September 24, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, September 24, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Pope's visit time for evangelicals to make clear issue with pope is theological, not personal
We are told that we’re living in an increasingly secularized society, and that is emphatically true. We can look at the data and we can see the number of Americans who are shifting from having identified with some religious belief and tradition to those who are now described as the nones, N-O-N-E-S, those who have no religious preference. We’re being told increasingly by those who are in charge of the cultural media system that secularization is the inevitable byproduct of modernity. We’re being told that the trends we see in the larger society indicate that fewer and fewer people believe in God in general and specifically in the God of the Bible. We are also being told that major religious institutions are in deep danger. For example, the Catholic Church in North America has been losing members by the millions. If it were not for a radical influx of Hispanic and Latino Roman Catholics as immigrants to the United States, the Roman Catholic Church would be losing even more when it comes just to the number of Roman Catholics in North America. We’re also being told that religious institutions are losing their hold upon their own adherents and believers. That’s profoundly true in terms of Catholics in North America where the vast majority of Catholics disagree with the Roman Catholic Church on very basic issues of the church’s teaching. But then you look at Judaism and you come to understand that rates of intermarriage and cultural Judaism have led even many Jewish authorities to wonder exactly what the future is for American Judaism.
American Protestants have not been untouched by the same trends, liberal Protestant denominations have been in a freefall in terms of membership and cultural authority ever since the 1960s and evangelicals themselves are clearly not immune from many of the same processes. The culture of higher education in America is increasingly so secularized, that is how Boston University’s Peter Berger has put it, and he’s one of the major theorist behind secularization going all the way back to the midpoint of the 20th century. Peter Berger says that the American college and University campus is now virtually equivalent to going to Europe when it comes to worldview and the secularization of that worldview. So how then do you explain the constant media, the pervasive cultural attention that is being given to the visit of Pope Francis to the United States and how do you explain how the media are trying to explain this very phenomenon. There are huge worldview issues of great importance here. Evangelical Christians looking at this need to understand that even as on the one hand, our society is growing more secular, on the other hand there are constant signals that that secularization is not so thick as those who are the prophets of secularity intend for it to be. For example, when you’re looking at all the media attention given to Pope Francis there is actually very little effort to disguise the fact, after all, they were talking about a major religious leader and in particular, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This is an undeniable fact, but it’s also something that the secular media doesn’t exactly know how to handle and that’s increasingly clear.Show Full Transcript
Evangelicals looking at this also need to understand that this puts us in some interesting predicaments in terms of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. The fact that this is the focus of virtually wall-to-wall coverage in the media and constant cultural conversation, the fact that once again we’re talking about the visit on The Briefing today has to do with the fact that our friends and neighbors are very fascinated with what this means. One of the things evangelicals need to keep in mind as we’re watching all of this taking place is the fact that the evangelical concern is first and foremost with the papacy, not with individual popes is not to say that we’re not concerned with the words, the statements and the actions of particular popes, it is to say that going all the way back to the reformers the main concern has been the papacy itself. And one of the interesting things to observe as Pope Francis is visiting the United States is that a lot of attention is given to his personality and that’s interesting in and of itself. As a matter fact, evangelicals who reject the papacy in its entirety, who understand that the papacy is an unbiblical institution that makes radically unbiblical claims and is itself the focus of one of the most legitimate debates that led to the Reformation itself, it’s important to recognize that when we look at someone like Pope Francis and we see his very open personality, it’s hard not to watch him and it’s hard not to admire his personality, it’s hard not to be attracted to his smile.
Thinking back just over my adult lifetime I can think of Pope John Paul II, the first Polish Pope who was by any measure one of the most courageous opponents of Soviet communism and who stared down Marxism in such a brilliant and courageous way. Furthermore, John Paul II was a courageous defender of what he called the culture of life over what he rightly identified as the encroaching culture of death. His successor Benedict the 16th I had known back when I was a theology student, understanding his critique of a secular worldview in a secular culture and understanding the brilliance of Benedict as a theologian back when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and so there is something to admire in every one of these popes, even as there something to admire in virtually every human being we will ever meet and someone who rises to that level of leadership in an institution as large as the Roman Catholic Church is certain to have personal attributes that would be very attractive. But this is where when we’re entering into conversation with our neighbors we need to make very clear that our problem is not personal, our problem is theological and it’s biblical and is focused on the papacy itself.
An interesting way for evangelicals to think about this is simply to focus on how the Roman Catholic Church defines the papacy. What are the titles of the Pope? The current pontifical yearbook includes these titles for the Pope, regardless of who the Pope is, in this case this is Pope Francis, he is known as the Bishop of Rome. He is known as the vicar of Jesus Christ. He is known as the successor of the Prince of the apostles. He holds the title supreme pontiff of the universal church. He is also the primate of Italy and Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province, he is sovereign of the state of the Vatican City, and he is servant of God’s servants. An unofficial title that has nonetheless been used in official Catholic documents also borrows a title from the ancient Roman Empire referring to the Pope as Pontifex Maximus. The titles themselves indicate why historic Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular reject the papacy and do not do so merely as a marginal issue, but come to understand that the Reformation itself revealed the unbiblical nature of the pontifical office and the fact that regardless of who the inhabitant of that office is, the office makes claims and the Roman Catholic Church makes claims about the office that are absolutely incompatible with biblical truth. To understand the centrality of this, just consider the words of the current Roman Catholic catechism as it has to do with the Pope. That catechism states in paragraph 882 that,
“The Roman Pontiff by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire church has full supreme and universal power over the whole church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”
When this is put within the context of the priestly and sacramental ministry of the Roman Catholic Church, this is a claim that the reformers understood was a direct contradiction, not only of the authority of Scripture, but of our understanding of how the gospel works and what the gospel of Christ really is. That leads to another observation that evangelicals need to make when you see the masses of people who are trying their very best just to get in physical proximity with the Pope and you asked the question, why the fascination with this individual? It is first and foremost the fascination with the office and it is the understanding that there is a sacramental grace that will be extended to those who actually just come into the presence of the Pope. The priestly and sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church, not only in terms of how lay Catholics may interpret it, but in keeping with the official catechism and the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The claim is made that the Pope has sole and universal power to forgive sins on earth and to declare total absolution and furthermore, that he is a priestly vehicle of sacramental grace. Now that is claimed for the priesthood itself, but that just makes the point. If the Roman Catholic Church believes as it teaches that he is the priest of priests, that he is indeed the Vicar of Christ on earth, that, as I just stated from the catechism, he has the supreme power within the church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered as the Vicar of Christ, then you can understand why people are just trying to get close to him, believing that there will be a sacramental grace extended to them simply for being in the presence of the Pope.
A next observation it’s been really interesting to see how often the Pope is described as being humble. That’s a very interesting thing, it’s hard to square with the titles that are held by every Pope, including this pope, again, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, successor of the Prince of the apostles, supreme pontiff of the universal church, primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman province and on and on and on. And the fact is that even as Pope Francis does not live in the lavish papal apartments, the church still has those apartments. The Roman Catholic Church is sitting on some of the most valuable real estate in the world and is sitting on a fortune that is accounted in the multiple billions and billions of dollars. The art collection in the Vatican alone is worth billions of dollars, the real estate upon which the Vatican sits is worth billions of dollars and even as the Pope decided to be driven away from Andrews Joint base in a Fiat demonstrating humility, the fact is that he got from Rome to the United States of America on a specially chartered Boeing 777 jet, that’s not exactly humble. Furthermore, the Pope as the center of all this attention, and remember that is a calculated intention by the Roman Catholic Church and that’s very historical, that goes back far before the Reformation of the 16th century. It has to do with the fact that the office of the papacy was modeled in many ways upon the office of the Roman Emperor. It’s hard to square any of this, much less all of this with humility and that’s not a criticism of Pope Francis. If one believes that one holds these titles, how humble can one actually be? If one believes as Pope Francis must believe that he is the Vicar of Christ on earth, that he has plenary authority to forgive sins, that he is the priest over the entire universal church, that is his claim, then just how humble can one be?. And if one’s coming to the United States on a specially chartered jet being treated as a head of state and soon to address a joint session of Congress, there’s not a great deal of humility that is invested in that. It points to just how influential the gestures, the symbolic acts of this Pope actually turn out to be in terms of popular culture.
Two final observations today, one has to do with the fact that the media has shifted the story. When the Pope was coming to the United States there was a great deal of attention being given on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, paper after paper, a great deal of attention was being made about the political dimensions of the Pope’s visit. But now as of yesterday, especially given the public masses that the Pope held, the media has changed the story. The media are now saying no, this isn’t a political visit, this is a pastoral visit by a religious leader. As a matter of fact, one observer on National Public Radio said yesterday, let’s face it; the Pope will be addressing a joint session of Congress, not as a political leader, but as a pastor. Well let’s just state the obvious; no other pastor in the history of the United States of America has ever addressed a joint session of Congress. It is simply not intellectually honest to say that this man is appearing before a joint session of Congress simply because he is a pastor. No, there’s a lot more to it and we know it and that’s at least partly explained by the titles that are inherent in the papacy, and all that is inherent in treating a religious leader as a sovereign monarch.
This raises another interesting question, why are more evangelicals not speaking out clearly and biblically when it comes to the papacy? Well, that’s another issue. This has to do with the culture of civility. The culture of civility means that we do not want to say things that will be considered ill-timed and out of sync with the larger culture. The culture of civility means that conviction is withdrawn simply because it is an awkward moment in terms of the public square and of course it is an awkward moment. We also need to recognize that virtually everyone listening to The Briefing is likely to have some very sincere Roman Catholic friends. Friends who look at the papacy in very different terms and so there is the temptation to withdraw conviction and to enter into that cultural civility whereby we don’t talk about what we really need to say when it comes to the theological meaning of the papacy and of the Pope’s visit to the United States. But we have to remind ourselves, and we need to remind ourselves over and over again that the Reformation was not a mistake. That all of the issues at the center the Reformation in the 16th century continue until today and as the reformers we have to understand that nothing less than the gospel is at stake. We are called to genuinely love our neighbors and many of us will have Catholic friends, who as I said, are looking at the papacy in completely different terms. But this affords an inevitable responsibility to be clear that the Reformation was not a mistake, that these issues endure and that the issues are of eternal significance.
Nancy Pelosi example of worldview conflict between pro-choice Catholics and Catholic teaching
Now this raises yet another issue by the pope’s visit in has to do with the fact that today, Pope Francis will become the first supreme pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint session of the United States Congress. I’ve talked about the concerns about the Pope appearing there, that’s not my concern today. My concern has to do with the fact that there will be in the audience in Congress tomorrow, people who are holding positions that are officially rendered anathema by the Roman Catholic Church. They are politicians, in this case Catholic politicians, who are widely, wildly and publicly at variance with the basic teachings of the Catholic Church on issues such as the sanctity of human life. And so earlier this week, the New York Times ran an article with the headline,
“In Pelosi, Strong Catholic Faith and Abortion Rights Coexist.”
It has to do with the Democratic leader of the United States House of Representatives, former speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic Congresswoman from California who is a Roman Catholic, who has in her office according to this article photographs of herself with popes, going all the way back to Pope Pius XII, but she’s also one of the most ardent and consistent defenders of abortion in the United States Congress. As Jennifer Steinhauer writes,
“For Representative Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, the issue of abortion rights has always been ancillary to her unwavering faith and deep approbation for generations of popes.”
That opening sentence, I simply have to say is one of the most nonsensical I’ve seen in the major media in recent times, but the reporter goes on to say,
“But that one issue, abortion, is adding a thick layer of tension to the otherwise convivial mood as Congress prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis this week. The Capitol is ensnared in an imbroglio over funding for Planned Parenthood and a host of other abortion-related fights that could lead to a government shutdown next week.”
She goes on to say,
“It is in this stark division that Francis will arrive Thursday to be the first pontiff to address a joint meeting of Congress, in which more than 30 percent of the members are Catholic.”
Many of those Catholic officeholders in both the house and in the Senate are in direct defiance of the Roman Catholic Church and of this Pope, when it comes to the issue of the sanctity of human life. The pro-life coalition in the United States Congress is made up largely of Roman Catholics and evangelical Christians who share together the conviction that every single human life deserves legal protection and that abortion is murder and is a horrible sin and an affront to the sanctity of human life. The most interesting worldview clash on this issue that you will see as the Pope addresses the joint session of Congress today is not between Catholics and non-Catholics it’s going to be between Catholics and Catholics. Between Catholics who hold to the teaching of the church and Catholics who are in defiance of the teaching of the church and no one symbolizes that more than former speaker of the house and current Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. This Pope is often described as courageous, but it’s going to be really interesting to see if he has the courage today to stare down the members of Congress sitting before him who are in open defiance of what he believes and he teaches to be one of the central teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and that is that abortion is a grave, moral evil.
Shout Your Abortion hashtag effort to normalize abortion, claim baby part of woman's body
Next on the abortion front, one of most interesting developments is a pro-abortion movement started in social media by a woman by the name of Lindy West, who started with the hashtag shout your abortion. This is part of a larger movement that is intended intentionally to destigmatize abortion, to remove the moral affront to abortion that is found in the larger culture and the way many are arguing this can be done is by telling the abortion story over and over again and thus the hashtag, shout your abortion.
Lindy West writing at The Guardian as to why she started this tells us that she wants to make abortion normal and she wants to remove the moral stigma around abortion and then she makes this statement,
“The truth is that life is unfathomably complex, people with uteruses own their bodies unconditionally, and every abortion story is as unique as the person who lives it.”
Now let’s just look at that sentence for a moment. She says that,
“People with uteruses own their bodies unconditionally.”
Now just at one level, there’s something both right and wrong about that phrase. What’s right about it is that we do recognize a right to a personal control over one’s body, to a certain kind of personal privacy when it comes to our own bodies. But as Christians we can never make that statement unconditionally. That statement is always put in the context that we are creatures after all, we are made by a creator and we belong to him. And as Jesus said most famously when he was asked about taxation he said, “Give the coin to Caesar if he puts his image on it.” But the obvious implication of that was that Caesar doesn’t own our soul, because God put his image on us and he owns us. So even as there is something right just about those words taken in isolation, there’s also something profoundly wrong about them. But what’s really wrong about those words is what’s being argued here and that is that an unborn baby is actually just a part of the woman’s body. This is a tragic and horrifying misconception and yet it’s central to the argument for abortion, the argument is that until a baby is born the baby doesn’t exist except as a part of the woman’s body. Thus, you’ll see that much of the debate in the secular media about the Planned Parenthood videos has to do with a woman donating her tissue. This would not be the issue if a woman was donating her tissue; the issue here is the fact that that tissue is an unborn human being. The baby is not the mother.
But just unless we missed the point, the projection of this kind of argument to its absolutely idolatrous extreme, this woman writes later in her article in The Guardian,
“I own my body, and I decide what I allow to grow in it. Telling our stories at full volume chips away at stigma, at lies, at the climate of shame that destroys the lives (sometimes literally) of women and girls and anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum who can become pregnant, especially those living in poverty [and she goes on].”
Now I’ll admit, this is genuinely something I haven’t seen stated this way ever before. Here you have this woman, stating that she has started this shout your abortion movement because as she says she owns her own body, she claims and then she makes this audacious statement,
“And I decide what I allow to grow in it.”
But then she goes on to speak of women and girls who supposedly have the right to the abortion that she so celebrates but then she says,
“That this comes to anyone, woman, girl or anyone, anywhere on the gender spectrum who can become pregnant.”
Now while you’re thinking about the worldview behind this kind of claim, just consider those words. Here you have a woman saying that this unrestricted right to an abortion, the right to decide what one will allow to grow in one’s body is extended to anyone who can become pregnant women and girls or anyone,
“On the gender spectrum who can become pregnant.”
Now just consider what that actually means and consider that no generation of human beings from Adam until the present could’ve understood that, until just now. So when you’re thinking about the great worldview challenge that we face as Christians in the 21st century just ponder those words and consider the worldview in which the phrase make sense,
“Women [and] girls or anyone, anywhere on the gender spectrum who can become pregnant.”