October 26, 2015
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, October 26th, 2015. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Family Synod inconclusive, reflecting confusion of Bible's authority in Roman Catholicism
Big news came out of Rome on Saturday as what was known as the extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church came to an end, and came to an end specifically by adopting a statement on the issue of marriage and the family. And what was most interesting about this is that the document that was eventually affirmed by at least two thirds of these bishops puts the Roman Catholic Church pretty much where it was before, except in a radical new direction never seen before. It all depends on which interpretation you bring to the document and as just about everyone who has been watching this and is aware of the meeting of bishops in Rome this is a struggle between liberal and conservative wings in the church and when the question comes, who won the answer is no one yet clearly, but from a long-term perspective the fact that the liberals are able to claim that they won a victory if by opening a policy if nothing else, that itself is a very significant long-term trend and a trend indicating that conservatives are indeed losing the battle as many of them privately will concede.
This meeting of Roman Catholic bishops in Rome has attracted worldwide attention and for good reason, because the big question hanging over the meeting is the big question hanging over the Roman Catholic Church. Will it continue to stand by its historic teachings on the definition of marriage, the understanding of the family in sexual morality? Pope Francis has given very significant indications that he wants to move the church in a different direction and even as there have been repeated statements that the official teaching of the church is not going to be changed as many insiders in the Roman Catholic Church have understood, if you change the practice you will eventually change the doctrine and that’s what makes this of interest, not just Roman Catholics, but far beyond. And American evangelicals need to be paying particular attention to this story because it tells us a great deal about how the larger world is also understanding what takes place when there are theological considerations at stake and when an institution like the Roman Catholic Church has put a giant question mark over its own name when it comes to the future of the church on these issues.Show Full Transcript
Before turning to the very interesting press coverage related to this event, we need to look at the document that was adopted, every single paragraph, paragraph by paragraph adopted by at least two thirds of the bishops present, this compromise statement ends up saying something maybe, but perhaps not actually saying much. The title of the document is the Final Relatio on the Synod of the Family and in just about every page and paragraph it leaves the door open for various interpretations. That’s a very important issue for our consideration. For example, under the statement entitled Pastoral Care for Couples Civilly Married or Living Together, we find sentences like this,
“While clearly presenting the Christian message, the Church also needs to indicate the constructive elements in these situations which do not yet or no longer correspond to it.”
Now if you look at it closely, you can figure out what those words mean. But as you look at the statement more generally, it is so filled with generalizations; it is so filled with statements that could be read one way or the other that it’s very difficult to know if the bishops actually intended to be understood saying anything clearly and the suspicion is they really did not. The entire purpose of the synod called by Pope Francis was in keeping with what he has continued to teach as a distinction between the doctrine of the church and its pastoral practice. That’s something that he has not only brought up in terms of his public statements as a dichotomy, or a distinction it is something he has also made very much a distinction in terms of his personal ministry as Pope. Now when you look at this document, you’ll discover that the whole purpose of the synod was to address what were considered to be situations outside the norm in terms of the definition of marriage as the union of a man and a woman and indissoluble union for a lifetime. The occasion for the document and the occasion for the meeting has to do, especially the most urgent issue, at least in terms of the European context was a question about how the Roman Catholic Church will or will not allow divorced persons to have access to the sacraments. But that was expanded to issues that are even more urgent in other parts of the world such as the questions related to same-sex marriage and same-sex relationships, especially not only in Europe, but in North America as well.
In the section we were just talking about the document is addressing itself to those who are merely married in a civil union, not in terms of a wedding recognized by the sacrament by the Roman Catholic Church, or those who are not married at all and merely cohabitating and this is why I want to draw our attention to the way the bishops adopted the statement. It is because it includes language like this,
“All these situations require a constructive response, seeking to transform them into opportunities which can lead to an actual marriage and a family in conformity with the Gospel. These couples need to be provided for and guided patiently and discreetly. With this in mind, the witness of authentic Christian families is particularly appealing and important as agents in the evangelization of the family.”
Now that statement does clearly indicate that the church will define marriage only as the union of a man and a woman and it will define marriage on its own terms, but in terms of the pastoral application bishops and the priest of the church are hereby instructed that they are to minister to these people again patiently and discreetly and there is no clear distinction and that’s perhaps intentional as to how exactly that is to be done. What is clear is that the liberal didn’t get everything they wanted, they wanted an official policy and the man behind this was primarily Cardinal Kasper in Germany. What they wanted was a very clear statement of a new policy as related to those who are divorced; whose marriages have not been annulled. That didn’t happen. But what also didn’t happen is the closing of the door on that conversation and as we saw last week when you have archbishops of the church in one country as we showed for example, Archbishop Cupich in Chicago and Archbishop Chaput in Philadelphia in radical disagreement on these terms, what you see is that this document allows both sides in the controversy to claim some measure of victory and certainly to concede no major issue of defeat.
Perhaps the most important issue of all, as it relates to this is that this statement is not fully binding and the Pope Francis is now the recipient of the statement from the bishops and he can now do with it what he may wish and what he wishes is almost now very clear to move his church to the left. As Laurie Goodstein and Elisabetta Povoledo reported for the New York Times on Sunday,
“After a three-week global assembly on family issues that exposed their deep divisions, Roman Catholic bishops produced a consensus document on Saturday that reinforced church doctrine but appeared to give Pope Francis enough support to advance his vision of a more merciful church.”
There you have in the lead paragraph on the front page of the New York Times both sides of the story in one sentence. When I said both sides declared victory just consider these sentences from the story,
“Conservatives rejoiced that the bishops held the line on church doctrine that a marriage is permanent and that homosexuality is unacceptable, although some worried that the document introduced confusion about whether divorced couples can be given the sacrament of communion.”
The next sentence,
“Church liberals exulted that Francis had gotten the church’s hierarchy to take up issues that were long considered taboo, and that the bishops’ final report did not include anything that would block him outright from making change.”
The archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said,
“There is no black or white, a simple yes or no when it comes to divorced and remarried Catholics.”
So there is no yes, there is no no and that is the big issue we need to see here. In my estimation, what this now means is that the door is actually wide open for Pope Francis to take the Roman Catholic Church in a very liberal direction and the point from an evangelical perspective, that is most important for us to recognize is that when something other than Scripture becomes the authority, when the magisterium of the Church, any human authority becomes the authority then the question of change is going to be automatic, it’s going to be reflexive because human beings change, human opinions change, human judgments change. If our authority is not the unchanging word of God then there’s going to be a question mark over the future of our church even as now there’s a very public question mark over the future of the Roman Catholic Church on these issues. Before leaving this, I need to go to the pope’s final statement to the bishops that was made because it’s very indicative of his thinking and the kind of thinking that we see elsewhere as well. He said to the bishops in his closing statement,
“In the course of this Synod, the different opinions which were freely expressed – and at times, unfortunately, not in entirely well-meaning ways – certainly led to a rich and lively dialogue.”
He went on to say,
“Apart from dogmatic questions clearly defined by the Church’s Magisterium – we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.”
Now what’s so important about those words coming from Pope Francis is this – they actually amount far more to sociology than to anything that we claim to be theology. This is a sociological judgment simply stating that there are cultural and moral differences between cultures such that bishops in one country such as the United States face members and their own church, who believe that same-sex marriage should be right and legal whereas there are bishops in other parts of the world for instance in Africa and the so-called global South where the very thought that there could be legal same-sex marriage would be seemingly impossible. We need to note that that is not even remotely a theological judgment that’s just a sociological reality, and indeed if any denomination or any institution decides that it’s going to cite as a major fact this kind of sociological reality rather than a theological reality than theologies going to give way to sociology and eventually and here the Roman Catholic Church has an open argument from its supreme pontiff that what is right in one place maybe judged wrong in another. That is theologically disastrous.
What makes this whole story so important for evangelicals is that every one of these arguments now so publicly debated and considered in terms of this meeting of Roman Catholic bishops is an argument that’s being pressed upon us as well. And we need to note that the only answer to these arguments is the sole authority of Scripture as God’s inerrant and unchanging word. Anything other than the unchanging word of God is our authority and that authority by definition is going to change the only question is how far for now? How far in the future? And given the amount of pressure coming from a secularizing society in Western countries, my estimation is that change is going to be rather radical and it’s going to come rather soon.
Candidates drop from Democrat candidate race, reveal increasing extremism of party
Next, because we recognize that underneath the political headlines are always serious worldview issues we need to take a look at some very interesting developments in the 2016 United States presidential race, especially right now on the Democratic side, whereas we came to the end of last week, the picture in that party and its nomination race is rather significantly clarified. First of all because of something that didn’t happen and what didn’t happen was the candidacy of sitting Vice President Joe Biden, who made a decision accompanied by his wife, Jill, and by the President of the United States in the Rose Garden on Wednesday that he would not be a candidate for the Democratic nomination. In the Vice President’s words,
“Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time, the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.”
What’s really interesting is that the Vice President’s statement did not in any sense indicate support for any of the current Democratic candidates and most importantly for his former colleague, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Indeed the Vice President’s statement seemed to include several barbs directed directly at the former Secretary of State. In reality, Joe Biden who had run two previous campaigns for president before being elected vice president in 2008 and 2012, he had long wanted to be President of the United States, that’s no secret. The fact that Hillary Clinton appeared to be faltering in recent months had led to open speculation that the Vice President might throw his hat in the ring, so to speak, but he finally decided that Hillary Clinton did have a significant lead, including $77 million in the bank and it was increasingly clear that the Democratic Party did not have an opening for Barack Obama’s VP at this late stage in the race. From a worldview perspective, it’s important to recognize that politically speaking, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton occupy very similar worldview real estate. Their living on the same islands so to speak, but they do not share in all cases their political alliances and that’s something we need to watch rather carefully.
Hillary Clinton is able to call upon the entire Clinton machine within the modern American Democratic Party. Joe Biden was going to be able to count on some support from the sitting President of the United States, but that’s just the point, a sitting President of the United States is actually not very able to be directly involved in the nomination race for the one who might succeed him as the nominee of his own party. But what is increasingly clear is distance, not only between Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, but also between President Obama and Hillary Clinton. On that note, Michael Barone, a veteran political observer, in his opinion column published last week, pointed out what you do not hear from Hillary Clinton and that is much praise for President Obama and much public support for his positions you indeed have Hillary Clinton, now breaking with the president she once served as Secretary of State on some of the very issues on which he offered support when she was in that office. It’s going to be a very interesting race ahead.
And speaking of a very interesting race ahead, another candidate who won’t be a candidate is former Virginia Senator Jim Webb, who dropped out on Tuesday, the day before Vice President Biden said he wasn’t going to run. Jim Webb had failed to gain much support for the Democratic nomination and it was also very clear in his debate performance, he was not going to be a major candidate. But what’s really interesting is how he exited the race, because he exited the race making a very significant political judgment and that judgment was this, he said that no candidate now running as a centrist has any future in terms of the Democratic Party because the powers that be in the Democratic Party are not going to favor a centrist candidate. Jim Webb who had served as the secretary the Navy under President Reagan before switching parties and being elected to the United States Senate as a Democrat from Virginia was in most respects a political moderate and as was clear in the debate and in the follow-up to the debate there is almost no room whatsoever in the Democratic Party for a moderate. Also dropping out of the race, as if he were very much in the race, in terms of the Democratic presidential nomination was former Rhode Island governor and United States Senator Lincoln Chafee. The lesson to be learned there is that the Democratic Party and for that matter, the Republican Party as well, these major political parties really have no room for someone who appears to have no message and that’s where Lincoln Chafee was. He may be best known for his bold support for changing the United States to the metric system.
At the end of the day, the Democratic Party basically gave him no attention but before leaving the worldview implications right now on the Democratic side, and especially with the exit from the race of Senator Webb saying that there’s no place for a centrist in his party, we need to note an observation that was made in National Review magazine this week, pointing out that even in the 1990s, it was still possible for there to be a pro-life Democrat on the national stage, but by the time that party got to the middle of that decade, the mid-1990s that option was foreclosed. Back as recently as when the nation passed the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act during the presidency of George W. Bush, a major Democrat on the national stage, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Senator from New York was a supporter of the bill, saying that abortion at that point was basically infanticide. But now even as the Congress is considering a ban on abortions after 20 weeks, a ban with very large public support, as National Review notes, only four Democrats in the house and three in the Senate were willing to side for the cause of life in the United States Congress in 2015. Beneath the headlines are not only matters of worldview significance often behind those headlines are matters of life and death.
Reporting on recent events in Jerusalem reveal decrease of support for Israel in the West
Next, while we’re talking about matters of life and death, we need to go to Israel where indeed in Jerusalem there are matters of life and death, virtually every single day. And what we’re seeing in terms of the developments there and the developments on the world scene in response to it indicates a significant increase in anti-Semitism across the world and a significant decrease in support for the nation of Israel. In particular, what we need to note is that it is becoming common in the media worldwide to refer to a recent cycle of violence between Israelis and Palestinians in particular with the widespread killing of Israeli civilians on the street by isolated Palestinian assailants. The most recent attacks have been with a blade and that is become now so commonplace that Israel is considering lowering it’s very restrictive laws when it comes to the owning of handguns by Israeli citizens, but what we really need to note here is what’s underneath the headline and for one thing when you talk about a cycle of violence that indicates that at some point that violence has ceased to be. And what we need to note is that from 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel there has been no moment in which there has not been violence against Israel and threats against Israeli citizens, even within the nation’s borders and even within the city of Jerusalem.
Even on the front page of the Wall Street Journal last week, there’s a reference to what was,
“The Latest Cycle of Israeli Arab Violence.”
The point to be made here is that you would simply have to say, when did this cycle supposedly begin and how will we know when it has ended? Because at no point since 1948 has there been the cessation of violence and the threat of violence against Israelis. But what we also need to note is the ideological and worldview threat that is now out in public against Israel and against Israelis and this is something that just is not covered adequately in terms of the Western press. This leads to a very imbalanced understanding of what’s going on on the street. For example, the elected president of the Palestinian Authority and remember, this is supposedly now a nation as accepted by the United Nations that is Mahmoud Abbas said on Palestinian television on September 16, that’s just over a month ago, he said these words,
“We welcome every drop of blood spilled in Jerusalem. This is pure blood, clean blood, blood on its way to Allah. With the help of Allah, every martyr will be in heaven, and every wounded will get his reward.”
You do not have adequate attention in the Western press to the fact that here you have the elected president of the Palestinian Authority claiming that the blood of martyrs who kill Israelis, that the blood is going immediately to Allah, and praising every drop of blood that is shed in terms of these attacks upon Israelis. This is absolutely unconscionable and we’re thinking about matters of life and death recognize that for those who are living in Israel and in Jerusalem in particular, life and death can come all the sudden, out of the blue.
But finally, that gets to another aspect of this at the end of last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the center of worldwide controversy, for stating that the former grand mufti of the Muslims in Palestine was himself involved with Hitler in terms of the Holocaust and had indeed suggested the Holocaust to Hitler. We need to note that there was an immediate backlash in terms of the American and much of the European media to the fact that the Israeli Prime Minister had said such a thing, and yet even as he may have overstated his case in terms of the exact words that he used there is no doubt that the Israeli Prime Minister was on verifiable and documentable ground, when he talked about the collusion between the late former grand mufti of Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich. There can be no question that the grand mufti, Haas Amin Al Husseini was indeed a collaborator with Hitler and that he met with Hitler and that he gained the support of Hitler for the cause of Palestine, and he gained support from Hitler to the extinguishing of Jews from the holy land. It’s interesting to note that Saeb Erekat, the Secretary-General of the Palestinian liberation organization responded to Prime Minister Netanyahu by calling his statement,
“Morally indefensible and inflammatory.”
He then went on to say this,
“Mr. Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the Holocaust and completely absolved Adolf Hitler’s heinous and reprehensible genocide of the Jewish people,” Mr. Erekat said in a statement. “It is a sad day in history when the leader of the Israeli government hates his neighbor so much that he is willing to absolve the most notorious war criminal in history.”
The thing to note here is that Benjamin Netanyahu certainly did not absolve Hitler of any moral responsibility whatsoever. But what’s even more interesting is that the head of the PLO did nothing to deny that the grand mufti of Jerusalem had collaborated with Hitler in just the way Netanyahu indicated in terms of a common desire to see the extinguishing of Jews from the holy land and when it came to Adolf Hitler from all parts beyond.
To its credit, the New York Times did run a photograph from 1941, showing the grand mufti meeting with Hitler. But to the discredit of the world media, apparently almost no one went back to the primary sources to find out exactly what was going on. Instead, they almost all referred to a current controversy instead of going back to what can actually be documented from the era in documents that are very much available right now. For example, I hold in my hands right now a book by David Davlin and John Rothman entitled, Icon of Evil that includes all the documentation including the primary source material of the correspondence between the grand mufti and Hitler. It’s all available and its part of the story, an important part of the story, but you wouldn’t know it looking at so much of the contemporary conversation in the media.