By / Dec 21

The end of 2023 has seen the largest Christian denominations in American struggling in the face of doctrinal shifts on sexuality. The UMC has lost one-fourth of its churches because of a refusal to uphold a biblical sexual ethic. Before the split, the UMC was the third largest Christian denomination in America, and second largest Protestant group. And the Roman Catholic Church—the largest Christian denomination in America—saw a seismic shift in its own practices earlier this week when Pope Francis announced that blessings for same-sex couples were now permitted.

The news was quickly met with scorn from conservatives with the church, and praise from the liberal wings. Indeed, the Rev. James Martin blessed a same-sex couple the day after the announcement, using the language of the Aaronic blessing (Num. 6:23b–26) because there is no standard language found in the published book of blessings for the couple.

What happened?

In the declaration On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of Faith, the Vatican announced that a new rule was in effect allowing the blessing of same-sex couples. Officially, the declaration does not change the official doctrine of the church and does “not allo[w] any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion.” The declaration is forthright that “the Church does not have the power to impart blessings on unions of persons of the same sex.” 

The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. However, the declaration creates a new category where the same-sex couple could be blessed (though not in rituals, language, or garb which would appear to indicate the sacrament of marriage), without “officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

However, as others have noted, and the introduction to the declaration makes clear, this is a “real development from what has been said about blessings…” and marks a “specific and innovative contribution to the pastoral meaning of blessings.” Whereas before, the strictly liturgical definition of blessing required “what is blessed be conformed to God’s will,” this more pastoral definition does not. Rather, it recognizes that those seeking the blessing may be engaged in activity or relationships which fall outside the Church’s official teaching, but it does not prohibit priests from performing the blessing in those circumstances because the request “expresses and nurtures openness to the transcendence, mercy, and closeness to God…” This is clearly a change and a permitting of what was formerly prohibited. 

Officially, the declaration allows for the blessing of same-sex couples, but not their union. The blessing must not be ritualized or occur in any way that would confuse people to think that it was a blessing of their union, similar to a blessing of a marriage. As part of that lack of ritualization, there should be no official blessing created or disseminated by official Church channels, instead preferring spontaneity on the part of those seeking the blessing and the priests who offer them.

Why does it matter?

It is no small thing for the largest Christian denomination to change its teaching on such an important topic as biblical sexuality, marriage, and the family, even if they protest it’s a slight modification. While officially the Catholic Church has not changed its definition of marriage, the altering of the activity causes massive shifts. If, as the Catholic Church claims, Lex orandi, Lex credenda (“the law of prayer is the law of what is believed”), then actions have a deep connection to the official teachings of the Church. The declaration does not prescribe rituals, because to do so would cause confusion and make the action look too similar to the blessing of a marriage. However, it allows for actions already occurring (as Rev. Martin said in his explanation, “It was really nice … to be able to do that publicly”) and brings them into the light as a good.

This points to what the declaration sees as the need for this pastoral enlargement of blessings. Namely, these arise out of a popular piety and practice, and to create rituals and solemn rites would both confuse the official Church teaching and would be a measure of “excessive control, depriving ministers of freedom and spontaneity in their pastoral accompaniment of people’s lives.” Spontaneity and freedom are to characterize these pious practices, not doctrine and established Church teaching. Further, a standard for seeking the blessing is itself problematic because there should not be “exhaustive moral analysis” placed on those who ask for the blessing.

As an evangelical, Protestant Christian, there is likely little surprise that I disagree with the Pope. Though arguably there are Protestants who uphold Catholic doctrine better than the current Pope. However, if pastoral practice is to have any meaning, then it must flow from clear doctrine. It is not shaped by the winds of culture and the climate of ideologies that trample Church teaching. Further, it cannot take what God has called evil and name it good. Any attempts to circumvent the official teaching by blessing a same-sex couple, but not the union (one wonders how this couple found themselves together apart from their union), are linguistic games more likely to push the Catholic Church toward a more inclusive stance, all while winking at official teaching. 

If the law of prayer means anything, it means that in the decades to come, the act of blessing couples will lead to a revision of the doctrine which says their union is outside God’s blessing. For now, the doctrine remains clear. Yet, what does doctrine matter when priests—by their actions—flout the dogma and act contrary to the teaching?

By / Feb 28

What just happened?

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a religious liberty case that involves a Philadelphia Catholic agency targeted by the City of Philadelphia regarding its sincere religious beliefs.

At issue in Fulton v. Philadelphia is the question of whether it violates the religion clauses or the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution for the city of Philadelphia to end its contractual relationship with Catholic Social Services because of the city’s requirement that CSS endorse or certify same-sex relationships.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in Philadelphia, ruled against the agency, claiming the city’s nondiscrimination policy is a neutral, generally applicable law, and the religious views of Catholic Social Services do not entitle it to an exception from that policy.

This controversy is difficult to understand because no family has ever filed a complaint against the Philadelphia Catholic agency for following its Catholic mission, according to Becket Law, the nonprofit firm representing the plaintiff. Catholic Social Services’ religious beliefs have never prevented a child from finding a home.

ERLC filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in the case in support of Catholic Social Services. The Court will hear oral arguments on the case this fall.

What is the case about?

In 2018, a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer informed the City of Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services that two of its private foster care agencies would not work with same-sex couples as foster parents. Human Services investigated this allegation, which it considered a violation of the City’s anti-discrimination laws. When the agencies confirmed that, because of their religious views on marriage, they would not work with gay couples, Human Services ceased referring foster children to them.

Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, two Philadelphia foster moms, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Catholic Social Services, claiming the city of Philadelphia had violated their rights under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise, Establishment, and Free Speech Clauses, as well as under Pennsylvania’s Religious Freedom Protection Act. It asked the courts for an order requiring the city governement to renew their contractual relationship while permitting it to turn away same-sex couples who wish to be foster parents.

Why doesn’t the Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply in this case?

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a federal law passed in 1993 that is intended to prevent other federal laws from substantially burdening a person's free exercise of religion. RFRA was intended to apply to all branches of government, and both to federal and state law. But in 1997 in the case of City of Boerne v. Flores, the Supreme Court ruled the RFRA exceeded federal power when applied to state laws. In response to this ruling, some individual states passed state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that apply to state governments and local municipalities.

Currently, 21 states have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, though the state of Pennsylvania does not.

What is the significance of the case?

This case has significant implications for religious freedom in the public square. As Becket Law notes, faith-based organizations serve their neighbors and provide benefits to the community when they are able to operate in the public square. Rather than being a threat to the public square, religion is a natural expression of a natural human impulse.

Religious organizations should therefore be free to follow their faith in all aspects, including in the workplace. The government discriminates against a religious group if it prevents them from providing services based on their religious beliefs. As ERLC president Russell Moore wrote last November in the Wall Street Journal of this case in Philadelphia, “City hall’s use of children as leverage to force a religious institution to change its beliefs was appalling.”

By / Apr 29

Hello, this is Russell Moore, and this is Questions and Ethics, the program where we take your questions about issues that you are facing in your life or in your home or in your neighborhood or in your workplace and answer them through the grid of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the question today comes from Michael, and he is referencing the controversy that happened in recent days over World Vision. And before I ask Michael’s question, I will give you a little bit of the context for those of you who don’t know:

World Vision is a Christian ministry that has done very good work when it comes to helping starving and at-risk children around the world. And World Vision prompted a huge controversy in recent days when they announced that they were going to start hiring people who were same-sex married and that they were going to change their policy when it came to homosexuality, when it came to people who were married legally in states. The outcry meant that within, I think, forty-eight hours World Vision said we are reversing that policy. And so Michael says, “Dr. Moore, do you think World Vision changed its mind for the right reasons or simply because they lost so much support within the first twenty-four hours of making the announcement?”

That’s a good question, Michael. My response to that is to say I think that evangelicals made our views clear to World Vision, and I think that World Vision did the right thing in saying we are reconsidering this and we are turning around. Now, I think we need to be the sort of people who are willing to speak the truth, including to speak the truth to and about World Vision when they do something that we believe is unbiblical. But I think we also need to be the sort of people who can take yes for an answer.

World Vision put out a statement and said we apologize. The thing that struck me about this statement from Rich Stearns is that it was unlike many public apologies that we tend to see these days. It didn’t self-justify. It didn’t say, “I am sorry if I offended you. We’re sorry for those that we offended.” It said we did the wrong thing. We lost our way when it came to the authority of the Bible, and we are turning around. We are going to seek to make it right.

Now, I think that we take them at their word. I Corinthians 13, tells us to believe the best, and so I don’t think we can read motives, and I don’t think we ought to read motives. I think instead we ought to rejoice and say unless they prove otherwise, I think we need to take them at their word.

Now, does that mean that we ought to take into account—some people have said well, yeah, but you know, they made a really bad decision in the first place, so how can you trust a board that would make this sort of a decision that is just a clear break from biblical teaching and from two thousand years of Christian witness? Fair enough. Should we seek to watch and to hold World Vision accountable? Yes. We need to watch and to hold every Christian organization and ministry accountable. That’s what the Bereans did when they judged everything that the apostles were saying according to the word of God. They searched the scriptures to see if these things were so. We need to do that all of the time because every human authority is fallible, and every human authority can make mistakes. And so we need to be constantly watching that.

And I don’t mean that we need to have a watchful spirit or a skeptical spirit the way some people do, wanting to pounce on everything. But we need to hold everybody, all of us in Christian ministry, up to the standards of the word of God. True enough.

But we also need to be the sort of people who when somebody starts going in a wrong direction, they are rebuked, then they turn around—I mean the worst thing we can do is to say, oh, well, you obviously just turned around because we rebuked you; that means your motives are wrong. I mean the Apostle Paul confronted the Apostle Peter and said your refusal to have table fellowship with the gentiles—I am withstanding you to your face because you are not living up to what has been delivered to you by the Lord Jesus. Paul did that. Now, what if when Peter turned around and repented the response from the rest of the church is oh, well, he just repented because Paul confronted him; he is just worried about losing the influence that he has among the apostles? Well, you could read all those motives into that if you wanted to. But I think the better way to go is to take them at their word and to say we are glad you did the right thing. And like any other ministry, we are going to be holding you accountable. And if you walk away from the Bible and from the gospel, which is what happened here—I want to be very clear; that is what happened here—we are going to be the people who will remind you there is still an evangelical movement in this world, and the evangelical movement still believes the evangel.

Yeah, we need to do that. But we need to do it as people who take people at their word and believe the best.

What is your question that you have? Send it to me at [email protected]. Maybe it is something that you were reading in your quiet time in the Bible and you say I’m not even sure how to necessarily understand this; or maybe it’s something that you saw on television on the news or read about on the internet and you are saying I am not sure how to think about that as a Christian; or maybe it is a situation that you are facing in your family or in your home or your neighborhood or in your workplace. Send it to me at [email protected], and we will address it here on Questions and Ethics. Until next time, this is Russell Moore.