Speaking at a dinner for the Human Rights Campaign, a group self-described as “America’s largest LGBTQ civil rights organization,” vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine recently said, “My support for marriage equality—my full complete, unconditional support for marriage equality—is at odds with the current doctrine of the church that I still attend. But I think that’s going to change, too.”
By “that’s going to change,” I assume Kaine doesn’t mean he’s planning on resolving the conflict between his personal ideology and his congregation’s public doctrine by joining the Episcopal church down the road. Rather, with a glowing smile, Kaine has predicted that the Catholic Church will eventually jettison 2,000 years of its teaching on human sexuality to embrace a position that he has passionately, completely, and unconditionally held since the Democratic Party forced him to three years ago.
Politicking and virtue-signaling aside, however, Kaine’s assertion raises an important question: how likely is it that the Catholic Church will eventually fly the rainbow flag over Vatican City? Is this anything more than wishful thinking? Or is there a genuine possibility that Rome could follow the example of mainline Protestantism and collectively shipwreck its faith?
Sinners Do Run Churches, After All
While many traditional Catholics will insist such a shift would be impossible because Catholic doctrine never changes, this mindset strikes me as somewhat naive. As a Lutheran, I believe there is a distinction between the invisible Christian Church and visible church bodies (or what are commonly called denominations). In other words, the Church-with-a-Capital-C is the gathering of true believers around the pure word and sacraments, while church bodies are the human institutions that seek to accomplish that goal according to their respective understandings of what the pure word is.
Because Christ is Lord of his Church, the Church will never confess gay marriage or any other false doctrine. But because sinful men organize and control church bodies, including the Roman Catholic Church, those church bodies are always at risk of doctrinal change and doctrinal corruption. So it’s certainly possible Kaine’s prediction could come true and priests throughout the world will eventually invite gay couples into the sacrament of holy matrimony. But how likely is this?
To answer that, it’s helpful to recognize that false doctrine generally follows an eight-step process to accomplish its goal of infecting and overtaking a church body. So how does that process work, and how far into the process is the Roman Catholic Church? Let’s take a look.
Step one: The laity begin publicly confessing false doctrine. Christian laity see that pagans have embraced Belief X that is contrary to what their church body teaches. Belief X, however, is appealing to them, usually on a fleshly level. So out of weakness, these Christians embrace the belief and begin advocating it in some way—sharing it with their congregation members, slapping Pro-Belief X bumper stickers on their cars, etc.
Step two: The clergy refuse to discipline erring laity. Since the Bible charges pastors to correct false doctrine, clergy should rebuke those who have publicly embraced Belief X. But, for some reason, they don’t. Other lay people then get the impression that it’s possible to be a Christian and hold to Belief X, that it’s possible to have the love of God while also having the love of the world, so more of them begin turning away from official church doctrine to embrace Belief X, especially when doing so makes them more acceptable to their unbelieving friends and family.
Step three: The clergy begin teaching false doctrine. When more and more sheep express comfort in the presence of the wolf, temptation will quickly make hirelings of shepherds. So because clergy experience the same temptations as laity, some of them will begin advocating Belief X to justify their desire to receive the earthly pleasure or earthly glory it gives them. In other words, the clergy made it acceptable to believe false doctrine, so it’s now become desirable for them to teach it.
Step four: The church hierarchy refuses to discipline erring clergy. If one rogue pastor embraces Belief X, his false doctrine becomes a problem for the church body. If 200 rogue pastors embrace Belief X, however, their false doctrine becomes a movement within the church body, a movement the hierarchy will become too afraid to stop via mass excommunication, especially if doing so would bring financial ruin and bad press to the institution.
Likewise, since false doctrines are frequently embraced by bored academics who hunger for secular approval and who love the intellectual exercise of making the Bible seem vague and ambiguous when it speaks clearly, and since bored academics tend to ascend the ranks within church bodies, it’s not uncommon for much of the hierarchy to have already embraced Belief X before anyone asks them to fight against it.
Step five: False doctrine becomes officially tolerated. If church leadership won’t condemn a false teaching, what’s their only other option? Legitimizing it. So after refusing to excommunicate the heretical elephant in the room, they have no option but to declare the elephant as a minority tradition within their broader confession of faith.
“While our official position remains that Belief X is contrary to the word of God,” the church body says, “we recognize that many of us sincerely believe the exact opposite, which we deeply respect for some reason. Therefore congregations that embrace Belief X are encouraged to continue teaching Belief X despite having promised that they wouldn’t teach stuff like Belief X when they joined our church body.”
Step six: False doctrine becomes officially equal. Now that the purveyors of false doctrine have been given legitimacy, next they demand equality, insisting on equal representation at seminaries, on the church body’s various boards and committees, in the mission field, etc. After all, if what they teach is equally valid, why shouldn’t they have equal access to teach it? Once again the bad-press-fearing hierarchy acquiesces because they recognize rule number one of church body warfare: during times of infighting, the orthodox turn to prayer but the heretics turn to the media.
Step seven: False doctrine becomes dominant. Now that the false teachers have as much influence as their opponents, they sing glorious songs of tolerance and coexistence until they have 51 percent of the votes.
Step eight: False teachers excommunicate the orthodox. Because the entire Belief X movement has been driven by the desire to embrace sin while escaping God’s judgment, the now numerically dominant false teachers start expelling those who continue to prick their consciences by faithfully speak God’s word of truth.
Regardless of the church body or issue, that’s how the false doctrine virus works (although the process often starts at step three with more “academic” false doctrines). This is how church bodies have altered their views on the nature of God, the role of women in the church, and divorce and human sexuality, to name just a few issues. I think this is also more or less how the Roman Catholic Church eventually changed its doctrine of salvation and expelled Martin Luther for maintaining the original apostolic teaching that man is justified through faith alone. If popes and bishops aren’t careful, this is precisely how Rome’s millennia-long opposition to homosexual acts could be corrupted.
Now Let’s Estimate the Odds of This Happening
But how far into this process is the Catholic Church on the issue of gay marriage? Rome is certainly past step two, as Kaine’s comments prove. After all, when the vice presidential candidate gets in front of a microphone and casually says, “What I believe is false doctrine according to my church, but I’m going to keep communing there anyway,” he’s expressing confidence that his priest won’t level any form of church discipline at him to bring him to repentance.
And why would he expect otherwise? While Catholic bishops occasionally make broad statements encouraging pro-choice politicians to abstain from communion, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and countless other public figures continue to publicly defy church teaching without facing public excommunication. Kaine, it appears, doesn’t expect to be treated any differently.
Likewise, with regard to Catholic clergy advocating homosexual acts and gay marriage, well, there’s this priest here, as well as the “gay lobby” within the Vatican that Benedict XVI claims to have squashed prior to his resignation—a lobby one can only presume still exists in some form beyond the walls of the Vatican and that likely feels somewhat optimistic under the reign of Pope Francis, who tends to speak more forcefully against carbon emissions than he does against what the Bible labels acts of abomination.
So it seems that the Catholic Church is hovering between steps three and four, with some Catholic clergy clearly sharing Kaine’s position but with a modest commitment from hierarchy to discipline them. Historically speaking, fully progressing to step four usually marks the point of no return for a church body, and while Rome is not there yet, they also may not be more than a few bad bishops and cardinals away from being unable to right the ship as it speeds in the wrong direction. For this reason, it’s possible Kaine’s prediction is, in his own mind, a sincere belief that the Vatican will eventually submit to the wisdom of the DNC.
The Secularization Trend Inside the Church Is Reversing
What Kaine fails to recognize, however, is that Francis is the peak rather than the beginning of liberalism’s ascendancy, that his generation’s Catholicism is in its last gasp. American cultural Christianity is in its death throes. The social mechanisms that have kept heterodox people in the pews and in seminaries are evaporating. For several generations, cultural and moral relativism-spouting court preachers in soft clothing have taught their people that the church body has nothing of substance to offer them, and our nation’s children are finally responding accordingly.
So while Kaine may feel optimistic when he sees that millennials overwhelmingly favor gay marriage, he forgets that, unlike his generation, millennials also overwhelmingly favor not bothering to change the dogma of churches they’ve already quit attending. No matter how many secular cheerleaders your side may have, it will be rather hard for Kaine’s camp to win the battle for Catholicism’s future when they don’t have any actual soldiers under the age of 50.
The future of Christianity does not belong to those who want to clothe themselves in both the robes of the church and the approval of the world. It belongs to those who gladly endure the rejection of this world to taste the kingdom of God. The future of Christianity does not belong to the hordes of aging white, liberal American cafeteria Catholics or a la carte Protestants who insist it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you have love in your heart. Christendom’s future belongs to the stubborn young bloods of all tribes and tongues throughout the world who will actually bother to show up because they actually believe what their creeds and catechisms confess.
In the years to come, at least in our nation, our pews may be emptier but the faithful few who fill them will be looking for genuine forgiveness instead of shallow validation. The next generation of clergymen will be far more likely to proclaim it to them, just as they will be more likely to preach genuine repentance to the next generation of Kaines and Paul Simons instead of covering their ears every time those supposedly devout Catholics and Lutherans claim to be “personally opposed” to an evil they’ve consistently worked to perpetuate.
The future of Christianity does not belong to those who are certain the pope will one day see the light on gay marriage or any other unbiblical notion about marriage. The future of Christianity does not belong to those who publicly deny the doctrines of their church bodies, but to those who will boldly confess them, thank God where they are unified with other denominations, and seek to resolve their divisions until Christ blesses us with the unity he prayed for.