November 22, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, November 22, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Who can forgive sin? Pope Francis extends dispensation of forgiveness for women who've had an abortion
The Pope was back in the headlines, the papal announcement had come on Sunday as the Washington Post reports, now any Catholic priest can grant forgiveness to a woman who has had an abortion. Julie Zauzmer reporting for The Post says that,
“A year ago, Francis said that priests could forgive the sin of having an abortion during a special Year of Mercy. In his lengthy letter marking the end of that year Sunday, he said he would extend that option in perpetuity, beyond the special year.”Show Full Transcript
Now at this point we need to understand this raises all the issues that were at the center of the debate in the church that led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. We’re looking here at the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that the priesthood in general and the Pope specifically has the authority to forgive sins. This is one of the central claims made by the Roman Catholic Church, and it cites Matthew chapter 16 where Jesus said,
“Upon this rock I will build my church.”
The historic claim is that that rock is Peter and that after Peter there was a succession of those who sit on his throne and rule in his stead. Furthermore, the claim is that to Peter the keys of the kingdom were given, as Jesus famously said,
“Whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven.”
That, the Catholic Church claims, is the dispensation of mercy, and it is claimed that the Pope himself has control over a treasury of merits that has been built up over the Saints through the centuries and from which forgiveness can be granted for those who are in this living generation. The particular sin at the heart of this controversy is abortion and Roman Catholic teaching says that in many if not most cases abortion is a sin that can only be forgiven by a bishop. For the special year of mercy that was declared just over a year ago, Pope Francis announced that every priest would be given the authority for that year to forgive the sin of abortion. But as the Washington Post and others have noted, on Sunday the Pope said that that dispensation would be granted to priests now in perpetuity.
Now from a Protestant perspective, this is absolutely shocking. But it’s actually more shocking than many evangelicals would first understand. Because in the background of this is the open and very official claim of the Roman Catholic Church concerning the sacerdotal nature of the priesthood, and the fact that priests by virtue of the right of ordination have the power to forgive sins. This sacerdotal and sacramental ministry is one of the things that sets apart the Protestant conception of the church and the ministry from the Roman Catholic conception. But at this point, evangelicals would insist we’re looking at deeper issues even than the role of the ministry or even the identity of the church. We are looking at the fundamentals of the gospel, because we’re talking here about the forgiveness of sins.
The evangelical imagination is simply staggered by what the Pope declared over a year ago. That is a year of mercy in which he symbolically opened doors at the Vatican through which sinners were invited to enter in order to be given for that one-year period a special set of forgiveness under special conditions. And the special nature of that year was made very clear with the Pope’s declaration, again over a year ago, that abortion, though a grave sin, was not an unforgivable sin and his authorization of priests outside their normal sacerdotal responsibilities also to forgive sin, the sin of abortion.
At this point evangelicals would ask the question, if indeed the papacy and the priesthood involve the ability to forgive sins, why in the world would one declare special years in contrast to other years in which mercy would be more available than in previous years? The Washington Post cited the Rev. James Bretzke identified as a Jesuit professor at Boston College who said that,
“[Pope Francis] likely planned the extraordinary jubilee year — which he declared outside the normal cycle that calls for a jubilee every 25 to 50 years — as a test run for a permanent change on abortion.”
Now at this point we have to understand that Catholic observers are torn between the left and the right and between hope and fear. They are torn in terms of understanding what this Pope is actually up to. Now, again, in contrast with the Protestant understanding of the church, which excludes the papacy, we come to understand that the Roman Catholic Church as it defines itself does not exist without the papacy, and thus the centralization of religious authority in the church inevitably to one described as the pontiff, well, it points to why there is so much expectation every time a Pope begins to speak, much less to release something called an encyclical, which is one of the official statements of church teaching handed down on papal authority.
And this is where this story gets much more interesting, because this particular Pope is understood by the left as being a liberalizing Pope and is feared by the right to be the very same. And we’ve seen that even in the last two years this Pope has issued orders, directives, and official statements that are open to various interpretations. And the bottom line is that appears to be his strategy.
Well, here we have to understand that in distinction with the popes that preceded him, particularly John Paul II and Benedict XVI, this pope describes himself as a pastor rather than a theologian, and he furthermore defines his pastoral role largely in terms of leading the Roman Catholic Church to a new position in the world vis-à-vis some of the most contentious and controversial questions, including the questions of sexuality and the question of abortion. And here we note that this Pope has been sending signals that are so confusing, conflicting, and sometimes even contradictory that even the leaders of his own church, even cardinals, are uncertain exactly what he means.
One of the things that has been implied in the Pope’s statement is a separation between the official teaching of the church, which is very clear, for example, on an issue like adultery or homosexuality, and the actual pastoral practice of the church. That’s a distinction that evangelicals cannot understand and would not admire. And furthermore, you have the fact that this Pope appears to be playing out a strategy, a strategy of leading to a great deal of confusion as to what exactly he intends.
This has led to the frankly bizarre situation in which at least four cardinals in recent days have called upon the Pope to clarify his official position on the question as to whether or not divorced and remarried persons who are considered to be guilty of the sin of adultery can have access to the eucharistic table of the mass. There is no recent precedent, to say the very least, in which cardinals of the church are now asking that the Pope clarify his position, because frankly they don’t have a clue about how to apply what the Pope has officially taught. Those four cardinals are generally understood to represent conservatives within the Roman Catholic Church, but what’s also interesting is an article that appeared in the New York Times by Jill Filipovic in which the headline is this:
“The Pope’s Unforgiving Message of Forgiveness on Abortion.”
This demonstrates the fact that Pope Francis, seeking to lead his church into a process of liberalization, won’t be able to keep up with the demands of the liberals for what that position must be. This particular article in the New York Times describes the Pope as portraying women as victims who need to be protected from themselves with laws that restrict abortion rights. Cutting to the heart of the issue, Filipovic writes,
“Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the pope condescends to ‘all the women who have resorted to abortion,’ saying he is ‘well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.’”
The Filipovic writes,
“The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.”
Now there you have a very classic statement that deserves our attention. Because one of the lessons we see in this is that the pro-abortion movement isn’t really satisfied in the least by a Pope who is offering forgiveness to women who’ve undergone abortions. And that’s because they are now arguing quite openly in this article that there is no sin involved in abortion and that women simply are to be respected for making reproductive choices, no reference at all to the unborn life that is murdered within them. And furthermore, here you see the open accusation that the Pope is acting in a condescending way towards women by offering forgiveness when, according to this author and many others in the pro-abortion movement, no forgiveness is necessary because nothing wrong has been done.
With 2017 marking the 500th year of the Reformation coming before us, it’s important for us to understand—and perhaps these headlines make exceedingly clear—all of the issues that appeared in controversy between evangelical Protestants on the one hand and the Roman Catholic Church on the other remain, sometimes even remaining in today’s headlines.
China considers lifting sanctions against out-of-wedlock births to boost low birth rate
Next, shifting from the issue of abortion to the issue of birth rate and shifting from the Vatican to Beijing, Didi Kirsten Tatlow reporting for the New York Times writes,
“The Singapore government has deployed financial incentives and even Mentos mints to increase births. In Russia, more money in mothers’ pension accounts and ‘Conception Day,’ with time off from work, have helped. Be it Germany or Japan, state-paid bonuses aim to amplify the patter of little feet in homes amid sagging fertility rates.”
We’ve often discussed on The Briefing that these falling fertility rates now represent one of the greatest dangers to the human future. But what’s really interesting is what the Chinese government is now considering as an answer to that problem. Tatlow writes,
“Not in China. The government’s powerful family-planning apparatus still fines married couples who have more than two children and women who give birth out of wedlock, despite a looming demographic crisis in the country.
“Findings from a 2015 government census show that the average Chinese woman has 1.05 children — a legacy of the one-child policy that changed on Jan. 1 to a two-child policy.”
China has the lowest fertility rate in the world, according to the official Chinese Communist Party’s paper, The People’s Daily. But what makes this story headline news in the New York Times and elsewhere is that the Chinese Communist Party is considering answering the low birth rate with eliminating sanctions against single, that is unmarried, women from having babies. Wu Youshui, who is a lawyer in China who specializes in reproductive issues, said in an interview with the New York Times,
“Especially with these falling birthrates, the right thing to do would be to allow single women to have children.”
Now just consider that sentence. Here you have “the right thing to do,” and that’s a statement that is completely without any moral context and is entirely stated within the demographic challenge, the crisis that is now facing China. This is a crisis that now eclipses even the institution of marriage in terms of this proposal. The New York Times said,
“Last week, three civil society groups in the southern city of Guangzhou issued a report calling for greater reproductive freedom for single women to counter the country’s low fertility rate. The issue also affects lesbians, the groups said, because same-sex marriage is not permitted.”
The paper goes on to say that,
“Chinese law states that citizens have the right to give birth, she said. But they can exercise that right only within a complex system of national and local family-planning regulations. Many provinces impose fines on people who have children outside marriage”—not to mention having a second or a third child in many cases.
But, of course, what we’re looking at here is the inevitable result of a totalitarian government taking total control over the lives of its citizens. This is a disaster that the Chinese Communist Party created on its own and by its dictatorial fiat. Fearing a growing population during the 1960s and 70s, the Chinese Communist Party invaded the lives of its own citizens, invading the institution of marriage and mandating one child only per married couples, and that led to a moral disaster in which there were not only forced sterilizations, but also coerced abortions and even widespread infanticide. And compounding this particular moral disaster is the reality that it was disproportionately targeting the girls, that is it was baby girls who were targeted in the womb, and it was baby girls who were targeted for infanticide after birth. And this has led to multiple problems clearly enough in China. And it’s a demographic crisis that the Chinese Communist Party cannot now ignore.
But what’s really, really interesting is this proposal that made headline news worldwide at the end of last week. Here you have the Chinese Communist Party saying, “We tried this, it led to disaster. We tried that, it led to disaster. Now we’re going to try decoupling having babies from the institution of marriage.” That, we can predict, will also lead to disaster.
This is one of the most interesting things that we see here in terms of worldview. When we’re talking about the Chinese Communist Party, we’re talking on the one hand about a totalitarian system of government; we’re talking about a one party rule. Here we’re looking at a Chinese Communist Party that routinely violates human rights and one that sees its citizens as a value only in so far as they add to the aims of the nation and the party. And here we’re also noticing that we’re looking at a secular atheistic party and a party that is not bound by any overarching worldview of morality. Contrast that even with the modern secular west where there is at least a vestigial influence of Christianity in terms of the understanding of individual liberties and the role of government.
We saw a similar kind of pattern during the atheistic tyranny of the Soviet regime in Russia, but what we saw there was also that the family unit began to break down and that that led to a breakdown of the entire Soviet experiment. This is a desperation play made apparent in a headline about the Chinese Communist Party considering allowing single, that is unmarried, women to have babies. At the level of worldview, here’s where Christians understand there’s a lot more here than that headline can convey.
Tinder goes non-binary: Online dating site adds 37+ gender options for users
Next, coming back to the United States, the New York Times had a headline story entitled,
“Tinder Swipes Right for Transgender.”
The article is by Liam Stack. He writes,
“Tinder, the popular dating app, has updated its options to allow users to choose transgender or gender-nonconforming identities.”
He goes on to say,
“The move, part of a push against persistent harassment against transgender people on the service, was hailed by community advocates as an important example for other social media platforms.”
At this point in terms of worldview analysis, we need to look a little behind the story. Here you have the news announcement that Tinder is changing its categories of gender identity because of the problem of harassment in terms of the site and its users. But a closer look reveals that a part of the harassment here is the obvious shock on the part of some of the clients of Tinder that persons that they were considering to be of one gender turned out to have a very different assigned biological sex. Stack reports that,
“Executives became aware of the harassment problem seven months ago, according to Sean Rad, the chief executive of Tinder. He said the abuse took two main forms: transgender users being verbally attacked by people they matched with, and transgender users being reported as abusive themselves by people ‘on the merits of who they were and not necessarily what they were saying or doing.’”
Now just consider the fact that that reveals some of the most massive cultural and moral confusion we can imagine, and it all comes down to a headline story about an online dating service. Stack went on to say,
“The company previously allowed users to pick from one of two genders — either man or woman — but will now let them choose from almost 40 options, including Transgender Woman, Transgender Man, Transmasculine, Two-Spirit, Neutrois, Non-Binary and Other. If none of those fit, users can write in their own.”
So here you have an absolute surrender to the confusions of the day here we have a dating service supposedly the world’s largest online dating service that is now totally capitulating to the confusions of the transgender revolution. I have no idea what this will mean in terms of commercial impact for the firm. But here’s what it means in terms of the culture: here’s another announcement yet one more that we are living in what’s now declared as a non-binary world. And here we have to note that surrendering to this transgender revolution to the reality of what’s announced as a non-binary world doesn’t mean adding one or two or three or four or six or 12 or 20 new alternatives, it means basically the dissolution of the meaning of gender altogether.
There’s another really important little aspect of this that I don’t think will be noted by many. Stack wrote,
“The update, which was released on Tuesday, was designed in consultation with transgender community leaders and other prominent transgender people, including the activists Andrea James and Nick Adams and several entertainers connected to the award-winning Amazon show ‘Transparent.’”
Now here’s what’s really, really interesting: here you have the authority of entertainers supposedly to speak to something as fundamentally central to human identity as gender and sexuality. And here you have entertainers presented as authorities on such a monumental moral question. But of course, if you’re looking at this revolution, that makes perfect sense.
Finally, in this particular news item there is the announcement that Tinder intends clearly to be found on the right side of this revolution, and the timing in terms of the 2016 presidential election is not entirely off the screen even of this announcement. The announcement from the Chief Executive of Tinder came down to this:
“Part of the problem is a lot of tech platforms try to stay out of complex issues because they don’t want to alienate any of their users. For us it’s very important to come in and particularly now given what’s going on in the world, with all the division in the world, it’s particularly important to step in and make a statement of inclusivity and acceptance.”
Now here we simply have to note the date of this announcement was last Tuesday, that is November 15, 2016. Prior to that announcement, Tinder divided all of humanity into that binary world of male and female, man and woman. On the other side of that date, there is no restriction whatsoever, you can write in whatever gender identity you choose. What does that mean? That according to the very revolutionaries, Tinder was a part of the problem until November 15, 2016. It was a part of the oppressive patriarchal regime. But all that changed with just one announcement on one day and now Tinder according to the New York Times and others is joining the right side of history.
No moral responsibility? Surgeon General says addiction should be treated like disease.
Finally, USA Today had a front-page story entitled,
“Surgeon general: 1 in 7 in USA will face substance addiction.”
According to Josh Hafner of USA Today,
“A federal report released Thursday calls for a shift in the way America addresses substance addictions, finding one in seven Americans will face such disorders. Only 10% of those addicted receive treatment, the study said.”
The report was entitled,
“Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs and Health.”
Later in the story we read the Surgeon General to say,
“We have to recognize (addiction) isn’t evidence of a character flaw or a moral failing. It’s a chronic disease of the brain that deserves the same compassion that any other chronic illness does, like diabetes or heart disease.”
Simply, as we come to a conclusion, there you see one of the great moral evasions of our age and in this case it’s coming from none other than the Surgeon General of the United States. No fair-minded person would reduce the addiction problems in such a way as to deny that there is a physical, even a medical cause, indeed for many of those who are addicted. But to remove this from the moral equation and to argue carte blanche that there is no character dimension to it whatsoever is to fly in the face even of those who are on the leading edge of trying to help those who are suffering from addictions.
The numbers are indeed staggering, so staggering that it’s unlikely that any American family will be spared at least someone in the extended family who is suffering from this kind of addiction. Furthermore, the kinds of addictions that America is now facing are addictions that are not just identified amongst those who had previously been involved in the kinds of behaviors that led to addictions, but have now spread because of prescription drug epidemics into other sectors of society as well. And yet the transfer of this issue according to the Surgeon General from a character issue entirely to now a merely public health issue, just like heart disease, that’s an evasion that should not escape our notice. And it’s also an evasion that will not genuinely help those who desperately need help in the face of the challenges of addiction.
Here we see further evidence of the fact that there are those who want to answer every issue of truth with the response of therapy. But from a Christian worldview perspective, that’s not only wrong, it will ultimately be unhelpful. And that’s because the issue of character in any dimension of humanity can never be removed from the picture, because character, after all, is a part of who we are and necessarily always so.