Russell Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), visited the Vatican last week and met Pope Francis. After the meeting, Nelson told journalists: “The differences in doctrine are real – and they’re important – but they’re not nearly as important as the things we have in common.” He went on to speak of “our [common] concern for human suffering, the importance of religious liberty for all of society, and the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation.”
That raised some eyebrows, not because of the areas of common concern that president Nelson mentioned, but because of the way he seemed to glide over the stark differences separating LDS believers and Catholics.
The remarks, however, were almost word-for-word a repetition of what Archbishop George Niederauer said at the 2010 ground-breaking ceremony for the LDS church Nelson was here in Rome to dedicate last week: “We cannot pretend there are not differences, but we can recognise that what is in common is much stronger than what is different.”
When it comes to the LDS, Catholics tend to define and think of the group negatively: that is to say, in terms of what the LDS Church is not. For example, LDS baptism is not valid. In this fundamental sense, the group is not one Catholics are free to consider “Christian” in the proper sense.
The differences, in other words, are not technical issues capable of resolution in principle. Nor are they like the differences between, say, the pre-Chalcedonian Assyrian Church of the East and the Catholic Church, which signed a common Christological declaration in Rome almost a quarter of a century ago.
The differences separating LDS believers from Catholics are basic and insuperable: one party will have to give, if they are to be overcome, and neither side is particularly willing to give, because both sides rightly see that – in this case – giving means giving away the store.
The man who would become prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith 16 years later, Luis Ladaria, SJ – then a professor at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University – explained Rome’s negative decision regarding LDS baptism in a 2001 article for L’Osservatore Romano. “The baptism of the Catholic Church and that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints differ essentially,” he wrote, “both for what concerns faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in whose name baptism is conferred, and for what concerns the relationship to Christ who instituted it.”
Nevertheless, Prof Ladaria concluded his essay on a note of optimism: “Catholics and Mormons often find themselves working together on a range of problems regarding the common good of the entire human race. It can be hoped therefore that through further studies, dialogue and goodwill there can be progress in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect.”
Catholics and Mormons have indeed found themselves facing challenges together in the first decades of the 21st century. On humanitarian issues, they have found common ground and collaborated on it. The LDS Church reports it contributed $6 million (£4.5 million) to combat the famine that broke out in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, and entrusted the management of those funds largely to Catholic Relief Services.
There is also a basic theological commitment underpinning the cooperation. “If we have a godless society, we have a rudderless ship,” president Nelson told reporters after his meeting with Pope Francis. This conviction animated Catholic-LDS cooperation in California in the early 2000s. Archbishop Niederauer – who had been from 1994 to 2005 the Catholic Bishop of Salt Lake City, Utah, the seat of the Church Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, before moving to San Francisco, where he served until 2011 – built a strong partnership with LDS leadership to advance the ballot measure protecting the traditional definition of marriage in the state.
The idea that free society needs the robust presence of religious believers in the public square is one found at the heart of remarks Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia delivered at Brigham Young University – the flagship LDS institution of higher education – in 2015, in a lecture celebrating the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. “The terrain of our lives in the 21st century is very different from the world in 1215,” he said on that occasion, “but the power of religious faith to limit the power of a sovereign – whether elected to the White House or a king by divine right – might be very familiar to the men who gathered at Runnymede.”
“Democracies,” Archbishop Chaput went on to say, “depend for their survival on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square – legally and peacefully, but zealously and without apologies.” Driving the point home, Chaput said, “That includes all of us.”
Feuding brothers reconcile when enemies are at the gate. So, apparently, are cousins able to put aside their differences when circumstances call for it.
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