WASHINGTON (BP) — A new Vatican report that marks “a major turning point” regarding moral issues such as homosexuality is consistent with Roman Catholic theology but not with the gospel, the church or the Bible, a Southern Baptist seminary president said Tuesday (Oct. 14).
R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the interim report from a meeting of nearly 200 bishops at the Vatican demonstrates some of the distinctions between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, while providing a caution for evangelicals. The statement released Monday (Oct. 13) –- described as an “earthquake” and a “stunning change” by some Vatican observers — asked if the Catholic Church can value homosexuals’ “sexual orientation, without compromising” its teachings.
The Catholic Church “wants to be in the position of saying that it is maintaining its doctrine and merely being more responsive to homosexuals in its midst,” Mohler said in a transcript from “The Briefing,” his weekday podcast. “But of course this kind of responsiveness amounts to a theological abdication; and yet it is one in line with Catholic theology — it’s just not in line with the gospel and not in line with our understanding of the church and not in line with Scripture, and therein lies the problem.”
Evangelical Christians “may be, as these elements in Rome seem to indicate, perhaps the last people on earth who can’t go along with the flow” of the culture, he said.
Mohler said evangelicals “have nowhere to run on this issue. If indeed we operate by Sola Scriptura and if indeed God has spoken in His Word on these issues, then we are bound to His Word.”
For evangelicals “there are very real warnings about how we must consider these issues and how we must maintain the faith once for all delivered to the saints even in the midst of the same changing moral and cultural environment” as that being experienced by Catholics, he said.
The Oct. 13 report, delivered in Pope Francis’ presence halfway through a two-week meeting, offered a markedly different tone in its approach to homosexuals, cohabiting couples and divorced Catholics. The document is not a final report on the synod of bishops, who will continue their meeting this week. A more definitive report is planned next year after a final assembly.
In a section titled “Welcoming homosexual persons,” the report says, “Homosexuals have gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community: are we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities? Often they wish to encounter a Church that offers them a welcoming home. Are our communities capable of providing that, accepting and valuing their sexual orientation, without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
The document says helping people mature regarding “the sexual dimension” is an “important educative challenge” to the Catholic Church. The statement does not support same-sex marriage, saying the Catholic Church “affirms that unions between people of the same sex cannot be considered on the same footing as matrimony between man and woman.”
While the report is not final, “it is nonetheless pointing to the eventual direction the synod is likely to take under the direction” of Pope Francis, who “has already signaled in many and various ways his intention to change the posture of the Roman Catholic Church on these issues,” Mohler said.
One of the differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism that comes out in the report concerns the relationship of “doctrine and pastoral practice,” Mohler said. The Catholic Church “officially recognizes a distinction” between the two, he said.
Some language in the report “called for courageous pastoral practice,” he said. “What’s really being called for there is the individual deviation from official church teaching. What the Roman Catholic Church here is poised to do is to say that it is not changing its doctrine, to say that it is standing by its centuries-long affirmation of a biblical understanding of the family and of sexuality, while at the same time allowing for individual deviations — at least as acknowledged by priests of the church in their pastoral application.”
Evangelicals “can make no distinction between the teaching of the church and its pastoral practice,” Mohler said on the podcast.
Like Southern Baptist ethicist Russell D. Moore the day before, Mohler took exception to the Catholic view of “gradualism.” While evangelicals teach a biblical view that sanctification is progressive for Christians, Catholics hold to a different understanding.
The “notion of conversion” is missing from the Catholic view, he said. “What’s missing here is the understanding that there is a before and after in terms of commitment to Christ.”
The concept discussed at the Catholic synod speaks of “a gradualism in terms of obedience in which persons are received just as they are and received into the fellowship of the church and encouraged to stay in the church and to move into more gradual faithfulness,” Mohler said. “But of course the problem with that, lacking a doctrine of conversion, lacking any understanding of before and after, is that gradualism completely blurs the distinction between the church and the world — between the believer and the unbeliever.”
Regarding “gradualism,” Moore said in an Oct. 13 blog post he differs with Catholicism regarding the distinction “between the church and the world.”
“The church is to welcome everyone as guests and observers to hear the gospel preached and taught,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The church is not itself, though, to be made up of unrepentant people. That’s why scandalous sin is to be disciplined, and why the Lord’s Table is to be offered only to those in right fellowship with God and with one another.”
Another Southern Baptist theologian said the new report may lead to uncertainty in other Catholic stances.
“While the desire to engage in discussion about the tone Roman Catholics should take when speaking with or about men and women who practice homosexuality is helpful, the idea that such a discussion can or should change how Roman Catholics understand homosexuality is not,” Jason Duesing, provost and associate professor of historical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. “These men and women are created in the image of God and on that basis should be loved and welcomed by all Christians regardless of their sins or their good works.
“However, the path to welcome and love them need not require rewriting either the clear statements in Scripture or, in this case, this historic practice of Roman Catholics by ‘accepting and valuing their sexual orientation,'” he said in a written statement for Baptist Press. “Such an attempt only serves to stir up proverbial mud in the Tiber River of Catholic doctrinal understanding that could, sadly, lead to murkiness downstream on their other historic positions. That is, if the Roman Catholic leadership is willing to dialogue about evolving on this issue, what prevents an evolution one day of their understanding of the sanctity of human life?”
In other responses to the Catholic bishops’ statement:
— The Vatican appeared to try to backpedal Oct. 14 on some of the statements on homosexuals in response to criticism from conservative bishops and other Catholics, according to CNN. In addition to emphasizing the report is not final, the Vatican said it desired to welcome homosexuals in the church but not give “the impression of a positive evaluation” of same-sex or cohabiting heterosexual relationships. Cardinal Raymond Burke, head of the Vatican’s supreme court, criticized the report for its lack of “a solid foundation in the sacred Scriptures.”
— George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and biographer of Pope John Paul II, denied the report represented the Catholic Church caving in on the issues. Writing for National Review Online, he acknowledged, however, what some among the synod “effectively have done is to contribute to the false sense that this, at last, is the moment of the Great Catholic Cave-In.”
— The National LGBTQ Task Force, formerly the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, welcomed the report as a “step in the right direction.” The organization made clear, however, it expects more. “We look forward to the day that the Vatican’s new tone produces substantive change in doctrine and practice,” said Darlene Nipper, deputy executive director of the task force. She described the statement as “a very far distance from recognizing marriage equality.”
— The American Life League (ALL), a national Catholic pro-life organization, said the bishops’ treatment of the issues of abortion and contraception during the synod show “Planned Parenthood is an enemy of the Catholic Church.” ALL President Judie Brown said Vatican summaries of the proceedings paint “a clear picture of a synod that has no intention of kowtowing to Planned Parenthood’s philosophies. Instead, it is clear that the Church’s teachings on abortion, contraception, and pre-marital sex are being reinforced.”