April 11, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 11, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Pope invites Catholics to ignore church doctrine in document rife with calculated ambiguity
Ross Douthat, in his article in the New York Times yesterday, got it exactly right with these opening words:
“Modernity has left nearly every religious tradition in the Western world divided.Show Full Transcript
“The specific issues vary with the faith, but there is an essential sameness to what separates Reform Judaism from Orthodox Judaism, evangelical churches from mainline Protestantism, the liberal Episcopal Church from the conservative Anglican Church in North America.”
As he continued,
“In each case, disagreements about the authority of tradition, the reliability of Scripture, and eventually the proper response to the Sexual Revolution have made it impossible for liberal and conservative believers to remain in community or communion.”
The reason for that is straightforward. When you’re looking at liberal Protestantism and evangelicalism, when you’re looking at Orthodox Judaism and Reform liberal Judaism, when you compare what’s going on in all of these religious systems, modernity has presented an enormous challenge and some have decided that the way to meet that challenge is simply to come to peace with all the demands of the modern age, most especially, the moral demands of the sexual revolution.
Ross Douthat is exactly right. Fundamental to all of this is the issue of the authority of Scripture; he adds, of course, the authority of tradition. In any event, it is authority that stands at the very center of these disagreements, and into this entire controversy has waded the Pope. Pope Francis released one of his most long anticipated statements last week when on Friday, the Vatican released the “Joy of Love,” a major statement of more than 250 pages that decidedly tilts the Roman Catholic Church to the left, but in a way by a mechanism that we all need to note very, very carefully.
Jim Yardley and Laurie Goodstein, reporting for the New York Times, explain it this way,
“In a broad proclamation on family life, Pope Francis on Friday called for the Roman Catholic Church to be more welcoming and less judgmental, and he seemingly signaled a pastoral path for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion.”
Francis X. Rocca of the Wall Street Journal opened with these words:
“Pope Francis urged a more lenient approach to divorced Catholics in a major document published Friday, effectively encouraging clergy to grant those who remarry Holy Communion and opening a new phase in a long-running struggle within the church over its moral teaching.”
The Financial Times of London offered this explanation, and I quote:
“Pope Francis has finally spoken on the Catholic Church’s position on the family, after two synods of bishops and a blizzard of questionnaires to the faithful. The judgment, while keenly awaited, had spread alarm among traditionalists while rekindling the hopes of the more liberal — as well as many millions of Catholics frozen out by their hierarchy’s rigidity on issues from divorce to contraception.”
Those three secular newspapers responding to a singular statement from the Pope indicate what’s really going on here. Liberals have for a long time been demanding that the Catholic Church change its teaching on crucial sexual issues, moral issues, including the issue of divorce. And yet, as the Pope released this statement on Friday, he did not change the teaching.
So why is this such a transformative liberal document? It’s because without changing the teaching of his church, the Pope basically opened the door to ignore it. The background of this is that Pope Francis assumed that office with pledges of a transformation in his church, and he offered statements and has continued to do so through the length of his papacy in which he is clearly indicated a tilt in a liberal direction, but a subtle tilt. He has often appeared to give with one hand and take away from the other. Often times he has communicated with a smile, a wink, and a nod. Central to what the Pope did on Friday is a very calculated ambiguity. Even secular authorities recognize this. The Financial Times stated,
“After three years of beaming smiles and warm words, apparently casting orthodox Catholic beliefs on the family in a new light without actually changing them, the Pope has set out his conclusions.”
Then the Financial Times, again a secular newspaper, says,
“Yet anyone expecting a papal edict from this apostolic exhortation — Amoris Laetitia or The Joy of Love — may find it suffused in ambiguity.”
Just consider those words coming from a secular editorial board: “suffused in ambiguity.”
The next sentence from the Financial Times is this: On the face of it, the main issue it was expected to resolve, divorce and remarriage, is “fudged.” And here you have a secular newspaper describing the Pope’s statement as “suffused in ambiguity” and describing it as a papal “fudge.”
Ross Douthat, himself a Roman Catholic, responding to the Pope’s statement described it as being made up of “ambiguous sentence-by-sentence.”
Now in order to understand this, we have to go back and understand that the Roman Catholic Church is a sacramental church. It teaches salvation by means of grace that comes to the sinner in large part by access to the sacraments. That includes the sacrament that takes place centrally in the Mass, which is communion. Cutting off a Catholic from access to communion is in effect cutting that Catholic off from grace. And the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that divorce is impossible—actually the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorce in any form. It refers to marriage itself as a sacrament, and it is an eternal covenant. The Roman Catholic Church does recognize that sometimes marriages end, but it tries to deal with that with a mechanism that has often been rife with corruption known as annulment.
Now this is where things get really, really interesting. In the modern age, no-fault divorce has made divorce so common that there are millions upon untold millions of Catholics who have divorced and remarried who are then told that they may not at the Mass receive communion, therefore denying them a very necessary grace, according to Catholic theology. Pope Francis in the statement released on Friday did not say that divorced Catholics may have access to the mass; he did not say that they should not be excommunicated. What he did say is that divorced and remarried Catholics may be accepted to the Mass if the local priest decides that that is how grace should be applied in their pastoral situation. What we have here is a Roman Catholic historic distinction between doctrine and practice that simply doesn’t fit evangelical theology nor the practice of evangelical churches. But there are huge lessons here that we had better observe very, very carefully.
In the first place, we have the Pope releasing a statement that is intended to be ambiguous. The Pope does not have the authority unilaterally to change the teaching of the church on an issue like marriage or the mass, and yet the Pope has done the next best thing for liberals in the church. He has created an infinite number of exceptions that can be granted by any priest in a local parish situation upon that priest’s own judgment. The Roman Catholic Church continues to officially teach that someone who is divorced and remarried is not to be allowed the sacrament of communion. But in terms of practice, the Pope has just thrown the door open wide for every single priest to make as many exceptions as that priest believes to be rightful.
Speaking of situations that are irregular, that is what is not a marriage or family as defined in Scripture and by Catholic tradition. The Pope declared this openly saying,
“A pastor cannot feel that it is enough to simply apply moral laws to those living in irregular situations as if they were stones to throw at people’s lives.”
Here you have the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church openly inviting his priests to ignore the doctrine and teaching of the church and, rather, to use their own private judgment. This has been a long-standing tension in Catholicism. It’s a tension that liberals have exploited in terms of the use of personal conscience to trump the doctrine of the church and, speaking of that doctrine, the reason that it is so resistant to change is that the Roman Catholic Church would have to admit that it had been wrong for centuries on these issues. It’s not about to do that. But what it is going to do is to allow an infinite opportunity of exceptions to its own doctrine and teaching. That’s why liberals are so happy with this document. It was a group of rather liberal Catholics in Germany that pioneered the argument, and when Pope Francis held the two synods in Rome and also when he sent a questionnaire to Catholics all over the world in order to respond to these questions, he openly invited calls for the church to make this distinction between doctrine and practice.
Now when you look at the secular media, you’re going to note that they say that liberals were disappointed. That is because liberals had been hoping for a change in church doctrine. But, of course, as just about anyone observing the Roman Catholic Church and how it operates would understand, that wasn’t going to happen. But what they did receive is certainly going to lead the church in a very liberal direction, and that’s what conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church had feared, and yet expected, from Pope Francis now for some time.
This was the Pope who in an interview with journalists on a plane coming from Brazil sometime back said, “Who am I to judge when it comes to the issue of homosexuality?” Now in the statement that the Pope has released on Friday, he throws the door open even wider. What should be of most interest to evangelicals seemingly hasn’t been of much interest to most Catholics. To an evangelical, the most shocking statement in the entire papal declaration comes at paragraph 297.
“No one can be condemned forever. Because that is not the logic of the gospel!”
“Here,” says the Pope, “I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone in whatever situation they find themselves.”
Now just consider what the Pope has declared here. This is the theological heresy of universalism. The Pope has declared openly—and I’m reading directly from the papal statement:
“No one can be condemned forever because that is not the logic of the gospel.”
The Roman Catholic Church has been increasingly open to universalism since the early decades of the 20th century. And a form of universalism, explicitly what is known as inclusivism, is found within the documents of Vatican II, that major meeting of the Roman Catholic Church that changed doctrine to some degree back in the 1960s. But what we have now in this most recent papal statement is an open declaration of universalism. There can be no other way to understand what the Pope is saying here. It bears repeating,
“No one can be condemned forever because that is not the logic of the gospel!”
Now just in case we might not know exactly what the Pope is talking about here, he provides amplification and context when he says,
“Here I’m not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of anyone,” notice the following words, “in whatever situation they find themselves.”
Now he goes on to say,
“Naturally, if someone flaunts an objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal or wants to impose something other than what the church teaches he or she can in no way presume to teach or preach to others. This is a case of something which separates in the community. Such a person needs to listen once more to the gospel message and its call to conversion. Yet even for that person there can be some way of taking part in the life of the community, whether in social service prayer meetings or another way that his or her own initiative together with the discernment of the parish priest may suggest.”
It’s almost as if in that statement, the Pope is openly refuting the Apostle Paul when he writes in 1 Corinthians 6, verses 9 and following,
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Do not be deceived,” wrote Paul. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers or swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Speaking to the church, Paul then said,
“And such were some of you, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
So on the one hand you have the Apostle Paul saying that those who persist in such sins will not be in the kingdom of God, may not enter the kingdom of God, and then on the other hand you have the Pope declaring, and I state it again, “No one can be condemned forever because that is not the logic of the gospel.”
Now just to make the matter clear, universalism offers a way out to the dilemma of how to deal with persons who persist in sin, including in sexual sin, specifically the sins that are at the center of our new moral conversation in this country, the conversation being forced by the moral revolution taking place around us: the normalization of divorce and homosexuality, adultery, cohabitation. All of these present the Christian church with an enormous challenge. Do we really believe in the Bible’s clear teaching that those who give themselves to such sins will not inherit the kingdom of God? If we don’t believe that’s a problem, then there will be no eternal consequences to the church going soft on its message when it comes to moral teaching. If we believe that everyone eventually is going to escape God’s condemnation at least at some point, then we can find a way to make peace with the modern age. And that’s what the Pope has now invited the entire Roman Catholic Church to do.
The net effect of this statement coming last Friday is going to be inevitably a radical swing to the left when it comes to the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis, as Ross Douthat of the New York Times makes clear, knew exactly what he was doing. Ross Douthat explains exactly what’s going on. Remember that he described the statement as being structured “ambiguous sentence by sentence.” In his commentary he says this:
“Because the teaching is consistent, conservatives are reassured that the church is still essentially unchanging.
“At the same time, the flexibility and soft heterodoxy [that is allowance for hersey] of many pastors and parishes and Catholic institutions enables liberal Catholics to feel [this is very crucial language], to fell reasonably at home while they wait for Rome to ‘evolve’ in their direction.”
When it comes to Pope Francis, this is what Douthat says:
“Of course many Catholics on both sides have been dissatisfied with this arrangement. And from the outset of his pontificate, it was clear that Pope Francis was one of them, and that he was determined to renegotiate its terms — in liberal Catholicism’s favor.”
For years now I’ve been trying to explain how the Roman Catholic Church has divided doctrine and practice in a way that evangelicals cannot. Ross Douthat in this very article points to that divide, and he points back to the 1960s among liberal Catholics as where it emerged.
A brilliant explanation of what’s going on is provided by veteran Vatican observer, John L. Allen Jr., when he writes about a cultural gap that separates two different visions of Catholicism. As he makes very clear, these are two different visions of law. They end up being two different visions of Scripture. As Allen writes,
“One area where the cultural gap is especially apparent is contrasting attitudes towards law.
“For Americans, and perhaps Anglo-Saxons generally, law is a lowest common denominator of civic morality. It’s what we expect everyone to do all the time, and if a law as being widely disobeyed, for us that’s a crisis – we either want to repeal the law or launch a crackdown, but we can’t have people making exceptions on the fly.”
Allen explains that most Americans for that matter think in those terms of the law. But then he writes,
“For Mediterranean cultures, which still shape the thought-world of the Vatican to a significant degree, law is instead more akin to an ideal. It describes a moral aspiration, but realistically it’s understood that many people much of the time will fall short. (If you don’t believe it, come to Italy sometime and watch how the locals approach traffic laws!)”
Allen explained that the Roman Catholic Church makes this distinction between doctrine and practice, between law and the life, and has done so for a long time. He says that the Vatican has never explicitly come out and said that priests should simply use their good judgment applying the law in ways that reflect their local circumstances. He says that was encoded within Catholic teaching and Catholic practice. But now, he says, what the Pope has released on Friday is an explicit affirmation of this encoded language.
He writes that the Pope’s statement “lifts up this long-standing Catholic capacity for flexibility and nuance in pastoral practice, and sets it squarely alongside the law in full public view.”
But why should evangelical Christians pay so much attention to this? It is because this is the occasion for what must be some very, very careful thinking among biblically-minded Christians. And it comes down to this: do we really believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God? Do we believe that God has spoken to us in terms of moral commands, moral teachings, and moral laws, not to mention an entire system of biblical doctrine that is unchanged and unchanging? Do we believe that we can create some kind of two-universe structure in which we have doctrine on the one floor and we have practice on another, such that we can apply the gospel in different ways than we say we believe it?
Evangelicals understand why this cannot be so. And yet, the Roman Catholic Church, by means of its priestly authority, by means of its claims to the papacy, by means of its sacramental theology, by means of this Pope’s open affirmation of universalism, it simply avoids having to unite doctrine and practice in a way that most of us would recognize as being absolutely biblically necessary. John L. Allen Jr. says that encoded in the Roman Catholic’s teaching for a long time has been the understanding that people really aren’t going to live up to the law. Therefore, in pastoral practice, the law simply has to be accommodated to the realities of how people live. That’s exactly what the Financial Times recognized—remember that is a secular newspaper—when it cited Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, who said that concerning this new statement, “The Joy of Love” that it is,
“…an epic bid to convert the church worldwide to a mission to rescue the family, not by finger wagging or table thumping or even by persuasion, but by a concrete strategy of rebuilding from the ground up.”
Now what does that mean? The most amazing part of it is this. What this expert on Pope Francis is explaining is that what the Pope is doing is saying we have to start with where people are now living. We have to start with the moral assumptions by which they are living their lives and try to rebuild a Catholic Church for the future that will be consonant with those expectations. Now from a biblical perspective, that is a recipe for disaster. That is like the Roman Catholic Church basically following the trajectory of liberal Protestantism. I wonder if the Pope observes the disaster that liberal Protestantism has experienced in trying to come to peace with the modern age. By jettisoning Christian teaching, by jettisoning Christian doctrine, by throwing out miracles, by throwing out the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the inerrancy of Scripture, liberal Protestantism basically put itself out of business. Most importantly, as several observers have noted, it was when liberal Protestantism denied the exclusivity of the gospel of Jesus Christ, when it embraced universalism, that it lost any particular urgency to its preaching, it lost any particular power to its message. And we can understand why. If eternity is not at stake, why care? Why go? Why give? And yet, this is exactly the trajectory the Roman Catholic Church has now set upon under the leadership of Pope Francis.
This development in the Roman Catholic Church is worthy of our full attention this morning because it puts everything on the table. For one thing, why in the world would the leader of any religious body put out a statement that is calculated to be ambiguous? But that’s exactly what this is. We also come to understand as evangelicals the fact that if we separate faith and practice, doctrine and pastoral application, we set ourselves up for inevitable disaster, opening the door to deny what we say we teach. We also come to understand that if the gospel is not at stake, if eternity is not at stake, if we can convince ourselves as this Pope stated opening last Friday, “No one can be condemned forever,” and if that is without reference to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and repentance from sin, then we can simply join the moral revolution. And we might as well do it quickly. But the gospel is at stake, and about this Scripture is abundantly clear. And for that reason, and that is reason enough, we cannot join this moral revolution.