February 23, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, February 23, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Pope's recent advice to follow "conscience" in contraception and LGBT issues deeply flawed
Quite regularly, headlines tell us something of a development in the Roman Catholic Church or a statement by Pope Francis. In any event, usually there is a story behind the story. That’s very much the case with a story that broke over the weekend. The headline,
“Francis Says Contraception Can Be Used to Slow Zika.”Show Full Transcript
The background to this: our worldwide fears over the emergence of the Zika virus, a mosquito-borne contagion that is now linked to birth defects in children, and it has become a contagion that has affected entire regions–most especially South and Central America–with concerns that the mosquitoes and the disease will come to the United States as well. Reporting for the New York Times, Simon Romero and Jim Yardley report,
“Pope Francis shook up an already intense debate over birth control and abortion in Latin American countries where the Zika virus is causing a public health emergency by declaring on Thursday that contraceptives could be used to prevent the spread of Zika, which researchers have linked to a spike in cases of babies born with severe brain damage.”
The reporters went on to write,
“The pope’s remarks came in a wide-ranging, midair news conference on his way back to Rome from Mexico in which he made a distinction between abortion and birth control. He ruled out condoning abortion, which he called ‘a crime, an absolute evil.’ But he seemed somewhat open to making an exception for contraception, citing Pope Paul VI’s decision in the 1960s to make an emergency exception to permit nuns in the Belgian Congo to use contraceptives because they were in danger of rape.”
The Pope said in his midair press conference,
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
He also said that abortion is in itself an absolute evil. What’s going on here? What’s the distinction between evil and absolute evil? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that abortion is a sin, and evangelicals are in agreement with that. But the Roman Catholic Church also says that artificial means of birth control are also sinful, and that raises a host of very different issues. But in his midair press conference, with the Zika virus in the background, the Pope seemed to say that individual conscience under these circumstances should rule when it comes to the use of birth control. Issues of birth control and contraception are matters of ongoing conversation among American evangelicals, sometimes even public debate. But evangelicals must be united in affirmation of the sanctity of human life and must stand in opposition to the culture of death. In particular, this means that evangelicals must stand for the dignity and sanctity of every single human life at every point of development under every condition, which means that evangelicals must steadfastly oppose any form of birth control that would terminate the life of a fertilized egg.
Furthermore, evangelicals must stand over against the contraceptive mentality that assumes that children are somehow an accessory to marriage and to the act of marriage. There must be an understanding of the fact that every single child is a gift, a good gift from God to be welcomed. But beyond those very essential affirmations, evangelicals have had that ongoing conversation about the use of legitimate birth control, legitimate true contraception in the life of a married couple. Catholics, at least since the late 1960s, have not had that conversation, not in the same sense, because in the late 1960s Pope Paul VI, the very man Pope Francis just cited, handed down an encyclical entitled Humanae Vitae, which declared that every single act of marriage must be equally open to the gift of children and thus, under every circumstance, artificial birth control is a form of sin. But remember that in his midair press conference held just days ago, Pope Francis said, and let me quote him again,
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.”
It has now become very clear, tragically clear, that there are some, especially in South and Central America, who are trying to use the Zika virus as an opportunity to liberalize abortion laws and other aspects of sexual morality in those countries. It has also become increasingly clear in recent years that the current Pope, Pope Francis, represents a liberalizing force within the Roman Catholic Church. At least to this point, Pope Francis has stopped short of changing official Roman Catholic doctrine, but he has been pressing at the edges, as these comments in his midair press conference made abundantly clear.
The intersection of these two developments leads to the headlines we saw over the weekend. And as I said in the beginning, there’s always more to the story than meets the eye. There’s a story behind the story. That becomes clear in a paragraph written by Romero and Yardley in which they wrote,
“Francis’ comments quickly unleashed a range of reactions up and down the Americas, revealing fissures in the church’s leadership in Roman Catholic-dominated Latin America and bolstering opponents of the church’s longstanding ban on the use of artificial contraceptives.”
Later in the article, a woman by the name of María Consuelo Mejía, the Director of Catholics for Free Choice in Mexico, that’s a pro-abortion group of liberal Catholic, said,
“There is an idea that the church is homogeneous and rigid, but there are different positions.”
She then said,
“Now this relativity is coming out into the open.”
That’s an incredibly important word. Just consider that sentence. Here you have a pro-abortion advocate, a liberal Catholic, saying that the current intersection of Pope Francis and the Zika virus and the public health concern have opened the door for at least some relativity in Roman Catholic Church teaching and in the application of that teaching. From a Christian worldview perspective, the story gets only more interesting when the reporters write,
“Some scholars and theologians cautioned that the Pope’s comments reflected not a rupture, but a cautious attempt to fit within the church’s own evolving thinking on contraception in times of crisis.”
Now note carefully all the moral qualifications built into that one sentence. For example, the word “rupture” was used, but it’s dismissed saying, it’s not that, it’s a cautious attempt to do what? To fit within the church’s teaching? No, the statement was, “into the church’s own evolving thinking.” Now just consider the elasticity, theologically and morally speaking, that is built into that sentence. The article then cites James Bretzke, a professor of moral theology at Boston College who explained,
“In terms of Catholic moral teaching, this isn’t a big shift.”
He also went on to explain that, in his view, the Pope was adopting a position of disease prevention rather than supporting contraception. He went on to say,
“But it is a shift in tone and detail, where Pope Francis is highlighting moral principles that had been in place.”
Now, once again, just try to figure out that sentence. Later, we hear from Bishop Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, the Secretary-General of the National Council of Bishops in Brazil who said emphatically,
“Contraceptives are not a solution.”
The bishop went on to say, and I quote,
“There is not a single change in the church’s position.”
Well, there might not be a single change in the church’s official teaching–the encyclical Humanae Vitae still stands–but there is a change in the messaging coming from the church and, in particular, from the Pope. Pope Francis has clearly offered a priority to individual conscience over the official dogmatic, doctrinal, and moral teaching of his own church.
To understand what’s really going on behind the story, we turn to an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal written by Francis X. Rocca, who is himself a veteran observer of the Vatican. Rocca reports,
“The Catholic Church prohibits both contraception and abortion. But by putting them on very different moral planes this week, Pope Francis cracked the door to a more-open approach on artificial birth control—and to a greater emphasis on the role of individual conscience.”
He goes on to say,
“The question of when and how a Catholic may follow his or her own conscience in matters of sexual and medical ethics has implications far beyond contraception.”
Well, indeed, the implications not only go beyond contraception, they go beyond virtually any limitation anyone may try to put up on the conversation. Once you make human conscience, the individual conscience, the determining issue in terms of a moral decision or, for that matter, a theological question, then every conscience can become a law unto itself. Rocco makes this point himself when he writes,
“During his in-flight news conference this past week, the pope broke with his predecessors on the issue of same-sex marriage, saying that Catholic politicians are free to decide how to vote on the matter using a ‘well-formed conscience.’
“The impact of the pope’s words will likely be far-reaching. Already, during a Vatican meeting on family issues last fall, Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich said that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should…”
–here are those words again–
“…follow their own consciences in deciding whether to receive Communion—something currently forbidden.”
Now just consider this. Here you have an affirmation that the Church currently says “no,” but then the issue is left open to the individual conscience. Rocca then writes,
“Archbishop Cupich, a liberal and Pope Francis’ most important U.S. appointment to date, said that partners in same-sex marriages should likewise follow their consciences in deciding whether to receive Communion.”
Here’s where Christians need to think very, very carefully. Evangelical Christians must understand this is precisely where the issue of Sola Scriptura becomes paramount. How do we know what is true? What is right? How do we know how to make ethical decisions? How do we know what God intends us to know in terms of the doctrines of the Christian faith? How do we settle these most basic questions? That is, indeed, a most crucial issue, and it was at that the center of the Reformation of the 16th century. And here’s where we need to follow the issue extremely carefully. Evangelicals do understand the importance of the conscience, even as the Scripture affirms it. But we need to look at the fact that conscience was at the very center of the beginning of the Reformation in the 16th century, standing on trial for his life because of his advocacy of evangelical doctrine, most especially justification by faith alone, and also what became known as Sola Scriptura or the authority of Scripture alone, Luther told the court that he was bound by his conscience and not by Catholic Church teaching or by the Pope.
But, Luther went on to say–and this is what so very, very crucia– that his conscience was bound by the Word of God. He said Popes may err, councils may err, but the word of God will not err. That’s where evangelicals need to understand that we do affirm the vital importance of the conscience. We understand that the conscience is a part of who we are as human beings because we are indeed made in the image of God. We have a conscience, other animals, even sentient animals, thinking animals do not have a moral conscience. That’s because we alone are made in God’s image. But we also understand the effects of the Fall have impacted our conscience. Therefore, as I often say, it turns out that the advice given to Pinocchio is really bad advice. When Jiminy cricket tells him to let his conscience be his guide, well, to make the matter clear, that would have worked in the Garden of Eden had sin never happened; that’s not adequate moral advice in a fallen world corrupted by sin. We cannot trust our conscience. We must have a conscience that is bound by the Word of God.
Pope Francis has set off a firestorm of controversy and no end of confusion within the Roman Catholic Church by elevating human conscience even over against the official teachings of the Church, teachings which are emphatically clear. But this is where evangelicals must note that we too believe in conscience, but not in the same sense. We believe that our conscience is indeed evidence of the fact we’re made in God’s image. In Romans chapter 2, Paul makes clear that in a fallen world, our conscience can absolutely betray us. Sometimes, we have a guilty conscience when we’re not actually guilty and probably more often we do not have a guilty conscience when we have indeed sinned and violated God’s law.
This is why evangelicals understand that Sola Scripture is not just some abstract theological doctrine to which evangelicals gave assent in the 16th century; it is the vital faith of the living church that lives by the Word of God, our consciences and our convictions bound by the word of God. It’s clear that the international press believes that Pope Francis’s statements represent a big story. What they seem not to understand is that behind that story is an even bigger story.
Younger Americans more accepting of LGBT lifestyles, but Christians bound by the Word of God
Next, how does moral change happen? Sometimes it happens generation by generation. Evidence of that came in recent days in the pages of the Washington Post. Reporter Jenna Portnoy offered a headline story,
“Va. House vote hints at a generational divide on gay rights.”
Writing from Richmond, Virginia, Portnoy writes,
“Del. Mark D. Sickles’s hands shook and tears filled his eyes as he pleaded for fairness from colleagues, who shifted nervously in their seats.
“‘Your kids will be looking back on what you do today and how you vote on this bill,’ the gay Democrat from Fairfax told them as he stood on the floor of the House of Delegates.”
Portnoy then tells us,
“After an intense debate, the Republican-controlled House passed a bill Tuesday that would prevent the government from punishing discrimination against married same-sex couples, transgender individuals and people who have sex outside of marriage.”
But she says,
“The vote hinted at a generation gap within the Republican Party on gay rights issues. In Virginia, all but two of the 10 Republican lawmakers who voted ‘no’ or sat out a vote on the ‘Government Nondiscrimination Act’ are younger than 53, the median age in the House.”
Delegate Scott W. Taylor, a Republican for Virginia Beach said,
“There’s a generational divide in terms of acceptance of the LGBT community being part of the norm. I understand that’s maybe changing quickly for people, but that’s the society we live in.”
Taylor, we should note, is running now for Congress. His statement is really interesting. You’ll note he spoke of a generational divide, but then he defined that divide as being over,
“…terms of acceptance of the LGBT community…”
–here are the keywords–
“…being part of the norm.”
Now that’s an issue to which we return again. The effort of the LGBT community is to normalize LGBT behaviors, relationships, and their larger cultural meaning. What does “normalize” mean in this context? It means to make it so normal that it is no longer a matter of controversy, indeed, no longer even noticed. That which is the norm is indeed by definition normal, and thus it is very interesting that is exactly how delegate Taylor described the generational divide he now sees in the Republican Party. Equally interesting was a comment that was made by George Allen, the former United States Senator from Virginia. Listen closely to his language,
“Young people are growing up in a different world than I grew up in,” he said in an interview. “And so to them, someone’s sexual orientation doesn’t affect them one way or another. Even conservative young people, it’s just not an issue for them.”
Well, let’s just step back for a moment. Here you have a former United States Senator, and you notice his statement here is purely descriptive. He offers no moral judgment whatsoever. He’s simply saying that, for younger people, it’s not an issue. Now at this point we need once again to pause and reflect on how moral change takes place. On the one hand, it certainly takes place by those who are pushing overtly, publicly, in the media, through entertainment, through policy and court decisions, for a change in the nation’s understanding of the moral nature of LGBT relationships and behaviors. But we also need to note that moral change happens when people begin to speak of it as an inevitable process, something in which they claim or perhaps even believe themselves to be making no moral judgment; but they are, because they are arguing that a vast moral change is taking place and that it is thus inevitable. This is something we do see amongst many, especially in politics or, for that matter, in other arenas of life who are saying that to stand in the way of this revolution in any sense, to stand over against it, is not only to stand outside of the mainstream where such issues are being normalized, but is actually to stand over against the inevitable. Because as this article began with that statement from delegate Mark D. Sickles, he pointed to the fact that the delegates who were voting must consider how they would be understood by their own children and by their children’s children.
“Your kids will be looking back on what you do today and how you vote on this bill.”
Now that raises a fascinating issue morally and politically. How in the world do we position ourselves if this is what we choose to do, if this is what we want to do, in order that our children or our grandchildren or great-grandchildren would find us un-embarrassing? When we think about it, that’s going to be a very difficult thing to pull off. That’s going to be a very difficult goal to realize, and that’s simply because we have no idea what future generations are going to think about anything. What we do understand is what we’re supposed to think and believe about these things if indeed we are Christians and our consciences are bound by the Word of God. Here we are again to the role of Scripture and the Christian life.
If we are committed to scriptural Christianity, we really can’t allow ourselves to enter into the mental calculation of how in the world future generations are going to see us in terms of our convictions now. If those convictions are true, if they’re true now, they will be true then. The responsibility of biblical Christians is to hold to the faith as defined by Jude as,
“The faith once for all delivered to the saints.”
In the New Testament and all throughout the history of the church, there have been those who were willing to say, “I’m not certain what future generations will think or believe of me, perhaps even my own children, but I do know what is right and I am bound by the Word of God.” Athanasius, that great defender of Christian orthodoxy, of the full deity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, in the fourth century was told that the world was against him. Athanasius then famously replied, well if the world is against Athanasius, then Athanasius is against the world.
“Contra mundum,” he said in the Latin, and that’s something we simply have to understand as a Christian responsibility in every generation. Contra mundum means not only now, it may mean also contra mundum, against the world, as we look to the future. We can look to any number of sociological analyses and other demographic research factors that will tell us why younger Americans tend to be far more accepting of LGBT issues. But we can easily understand why we really don’t need sociology or, for that matter, demographic research to make that clear when we consider the fact that they have been immersed in a culture that has been pushing in this direction at every conceivable pressure point. We come to understand that unless they are committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and they are deeply bound by Scripture and their own consciences, there is no reason why they would not join this moral revolution, and, for that matter, it’s inevitable that anyone who is without a strong biblical conviction on this issue will eventually join the revolution, or at the very least acquiesce or surrender to its inevitability.
Same-sex ex-couple's custody case a tragic picture of the insanity of the sexual revolution
Finally, and related, a news story from Kentucky is reported by Bruce Schreiner at the Associated Press. He writes this,
“A lesbian fighting for joint custody of a child borne by her ex-partner when they were together won a court ruling Thursday in Kentucky that lets her case go forward.”
The woman, we are told,
“…asked the Kentucky Supreme Court to block adoption proceedings by her ex-partner’s husband while she seeks shared custody of the child.
“In a unanimous ruling, the state’s high court sided with [the plaintiff].”
Now here’s what’s really interesting in the article. It is one of those articles that reveals the incredible and painful, excruciatingly troubling moral confusion of our day. But I couldn’t put it any better than Bruce Schreiner, the reporter, did in this article when in a single paragraph he writes this,
“The case is among several across the country involving wrenching personal questions about what it means to be a parent under today’s ever-changing definition of family in the eyes of the law.”
Once again, an entire moral revolution, an entire ocean of moral confusion, embedded in a single paragraph, indeed in a single sentence. The case, he said, is among several that involves wrenching personal questions,
“…about what it means to be a parent.”
Just consider that. In what previous generation could it have been all that confusing about what it means to be a parent? We have accepted this confusion and embraced it within the very heart of our culture and, as this story makes clear, it has to do with very real human beings including very real children whose cases end up before a human court in the midst of all this confusion.
Later, Schreiner writes that the context is,
“…today’s ever-changing definition of family in the eyes of the law.”
Once again, we see all the symptoms of the moral revolution around us. It’s not just that this society has allowed a changed definition of the family. This article gets it exactly right. It is an,
“…ever-changing definition today of family in the eyes of the law.”
That’s what we’ve accepted. A moral revolution in the society driven by the courts and facilitated by the larger culture. That means that the definition of family in this country is now ever-changing. Just consider the moral consequences of that sentence. That wasn’t made in any sense as an editorial comment on how this very strange case appears now in a court of law.