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Ecumenical and Interfaith News – February

   (Submitted by the Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee of the Southern California/Nevada Conference, UCC, and the Pacific Southwest Region, DOC)

Catholics and Mormons: Like Us, Only Different

     Those Disciples and UCC members in our part of the world who have never had contact with members of the Roman Catholic Church or adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are probably few and far between.   But it is still a big question how much we actually know about what our fellow Americans believe who belong to these two traditions.  In terms of sheer numbers, both Catholics and Mormons are much larger than DOC and UCC combined.   On this basis alone, it would behoove us to educate ourselves about them.  But beyond that, as denominations deeply committed to Christian unity, are we not really obligated to educate ourselves about those whose interpretation of who Christ is and what He teaches diverges from our own?  And obligated, to the extent possible without abandoning our own convictions, to build bridges to them?

     It’s easier with the Catholic sisters and brothers.   The ecumenical movements of the past century have brought manifold theological conversations, multiple common efforts, and much genuine respect between Catholics and Protestants.  It is not uncommon nowadays for Roman Catholic theologians to teach at Protestant seminaries, or for Protestant believers to receive spiritual direction from Catholic priests or nuns.  This is new.  Some of us remember 1960, when many Protestants were told by their leaders that electing a President who is Roman Catholic would be questionable, even dangerous.  Catholics for their part have long since ceased referring to Protestants as “sectarians” and now call us brothers and sisters, albeit “separated” in some sense from the true Church.   We are well aware today that in our fundamental beliefs in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, in the Trinity, etc., Catholics and Protestants are one.  The principal difference between the two groups is in how the institutional Church is seen and structured: the extent to which the Church is kept free from sin by its connection to Christ; the power of the sacraments; the role of the laity, the status of women, the place of democratic governance, etc.  There is also among Catholics a devotion to Mary which is largely absent from Protestantism—but this is closely connected to the high value Catholics place on Mother Church.

      As this page goes to press, there has been a national controversy about President Obama’s decision to require Catholic hospitals to provide insurance for their employees which covers contraception.  The Roman Catholic bishops have reacted angrily to this, because the official church teaching is that artificial birth control is morally wrong.   This viewpoint of the hierarchy, however, is by no means shared by the Roman Catholic faithful.  Most Catholic women have used or use now some form of artificial contraception.   We Protestants have a hard time understanding the “official” Catholic position on this.  But it need not be seen as a big obstacle to Christian unity, precisely because most Catholics (and even many priests and nuns) don’t share the viewpoint of their bishops.  (There is a similar divergence between the episcopal leadership and the Catholic laity, though not as pronounced, on the issue of abortion.)

     Relationship with the Mormons–the Latter Day Saints–has been a much more perplexing matter.  Mormons have not, for the most part, belonged to ecumenical councils uniting various Christian denominations.   Some, however, have been active in interfaith groups.   Who they actually are has come to the fore in a new way with the plausible candidacy of Mitt Romney to be President—and in that way harks back to the candidacy of John F. Kennedy in 1960.  Many of the more evangelical Christian groups are strongly opposed to Romney because he represents what they call a “cult.”  What they mean is, that as much as the Mormons consider themselves followers of Christ, and saved by Christ, and as much as they want to be accepted as Christians, they really represent something very different: a new religion, if you will, which has rejected some of the basic teachings of traditional Christianity. 

     Such as?  Well, the LDS Church teaches that God the Father was once a human being.  He grew up, as it were, into godhood—and that means that the rest of us can do the same.  There is, so to speak, no qualitative difference, but only a quantitative difference between God and humanity.   Moreover, God has a wife.  Otherwise, soothe LDS people reason, how could He have had a son, the man called Jesus?  Jesus and his Father are entirely separate beings—the LDS therefore reject the classical teaching of the Trinity, that God is one nature in three persons.   Moreover, this divine family—God the Father, God’s wife, and Jesus—are the prototype of the ideal human family, on which the Mormons place tremendous emphasis.  For them, family life, with the engendering of many children, is at the center of everything.  They believe that the families they create will endure into eternity.  This is surely a salutary emphasis in our wider American society, given all our broken and dysfunctional families.   Many LDS families are indeed worthy of emulation.   But does this perspective help people who through no fault of their own remain single or childless, or those who feel called to the celibate religious life (monks and nuns), or those whose orientation is toward their same sex?   Does creating a strong family really sum up the will of God for us human beings?   What about the wider society with its groups and institutions:  do these have no integrity and dynamic, and unique set of problems, of their own?

     There are other Mormon emphases very much worth discussing.  Some, such as their abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, can be seen as far-sighted and healthy.  Others, such as their refusal to allow outsiders to be present at the rituals inside their temples, are much more questionable.   Still others, such as the original practice of polygamy and the refusal to accept African-Americans, on the grounds that they belong to a condemned race, have been abandoned under pressure from the surrounding Christian society.   Some observers believe that the Latter Day Saints will continue to evolve and eventually move back toward a more orthodox Christian theology.   What’s very clear is that Mormonism represents a highly original religious vision, born on American soil, and their movement has a very powerful dynamic toward growth in numbers, both in this country.  We certainly cannot afford to ignore them.  They’re not going away.  Is there some way we can or should sponsor some kind of dialogue with LDS members in the communities in which we have churches?  Would any of our churches feel comfortable having an LDS leader speak from the pulpit during worship?


One Response to “Ecumenical and Interfaith News – February”
  1. Vance Martin says:

    Seemingly for the purpose of being irenic, there’s always a rather quick dismissal of the historical context and significance of the pre-1970s LDS prohibition against black involvement in certain echelons of the church (efforts both by Mormons and non-Mormons to keep cordial and nominally polite dialogue in progress). Yet — not for recrimination — that context is important to explore in detail and at length, in terms of the origins of the legend of the Hamitic Curse outside of scriptural texts, as well as the fact that the legend was presumed to have some sort of truth even by more presumably “mainstream” Christians, prior to the discovery of the Elizabethan hieroglyphics on those silver tablets in upstate New York by Mormon forbears.

    I’m sure more theologically astute folks than I know of multiple references on the matter, but footnotes in Chapter 8 of Bernard Lewis’ 1990 Oxford University Press publication, “Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry”, have been valuable for me, as has been H. Shelton Smith’s, “In His Image . . . but”, a publication from the ’60s, no longer in print, but available, used, through the ‘Net. The fact that God supposedly visited the LDS Council of the Twelve in the late 1970s to announce a more favorable place and role for folks of African origin in the LDS faith community seems (obviously from my perspective) akin to the Almighty’s apparent visitation to the Salt Lake City (versus the New Orleans) Saints in the late 19th Century, when Utah statehood was being negotiated and polygamy was the stumbling block to admission to the Union: highly political (even though I honor the LDS insistence that politics had absolutely nothing to do with it.)

    The Curse of Ham, conveniently tucked away in the proverbial theological back bedroom with chagrin, like a memory challenged great-uncle or aunt, because it’s got to be about as embarrassing a theory as lunar green cheese and the tooth fairy, wasn’t by any means a Mormon invention. So, more than simply adherents of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young will have to duck their heads when the matter is substantively discussed. I believe that H. Shelton Smith, in his book (referenced below), may comment about a Methodist catechism that admonished blacks to “know their place” in the biblical cosmology.

    An ancient Greek myth about Apollo’s son, Phaeton, representing a classic Euro-Mediterranean mental stretch, was one of many employed in past centuries to explain dark skin. Acceding to his son’s begging to be allowed to ride his father’s chariot, unaccompanied, Apollo permits Phaeton to grab the reins of the vehicle and take off solo, wheeling through the heavens at breakneck speed. Alas, Phaeton loses control when the steeds gallop on the cloudy turf unrestrained. Because Phaeton is unable to rein in the chariot’s descent as it almost scrapes the earth, the chariot makes a nosedive dangerously close to sub-Saharan Africa and guess what? The intense heat of the mythical buggy’s wheels burn the inhabitants’ flesh; and, voila, that’s why black folks are unaesthetically black!

    A recent publication that discusses 17th and 18th Century exploratory explanations of black people, their origins, cultures and behaviors is Andrew S. Curran’s “The Anatomy of Blackness: Science and Slavery in the Age of Enlightenment”. It’s a pricey Cambridge University Press scholarly publication. But, even the first few pages of the opening chapter had me and my attorney godson rolling in the aisles last week (if one can roll in the aisles at Peet’s Coffee on Lake Avenue). For hilarity, it’s better fodder than explaining why the leopard lost its spots. Nonetheless, it’s sobering to face the fact that some of the, perhaps, understandably primitive wandering of the European proto-scientific mind still has a strangle hold on us today (reference the report in this morning’s Yahoo blogs of the Montana Federal jurist’s racist comments about the current inhabitant of the White House!).

    For us in the Americas, one must also address the interesting history of Bartholome del las Casas (who ultimately became Roman Catholic Bishop of Chiapas, in Mexico). A former noble and slave owner living on the Island of Hispaniola, he entered the Dominican Order of the Roman Catholic priesthood, successfully petitioning the Pope to deem the indigenous Indian inhabitants of the Caribbean eligible to conversion to Christianity. Las Casas’ delay in granting the same privilege to the black slaves, later imported from Africa, was due not to their skin color, but to the presumed likelihood that many of them would have already been converts to Islam before departing Afric’s shores and, therefore, had permanently cooked their corporate religious gooses in apostasy prior to boarding the ship. It took Las Casas a few years to recant and consider the imports from the Senegambia through the Middle Passage potentially as faithful a group of followers of the True God as the Arawak and other Caribbean indigenes. The upshot of the deal is that, regardless his petition to the Pope, Las Casas had no luck in convincing the Spanish colonists who began to inhabit those islands (as well as countries in South America, such as Peru, one of the Spanish colonies earliest to bring African-origin slaves to the Americas — initially as household servants and artisans, fluent in Spanish, who had already lived on the Iberian Peninsula for a few generations) that the Pope meant business. Indians died at a tragically rapid rate and, though routinely forcibly converted to Christianity, were treated by the European intruders no better than African slaves.


    VANCE MARTIN, your friend and colleague from the Disciples of Christ

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