April 28, 2014
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 28, 2014. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The biggest news over the weekend was the canonization of two popes as saints. The ceremony took place before Saint Peter’s Basilica there at the Vatican with a crowd estimated to be numbered at almost one million people, and, of course, the great interest in that occasion was the fact that for the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, two former popes were to be canonized. Canonization is the official declaration of the fact that one is a saint universally for the Roman Catholic Church and, in this case, the two saints are two former popes, two of the major popes of the twentieth century. And in observance were two popes: now Pope Francis I who presided over the ceremony and his predecessor, the first retired pope of modern centuries, Benedict XVI. So in a way that added to the drama, there were actually four popes who were involved in the ceremony yesterday at the Vatican: two living popes and two dead popes.
It was the two deceased popes who were canonized as saints. They were Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. By any estimation, they were two of the most significant popes of the twentieth century. It was Pope John XXIII, formerly an Italian cardinal, who became pope and called what became known as the Second Vatican Council, the major theological council of the church that did not end before his death, but, nonetheless, Pope John XXIII became credited with the great turn in a more progressive or liberal direction in the 1960s. In many ways, this was seen as the great turning point for the Roman Catholic Church in embracing modernity. Prior to the calling of the Second Vatican Council and its deliberations, the Roman Catholic Church had been seen as steadfastly opposed to almost all the major intellectual currents of the modern age, in particular of modernity, in the wake of the Enlightenment. But the Vatican II Council changed all of that and John XXIII, a jovial man often seen with a smile, was credited with being the liberalizing force behind it. The theme of the Second Vatican Council was aggiornamento, the Italian word for change, and that council did bring radical change to the Roman Catholic Church.
The other pope canonized yesterday was Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope. Prior to his elevation to the papacy, he had been a cardinal in Poland and he had served as a cardinal in that land during the worst years of oppression under communist regimes. And what we saw in John Paul II was a Catholic response to the liberalizing trends of Vatican II. Now it is not fair to say that these two popes, canonized yesterday, simply reflect, first, John Paul II as a conservative and John XXIII as a liberal, but there is a sense in which this was clearly the political dynamic at work. Evidence for this is seen in the fact that the canonization process, the process of making John Paul II a saint, was rushed, especially considering the fact that John XXIII died in 1963 and he was canonized at the same time that John Paul II was canonized, and John Paul II died in 2005. In other words, the deaths of the two popes, who were both canonized simultaneously yesterday, was more than forty years. And Vatican observers and people outside Catholic circles as well pointed to the fact that at least there was plausibility to the claim that the Vatican was in some sense leveling the field as they were canonizing a progressive pope and a more conservative pope.
Those, on the other hand, who look more carefully at the theological dynamic of the Roman Catholic Church would know that as John Paul II was clearly a defender of the objectivity of truth and even as he entered the culture wars of 1980s and 90s and beyond, especially defending the sanctity of life against what he called the culture of death and defending the family against its many threats and encroachments during his pontificate, but as one looked more carefully at the actual dogmatic theology, the theological construction and contribution of John Paul II, he was not so conservative as many credited him as being. As a matter of fact, he was himself in a very real sense a loyal son of Vatican II, the very council called by that other pope canonized yesterday, the one recognized as being more liberal, John XXIII.
Now as those who look at the Vatican count popes, it was clear that the pope who was between John and John Paul II, that is, Pope Paul VI, was understood as being much more conservative. As a matter of fact, when Catholics think about an issue as controversial as birth control, you’ll recall that Humanae Vitae, that was the encyclical that condemned for Catholics the use of all artificial birth control, came during the pontificate of Paul VI. Many liberal Catholics hold out the idea, or perhaps the mythology, that had John XXIII survived and if he had been the pope who was alive when that declaration was made, it may well have been very different. We’ll never know.
In the meantime, the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday canonized two popes, and they canonized these two popes as saints. And in so doing, the Roman Catholic Church put forth a vivid picture of the great theological distinction between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. As The Washington Post reported, it was about 700,000 persons at least who gathered there into Saint Peter’s Square for the observance. And, by the way, there’s a great deal of Polish pride in this. At least 1,700 different buses have been chartered from Poland and as well as special trains sent from Poland to Rome. But the key issue here is that these two men were elevated by the declaration of the Roman Catholic Church to be saints of the church. This followed a rather lengthy process, but not as lengthy as usual in the case of John Paul II. As Reuters reports, the process that can lead to sainthood, known as a cause, cannot usually start until five years after a person’s death, but given the sentiment for John Paul II after his death, even during his funeral ceremonies and services, there were calls for there to be an elimination or a suspension of that five-year waiting period. And his successor Benedict XVI did, indeed, wave that requirement. The process for canonization began almost immediately. In the early years of the church, a saint could be declared by the people simply by popular veneration or by cardinals or even by a papal decree, but today there’s an official Vatican department that studies sainthood. It is known as the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.
Now, by the way, that particular congregation or department of the Vatican goes back to the year 1588, but the modern system for selecting saints to be canonized by the church involves several steps. First of all, one is declared to be a servant of God. Then, after initial investigation showed that a candidate for sainthood lived what is identified as a life of heroic virtues, that individual is given the title venerable. After that, there are lengthy investigations of the subject’s life, but mere virtue or theological contribution or historical significance or pastoral ministry is not enough. What is necessary at this stage is a miracle; a miracle that is attributed to the intercession or at least the action of the individual nominated to become a saint. Miracles are not necessary, by the way, if the person to be considered is a martyr, someone killed in what the church calls “hatred of the faith.” Usually, the kind of miracle that the church is looking for here is an inexplicable medical healing. As Reuters explains, “A medical commission appointed by the Vatican determines if there was any medical explanation for the healing or not.” After one miracle has been certified, the individual can be beatified or known as the blessing. After that, there must be a second miracle and this miracle has to be directly attributed to the fact that there was some intercession to this person after their death that led to a second certifiable miracle. Only at that point can there be a canonization.
The role of the saints is an essential point of distinction between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Christianity. The Bible says nothing about any kind of prayers ever being made in the name of someone who is dead. There is never any kind of intercession that is even hinted at in Scripture about someone who is deceased. The main point of distinction between evangelicals and Roman Catholics on the issue of the saints is not whether or not saints exist—of course, saints exist; they’re referenced in Scripture—but who are the saints? Evangelicals, basing their position solely on Scripture, believe that the saints are those who believe in Christ. They are the redeemed. They are the redeemed who are both living and dead. And yet there is no sense ever even hinted at in Scripture that the saints who are now living are to call upon saints who are dead for any kind of intercession. But that is exactly the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The current catechism of the Catholic Church includes this paragraph:
By canonizing some of the faithful, that is, by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived infidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of Holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.
Now that word intercessors is the most important issue here. The Bible teaches us very clearly that it is Christ Jesus who intercedes for us before the Father. There is no hint whatsoever that there are others who intercede. And, furthermore, the practice of praying in the name of saints or to the saints is a very clear distraction from the centrality of the mediatorial work and the high priestly office of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, though official Roman Catholic teaching very carefully does not deify the saints nor suggests that worship be directed to them, lay Catholic piety often inclines in that direction. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, adopted in 1563 as a classic statement of Reformation doctrine on this account, included the statement that the invocation of saints is “a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” That is the classic position of evangelical Christianity. And the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church is directly at odds with that conviction. On this issue and perhaps a few others, the distinction between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical piety and conviction was made abundantly clear there in Saints Peter’s Square yesterday.
Furthermore, the fact that in the aftermath of the declaration of the sainthood of these two former popes, relics from their body were brought forth as evidence of how they were to be venerated—this itself points to the very heart of the issue which is at stake in the matter. Just consider this singular paragraph from the coverage in The Washington Post by reporter Anthony Faiola. He wrote:
Cardinal Angelo Amato, the Vatican’s gatekeeper of saints, asked Francis three times for the canonization of the two popes, a gesture meant to signify the importance of the moment. After a reading from the pope, two reliquaries — vessels of silver, bronze and gold — were carried and placed to the left of the altar. One contained a vial of John Paul II’s blood, the other a piece of John XXIII’s skin taken from his exhumed body. The event brought together in death two men who in life were viewed as considerably different.
As perhaps nothing else, that singular paragraph points to the great theological chasm that separates Roman Catholicism and evangelism Christianity. Evangelical Christians saw much rightly to admire in the stand for truth and the sanctity of life that was represented by John Paul II when he was the pope of the Roman Catholic Church, but the very fact that he was a pope—in other words, the very fact of the papacy—and the very fact that he was defender of the very doctrine by which so many saints were made and the very fact that he is now declared to be a saint, even as a vial of his blood was brought forth for public exhibition, all this points to that great chasm between the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Christianity. At the heart of that chasm is the gospel. And at the heart of the ceremony yesterday was a very clear message; a message we repeat over and over again: theology matters.
Shifting the scene to Israel and the worldwide observance of Holocaust Memorial Day, we need to recognize that history matters as well. And considering recent developments on the issue of the Holocaust, history demands our attention as well. What kind of recent developments will we be talking about? Well consider the article by Jodi Rudoren in The New York Times. The headline is, “Palestinian Leader Shifts on Holocaust.” As Jodi Rudoren reports:
President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority issued a formal statement on Sunday [that’s yesterday] calling the Holocaust “the most heinous crime to have occurred against humanity in the modern era” and expressing sympathy with victims’ families.
That statement grew out of a meeting between Mr. Abbas and a Jewish rabbi, and yet it was Mr. Abbas who has been known as a denier of the Holocaust. In his doctoral dissertation, published as a book in 1983, he challenged the number of Jewish victims. He argued that Zionists had collaborated with Nazis to propel more people to what would become Israel. A senior Israeli minister, according to The New York Times, “incensed at quotations from Hitler highlighted on Facebook pages affiliated with the Palestinian Authority, denounced Mr. Abbas earlier this year as ‘the most anti-Semitic leader in the world.’”
Mr. Abbas, according to The Times, had been backtracking from his book. In 2011, he said he didn’t deny the Holocaust and he said he heard from the Israelis there were six million victims. He said, “I can accept that,” and, yet, at the very same time, that on Holocaust Remembrance Day he was planning to state very clearly that he believed that the Holocaust took place, there was also a rapprochement, that is, a new agreement between the Palestinian authorities, which he heads, and Hamas, an organization that officially calls for the extermination of Israel and officially denies that the Holocaust happened.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal includes a major essay by Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former intelligence officer of the CIA with responsibility for Iran, who reminds us that the leaders of Iran continue to deny that the Holocaust happened. He writes:
For them, Holocaust denial restores some logic to history: If they can assert that Hitler did not kill six million Jews, the Holocaust can be labeled a narrative spun by Jews to engender guilt and special advantages over Muslims and others. In that light, Holocaust denial [to the Iranians] is both moral and politically essential. The second main reason for denying the Holocaust: Doing so implicitly negates the need for Israel’s existence.
As he writes, in the worldview of Tehran, if six millions Jews didn’t die, Israel has no excuse to exist. In other words, one of the lessons of history is that history never goes away. The Holocaust, the killing of over six million Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices and, of course, added to the Jews were hundreds of thousands of others, including gypsies and homosexuals and others considered by the regime to be Lebensunwertes Leben or “life unworthy of life.” The Holocaust was an act intentionally undertaken by the Nazi regime in the service of its theory of race superiority. And, of course, even as you think about the gas chambers and the concentration camps and the horrors of all that went on in the Holocaust, it is an affront to human decency as well as to all historical reason to deny that the Holocaust took place. We should note quite carefully that as the last in the generation of those who experienced the death camps and the extermination camps are now dying themselves of old age, it is a moral atrocity that there are those anywhere in the world who would deny the Holocaust.
From a Christian worldview perspective, perhaps the most important insight from this controversy on Holocaust Remembrance Day is the very fact that hatred can drive one to corrupt and contort history. That’s a very important issue for us to remember.
Finally, a note that is, in a sense, a sign of the times. The New York Times reports that “Ladies’ Home Journal, whose very name evokes a bygone era of women’s service magazine,” wrote Noam Cohen, “will no longer publish as a monthly after a 130-year run.” That was announced this past Thursday by the owner of the magazine.
The July issue of Ladies’ Home Journal will be the very last print issue sent to subscribers. The company intends to keep the brand alive, but no longer as a print magazine. There was a great sense of historical loss in the announcement that came about Ladies’ Home Journal. After all, you’re talking about one of the so-called eight sisters of the mass-circulated magazines addressed to women who stayed at home and raised children. But that raises the point, isn’t it? Why in the world is Ladies’ Home Journal going out of circulation? It isn’t because it didn’t have subscribers. It had a very important subscriber base of about 3.2 million. That’s huge for a magazine! But, as The New York Times reports, it was an aging subscriber base and advertisers were leaving in droves. Why? Well, for many younger women in America, the younger women whom the advertisers want to reach with their advertising, they no longer think themselves described by a magazine that’s entitled Ladies’ Home Journal.
In this particular story, we see an historical note to the effect that we’re losing more than a magazine here. It’s the hallmark or indicator of the fact that the world has changed. The world has changed so utterly that a magazine called Ladies’ Home Journal no longer reflects the mainstream of younger American women. Sometimes it seems a huge cultural shift can be indicated by what titles, that is, what magazines, are and are not on the magazine stand.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. Remember Ask Anything: Weekend Edition. Call with you question in your voice to 877-505-2058. That’s 877-505-2058. For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com. I’m speaking to you today from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and all day today, I’ll be speaking in Northland International University in Dunbar, Wisconsin, for their annual Founder’s Day. Perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to see some of you there. I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.