December 15, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Thursday, December 15, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
"Winks and nods" from Pope Francis sow confusion in the Roman Catholic church on divorce
Sometimes we need to look over the fence as evangelicals at what takes place in the conversation of the Roman Catholic Church. The reasons for this are many. One of them comes down to the influence of that church in the larger world and the fact that so many around the world interpret what they know of Christianity through the declarations, decisions, and teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Secondly, we need to understand that the controversies and conversations in the Roman Catholic Church often parallel conversations that are necessary in Protestantism as well. After all, we face so many of the same questions. The separation and the theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism continue, and for good reason. The Reformation was not a mistake, nor has it been overcome. But we also need to recognize that we watch what goes on in Roman Catholicism precisely because what starts there will not stop there.
The present controversies in the Catholic Church are over two issues, which upon closer inspection turnout actually to be one. But in terms of the two issues, the first is the question as to whether or not divorced and remarried Roman Catholics can be accepted for communion or for the sacrament of the mass. The second has to do with the question of assisted suicide and euthanasia, and it is prompted by a statement from bishops who are in the nation of Canada. But as I said, these two issues, rightly understood, are not two issues. They come down to one, and they come down to one person, by no coincidence: the pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis I. And they both come down to very dangerous mixed signals that have, we now believe, intentionally been sent by this Pope, and this also now comes down to a matter of confusion that must be clarified.Show Full Transcript
On Tuesday The Economist of London reported,
“IT MAY not quite be a schism, but it is certainly a significant event in the high politics of the Catholic church. Earlier this year, in a move that seemed to many non-Catholics like a concession to humanity and common sense, Pope Francis cautiously opened the window to the possibility of people who divorce and remarry being admitted to the Eucharist, the church’s most important rite or sacrament.”
The magazine continues,
“To clarify: this is a problem that arises only for those who have obtained a civil divorce, but not gone through the burdensome procedure of getting a marriage religiously annulled. In the eyes of the church, they are still wedded to their initial spouses. Millions of would-be faithful Catholics are denied the Eucharist because of this policy.”
Now to be fair, there’s a good deal of editorializing in that report, but the background is historic teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and its denial of the very existence of divorce. Catholic dogma holds to the fact that marriage is permanent and indissoluble. It is, after all, a sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore, it can never be dissolved. Divorce, according to the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, simply doesn’t exist in any form that is recognized by the church. Therefore, the Roman Catholic Church argues that in order for a marriage not to exist, it never could exist; therefore, the innovation of what’s called the annulment. And the Economist is right, the annulment is a burdensome process that is also riven with all kinds of inequities. This is why so many who are amongst liberal Catholics and certainly those who are secularists observing the pattern simply say that the entire teaching ought to be thrown away—that is the historic teaching of the Catholic Church—in favor of a far more liberal understanding of marriage and divorce that will fit contemporary culture.
The Economist points to a specific passage in the Pope’s encyclical known as Amoris Laetitia that was issued earlier this year that has spawned so much confusion and controversy. In the Pope’s words,
“It is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the church’s help…”
He goes on to say,
“In certain cases this can include the help of the sacraments.”
Now that might not sound like revolutionary language. But what you hear there is the up-turning of centuries of very clear Catholic teaching on the issue of marriage and divorce. If you’re thinking about how old this teaching is, just consider going back to King Henry VIII and his attempts to achieve a divorce in his first wife to Catherine of Aragon. We’re talking about something that is very, very old and very well-established in the Catholic Church—that is until now, until this Pope, and until this year in one sense.
In order to understand the nexus of this controversy we have to go back to the words of the Pope and understand that he in those words made a distinction that many may not have caught. It was a distinction between what he defined as an objective situation of sin and then the question as to whether or not the sinner might be “subjectively culpable, or fully such.”
So Pope Francis I, who is notoriously confusing on so many of these issues, has now suggested that there is a distinction between an objective state of sin—that is a sin that by any theological or biblical definition is indeed a sin—and then the subjective culpability for that sin, which he suggests might be on a sliding scale of moral responsibility. For centuries the Roman Catholic Church has forbidden the Eucharist to anyone who is understood to be living in a state of sin, and in this question that came down to a divorced person who remarried and was thus, according to the Roman Catholic Church—ancient, medieval, and modern, even up to now—living in an objective state of sin. But, says Pope Francis, that objective state of sin might not be the most morally important category, perhaps even more important is the subjective culpability, that is just how self-consciously aware of sin the sinner may or may not be.
So as an evangelical looking in, what we need to note is that the Pope of the Catholic Church has himself inserted a new subjectivity into the pastoral teachings of the Church and the application of those teachings. Furthermore, the Pope basically left it up to individual priests to make the determination as to whether or not the sinner, in an objective state of sin, is really understood to be subjectively culpable. Furthermore, some American bishops have then taken the Pope’s teaching even further and removed the priest from the equation, effectively saying that it is basically only up to the subjective conscience of the individual Catholic to determine whether or not he or she should be available for the mass.
But evangelicals watching this also have to understand that the entire edifice of Roman Catholic teaching here is what brought about the Reformation in the first place. We often forget even as the 500th anniversary of the Reformation looms before us that when the Reformer Martin Luther nailed those famous 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in the year 1517, his first several theses were a direct critique in biblical terms of the Catholic doctrine of penance.
The question that was asked for centuries and for centuries answered clearly was the question as to whether or not, according to Catholic dogmatic teaching, a person who is divorced and remarried without an annulment is to be accepted at the mass. That was the question, and the answer was no. But now Pope Francis has answered it with, well, maybe. It’s up to the individual conscience, according to the advisement of the priest, or perhaps even without the intervention of the priest. Perhaps, he says, those who are now in an objective state of sin can be assisted out of that state of sin even with the help of the sacraments. Once again, central to that is a Roman Catholic sacramental theology.
So why is this important to us? It’s important to us because there are many lessons to be learned here. One of those lessons comes in the form of what in the Catholic Church is called a Dubia, that is an official letter that is subjected to the Pope, in this particular case, by four Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church. Why are the four Cardinals writing the Pope? They are writing him, not only inviting, but demanding an answer to their question. What exactly did he mean to say in that papal and encyclical released earlier this year? Evangelicals should not miss the spectacle of what is happening here. Four Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church privately sent this letter known as the Dubia to the Pope. And when they received not even the courtesy of an answer from the Pope, they went public with their question and with the document, the Dubia.
Himself a Catholic, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says that with the Dubia there is still really no question as to where the Pope stands. He says,
“It is not that there is any real doubt about where the pontiff stands. Across a period of vigorous debate in 2014 and 2015 he pushed persistently to open communion to at least some remarried Catholics without the grant of annulment. But conservative resistance ran strong enough that the pope seemed to feel constrained. So he produced a document, the as-yet-unclarified Amoris, that essentially talked around the controversy, implying in various ways that communion might be given case by case, but never coming out and saying so directly.”
Douthat then writes,
“This indirectness matters because within Catholicism the pope’s formal words, his encyclicals and exhortations, have a weight that winks and implications and personal letters lack. They’re what’s supposed to require obedience, what’s supposed to be supernaturally preserved from error.”
Now at this point, evangelical ears should be particularly attentive. Here you have an inter-Catholic conversation. In this case you have a column written by Ross Douthat, a very respected conservative Catholic writer for the New York Times, and he’s writing about current controversies in that communion. And notice what he writes here. He says that everyone understands that what the Pope has been trying to send are winks and nods. But when the Pope had to put those winks and nods into words, well, it’s now clear that the words unsurprisingly are not clear at all.
Looking at this controversy, there is every reason to understand so many different affirmations of the Reformation, including the fact that the Reformers understood that the papacy is itself an unbiblical office. So much is invested in the papacy that it often comes down, as Douthat here explains, to winks and nods, coming from the one who is understood to be the spiritual and governmental head of the Church.
You will also note Douthat’s affirmation that papal statements are “supposed to require obedience,” furthermore, “supposed to be supernaturally preserved from error.”
To state the matter clearly, something that is supernaturally preserved from error would not be this difficult to understand, and certainly would not come in winks and nods. At this point there is absolutely no question Ross Douthat is right, that Francis I is a very liberal Pope. But what’s also clear is that this Pope seems to lack the courage of his own convictions to so clearly come out and say that he is now going to insist on his position as the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church and to censure the conservatives. Again as Douthat said, instead of actually coming out and saying this, the Pope registered his displeasure first by not even responding to the Cardinals and their Dubia and then by canceling a meeting with them because they had gone public with the question. Here we come to understand how the Solas of the Reformation, including Sola Scripture—that is the formal principle the Reformation—and Sola Fide—that is the material principle of the Reformation—all come into play because the question of the sacraments, the question of the nature of the ministry, the question of the distinction between penance and repentance, and the question of papal authority, they all ultimately come down to this controversy.
"Legalized medical assistance in dying": Catholic bishops in Canada capitulate to the culture of death
But remember I said that there were two controversies currently roiling, at least in the English-speaking region of the Roman Catholic Church. The first had to do with what we just discussed. The second has to do with an event that took place in Canada among the Canadian Roman Catholic bishops. As R. R. Reno wrote for First Things,
“It’s an appalling document. In a pastoral letter, ten Catholic Bishops of the Canadian Atlantic Episcopal Assembly shirk their responsibilities as teachers of the faith. The issue is doctor-assisted suicide, which is now legal in Canada. Readers can’t know to what degree the document’s apparent rubber-stamping of the culture of death was intended by its authors, or to what degree it simply follows from sloppy thinking and careless rhetoric. But the bishops’ failure to condemn suicide in plain terms is unmistakable. What’s more, the bishops adopt the circumlocutions of the Canadian government, which instituted the new suicide regime, along with the antinomian clichés of the current pontificate.
There’s so much to note here, but amongst them is the fact that here R. R. Reno comes out with language very similar to Ross Douthat and declares that the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is, to use Reno’s words, an “antinomian.” That’s an incredible statement. He is saying that the current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is the enemy of law. Antinomian literally means against law, and it is often in this context used to mean, basically, anything goes. It’s up to the individual conscience.
I’m holding in my hands the November 27, 2016 pastoral letter from the Canadian bishops, and it is indeed an appalling document. It is indeed a document that serves not the cause of truth, nor the defense of life, but rather serves the culture of death. At least to me, the most shocking thing is the fact that in the very second paragraph in which the bishops introduce the issue they completely capitulate.
“Federal legislation passed in June of this year has legalized medical assistance in dying in our country.”
Where’s the capitulation? Let me note, it is virtually total. It is in using what Reno calls the circumlocution of the Canadian government when it comes to assisted suicide and euthanasia, and that is “legalized medical assistance in dying.”
This is the kind of language that betrays the massive moral shift that is taking place in our times. A euphemism is a halfway house towards moral revolution, and in this case the euphemism is “medical assistance in dying” or “legalized medical assistance in dying.” What is the real issue here? It’s not just assistance in dying. It is, not to use a word indiscriminately, killing. The distinction between legalized medical assistance in dying and legalized medical killing is apparent, even in the moral force of the language. That very phrase, “legalized medical assistance in dying” doesn’t even connote, just in terms of the words, anything like assisted suicide or euthanasia. Just taken at face value, the words, with the context is unknown, would seemingly apply in general terms to any medical care at the end of life. But as we know, that isn’t what’s going on here at all. This is about legalized killing or the cooperation in a legalized death. And it’s also clear that these Canadian bishops have taken the cue from Pope Francis about how to apply what should be and must be enduring moral truths in a relativistic manner. Here are their words,
“Medical assistance in dying is a highly complex and intensely emotional issue which profoundly affects all of us. It makes us aware that some people have become convinced that, at a certain point, there is no longer any ‘value’ in their lives, because their suffering has become unbearable or they cannot function as they once did or they feel a burden to their family and society.”
Then note these words,
“People with such a conviction or in such circumstances deserve our compassionate response and respect, for it is our belief that a person’s value arises from the inherent dignity we have as human beings and not from how well we function.”
Well, when you look at that language, it could be going in a good direction. But make no mistake, it is not. By casting the issue of physician-assisted suicide as highly complex and intensely emotional, and speaking of the interior, subjective understanding of the one who might be considering assisted suicide rather than the objective truth of the value and dignity of human life, well, the bishops have already given away the store, not to mention the fact that they used that phrase “legalized medical assistance in dying.” Reno concludes,
“Shame on the bishops of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. Shame on this pontificate. As I’ve written in the past, sidelining the objectivity of truth encourages the triumph of bourgeois religion, a generic do-good sentimentality characterized by only one stricture—which is that the conduct of the well-off, well-educated, and well-intentioned residents of the rich world of the West is not to be judged in any definitive way.”
Those are prophetic words that all of us should definitely hear and heed. He continues,
“People like us make mistakes, of course. But our issues are ‘highly complex’ and ‘intensely emotional,’ and we mean well. We can be complicit with ‘structures of injustice,’ and even play roles in an ‘economy that kills.’ But we never sin.”
He’s referring here to the fact that so many liberals in the West are redefining what the Church has called sin in order to exclude bourgeois, Western, liberal sins. He then concludes,
“It’s ironic that this supposedly revolutionary pope should be such a reassuring champion of the therapeutic culture of the West. Though perhaps it’s not ironic. The rhetoric of revolution has long served wonderfully to transform sin, judgment, and redemption into injustice, consciousness-raising, and social change.”
In making that judgment, R. R. Reno is absolutely right, and evangelicals looking across the Tiber, so to speak, have to understand that that is also the impulse of liberal Protestantism. It is the same impulse, and there we see the same temptation, the temptation to take the very clear teachings of Scripture and to present them in an equivocal, compromising, subjective way. There are far too many Protestant preachers who preach very squeamish sermons addressing these crucial moral issues if at all. And here’s one thought, how many of the members of those churches should be addressing in their own way a Dubia—that is this kind of interrogating question—to their very own preachers, who failed to be very clear about what Scripture teaches?
In his own column on the issue, columnist Rod Dreher writes brilliantly, citing Flannery O’Connor who wrote with such moral insight as a southern novelist. In her words,
“In the absence of faith, we govern by tenderness. And tenderness leads to the gas chamber.”
That is exactly right. When we abandon moral clarity and objective, absolute moral teachings as found in Scripture and we instead shift to a subjective, emotional, politically correct mode of thinking, eventually this kind of so-called tenderness or sensitivity leads to the gas chambers. It’s an old story. It’s a story you would think that all would’ve learned in the 20th century. But as is so often the case, lessons that should have been learned weren’t.
In last-ditch effort, Obama issues new rule to block states from defunding Planned Parenthood
Finally, also on the issue of the sanctity of human life, coming back to the United States and to the conversation on The Briefing yesterday, Jackie Calmes reports for the New York Times,
“Obama Bars States From Denying Federal Money to Planned Parenthood”
“Mindful of the clock ticking down to a Trump presidency, the Obama administration issued a final rule on Wednesday to bar states from withholding federal family-planning funds from Planned Parenthood affiliates and other health clinics that provide abortions. The measure takes effect two days before the Jan. 20 inauguration of Donald J. Trump.”
What’s the lesson here? The lesson here is that we are in a long-term, very sustained battle for the sanctity and dignity of human life. And we also have to understand, and the Christian worldview affirms, that we are looking at arguments that must be made over and over again, and battles that have to be fought and refought. And that is because we do believe that every single human life is worthy of protection.
At street level, there are some important lessons in this. First of all, why would the Obama Administration do this and codify this rule just to take effect two days before the new president? It is precisely to tie the hands of the new administration and, according to federal statute, in order for this rule—and it is not an executive order it is a rule—in order for it to be reversed, it will have to go through an entire new rulemaking process, or it will require the intervention of both houses of the United States Congress. To state the matter just as clearly as we can, we have to hope that this will be a top priority of both the incoming Trump Administration and also of Congress. To put it another way, this is an affirmation of the fact that elections have consequences. In this case, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, knowing that he was at that time the most pro-abortion presidential candidate in history, still has effects, even effects that will take place just two days before he is to leave office. But it’s also a signal of hope that in the new administration there will also be an election that has consequences for the sake of human dignity and the sanctity of every single human life. Of this we must hope and pray and work.