The Briefing 10-01-15

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Planned Parenthood congressional hearing exposes limits of politics on moral issues

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Pope meeting with Kim Davis underlines quandary of Francis' desire to appeal to everyone

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Pope's political messaging consequence of sacramental division of practice and doctrine

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Transcript

The Briefing

October 1, 2015

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

It’s Thursday, October 1, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Planned Parenthood congressional hearing exposes limits of politics on moral issues

Yesterday on The Briefing we talked about what did happen on Tuesday when Cecile Richards, the President of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, testified before the House oversight committee of Congress. What did happen was that the testimony took place, what did happen was that Cecile Richards was under oath, what did happen was a display of the moral evasion that Planned Parenthood now has as their modus operandus that is the moral evasion of presenting themselves as a healthcare provider. As I said yesterday, if you are an unborn baby given Planned Parenthood’s work of abortion, they are decidedly not a healthcare provider, they are a death care provider. But that was about what did take place yesterday. Today we’re going to talk about what didn’t take place and what didn’t take place is in many ways far more important than what did. What didn’t take place was that no major political blow landed against Planned Parenthood. What didn’t take place was the continuation of those in Congress who are pro-life, successfully pressing the argument and successfully pressing Cecile Richards to admit what Planned Parenthood is really all about in terms of the abortion industry and what Planned Parenthood has been doing which is strategically harvesting the organs and tissues from the babies they have just murdered in the womb and then transferring that with at least what is euphemistically called reimbursement for organizations that use those tissues and medical research.

What is truly shocking about this is that the pro-life members of Congress who have the opportunity did not successfully make the case against abortion. They did not successfully make the case against Planned Parenthood, they appear to be completely underprepared and completely incompetent in framing the arguments as they needed to be framed and that’s not only a missed opportunity, it is a sign of the moral condition of America as is reflected in Congress. We’re not questioning that there are genuinely pro-life members of the House oversight committee, what we are saying is that nothing that took place in those hearings on Tuesday successfully put Cecile Richards on the defensive on the core moral issues that are here at stake. Instead, there was a lot of conversation about funding and money and her salary, there was inadequate attention to the strategic goal of getting her to admit what Planned Parenthood is actually up to, in terms not only of the organ harvesting scandal, but of abortion itself. To see that testimony, and especially to watch the aftermath of the testimony is to understand that Cecile Richards succeeded in evading the grasp of Congress were at least the pro-life members of the Congressional committee on the issue. It was a political game and she won.

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No one analyzed this better than David Harsanyi writing at The Federalist, he wrote yesterday,

“Now, I get that these kinds of hearings are normally a waste of time, but in this instance the GOP [that is the Republican Party] had some good reasons to project competence. This is, after all, the issue that’s generated so much tension within their party of late. An effective showing—something resembling a smart prosecution—might have allayed a bit of the percolating discontent. Yet there they were, [he’s speaking here of pro-life members of Congress] facing a CEO whose organization performs vivisections on humans [that is the taking apart of bodies in order to sell their organs] and harvests baby brains, and the best they could do most of the time was alternate between slow-pitching Richards some hangers and ensuring her martyrdom.”

Getting to the moral evasion of Planned Parenthood Harsanyi points out that no member of Congress successfully got Cecile Richards to acknowledge that,

“She had lied when she said that Planned Parenthood “never claimed” to offer mammograms?”

That’s one of those evasions having to do with Planned Parenthood’s claim that it is a healthcare organization. It had claimed that it had been performing mammograms, later it was demonstrated that it had not, so much for the healthcare providing. The reality is that if Planned Parenthood were really a healthcare provider we wouldn’t even be talking about them on The Briefing today, much less would the CEO of the organization be testifying before the House oversight committee. Harsanyi went on to say that the members of Congress never ever got Cecile Richards to admit that Carly Fiorina’s comments regarding human fetus is being delivered intact and alive during abortions was irrefutable. As Harsanyi writes,

“Richards got away with pretending she knew nothing about such events. Broadly speaking, we don’t even know if Richards believes there should be any gestational limit on abortions. If she’s in line with the Democratic Party, she believes abortion should be legal until crowning. That radicalism was never on display. Which is inexcusable.”

The reference to crowning there is clearly a reference to the moment when a baby is in the final process of being born and Harsanyi’s logic itself is here irrefutable. No one put Cecile Richards on the line and on the defensive. No one required her to define when she believed that a human life begins. No one put her on the line to define her own understanding of human life. No one put her on the line even to defend the indefensible, which is the practice of abortion, the murdering of babies in the womb. The most important aspect of this from a Christian worldview perspective is the limits of politics to deal with moral issues and the fact that, especially when you add television cameras to the mix it tends to reduce the courage of those who might in some other setting presumably have the courage and demonstrate the intelligence to actually frame the argument in a way that would’ve put Cecile Richards and Planned Parenthood genuinely on the moral defensive. That might have been costly politically, but it would’ve been a massive gain morally. But what we’re seeing here is that when you take a big moral issue, an infinitely important moral issue, such as abortion and you put it into an explicitly political context, bad things happen to righteous moral causes, even causes that have to do with matters of life and death. The saddest thing from our perspective is this, human life, the sanctity of human life, human dignity, all these were on the line when those hearings were taking place before the House oversight committee on Tuesday. But looking at the hearings as they happened and thereafter, one thing is abundantly clear, you wouldn’t know anything of that importance was on the line by the time those hearings were over, and therein is the tragedy.

Pope meeting with Kim Davis underlines quandary of Francis' desire to appeal to everyone

Next, we knew there would be a good deal of commentary and conversation in the wake of Pope Francis’s visit to the United States, but yesterday it took a bizarre turn that virtually no one saw coming. The headlines yesterday had to do with an event that took place while the Pope was here, but you didn’t know it took place during the Pope’s visit, it was revealed only thereafter and now both sides of the Catholic Church and just about anyone watching the whole situation with any interest at all is now in a befuddled situation to try to figure out exactly what was taking place when the Pope met with Kim Davis. She is the County Clerk from Rowan County, Kentucky, who was put in jail by a federal district court judge because she would not follow his order to issue licenses for same-sex weddings, licenses that would’ve had her signature on it as the Rowan County clerk. The story has made national and international headlines, we’ve discussed it here on The Briefing. But the strange and bizarre turn that this story took yesterday was well reported by Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times when she wrote,

“Pope Francis met privately in Washington last week with Kim Davis, the county clerk in Kentucky who defied a court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. A Vatican spokesman confirmed on Wednesday.”

Now it turns out, the Pope Francis met with Kim Davis last Thursday afternoon. But it was confirmed by the Vatican and leaked by a Vatican newspaper only yesterday, on Wednesday. Why the delay? Well that’s just part of the story and no one really knows where this story leads. But regardless of where one stands in terms of this moral revolution, this is a huge story and it’s not just about Kim Davis and it’s not just about the Pope. As Laurie Goodstein writes,

“On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said [in a telephone interview] that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the Pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Vatican spokesman the Reverend Federico Lombardi said that he would confirm that the meeting took place but he refused to elaborate. He told the New York Times,

“I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add.”

This story is frankly so bizarre that at first it didn’t appear to be credible. But now we know that it is, not only as is reported by authoritative newspaper such as the New York Times, but as confirmed by the Vatican itself. Somehow on Thursday afternoon last week, Kim Davis and her husband were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy and they had a meeting with the Pope who told Kim Davis to,

“Stay strong.”

And yet the story was suppressed until after the Pope had left. The intentional encounter between the Pope and Kim Davis is now the subject of intense controversy in conversation in the aftermath of the Pope’s visit, because it underlines as perhaps nothing else could, the quandary of Pope Francis and the entire meaning of his visit and the signals and messaging he was trying to send and that’s why the story is of importance to us.

In anticipation of the Pope’s coming, I pointed to the fact that he has been sending signals in

both directions. As one writer for the Boston Globe has described, he is the pendulum Pope, he tends to swing between liberal signals and conservative signals, confusing at this point virtually everyone as the story yesterday made abundantly clear. The Week magazine in its cover story about the Pope’s visit had the question,

“Will Pope Francis liberalize Catholicism?”

In the aftermath of his visit virtually every major analyst pointed to the fact that the Pope sent far more signals of encouragement to the liberals in his church than he did to the conservatives. The Roman Catholic Church heard the signals very clearly, Roman Catholic leaders, including conservative bishops were basically told to cool it, they were basically told to get off of the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion, issues that by the way are very central to Roman Catholic moral teaching and instead to talk about other things and the signal is sent by Pope Francis who did that himself, especially in terms of his speech to a joint meeting of Congress and his other major public occasions. And yet, what’s really clear here is that the Pope was sending other signals as well and this is confusing and now infuriating people on both sides of the moral issues.

For example,

“Francis DeBernardo, head of New Ways Ministry, an LGBT Catholic group, said the Pope sometimes seems to “talk out of both sides of his mouth” when it comes to gay rights.

“For instance, the Pope has famously said “Who am I to judge” gay priests and urged bishops not to engage in constant culture war fights over same-sex marriage.”

But DeBernardo, again, he’s an LGBT activist within the Roman Catholic Church, he said,

“The time for vagueness, ambiguity, and secret meetings is over. Pope Francis needs to state clearly where he stands in regard to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and society.”

Conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church were frankly horrified by the messaging that came during the Pope’s visit. They had held out hope to the very end when he spoke to the World Meeting of Families Congress in Philadelphia that he might explicitly affirm his own church’s teachings when it comes to the definition of marriage, the moral reality of homosexuality and the explicit issue of abortion. But those things simply weren’t mentioned in any explicit and confrontational way. Instead, Pope Francis spoke in generalities sending far more liberal signals than any encouragement to conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church. But then on the other side of this, it turns out that not only did the Pope meet with the Little Sisters of the Poor, they were famously in a legal battle with the Obama Administration, but he also met with Kim Davis, who isn’t even Roman Catholic. Which leads to the obvious question, what exactly is the signal Pope Francis is trying to send? And the answer comes back, unavoidably; he’s trying to send every signal it wants. More liberal signals than conservative signals, but it is not possible to find any kind of consistency between the public messaging the Pope sent and the private messaging that he gave to Kim Davis when he told her,

“Stay strong.”

Furthermore, as many have pointed out, even as the Pope was calling politicians to a courageous model of leadership on these issues, there is hardly any way to describe the way the Pope and the Vatican handled this situation as courageous in any sense whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the Vatican would only confirm that the meeting took place and would not deny that the Pope made those statements to Kim Davis, but they would not elaborate any further. This is a truly bizarre situation, but in it there is a great deal embedded, a great deal that is important for evangelicals to note with a special care.

In the aftermath of the Pope meeting with Kim Davis story there were immediate responses from leading Catholic journalists and commentators, two in particular that I look to are James Martin and John L. Allen, Jr. Allen wrote for Crux, a Catholic website, an article what it means that Pope Francis met Kim Davis and he says, even as he’s associate editor of that Catholic news source,

“If anyone suspected that Pope Francis didn’t really mean the strong words he spoke on religious freedom last week in the United States – that he was phoning it in, while his real concerns were elsewhere – claims that he held a private meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis certainly should lay that suspicion to rest.”

Now I would simply describe that as a very brave attempt to try to describe a very un-brave act. Because here, John L. Allen, Jr. is trying to explain the Pope in a way that frankly is far more clear than anything coming from the Vatican and the other interesting thing about the way that article begins his statement again,

“Claims that he held a private meeting with Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis.”

Well, now I know they’re not just claims, we know that the Vatican has confirmed that the meeting took place. Another very interesting aspect of Allen’s article is where he writes,

“The fact that someone arranged a brief encounter between Francis and Davis does not necessarily mean that Francis initiated the contact, or even that he necessarily grasps all the dimensions of her case.”

Well, let’s just say this, when you’re talking about the intentional effort undertaken by the Vatican, which has had a history of diplomatic relations going back not years, but centuries, when you’re talking about a sophisticated public relations operation the likes of which the world really has no parallel when it comes to religious institutions such as the Vatican, when you look at the fact that this meeting took place in the Vatican Embassy after Kim Davis and her husband had been sneaked in the building. There is no way to suggest that somehow the Vatican didn’t know what was going on and didn’t understand the kind of signal that would be sent if the event were to be known as it now is. Allen went on to write,

“The fact that the Vatican has chosen not to comment probably means, at least in part, that they don’t want to be dragged into a detailed discussion of Davis’ situation.”

Well, there again you see the interesting language where he writes that the decision not to comment, remember these words,

“Probably means, at least in part.”

If you’re having to say, “probably means, at least in part,” this means we really don’t know what were supposed to be getting here in terms of a message. But then Allen went on to say,

“That said, there’s no way to view the encounter other than as a broad gesture of support by the Pope for conscientious objection from gay marriage laws, especially taken in tandem with his statement aboard the papal plane that following one’s conscience in such a situation is a “human right” – one, he insisted, that also belongs to government officials.”

James Martin, writing at America, the headline of his article that appeared in the Acts of Faith column in the Washington Post was this,

“Relax, Pope Francis’s meeting with Kim Davis isn’t such a big deal.”

Well, it’s clear that LGBT activists inside the Roman Catholic Church aren’t buying the argument that it’s not a big deal. And others in the gay-rights movement are also making very clear the fact that they get the message of this meeting. Michelangelo Signorile, one of the most influential leaders in the gay-rights movement for the last several decades, wrote an article at the Huffington Post, in which he argued, that,

“Pope Francis Undermined the Goodwill of His Trip and Proved to Be a Coward.”

Signorile wrote,

“I would have more respect for the Pope if he had publicly embraced Kim Davis and made an argument for her, as he did in his visit with the Little Sisters of the Poor, who are battling against filling out a form to exempt themselves from Obamacare’s contraception requirement.”

Signorile went on to write about the Pope,

“He shows himself to be antithetical to much of what he preaches and teaches. He talks about dialogue and having the courage of one’s convictions and the courage to speak out. But he swept this Davis meeting under the rug, seemingly ashamed and certainly not wanting to broach the subject. Even Davis’s supporters should find that insulting to them.”

And in the oddest way, I have to agree with Michelangelo Signorile. I think he sees the situation exactly as it is. One of the most important responsibilities of leadership is to make our convictions clear. And as an outsider, as a Protestant, as an evangelical looking at the Roman Catholic Church and looking at all the conversation in controversy following Pope Francis and frankly, surrounding him now almost from the beginning, one of the things we need to keep in mind is that we are watching an example of what happens when a leader sends very mixed signals and when in a context of cultural opposition those mixed signals are simply grasped upon headline by headline by one group saying it means this, and by another group say the very same acts for the very same words mean something else. Everyone trying to argue that at the end of the day, the Pope is on their side of the argument. Now on this, it’s clear the liberals by far have more claim upon Pope Francis than do the conservatives, but it’s also clear that this is a Pope who continues to amaze by confusing people and that is something that can be described only in terms of being bizarre.

Pope's political messaging consequence of sacramental division of practice and doctrine

This explains why Daniel Henninger writing at the Wall Street Journal discusses the Pope’s visit in terms of a politicized papacy. Henninger wrote,

“It is said widely that Francis will never allow himself to be co-opted into anyone else’s political agenda. The Pope is famously his own man. But the Pope has no control over whether he is co-opted into the political goals and strategies of others.”

But then Henninger went on to say,

“Francis’ popularity remains high, but the dangers in his current course are high. What many of his new political friends mainly seek is to have the Pope “moralize” their politics. Francis’ spiritual message could not be more secondary.”

Henninger then concludes,

“How allowing the papacy’s core moral authority to be politicized is in the interests of the Catholic Church as an institution is difficult to see.”

Well, from an evangelical perspective, from a theological perspective there is assuredly more going on here and for the authority to explain that I go to none other than John L. Allen, Jr., who in a special edition of Time Magazine timed for the Pope’s visit, had written about the distinction between doctrine and pastoral practice in the Roman Catholic Church, given its priestly and sacramental theology. In the special edition of Time John Allen wrote,

“Many years ago at a bookshop in Rome, I attended a small talk by a senior Vatican official, toward the end he took some questions and an elderly Italian woman rose to say that she was divorced and had remarried outside the church, which technically disqualified her from receiving Communion at Sunday mass. But her pastor had quietly told her it would be all right to come forward at mass to receive the sacrament. She wanted to know from this Vatican official if that was okay.

“The answer illustrates the distinction between doctrine and the pastoral application of doctrine in the trenches “Let me answer first as an official of the Holy See,” he said, [using the technical term for the Vatican as the seat of government in the Catholic Church.] “At that level, the answer is clear,” said the Vatican official. “The law of the church says that if you are in an irregular situation, [that is in violation we should say to the doctrine and teaching of the Roman Catholic Church], “then you are excluded from Holy Communion. Now let me answer as a pastor,” he said. “I can’t presume to judge your conscience or what’s in your heart and so I can’t make a decision about how that law should apply in your specific situation. You have to make that decision in conscience with the advice of your pastor.”

Allen then writes these words to which we must pay very close attention. He writes,

“In a nutshell, that’s the difference between law in Catholicism, which is generally sweeping and firm and how it’s applied, which can leave room for tremendous nuance and flexibility. Depending of course, on who’s doing the applying.”

Now I honestly do not believe I have ever seen a better paragraph or so, in which the distinction between Roman Catholic doctrine and Roman Catholic practices are made clear. And it’s not coming from an evangelical critic of the Roman Catholic Church; it’s coming from a Catholic journalist explaining how the Catholic Church works. The sacramental theology of the Roman Catholic Church allows this distinction between doctrine and practice or pastoral application. Let me read Allen’s words again, he says,

“In a nutshell, that’s the difference between law in Catholicism, which is generally sweeping and firm and how it’s applied, which can leave room for tremendous nuance and flexibility.”

Now just think about that statement, written weeks before the Pope would arrive and think about what the Pope said, what the Pope did and the controversy that blew up just yesterday over the meeting of the Pope with Kim Davis. Remember how Allen says that the pastoral application of the church, the pastoral practice of the church,

“Can leave room for tremendous nuance and flexibility.”

Well, in contrast, the evangelical affirmation of Sola Scriptura, the sole authority of Scripture to determine doctrine means that we cannot create a dichotomy between doctrine and practice that would allow for the kind of nuance and flexibility that is now central to the Roman Catholic project and central to the controversy about Pope Francis and central to the general question of the kind of messaging he’s trying to send. Nuance and flexibility is built into the system. That nuance and flexibility someone described is the genius of Roman Catholicism, but as the reformers understood in the 16th century, it is the problem that prompted the Reformation itself. It is the difference between an understanding of Christianity that is established in a sacramental priesthood and the understanding of Christianity based in a singular biblical authority. The focus is on the gospel and biblical doctrine as being one and the same. I think we all thought at the end of last week that the conversation, the main conversation about the Pope’s visit was over, but it’s now clear that is not the case and the Pope is responsible for it. There are now more questions than ever about the future of the Roman Catholic Church and where the Pope really stands and where he intends to lead the Roman Catholic Church. But all of this serves as a very graphic reminder of what the Reformation was actually all about and why we as evangelical Christians and as confessing Protestants understand that we’ve got nowhere to go other than biblical authority. And under biblical authority we do not have the means of nuance and flexibility that is described in this article and was made clear in the headlines yesterday.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing