“Ecumenical dialogue is dialogue between Christians. Dialogue with Mormons who represent official LDS teaching is interreligious dialogue.”
— Fr. Richard John Newhaus
Today I went to Richard Bushman’s 80th birthday symposium in Springville. The topic that convinced me (for reasons I will sketch below) the most to make the drive from Salt Lake was Donald Westbrook’s “Catholic-Mormon Dialogue, Ecumenical, Inter-religious, or What?” Westbrook, a Ph. D. student who has interacted with Dr. Bushman at Claremont, did not disappoint. He argued that Mormons don’t fit neatly in either of the traditional Catholic modes of dialogue which distinguish between Christian [pre-dominantly of the creedal variety] and non-Christian. He respectfully disagreed with Fr. Newhaus that Mormons belong in the second category, but explained why it would be very difficult to place Mormons in a category wherein a fundamental goal is the reunification of Christianity. Perhaps Mormons will eventually be afforded a special chapter like that afforded the Jews. Meanwhile nothing prevents lay Catholics from entering into discussions with Mormons.For Catholics, as Newhaus’s essay linked above and comments that followed Francis Beckwith‘s rebuttal of Warren Cole Smith’s recent remarks illustrate, Bruce R. McConkie’s 1958 Mormon Doctrine equation of the Book of Mormon “abominable church” is a sore spot. In some quarters there is little interest in engaging Mormonism outside of fending off attacks. So outside of settling a baptismal dubiem within the last decade and an occasional political alliance, the Mormon Church hasn’t attracted much attention from the Catholic hierarchy. The Salt Lake Catholic Bishop during the first edition Mormon Doctrine flap, Rev. Duane Hunt, responded with a lengthy defense against Mormon accusations of the apostasy.
Of course, Donald Westbrook has the benefit of knowing David O. McKay’s unfavorable reaction to the 1958 edition from Greg Prince’s biography. He has a nuanced understanding that Joseph Smith’s First Vision accounts advising him to avoid abominations were directed more at creeds and corrupt ministers than at a particular church. So I get the impression that while these things might still sting, he welcomes discussions between Mormons and Catholics becoming more substantial in the future. He sees Joseph Smith’s religious tolerance proclamation in Nauvoo that included Catholics as a more positive starting point.
Before I became an M* blogger, I started a blog aimed at discussion with Catholics. It was a spin off from my participation on the Catholic Answers message board. What began as an attempt to bail out an overwhelmed BYU student, ended in me staying months defending Mormonism there. The Catholics were very attentive to what I wrote, which is quite unlike what I experience in Mormon dominated forums. I could sense I was making an impact, softening up some of the bitterness felt by some of the ex-Mormons turned Catholic towards their former faith and answering questions from other Catholics who were trying to understand their spouse’s or girlfriend’s faith. I learned much from the contributions of a pair of better informed writers (David Waltz and Tom Rosson) from both sides there, who now both have articles in the FARMS Review.
The Mormon and Catholic blog I started was an attempt to get away from the message board dynamic that thrives on controversy. While I enjoy tackling controversial subjects, I like the format of blogs that helps a poster set the tone for the ensuing conversation. However, it was hard for my obscure and narrowly focused blog to attract much attention. A good post there would get like 15 views and several comments. In contrast, my first guest post here at Millennial Star had hundreds of views and even drew in Will Bagley to make a rare bloggernacle appearance. Needless to say, I am not a prolific blogger, as my relatively infrequent posts here might suggest. I get (what I think) are great ideas for a post all the time, but it often takes me at least an hour to write a paragraph.
When I hear presentations like Donald Westbrook’s it stirs up feelings of inadequacy. I tend to start a lot of projects I can’t sustain for long. Even M* almost floundered on my watch; if it wasn’t for energetic new bloggers resuscitating it would have gone under. Perhaps it is too much to hope for that others interested in Mormon and Catholic dialogue would take over the main posting responsibilities there.