October 19, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, October 19, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Rome Synod of Family exposes fault lines between two visions of Catholicism
We were watching recently as Pope Francis came to United States but now the big news is taking place in Rome where the Synod on the Family is taking place and it is big news by any estimation and mostly because what we’ve been watching is patterns that are of interest to us in the Roman Catholic Church those patterns are now becoming all too obvious to the entire world. For example, David Gibson for Religion News Service wrote an article in which he featured two contrasting understandings of Catholicism coming from two United States archbishops. In this case as he writes,
“As a major Vatican meeting on the church’s approach to sexuality and family life enters its decisive week, two top American archbishops offered contrasting views about what course the synod should take — providing a window into the dilemma facing the gathering, and a reminder of the divisions that could endure in the U.S. after the meeting ends.”Show Full Transcript
Now as we have noted what’s taking place in Catholicism right now is the emergence of two irreconcilable understandings of what it means to be Catholic and two irreconcilable visions for the future of Catholicism and what’s also increasingly clear is that the liberals have believed they have been in the driver seat, especially as they now claim the papacy with Pope Francis and even as many conservative Catholics and spokespersons for Catholicism internationally have tried to argue that Pope Francis hasn’t revealed the direction he wants to take the church that is no longer really plausible and a series of analyses offered in recent days makes that very clear, including some very important words from inside the Roman Catholic Church.
Evangelicals have a lot to learn as we look at this. For example, this Religion News Service article cites a very important article that ran over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal that article is by the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput and in that piece Chaput recognized as a conservative in the Roman Catholic Church and amongst the hierarchy here in United States, Chaput indicates openly in the Wall Street Journal of all things his concern that the church may be veering to the left. He writes about that concern by actually speaking of a parable in which a husband speaks to his wife out of the blue assuring her that he has been faithful. That leads her to ask the question, are you seeing someone else? It’s because out of the blue when someone keeps affirming that they are faithful, you have to wonder why they’re making the affirmation. Here you have one of the most influential archbishops in the United States hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church openly stating his concern that liberals who are affirming their fidelity to the doctrine of the church are doing so while, to use his very parable, they’re actually seeing someone else. As Chaput wrote for the Wall Street Journal,
“The lesson of the tale: Even when done innocently, emphasizing one’s fidelity a little too often and earnestly can yield unwelcome results.
“Such may be the case in Rome, where more than 250 Catholic bishops from around the world have gathered in a three-week synod, ending Oct. 25, to discuss “the vocation and mission of the family in the contemporary world.”
Chaput understands what’s at stake. He writes,
“Few issues are more substantive than the state of the family. Catholics see the family as the cornerstone of society and of the church herself. Put simply: Healthy families mean a healthy culture; broken families, a broken culture—which then makes for a sea of personal suffering and social conflict.”
What Chaput did not write, but what he could’ve written is that the family is central to the Roman Catholic Church in a very different way and marriage in particular, because for the Roman Catholic Church marriage is actually a sacrament and the Roman Catholic Church has taught that divorce is actually an impossibility. It teaches what it calls the indissolubility of marriage and yet just before he came to the United States, Pope Francis through a wrench into that church doctrine and tradition by coming up with an entirely new and far more liberal way of having marriages annulled and thus declared that they never had existed, which then removes the impediment of those who have divorced and are remarried from having access to the sacrament of the mass, which is crucial to the entire system of Roman Catholic sacramental theology.
Now at this point an interested observer should ask the obvious question, why would the Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia write this kind of article to be published in a secular newspaper with the international influence of the Wall Street Journal? Clearly he wants to register a public alarm long before the synod issues its report and in terms of a change in actual church doctrine Archbishop Chaput wrote this,
“The possibility of formal changes in church teaching on sexuality, marriage and the family is implausible. Francis took that off the table as the synod began. He has repeatedly preached the beauty of Christian belief on these matters. But that isn’t the source of friction. What is at issue is the application of church teaching. In the case of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, that means whether they should be admitted to Communion, under what conditions, and who should decide those conditions—the local bishop, bishops’ conferences or Rome? Many bishops feel that the last thing the church needs is fragmentation of practice on a matter of substance.”
That’s really crucial. If you look beyond that language, Archbishop Chaput was saying the last thing the Roman Catholic Church needs is to weaken its witness and its teaching on these issues by liberalizing its pastoral practice, which would actually be in violation not only of the continuing tradition of the church, but of its basic sacramental theology.
But another very important point is made by Archbishop Chaput when he wrote,
“Practice inevitably shapes belief.”
Now as we have discussed the Roman Catholic Church’s sacramental theology allows for a division between the official doctrine of the church and its pastoral practice. Evangelicals do not accept that kind of division or bifurcation. But the interesting thing is that Archbishop Chaput understands that if you liberalize the practice you are inevitably liberalizing the doctrine as well. And about that he is very concerned and publicly concerned. On the other hand, the Catholic Archbishop of Chicago recently appointed by this very Pope, Blase Cupich, who is understood to be a moderate in the church according to RNS, he is unconcerned about the very things that concern his colleague Archbishop Chaput. He said,
“I don’t share the anxiety at all.”
But then Archbishop Cupich went on to describe his own understanding, which is actually far to the left of his Catholic Archbishop colleague in Philadelphia. As Gibson writes,
“Cupich argued that the synod should allow for pastoral flexibility on the two most controversial topics under debate here — Communion for Catholics who have remarried without an annulment, and finding ways to be more welcoming to gays and lesbians.
“Now, Catholics who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment are viewed as living in adultery and thus cannot receive Communion unless they vow to abstain from sex. Many in the synod — prompted by direct suggestions from Francis — are pushing for ways around that ban.”
And as Gibson makes clear, Cupich is pushing in his own way for ways around that ban. For example, he is among those who have argued that the Pope and the synod,
“Could grant bishops and pastors leeway to treat each couple on a case-by-case basis.”
He went on to say,
“General principles are important. But there’s a limitation on how that allows us the freedom to address real-life situations.”
Now as we look beyond the headlines here we need to understand what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a division now made public for the first time in our lifetimes in the Roman Catholic Church at the highest level in which the issues of the definition of marriage and the church’s teaching on sexuality are now breaking up into two different parties in the very hierarchy of the church. As represented in this one article of the weekend, as it features two archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and we need to note the conservative argument coming from Archbishop Chaput, that if you change the practice you’re eventually going to change the doctrine and you also need to understand his concern that even as there are avowals being made all over that the doctrine of the church is not up for debate, he understands that if the practice of the church is up for debate, the teaching is too inevitably. He also understands something else and that is that if you declare what you call pastoral flexibility, you’re actually saying that doctrine is not objectively true and doesn’t have to be applied in the same situation to all peoples and all places in the same way. On the other hand, Archbishop Cupich in Chicago is calling for exactly that and there you see the two rival visions of Catholicism.
Now the big question for a long time, at least on the part of many observers has been where is Pope Francis in all of this? And the answer is from the very beginning, he is at the center the controversy and he is driving it. It is he who has called these synods and it is he who has repeatedly criticized conservatives in the church even in the opening statements he has made morning by morning to the synod in Rome as he has spoken against what he considers to be Pharisees in the church, especially on issues like divorce. But Ross Douthat, a Catholic observer writing in the New York Times on Sunday pointed out that it was the Pharisees who allowed for divorce and it was Jesus who did not. The article by Douthat in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times is an open alarm sent internationally and as he says,
“The Vatican always seems to have the secrets and intrigues of a Renaissance court — which, in a way, is what it still remains.”
Now it will be fascinating to track that out if we had time, but we move on.
“The ostentatious humility of Pope Francis, his scoldings of high-ranking prelates, have changed this not at all; if anything, the pontiff’s ambitions have encouraged plotters and counterplotters to work with greater vigor.”
And then writes Douthat this incredible line,
“And right now the chief plotter is the pope himself.”
And at this point, Ross Douthat gets right to the heart of why this story is very important for evangelicals to observe and to observe closely. This is what he writes,
“Francis’s purpose is simple: He favors the proposal, put forward by the church’s liberal cardinals that would allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion without having their first marriage declared null.
“Thanks to the pope’s tacit support, this proposal became a central controversy in last year’s synod on the family and the larger follow-up, ongoing in Rome right now.
“But if his purpose is clear, his path is decidedly murky.”
Evangelicals listen carefully.
“Procedurally, the pope’s powers are near-absolute: If Francis decided tomorrow to endorse communion for the remarried, there is no Catholic Supreme Court that could strike his ruling down.”
That is a really crucial issue. The Roman Catholic Church claims that the truth of its doctrine doesn’t change and therefore it invests this kind of authority in the Pope as a reigning monarch. Remember, what Douthat said,
“This court is like that of a Renaissance King.”
What we’re looking at here is that the Pope could rule in an absolute matter and there is no one to deny him that authority, because over the centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has invested that authority in the papacy. That’s where evangelicals looking at this have to understand that the first problem is the papacy itself. The unbiblical claims made about the papacy in its authority that now puts the Roman Catholic Church in this kind of vulnerability. Roman Catholics have claimed for centuries that the papacy was a center of unity and authority in the church, but Pope Francis is basically as Ross Douthat makes clear, at the center of a plot to revise the church even as he is the Pope who is supposedly to guard its doctrine. The other thing we need to note is that this battle for the future of Catholicism is also playing out in its own way far beyond Catholic circles. This is exactly what we see when we find liberal Protestant denominations going on in joining the moral revolution and those more conservative churches and denominations tied to the authority of Scripture and to the Scriptures Revelation of doctrine and gospel are unable to join that very moral revolution. One important dimension of this is that should the Roman Catholic Church move left as these indications would make us to believe that will leave Bible believing evangelicals virtually alone in Christianity in North America, holding to the biblical understanding of the definition of marriage and the understanding of the biblical sexuality as well.
And then finally on this issue, comes another article, this one really, really important by Alexander Stille writing for The New Yorker. That’s one of the most important magazines of the cultural left in America. The title,
“Pope Francis’s First Crisis.”
And what Stille writes is a signal of alarm coming from the left, that Pope Francis even as they understand he is trying to move the church to the left may not be competent to do so in their view. To put the matter plainly, conservatives are afraid the Pope is moving in the wrong direction and too fast. The liberals fear that he’s moving in the right direction, but not fast enough.
Unbelievers drawn to divinity schools ultimate conclusion of liberal Christianity
Over the weekend, another very interesting article appeared in the New York Times, this is one of those headlines that has to be read in order to be believed,
“Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.”
Samuel Freedman writes about a development that is new in several very liberal, very elite divinity schools and that is an increased number of students who aren’t believers at all, but are nonetheless attracted to study spirituality and divinity. In one sense this is the ultimate conclusion of the experiment undertaken by liberal Protestantism to try to have spirituality without any specific theology, indeed, at some point to virtually jettison all Orthodox theology and hope to rescue some kind of continuing relevance. Many of these churches actually do not train many persons for ministry in the local church at all, but they have become something like think tanks for spirituality. Freedman writes,
“During orientation at Harvard Divinity School here in 2013, Angie Thurston wandered amid the tables set up by the various campus ministries. Catholic, Methodist, Muslim — they mostly served to reinforce the sense that Ms. Thurston did not fit into an organized religion.
“Here she was, [this is the New York Times, again,] starting her graduate studies in religion when she did not know the definition of liturgy, had never read the Bible and could not have identified a major theologian like Karl Barth, even if it would have won her a fortune on “Jeopardy!” Yet something in organized religion hinted at an answer to the atomized, unmoored life she led.”
Now at this point I simply have to ask the question, how could someone who apparently knows so little about religion get admitted to an elite graduate program in studies of religion at the Harvard Divinity School? That’s an obvious question that isn’t acknowledged by the reporter or at least it did make its way into the article in the New York Times. Freedman writes,
“Now in her final year at Harvard, Ms. Thurston is a central figure in a boomlet of students who are secular or unaffiliated with any religious denomination, commonly known as “nones,” attending divinity school. While Harvard may be the center, nones can be found at other divinity schools around the country, especially those inclined toward theologically and politically liberal Protestantism, like Chicago Theological Seminary.”
Well there’s the bottom line. Here you have liberal theology schools and divinity schools that were established for the training of Christian ministry in the local church, virtually every single one of these divinity schools was at least at some point established in Orthodox theology for the training of ministers for the perpetuation of what the New Testament identifies as the faith once for all delivered to the Saints. And yet those liberal divinity schools, some of them like Harvard beginning back even in the 18th century began moving light years from Orthodox theology and completely redefining the Christian faith, and then in successive generations they move from redefining the Christian faith to virtually abandoning it, except perhaps as one option among several or many or an infinite array. Actually there’s an astounding section in this article that reads,
“Within higher education, divinity programs often stand apart from the cult of relativism in the liberal arts and the utilitarian emphasis in professional schools focusing on business and law, for example.”
Now let me just state this, if indeed these liberal theology schools, these divinity schools in any sense stand apart from what’s defined here as,
“The cult of relativism in the liberal arts.”
I simply have to wonder how because there’s very little evidence of it anywhere. Most of them have completely embraced relativism in virtually every single form, which even a quick look at their websites will make abundantly clear. But the article goes on to cite the Rev. Dudley C. Rose, the Associate Dean for Ministry Studies at Harvard who said,
“If you were simply looking for the skills, you might go to the Kennedy School of Government. And philosophy and liberal-arts fields have given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values. That language isn’t found in many places.”
Now that’s interesting in and of itself. Here we are told that the professional schools, by and large, in these elite universities have completely given up on any common concern for ethics because they have completely lost any worldview that would give them any tools to have a common moral understanding, even at the most basic moral issues. As he says, they have,
“Given up on the project of finding a moral language, an articulation of values.”
That is the complete moral and worldview breakdown of the modern American elite university and it’s in an article, ironically enough, about why so many unbelievers are now attracted to liberal divinity schools, where, as this article also makes clear they have every reason to feel right at home. Once again I simply assure you, I’m not making this up. You can find this article in the New York Times and read it for yourself if you dare, and if so, you would read about two women who on behalf of the student body of the Harvard Divinity School are teaching,
“Harry Potter as a sacred text.”
Here I simply remind us of the point that has been made emphatically in the past couple of centuries by people like G.K. Chesterton who pointed out that when people stop believing in the God of the Bible, they don’t stop believing, they don’t then at that point believe in nothing, they actually believe in anything and everything. And if indeed there are 55 people drawn to what’s called the humanist hub associated with Harvard University and its divinity school to study Harry Potter as a sacred text. You can just see Chesterton smiling from the grave. When people abandon the God of the Bible, they don’t stop believing, they just believe this point in anything and everything, even Harry Potter as a sacred text.
Religious pregnancy crisis centers file lawsuit against California's mandate to provide abortion info
Finally while we are very aware of recent encroachments on religious liberty and looming threats to religious liberty comes a story from the Los Angeles Times, going back to something we discussed in recent days, and that is the legislation signed into effect by California Governor Jerry Brown, that would require crisis pregnancy centers in the state of California to give women who come into those centers information on contraceptives and especially on abortion as they come into the center. Now as Melanie Mason writes for the Los Angeles Times, there are those who are Christian churches and others behind these crisis pregnancy centers who are filing suit against the state of California, because to require them to advocate for abortion or even to become the instrument by which abortion information gets taken to these women, or even to be forced to be the conduit through which abortion information is made available to these women, that violates their religious liberty and their Christian conscience.
As of last week two of these centers, one in Marysville and the other in Redding are seeking an injunction against the law and the going to court to try to get it. As the case made by these two centers makes clear,
“Forcing a religious pro-life charity to proclaim a pro-abortion declaration is on its face an egregious violation of both the free speech and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment to the Constitution. We will not rest until this government mandate is completely halted.”
And that comment came from Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute, a legal organization that has taken the case for the centers. But in the meantime, let’s all look at this very seriously and understand that there are real and present threats and dangers to religious liberty and not just on the question of marriage, this is on the question of abortion and the sanctity of human life. If indeed the state of California can coerce a Christian ministry to violate its conscience by preaching and by teaching something mandated by the government that is in violation of Christian conscience, then religious liberty has as Brad Dacus said, on its face been violated and religious liberty that is in this way violated, is religious liberty that is on its way to becoming nonexistent.