you bless what people are claiming to be tantamount to marriage when you say it can’t be marriage?

In this sense, the Roman Catholic Church wants to have it both ways under Pope Francis, but everyone understands. And everyone in this case means most particularly those on the right and the left, those who are celebrating on the left and those who are limiting on the right. They both understand exactly what this Pope is doing and that there is a fundamental methodological shift the Pope is using and we need to watch this very closely, and that is to claim, “Look, the doctrine doesn’t change, but the pastoral application does.” This is where Protestants simply have to remind ourselves that Protestantism began with the affirmation of sola scriptura, the Scripture alone, and thus the Scripture unchanged and unchanging means that we have no right whatsoever to separate our doctrine from our pastoral practice.

The very suggestion that you can make that separation is simply an abdication to eventual disaster. Right now, the Roman Catholic Church is pretty much seeing one disaster after another.

But there’s more to this story as you might expect. Just in the last several days, the Vatican has put out further explanations of this change in policy, and one of the truths that’s simply now being acknowledged by the Vatican is that this policy change in blessing those in same-sex unions is not going over everywhere very well at all. Now, it’s interesting, again, the left and the right are in some kind of strange agreement here. The left says this is not what it appears to be, which means it’s not enough. It’s not the endorsement of same-sex marriage. It’s not the redefinition of marriage itself to accept same-sex individuals as married, but the right’s also saying this isn’t enough. This isn’t adequate. It’s not enough to say you’re keeping the doctrine of the church if you are abandoning that doctrine in practice.

It’s also geographical. You had places like Western Europe where, quite frankly, you’ve had these same-sex blessings going on as a matter of decades and open defiance of Catholic teaching. In North America, you’ve got a split personality, so to speak. You have conservative cardinals and conservative archbishops in very liberal places, where quite frankly, you have a mirror image of what you see in Western Europe. But you also have, and this is what Pope Francis has complained about openly, you also have major Catholic leaders in the United States, and that includes archbishops, cardinals, theologians, thinkers, and others who are extremely conservative in terms of world Catholicism. Francis has been pretty open in saying that that’s a part of the problem with the American church: too many conservatives.

Okay, the story gets very interesting, because if there’s one place where everyone knew this issue was going to explode in Catholic circles, it was going to be Africa. And almost immediately after the Vatican handed down this new doctrinal or pastoral policy chain, saying that priests could bless those and same-sex unions, it did blow up in Africa. You had major African archbishops, cardinals, leaders of Catholicism in Africa who said that those blessings would not be given within their territory. Now, the Vatican responded by saying, “Well, pastoral application will not go at the same speed everywhere.” But what’s really interesting is that just in the last several days–and Jason Horowitz of The New York Times has given really good coverage of this–just in the last few days, the Vatican has come back and said, “Look, this policy isn’t going to change and eventually this policy is going to have to be in full effect everywhere throughout Catholicism globally.” But the Vatican said, “We do concede that there are places where you’ll have to have a slower implementation of this policy than in others.” Now, on the one hand, those in Western Europe, especially Germany, are saying this policy isn’t going far enough fast enough. Meanwhile, in Africa they’re saying this goes too far too fast and is basically redefining Catholicism and in ways that Africans aren’t going to accept. The Pope here is basically very blatantly saying, “Look, the future is in this liberal direction. You’re going to have to get on board eventually. We’ll give you a little bit of time to see if you will indeed get on board.” That’s the message to Africa.

By the way, in terms of world Catholicism, there’s a mirror image in terms of global Christianity. When it comes to many of the churches in North America and in, say, Europe, well, that’s where the church has the money. But where the church has the members and in particular new members, it’s in places like Africa. It’s really clear that, in moral terms, Africa and Germany are two different universes, and that’s not true just for Catholicism, something important for us to note.

By the way, just to take one example, let’s consider Catholics in Zambia. Horowitz at the Times reported, “After the rule was issued in December, Zambia’s Bishops Conference said same-sex couple blessings were not for implementation in Zambia. The Bishop’s Conference of Malawi refused to perform blessings of any kind for same-sex unions of any kind.” Horowitz then says, “Thursday’s announcement seemed designed not to alienate those bishops, while at the same time making clear that the rule was nevertheless the church’s path. It also sought to hit off critiques from some conservative prelate that the declaration eroded church doctrine.”

Now, in that case, the conservative church leaders are exactly right. That’s exactly what the policy does. It does erode church doctrine. The Vatican insist it can stand on its head and shout that that’s not what’s happening, but frankly, both sides knows exactly what’s happening. As you might expect, there’s more to the story, and this brings us back to the United States. It takes us to the 2024 presidential election, specifically the race for the Republican presidential nomination, and it takes us to former New Jersey governor, Chris Christie.

Just a matter of days ago, Chris Christie came out and said that he had changed his position on same-sex marriage. He had been against it and he served as governor in New Jersey from 2010 to 2018. Now, he says that his views on so-called marriage equality have changed. Here’s what he said, “And so for me, it still was a process I had to go through to change the way I’ve been raised, both from a family perspective and what my mother and father taught me and felt, and also from a religious perspective and what my church taught me to believe.” I read it exactly as he said it. That is a statement of absolute confusion. It’s typical of politicians who don’t really want you to follow what they’re saying. Now, here’s what he’s saying. He has changed his position in a very timely way. He sees it for the 2024 presidential context and he’s claiming this action by the Pope and by the Vatican as justification for his change or his statement to use his own terms of evolution.

Here’s what he said, “Society has changed and what people are accepting in our country now is different than when I was growing up, certainly than when I was your age.” And he said, “I don’t have any objection to it any longer. In the end, I think I’ve been convinced,” and he went on to cite Pope Francis, who “is now allowing blessings to same sex couples, even the church is changing.” This is how things work. When you think about cultural change or moral change within a culture, here’s how it works. All the people who are pushing for that change, they all of a sudden become allies and pushing that change using the same language, citing each other. “I’m for it because he’s for it. She’s for it because he’s for it. The church is now for it, so we who were against it are now for it.” For us, the most important thing is just the pattern of seeing here that Chris Christie cited this Vatican policy change as justification for changing his own position in the middle of a presidential campaign. This is how moral change happens.

Now, one of the things we’ve noted for years is that, on the right among conservatives, one of the ways this changes is when people say, “I all of a sudden have a member of my family who’s come out LGBTQ and is now involved in the same-sex relationship, perhaps in the same sex marriage.” I referred to this years ago as conservative moral relativism, the moral relativism of changing your position because of a relative. But just to state the obvious, and sometimes that’s exactly our job, just to state the obvious, God’s truth doesn’t change. God defined marriage, he established marriage, he created marriage. We don’t have the right to redefine marriage. Jesus affirmed the Father’s designation of marriage is the union of a man and a woman and went on to say that’s all that it can be. “Do you not know,” he asks.

Part II

The Pope Falls Short on Surrogacy Denouncement: Arguments Against Surrogacy Should Be Based in Scripture and Creation Order, Not Just a Critique of Capitalism

Now, the Vatican made headlines just over the last couple of days for the Pope stating that surrogacy, that means surrogate pregnancy or surrogate motherhood, is deplorable. The Pope went on to call for a global ban on surrogacy. Now, is that good or bad? Well, it’s good that he did so. That’s the right moral position. We should be opposed to surrogacy, because it also undermines marriage and it violates fundamental principles of even the creational structure of marriage and the conjugal union of a man and a woman. Surrogacy is one way or another a violation of multiple principles of Christian ethics.

The pope’s right on this. Here’s the problem. Even when the pope’s right, he manages in this case to be wrong. He’s right to be absolutely opposed to surrogacy, but he’s wrong to base that argument mostly in a critique of capitalism, in suggesting that there shouldn’t be the right of people to profit simply by the use of, say, a “rent a womb” as has been discussed in terms of trying to describe what surrogate motherhood comes down to. Of course, many of these arrangements we know also have to do with people who otherwise could not possibly get pregnant. And by that, I do not mean a heterosexual couple that is facing reproductive challenges. I’m talking about two men or two women. That came into the headlines with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when it turned out that Ukraine was in many ways being used as the happy hunting grounds for surrogacy, especially among same-sex couples in the West. Wake up call.

Now, what’s the problem? The pope’s on the right side here, so why am I complaining? I’m complaining because of the way he based his argument. The Roman Catholic Church traditionally would’ve based this argument in creation order and natural law, but what’s most interesting to note here is that this pope has basically undermined his own church’s ability to cite creation order and natural law. If he really believed in the natural law, he couldn’t possibly be saying the things he’s been saying now for years about LGBTQ issues and challenges. But there’s even more to the story and this becomes even harder to talk about.

Part III

This Close to the Papacy: Vatican Doctrine Watchdog Revealed to Have Written Novels Blending Theology and Pornography

Just in the last couple of days, headlines have broken about the Roman Catholic Church in a way that certainly is going to bring embarrassment to that church. I wouldn’t discuss it except for the fact it turns out to be a fundamental importance for all of us. The organizational body, very powerful body within the Roman Catholic Church there in Rome responsible for guarding the doctrine of the church, is known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Over the last several months, its leader has been Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez. He is now a cardinal of the church and, like the Pope, he’s an Argentinian. The pope basically put him in this position, but it also turns out that he has been a close ally of this pope and even has been the ghost writer of some of the Pope’s most significant writings.

It also turns out that he’s now heading the very office to guard the doctrine of the church that once held him in suspicion for heresy. Now, if that’s not headline news in itself, the headlines over the last couple of days have been quite a bit more graphic, having to do with the fact that this man who is now a cardinal archbishop heading the Vatican’s official office for the guarding of the Catholic faith, it turns out that early in his ministry, he wrote not one but two books that are, well, not just questionable but I’m not going to go into any detail. I can only describe them as being by Protestant terms, and I think in the minds of most Catholics as well, graphically pornographic and mixing theology and sexuality in a way that would not only be questionable but, quite frankly, is and should be absolutely scandalous.

I’ll just mention the titles of the two books, the first: The Mystical Passion: Spirituality and Sensuality; and the second, Heal Me With Your Mouth. The Art of Kissing. Now, remember, this is the head of the Vatican watchdog for the preservation and defense of Catholic doctrine, and that includes Catholic moral teaching. I’ll just tell you that, as strange as those titles are, the content of those two books goes far beyond what I’m going to describe on The Briefing.

I’ll simply conclude this section of The Briefing today by saying that, for evangelicals, well, we recognize that we too can make any number of mistakes, we too have people who can hold to erroneous teachings and have to be corrected. But by our principle of sola scriptura, we are putting the authority where we believe it rightly belongs. It’s the authority of God as mediated through the scripture he has revealed. The Holy Scriptures is unchanged and unchanging, the scripture and the scripture alone as our ultimate doctrinal and moral authority. That is never more precious to us than when we see this kind of mess in Roman Catholicism, but we do have to watch what’s going on here because there are those who would follow these very same patterns in Protestant circles. And in the larger culture, there are a lot of people who have a very hard time understanding why not all who call themselves Christians agree with the latest statement made by the Pope or the Vatican or the dicastery.

Part IV

Crisis in the Chain of Command: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Causes Security Crisis After Hiding Serious Medical Procedures from the White House

But next, we come back to the United States and we talk about something that seemed like it might be a big story, and now undoubtedly is a very big story. It has to do with the United States secretary of defense, Lloyd Austin. The secretary of defense in some sense went missing, so to speak, at the end of the year, and this has been a humiliation for the White House. It also raises major concerns about the chain of command in the United States government and in the United States military, because it turns out the White House did not know that the secretary of defense was in the hospital in intensive care and had undergone surgery, and all this taking place over a matter of days, and it turns out now a matter of weeks. By the time yesterday ended, it turned out that the secretary of defense, a very indeed, in legendary terms, a very private man, he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer and he arranged for surgery to deal with that prostate cancer diagnosis and it took place and he went home.

It was only after that surgery when he had been under general anesthesia. That should have triggered certainly the knowledge of the White House, not to mention the diagnosis in the first place. But it turns out that he developed very urgent complications, had to go back in the hospital, and is still there. There was an intensive care for a matter of days before the White House found out. Furthermore, it turns out that his senior staff in the Department of Defense didn’t know, including the deputy secretary of defense who was standing in for the secretary of defense. She was not told until days after the event that the secretary was actually in intensive care in the hospital, having developed complications post-surgery. Now, all of this raises massive issues.

At first, this appeared to be a small story that might turn out to be a, say, a mid-range story, but now it’s a big story because the White House yesterday had to come back out and say that, even as of yesterday, it didn’t know some of what it should have known. Here’s the thing for Christians and for Americans looking at this. Here’s what we need to remember, and that is that there’s a chain of command in the United States military that is not incidental. It’s not just based upon human relationships. It is based upon the structure of the United States government and our entire system of defense, and the secretary of defense is an inevitably urgent and essential part of that chain. There’s just no question about it. The secretary of defense–remember, the name was changed after World War II from secretary of war to secretary of defense. This is one of the original positions in the nation’s constitutional structure in terms of the President’s cabinet.

This has been a position of great importance throughout the entire history of the United States of America, and now we are looking at the reality that even this White House seems now to be absolutely spinning in terms of coming to understand the story about something of this significance that affects directly the chain of command and even more chillingly has for a matter of days, and not only that, in one sense for a matter of weeks. And just in worldview terms, it’s not just the principle that’s involved here. When you accept this kind of responsibility, you accept all that goes with it, including the fact that your own medical situation doesn’t belong just to you. It now belongs to the government of the United States of America and, by extension, to the nation for someone who assumes this responsibility. And of all people, Lloyd Austin ought to understand this.

He became secretary of defense not long after he had ended a distinguished military career, including service as a senior commander in the United States Army, a four-star general. He knows exactly how this is supposed to work. He doesn’t have a right to personal privacy, certainly from keeping the President of the United States from knowing that there was an interruption in the chain of command, and that that chain of command continues to be confused about the very facts of this case and the circumstances that brought the nation to this point.

Now, in political terms, it’s very difficult to know exactly where this will go. We’re talking about the year 2024, a presidential election year. The president is running for reelection and his likely opponent at this point as the Republican nominee would be former president, Donald Trump. It would be a rematch, something that, by the way, hasn’t happened since Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson faced off twice going back to the 1950s. But in reality, even as the president has said that the secretary of defense retains his trust, the very fact that the White House had to make further clarifications yesterday indicates that that story might change very quickly.

In worldview terms, a lot to think about here. For one thing, where there is massive responsibility, we generally lose the ability to maintain our personal privacy when our own life and our own health and the situation of our own ability to do our job means that the lives of others depend on us. And when you look at the chain of command in the United States military, that’s just very essential to understanding how the military works. We have to pray that the secretary of defense will recover from this urgency and recover from the surgery and recover from his battle with prostate cancer. But we also have to understand that the United States right now is engaged in military action all over the world, and we are living in a very volatile time. And if there ever is a time when the United States could do without ongoing contact with its secretary of defense for a matter of days to state the obvious, this is not that time.

There is one final issue here we might consider as we think about this story. When it comes to Lloyd Austin, the secretary of defense, as I said, he is a retired four-star General. Oddly enough, the same was true of Jim Mattis, former four-star general who became secretary of defense for a part of the Trump administration. Here’s what’s really interesting: the current legislation that governs the cabinet of the President of the United States says that there is explicit congressional affirmation that is necessary if someone who has retired from the US military within the past seven years should be appointed to a role such as secretary of defense. That should tell us something. It reminds us of the fact that this constitutional system is set up on the principle of the civilian control of the military. That is one of the distinctives that has made the United States stand out from places which have largely been endangered by, if not ruled by, the direct control of the military.

We are looking at a unique situation here, but it raises the stakes in this case, because if there’s anyone who should understand exactly what is at stake and why it matters and how the military would interpret these realities, it would be retired four-star general and a former commander of Central Command of the United States. It’s one thing for a private citizen in the United States to keep medical matters private, including, say, an extended absence from responsibility. That’s not an option for the secretary of defense of the United States, and that’s why this is going to be an ongoing headline story.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’m speaking to you from Davenport, Florida, and I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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