The Briefing 09-22-15

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Pope's caution in Cuba exposes tension between roles as religious leader and head of state

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Pope sets pattern of liberalizing Catholicism's effect without formally adjusting teaching

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Tennnessean schools instruct students on Islam, separating religious facts from beliefs

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Transcript

The Briefing

September 22, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Tuesday, September 22, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Pope's caution in Cuba exposes tension between roles as religious leader and head of state

On his way to the United States, Pope Francis made his visit to Cuba. And while there he made news not so much for the people with whom he met, but for the people with whom he didn’t meet. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, dissidents in Cuba who are the opponents of the Castro regime were not allowed to meet with Pope Francis during his visit. One of the most interesting things about the Pope’s visit to Cuba is that he is visiting a regime that has officially opposed his church now for a matter of decades. Back during the Marxist revolution that was led by Fidel Castro the Catholic Church took something of an observer status. But when it was clear that Castro was going to run that revolution in an explicitly Marxist direction the Catholic Church in Cuba opposed Castro. Castro then declared Cuba to be an officially atheist nation and Catholics were largely marginalized in the society. This has led to the moral quandary of the Pope’s visit and it leads to one of the interesting dimensions of the fact that the Pope is claiming to travel not only as a world religious leader, the leader the Roman Catholic Church, but also as a head of state in terms of a diplomatic or state visit. The fact that the Pope did not meet with dissidents did not go unnoticed, of course, and it raised headlines in both liberal and conservative media in the United States and internationally to the effect that the Pope had evidently been taking pains to try to avoid any kind of conflict with either of the Castro brothers. The revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, who was for many years, the President of Cuba or his brother by Raul Castro, who is the current president.

We need to note that we’re talking about one of the last outposts of Marxism in the world today and we’re talking about one of the world’s most repressive regimes. It is a very long serving regime when you consider the fact that you have to go all the way back to the revolution now over a half-century ago, when Fidel Castro came to power and he’s still alive, and now his influence is continuing through the leadership of his brother Raul Castro. In a mass the Pope conducted in Havana’s Revolution Square, he made a very interesting statement saying that service in ministry was never ideological. His quote is this,

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“What is the most important thing?…The call to serve.”

But he said,

“Service is never ideological for we do not serve ideas we serve people.”

As I said that in itself is a very interesting statement and it was interpreted by some as a statement of the post rejection of the hardline Marxism of the Castro brothers. But it also raises another very interesting insight from the Christian worldview. While the Pope is certainly right that we do not serve ideas, but we serve people. That’s after all, what we’re called to in terms of the second commandment. The first you recall is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind. The second Jesus said is like to it, we must love our neighbor as ourselves. That refers to the neighbor as a person and of course not an idea. But both we and our neighbors are human beings made in God’s image with an intellectual capacity and that means that inevitably our ideas are translated into our actions, including the actions of service. The reality is that the Pope is onto something with that statement, and he certainly onto something if that was a criticism of the Marxism of the Castro regime. But at the same time, it also points out the limitation of such a statement because even as we love our neighbor, not ideas, it is ideas, beliefs and truths that guide our very understanding, even in answer to the question who is our neighbor, as that question was asked of Jesus. The person centeredness of the Pope’s statement is certainly to be admired and there’s a truth there that simply must be affirmed. At the same time we have to understand that even our ability to understand what the Pope meant meant that we have to think in terms of ideas, even as we’re thinking about the idea that people are more important than ideas.

One final note on that dimension of the Pope’s statement, he used the word ideology and that is very, very important, especially as during the 20th century in particular, secular ideologies became explicit replacements for biblical theologies for the theological inheritance of the Christian worldview and the very foundational principles upon which Western civilization had been established. Ideology, especially in terms of the Marxist revolutions that took place in the 20th century and the fascism in terms of Germany in the 20th century were explicit rejections of the theological worldview that came implicit and explicit in Christianity. And so it is really interesting that the Pope used the word ideology and in using that term negatively the Pope is again onto something very important. It’s something that those with whom he didn’t meet would surely understand, the victims of communist ideology in Cuba, the dissidents who did not get to meet with him.

Pope sets pattern of liberalizing Catholicism's effect without formally adjusting teaching

We’re watching the Pope’s visit to the United States in particular, which begins today with great interest because even as he is traveling as the head of the Roman Catholic Church and as we have noted as the head of state of the Vatican state, more importantly, the cultural response, and the cultural conversation about his visit reveals a great deal about the contours of our secularizing society today and about the limits of that secularization, but it also points to one of the responsibilities of leadership and that’s a key issue that comes with this Pope and his visit. To put the matter straightforwardly, liberals in the Roman Catholic Church and many secular liberals as well have invested enormous hope in Pope Francis that he will represent a liberalizing of the Roman Catholic Church. Francis A. Quinn wrote a very interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times, it’s interesting if for no other reason than he is the retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento. He’s the author of a book entitled Behind Closed Doors: Conflicts in Today’s Church. There is no doubt in this op-ed piece in the New York Times that the retired Bishop is himself solidly and decidedly siding with the liberal wing in the church. He writes about three ways that the Pope might change the Catholic Church and all three of them are in a liberal direction. He says,

“The first is over priestly celibacy. Observers within and outside the church point to mandatory celibacy as a principal factor driving down the number of American priests.”

Now let’s just state the obvious, of course, we’re looking at a major divide between Protestantism on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other. As a matter of fact, in the Reformation that took place in the 16th century, one of the most significant actions of Martin Luther the reformer, a former Augustinian monk was to marry Katharina von Bora, a former nun. In that he was declaring the end of celibacy as an official teaching of the church at least in terms of the church of the Reformation and that’s very important because now we are looking at the major dividing line on this issue being between Catholics and evangelicals or Catholics and Protestants when it comes to the question of the ministry and celibacy.

As a matter of fact, most Protestant churches historically and evangelical churches in particular have expected that their pastors would actually be married not just that they might marry or may marry but that they would be expected in the main to marry. But now Bishop Quinn writes that there is the expectation by those especially in the liberal wing of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States that under the leadership of the Pope the church might move toward something that might resemble optional celibacy. Now in terms of the English language that could be considered something of a classical oxymoron. That’s the combination of two words which when put together simply don’t make sense. There’s no such thing as a round square. But when you’re looking here at optional celibacy you’re looking at something that wouldn’t reverse just a matter of say decades of Roman Catholic teaching, but rather centuries.

The second thing he raises is this,

“American Catholics are also divided over the ordination of women as priests.”

Now that’s a very interesting issue because, of course, among the liberal Protestant churches this has become not only the rule but for that matter the expectation. Almost all the liberal Protestant churches now not only ordain women to the ministry, but they also ordain openly homosexual persons to the ministry as well. And as we’ve noted at many points on The Briefing the hermeneutical principles that are involved there, the principles of biblical interpretation are very closely linked. This is an argument we should note that the Roman Catholic Church has made in its own way, not only in terms of biblical argument, but also in terms of argument from the natural law. The bottom line is that the Pope in the Philippines just recently made very clear that he does not intend to move the church in this direction. But the op-ed by the former Bishop of Sacramento indicates that among liberals of the church they certainly have not given up on this question.

Third, he raises the issue of divorce. He asked a question,

“Finally, why is a divorced Catholic who has remarried denied the Eucharist? Such people are considered living in an irregular union.”

Now here’s one of the things we should note, you have an article here by the retired Roman Catholic Bishop of Sacramento and he asked a question that is actually virtually elementary when it comes to understanding Catholic doctrine. He’s asking a question that he knows full well the answer to and furthermore, he knows the answer the he’s been obliged to teach as a Bishop. But that points to the liberal conservative tensions within the American Roman Catholic community and furthermore, it points to the issue of marriage as front and center in that controversy. That raises an announcement made by the Vatican in anticipation of the Pope’s visit to the United States. As we discussed a few weeks ago, the Pope announced through the Vatican, a liberalizing of the annulment process in the Roman Catholic Church. The background of that is really important because the Catholic Church does not recognize divorce. It says instead that the only way out of a marriage that was celebrated in terms of a wedding recognized by the church, the only way out of that is for the church officially through its legal processes to declare that the marriage actually never existed. Now that has led to one of the greatest liberal conservative divides in the Catholic community around the world. It set up controversy with this Pope that now bridges, the better part of two years and it’s an issue that the Pope has opened and he’s going to have to settle it.

One of the questions we’re hearing with special intensity with the Pope’s visit to the United States is the speculation, as I said the hope on the part of liberal Catholics and many secular liberals that this Pope is the liberal Pope they’ve been hoping and praying for. But when it comes to the liberalization of the annulment process some conservatives in the church have come to the inevitable conclusion that their fear and the liberal hope is one and the same, that this is indeed a very liberal Pope. Ross Douthat writing at the New York Times says that in raising the issue of the liberalization of the church on divorce and annulment and in particular the case of persons who have received a civil divorce who want now to be involved in the church and with access to it sacraments, Ross Douthat writes,

“It’s clear that this was all intentional: That Francis wanted a big internal argument over marriage and communion, that he deliberately started this civil war.

“The question that remains unanswered, though, is how the pope intends to finish it.”

But now as he is looking at this revision on the issue of annulment, Ross Douthat says it’s increasingly clear that this Pope is pushing the Roman Catholic Church into an inevitably more liberal position and one that he sees as disastrous to marriage. This is the point at which the argument becomes especially relevant for evangelicals because Douthat writes that the,

“New rules do not do, however, is explicitly change the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.”

He goes on to say,

“This may seem like theological hair-splitting, but from the point of view of Catholic unity it’s crucial. Fast-tracking annulments weakens the credibility of Catholic doctrine, in both implication and effect. But it does not formally reverse the church’s teaching about the nature of marriage and communion.”

Why is this of importance to evangelicals as well as to Roman Catholics? It is because of the pattern of the argument. Ross Douthat is arguing that Pope Francis is liberalizing by effect, not so much by teaching. He is applying a liberal pastoral approach, while claiming that he’s not touching the doctrine and teaching of the church. The reason we need to pay such close attention to that is because some of the same arguments are now appearing among evangelicals. Evangelicals who say, I’m not changing are challenging what the Bible teaches about homosexuality, just about how those principles are now to be applied in a situation in which we find ourselves at a radical distance in terms of culture and society from the world of the first century in which the New Testament arrived. You also have the argument that we simply have to deal with people where they are and that means on the part of many who make that argument that we’re going to have to find a way around the clear teachings of Scripture in order not to offend people or in order to accept them within the church without however, changing the church’s teaching.

Now from any kind of honest perspective that is not a long-term strategy and that’s something that someone like Ross Douthat fully understands, but he also sees something else. He sees in the Roman Catholic Church the potential that what Pope Francis has just done on the issue of annulments and marriage could be extended to the LGBT spectrum of issues and that’s how he ends his article. Douthat writes about the concern that this approach taken by the Pope may be extended issues of sexuality generally, he goes on to say this would mean that the church,

“Would avoid overtly endorsing communion for people in irregular situations.”

That means non-marital lifestyles, marriage defined as the union of a man and a woman. But he says,

“But use language that makes it clear to bishops that they need fear no repercussions if they go the liberal way.”

Now that’s again, something that should be of interest to evangelicals not just to Roman Catholics. Because this pattern of argument is one that we’re likely to hear, indeed we’re already hearing it from some circles and that is this, we can hold to everything the Bible teaches in the sense that we don’t deny it, but in terms of our pastoral application we can move in a very more liberal direction and that’s exactly what you see with many evangelicals who are pushing on the margins arguing that the church is simply going to have to come to terms with what they say is the new reality. That’s the argument that liberal Catholics are making, it’s an argument that at least some pushing for more liberal approach in evangelicalism are making as well. Either way, it’s disastrous. The Roman Catholic have to deal with that disaster in their own communion, but for evangelicals we have to take responsibility at an even higher level. That’s because evangelicals do not accept the sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church whereby the church claims through its priestly ministry to be able to forgive sin and to declare total absolution of sin. We do not believe that any Christian minister, we don’t believe that any Christian has that authority. We believe that instead of having an earthly priest with that authority we are bound to the gospel and to the authority of Scripture, pointing to Jesus as the great high priest, the only priest.

We are in for an interesting ride so to speak over the next several days, as we watch the secular media and the larger American culture talk about many theological issues that the culture has steadfastly tried not to discuss and yet the Pope’s arrival is going to force that discussion. As I’ve said, and said repeatedly and said on CNN yesterday, evangelicals should have a real problem with the welcome that is being extended to this Pope by government and how he’s being treated as a head of state. But we also need to watch the conversation because this is a conversation that will not stay limited to the issue of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church in America. Many of the larger issues are those being confronted by every single religious group and every religious institution, and for that reason we’re going to have to watch very carefully.

One final note on this issue for today, we note that it is often said and rightly said that we’re living in an increasingly secular age, but just how secular is it? One of the things we point to on The Briefing is that theological questions simply won’t go away. They keep coming back, in a different form perhaps, but they keep coming back over and over again. That’s something Christians operating out of a biblical worldview should surely understand. But if we’re living in such a secular age in that respect, how is it that yesterday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal, one most influential papers in the country, dedicated a special section with eight full pages to coverage, insightful coverage I should note, of the visit of the Pope. If we were living in such an explicitly secular age, no one would be noticing this, no one would be having that conversation and the Wall Street Journal would not have devoted eight entire full pages to the impending visit of Pope Francis.

Tennnessean schools instruct students on Islam, separating religious facts from beliefs

Islam has been back in the news again, I am in Nashville, Tennessee, where an article in yesterday’s edition of the Nashville paper that is The Tennessean had the headline, “Islam in schools: What parents should know.”

The article by Melanie Balakit and Jason Gonzales tells us that,

“In recent weeks, some parents and legislators have raised concerns about how Islam is taught in schools.”

Now these are schools in Tennessee, specifically in Davidson County. But they went on to say,

“Some said there was an overemphasis on Islam, while others said that schools were indoctrinating students in Islam.

Educators and state education officials say it’s a misconception that Islam is emphasized more than other religions in social studies classrooms. And they want parents to know that teachers are not proselytizing for any religion.”

The report goes on to say,

“As Tennessee seventh-graders finish a unit on Islamic civilization for the year, here’s what educators want parents to know.”

And from a Christian worldview perspective, this is really interesting. They go on to say,

“Students learn major world religions — Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Shinto and Islam — in the context of world history in sixth grade, seventh grade and once in high school.”

And then the reporters write,

“Facts have exact answers, Vanderbilt University religious studies Professor Tony Stewart said. Belief is less concrete.”

Now that’s a rather astounding statement, perhaps the reporters reduced it down. But in any sense, the fact that it appears in the article is really telling. Let me read it again,

“Facts have exact answers, Belief is less concrete.”

That’s attributed to Vanderbilt University religious studies professor, Tony Stewart. Now let’s think about that for just a moment. Here you have a dichotomy between fact and belief and when it comes to religion in particular, now to the issue of Islam, we’re being told that there are facts about Islam that are distinguishable from beliefs. Now in one sense in terms of historical facts an argument is to be made there. But how exactly do you teach about a religious belief system without making some judgment about those beliefs, even if you are supposedly reducing the entire equation to objective facts.  Professor Stewart said there is,

“A distinct difference between teaching Islamic religion and teaching about Islam. The questions that Tennessee teachers ask in their classrooms are rooted in historical facts.”

He made this statement,

“To ask if any of these beliefs are true is not an academic question, but a normative question that is defined by the norms and standards of a particular religion and therefore not neutral in any way. In the academic study of religion, facts are learned, and questions are formulated that do not depend on belief for their answers.”

Well, if only it were so simple. This is the great liberal dream, the great secular illusion of how you can have facts about religion separated from beliefs. For instance, let’s move from Islam to Christianity. How does one speak of the facts about Jesus Christ without getting into belief and inherently, inescapably theological questions? What is the fact about whether or not he claimed to be fully divine, as well as fully human? How is a judgment to be made about that? How does one speak about the Bible, in terms of its origin? How does one speak of it as inspired or not inspired? How would a secular teacher approach the claims of the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The fact is that a belief system will always come through and it simply has to. The so-called fact value dichotomy that is central to the modern liberal secular project is one that falls apart when you recognize that even what are claimed to be facts are deeply embedded in a value system, in a belief system of one sort or another.

What we’re looking at here is a controversy that is located in Tennessee but it goes far beyond and in this case, the controversy was centered in the question of how Islam is being taught in Tennessee public schools. Now by the way, evangelical Christians should not resist the fact that students in the public schools should be exposed to the reality of a wide variety of belief systems and their impact in the modern world. That’s inevitable, you can’t possibly hope that students will be well-educated if they don’t know anything about Islam or Confucianism or Shinto or Buddhism, but in this world setting, especially Christianity and Judaism and Islam. But we have to reject the great liberal dream that somehow there can be a dispassionate objective secular discussion of these religious belief systems as if belief itself is simply optional or as this professor said and I quote him again,

“In the academic study of religion, facts are learned, and questions are formulated that do not depend on belief for their answers.”

That is, as I said, the great liberal dream and it is a dream. It’s an illusion. There is no way that one can talk about the so-called facts of a major belief system without dealing with whether or not those beliefs are understood to be factual, at least to some extent, in one way or another, that judgment is going to be made and it’s going to come through. That may or may not be behind the controversy in Tennessee, but it’s a central lesson that everyone committed to the Christian worldview has to understand. There is no absolute distinction between fact and value in the Christian worldview. There is no absolute distinction between fact and belief. We believe that our beliefs are based upon facts and that the facts point to belief.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing