The Briefing 07-01-16

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Pope Francis continues to sow confusion with remarks on marriage, homosexuality, and—yes—justification

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Under cultural pressure, military lifts transgender ban and removes "man" from job titles

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Transcript

The Briefing

July 1, 2016

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

It’s Friday, July 1, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Pope Francis continues to sow confusion with remarks on marriage, homosexuality, and—yes—justification

The central claim of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the papacy is that the office of Pope—that is, the papacy itself—is the center of the union of the church. That includes the doctrinal center of the church. It is claimed by the Roman Catholic Church that the Pope stands in a direct line of succession all the way back to Peter and that he holds the keys— that is, the keys in terms of the doctrinal discipline of the church—that, of course, is a claim that was rejected by the Reformers and has been rejected by all Protestants and certainly evangelicals ever sense.

But one of the most amazing things we are now witnessing is that the papacy is being reinvented right before our eyes. It is Pope Francis that has led this entire process of basically redefining the entire papacy. He has done so not so much by his official actions in terms of his official doctrinal teaching, but rather by his words, by his gestures, and by the general way he presents the papacy. The press has often spoken of Francis as a more humble Pope, and he has certainly sent those signals. But, of course, that overlooks the fact that he is still claiming in a very un-humble way to be the absolute Vicar of Christ on earth. If it is certainly true that it’s hard to be humble as king, it’s even more hard to be humble as Pope, considering the claims the Roman Catholics make about the papacy.

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No matter how humble his gestures, largely symbolic, the reality is that Francis stands atop a royal empire that is, of course, located geographically in terms of what is claimed to be the Vatican State. But in terms of the papacy itself and especially in terms of the doctrinal responsibility of the Pope, this is where Francis has been most innovative and most confusing, and what we’ve looked at in recent weeks is simply a deepening of that confusion. It has led to no small amount of consternation among Roman Catholics around the world. Basically, the pattern is now clear: Just about every time Francis says anything, the liberals in the Roman Catholic Church are encouraged and the conservatives are thrown into near panic whether or not they’re ready publicly to admit that state.

Evangelical Christians may sometimes wonder if they should pay attention to the papacy, but of course we must, and we must for a couple of reasons. First of all, because the issues that were germane in the Reformation front and center in the 16th century that helped to define the break between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church, all of those issues still remain. Secondly, we need to—have to—understand that around the world, Roman Catholicism for many people represents all they know of institutional Christianity, and that of course is a significant challenge. But we’re also looking at the fact that what we see in Roman Catholicism now is likely to be in some form mirrored in the Protestant world, and that is more than perhaps anything else the concern that should drive our attention to the recent controversies concerning Pope Francis.

The first has to do with the issue of marriage. Pope Francis has been saying that the Roman Catholic Church is going to reconsider the whole idea of marriage in terms of the discipline of the Church, in particular the question of divorce and the question of discipline in the Roman Catholic Church. The current teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is that divorce does not exist, rather that those who experience what is legally called a divorce and then remarry are in a state of adultery. And that has meant that they have been forbidden access to the sacraments of the Church and to the Mass.

Pope Francis has signaled a distinction between the official doctrine of the Church, which he has not changed, and the pastoral application of that doctrine, which he basically is now allowing to be applied in a very liberal way—even to state the matter very bluntly—in absolute defiance of what the church continues officially to teach. But just earlier this month, Pope Francis made some statements about marriage that has thrown his own Church into utter confusion. As the Catholic News Agency reports,

“Pope Francis said Thursday that many sacramental marriages today are not valid, because couples do not enter into them with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment.”

So what the Catholic News Agency is telling us here is that the Pope is now saying openly and publically what he has been quoted as saying more privately before, and that is that most Catholic marriages actually aren’t, by definition of the Church, marriages at all. That sets the stage for the obvious logic that the Pope is not just implicitly but explicitly stating that there are probable grounds for annulling most of the marriages amongst Roman Catholics today.

Now, what we need to note is that the Pope has said these marriages are likely not valid because the man and the woman entering into these marriages did not have an adequate, subjective understanding of what permanence means when they said “till death do us part.” Now, this kind of declaration would be troubling for any institutional body, but for the Roman Catholic Church it is potentially nothing less than self-destructive. Because after all, marriage is for Roman Catholics actually a sacrament. And here you have the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church stating publicly that perhaps most of the people who have now been involved in the sacrament of marriage in the Roman Catholic Church actually haven’t received that sacrament at all.

Outside observers of the Church can only shake their heads and wonder, but those inside the Church who continue to believe in the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church are being thrown into absolute consternation—again, perhaps the most appropriate word is panic. One of the problems in terms of the Pope’s understanding is that it places the reality of marriage entirely in subjective terms. This is running contrary to Roman Catholic teaching, but it also runs contrary to evangelical understandings as well, where we understand that marriage is a reality by God’s declaration once that covenant has been declared in terms of the covenant of marriage. And furthermore, it is not primarily a matter of the subjective understanding of the man and the woman entering into marriage. The inevitable result of embracing that kind of subjectivism is that every single individual becomes his or her own church.

Another major problem with that particular papal statement is that he openly seemed to state that his own Church is incompetent to apply its own sacraments. If the vast majority of couples married in the Roman Catholic Church through its sacrament of marriage are declared not actually to have received that sacrament, well, that’s a huge problem to say the very least, or at least it is for Roman Catholics, and you would expect it would be for the Pope.

But then after his visit to Armenia, the Pope again entered into this kind of controversy when he said that his Church needs to apologize to gays. Once again, I turn to the Catholic News Service in order to turn to an official Catholic source, and Cindy Wooden tells us,

“Spending close to an hour answering questions from reporters traveling with him, Pope Francis was asked to comment on remarks reportedly made a few days previously by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, that the Catholic Church must apologize to gay people for contributing to their marginalization.”

The Pope then said,

“”The church must say it is sorry for not having behaved as it should many times, many times — when I say the ‘church,’ I mean we Christians because the church is holy; we are the sinners,” the pope said. “We Christians must say we are sorry.”

Now at this point, an evangelical Christian should eagerly agree with the Pope that whenever we do anything that is wrong to anyone we should apologize, and any honest person would have to recognize that there have been things said and things done that have not reflected the love of Christ or the truth of Scripture in responding to persons who were involved in LGBT lifestyles and sexual orientations or behaviors. Instead, the really dangerous part of what the Pope had to say is that he wasn’t ever clear about why the Church should apologize or for which it would offer an apology, and that again sent the Roman Catholic Church into consternation. More on that in just a moment, but first we need to note that this is a pattern this Pope set soon after he became Pope in the year 2013.

The Pope had earlier made waves on a trip back from Latin America, when on a plane he spoke to reporters and spoke about a hypothetical gay person whom he described as being of goodwill and seeking God. The Pope then asked, “Who am I to judge?” Then on this trip from Armenia, again on a plane, he began speaking to reporters. The Pope changed the “Who am I to judge?” to “Who are we to judge him?”

The biggest problem with this most recent statement from the Pope is that it sows greater confusion, especially and most importantly in his own Roman Catholic Church. But what we need to note is that this kind of confusion is immediately responded to with the demand for clarification.

The New York Times made that quite clear. Jim Yardley, reporting for the paper, wrote,

“Leaders of gay Catholic groups on Monday praised Pope Francis for saying that all Christians and the Roman Catholic Church owed an apology to gays for previous mistreatment, even”—note these words very carefully—“even as the groups called on the church to take more concrete steps to repudiate past teachings and condemn anti-gay violence.”

Now, you need to look at that last sentence and understand that there are two things mentioned that are not the same. On the one hand, you have anti-gay violence. Anyone, anywhere, and especially Christians, should condemn violence against any person, and quite specifically, we should condemn any violence against gay persons. But the other demand that was made by these gay activists was that the Church repudiate its past teachings. There you see the problem.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope has now sowed the seeds for the expectation that his Church will change its doctrine, its official teaching, on the question of homosexuality. The current catechism of the Roman Catholic Church still very much in effect and continuing the teaching of the Church throughout time states that homosexuality is inherently and gravely disordered and is always disordered; it can never be blessed as a moral good. And that’s exactly what the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches. But remember that on the issue of marriage and divorce, the Pope basically said yes, that’s what the church officially teaches, but then gave his priestly authority to renegotiate that in terms of the pastoral situation.

Now you have gay groups responding just as you would expect, demanding that the Roman Catholic Church, if it’s going to apologize, actually also change its doctrine. And since the Pope wasn’t at all clear exactly what the Church should apologize for, you can understand that that might have been an almost willful ambiguity. That’s what conservatives, traditionalists in his church, fear the most.

In more recent days, the Pope has again stepped right into controversy, intentionally so, this time on the death penalty, when the Pope, speaking to an international conference, said,

“Indeed nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable. However grave the crime of the convicted person” he went on to say, “it is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person. It likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society and his merciful justice.”

Now, that’s an interesting theological argument for evangelicals. The first thing we might note is that the Pope is basically setting aside Scripture, which is actually very clear on the death penalty. Just think in the Noahic covenant so clearly stated in Genesis chapter 9; you also have the clear implication in the New Testament that capital punishment is understood to be a part of the human justice system—just look at the reference to the sword in Romans chapter 13. But in the most astounding papal comment concerning the death penalty, the Pope actually took on one of the 10 Commandments saying that “Thou shalt not kill” applies both to the innocent and to the guilty.

Now to state the matter just as clearly as I can, that is emphatically not what you find in the 10 Commandments. The Pope is here rewriting the 10 Commandments. But then again, he claims as Pope, and his Church has claimed consistently over centuries, that the Church has the right to tell us what Scripture means, even when the Church tells us that Scripture means what it clearly does not mean.

Another interesting dimension on this story is that the American press immediately ran with headlines that the Pope has categorically opposed the death penalty and has done so, in the Post’s words, “no matter how grave the crime of which there is a person convicted.”

But here we need to note that the American press generally did not go further to say that Pope Francis has also condemned life in prison without opportunity of parole, calling it basically almost as bad as the death penalty. So you had the American media rushing to state that the Pope was against the death penalty but not going on to state that the Pope is also against life in prison without opportunity of parole, again, leaving the question, exactly what would the Pope say is the right punishment for grave crimes? Actually, as an outsider, it’s noteworthy to me that this Pope is probably better known for asking questions than from answering them.

But then finally and closest to home, the Pope spoke of the Reformation in that trip back from Armenia, and he spoke of the Reformer Martin Luther. The Pope’s statement was this, and I quote,

“I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct. But in that time, if we read the story of the Pastor, a German Lutheran who then converted when he saw reality – he became Catholic – in that time, the Church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power…and this he protested. Then he was intelligent and took some steps forward justifying, and because he did this. And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification. On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”

Now at this point, an evangelical Christian can only sit back and wonder. What in the world is this Pope saying? Is he saying that Martin Luther was theologically right? Even given a certain latitude and difficulty of translation, it is clear that this Pope was trying to reclaim Martin Luther for the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther, of course, was the first of the great magisterial Reformers in the 16th century who defied the authority the papacy and broke with the Roman Catholic Church over many issues, but centrally justification by faith—that’s not enough—as the Reformers insisted, justification by faith alone.

The Pope seemed to be saying that many of Martin Luther’s criticisms and calls for reform concerning the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century were legitimate, however, many of his methods were not. One might consider that at the center of those methods was breaking with the Roman Catholic Church and denying the authority of the Pope. But there’s something else that’s really of crucial importance here. Also in the same statement on the airplane coming back from Armenia, the Pope spoke of a joint declaration on justification that was signed by the Roman Catholic Church and some worldwide Lutheran bodies. Speaking to that text, the Pope said,

“I think is one of the richest ecumenical documents in the world, one in most agreement.”

Well, an outside observer looking at all this might wonder, has the Pope just joined the Reformation? No, he’s actually claiming Martin Luther for the Roman Catholic Church, but he is not claiming the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as Martin Luther understood was the central reality of the gospel, the central truth of the gospel—the doctrine, said Martin Luther, by which the church stands or falls. Instead, the Pope is citing a document that was signed by the Roman Catholic Church decades ago with liberal Lutheran bodies around the world who were joining in an ecumenical statement basically trying to say back then that the Reformation, if not over, had been overcome by more recent ecumenical developments.

What the press did not state concerning the Pope on his comments on Martin Luther is that the Roman Catholic Church continues to state that the doctrine taught by Martin Luther and affirmed by Protestants thereafter, and certainly by evangelicals, is actually not only opposed and rejected by the Roman Catholic Church, but officially condemned and, to use the old theological language, anathematized.

The most important issue here for evangelicals seeking to understand all these things by means of the biblical Christian worldview is understanding that our responsibility, certainly as pastors and teachers of the church, is to offer clarity and not confusion. It is an absolute dereliction of duty from an evangelical perspective for any theologian, teacher, or pastor to sow confusion rather the biblical clarity.

Secondly, we have to note that the same temptation that the Pope is offering here to Roman Catholics is present among some Protestants and among some evangelicals. That is the temptation to say, “Yes, we know that the Bible teaches X or Y, but we can find a way around it in terms of the pastoral application of those biblical teachings,” which can include basically the pastoral application of the opposite of what Scripture teaches. That is a huge problem, to say the very least, but it is a particular problem that evangelicals must note as we stand upon the sole final authority of Scripture alone.

Third, evangelicals should also note that the Roman Catholic Church for the last, say, 30 to 40 years has sent a very consistent message on issues of marriage and human sexuality, and now we have to understand that church is sending a much less clear message on those very same issues.

Under cultural pressure, military lifts transgender ban and removes "man" from job titles

Finally, just this week in the United States of America, more sowing of confusion, this time not by a religious leader but by the Secretary of Defense of the United States of America, who announced that transgender persons will now be fully integrated throughout the American military. This raises a host of questions and issues and concerns, and of course many of these will only be answered over time.

But as David French, writing in the National Review, pointed out, perhaps the most important implication of all of this is going to be the official new sexual or at least LGBT orthodoxy that is going to be forced throughout the American military and, because of the very clear importance of the military, American culture throughout the rest of the culture as well.

As if getting ready for this announcement, the Marine Corps—yes, I stated the United States Marine Corps—has announced that it’s changing 19 job titles in order to take the word “man” out lest there be any confusion. Even in making this announcement, the Pentagon acknowledged it’s not exactly sure how it’s going to pull off what it claims to be doing here in terms of the full integration of transgender persons throughout the entire United States military. But, said the Secretary of Defense, that’s exactly what United States military is going to do, even if it has no clear idea right now how it’s going to accomplish this.

One almost immediate implication is the likely fact that the American taxpayers are going to be paying for more of what’s called sexual reassignment surgeries. But in terms of the larger moral revolution and of course the confusion being sown by this new policy, well, we can say as the summer now continues, the beat goes on.

Our Christian responsibility to join clarity with compassion has never been a greater challenge than it is now, especially when we face the fact that confusion is being sown in so many quarters. And moral clarity is something that is not only now quite rare, but often quite downright courageous. And these are just several of the stories as we go into the very first day of July, and this brings the 2015­–2016 season of The Briefing to an end.

We’ll be watching the world with you during the month of July, and we’ll be back with a 2016–2017 season of The Briefing on Monday, August 1, 2016. It tells us something about our world that as we come to the end of this season, as to every previous season, there are more issues left on the table than we were even able to discuss.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing