Donald Westbrook on Mormon-Catholic Dialogue

“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.

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About Keller

I was a BYU baby while my parents finished up their advanced degrees in psychology. I have lived in some interesting places growing up: near the Lagoon at Layton; in an old polygamist house in Manti with an upper-story door that opened to the middle of a roof; in Rigby,Idaho, the self-proclaimed birthplace of television; then over to Sweet, a small town north of Boise near some fun river rapids; then for my high school years in Lund (named after a counselor in the First Presidency), Nevada; and full circle back to Utah County for college. Currently I work as an electrical engineering in the defense and space industry in Salt Lake City. I have served in a single's ward elder's quorum presidency and as a hymn book coordinator. I also served a mission in the Bible Belt (Oklahoma City) and to prepare I became an avid reader of FARMS publications. This has lead me to become a volunteer for FAIR as way of furthering my apologetic interests and helping those struggling with tough issues to find useful information. I have also started an interfaith blog to dialog with Catholics and practice "holy envy." I like blogging on historical topics and doing genealogical research.

10 thoughts on “Donald Westbrook on Mormon-Catholic Dialogue

  1. I never understood why Catholics would get so upset. After all, its not like they haven’t had a history of Protestants going back to the Reformation that haven’t declared the same thing, even if the Mormon version is a misreading of the Book of Mormon passage in question. Even then, for Mormonism the idea of the Catholic Church as the “abominable church” is no different than them as “The whore” as painted by other Christians. It expresses less theology and history than it does philosophy. They have much more to worry about with accusations of child abuse by Priests than a generalization with no actual teeth.

    To make it even more annoying that there would be what I consider an overblown reaction, the Catholic Church is mega-huge while the LDS Church is relatively insignificant. Defensiveness only makes the Catholics out to be bullies trying to tell the upstart skinny kid what’s up. Instead of a quick dismissive, the arguments put some credibility behind the descriptive. More lively defensiveness would be understandable if the LDS Church and its members did more than make what amounts to a religious boundary marker. The fact of the matter is that Mormons are more likely to defend Catholicism against the most aggressive Protestants (and atheists for that matter) than go against them. Most likely the higher authorities of the Catholic Church, aside from some real theological differences that matter in relationships, understand this and pretty much leave the matter alone.

  2. As a Mormon who spends a lot of time in Latin America, I have a lot of interaction with Catholics. I love talking to priests about the history of the Catholic church. I’ve even been to Mass several dozen times and attended many, many Catholic funerals and weddings. A friend of mine who was agnostic said he was going to become a Catholic (after I had discussed the Book of Mormon with him) and I celebrated because there is a lot more good than bad in the Catholic church.

  3. Okay, my thoughts on this.

    First, yes, it stings that Mormons believe that the Roman Catholic Church is not (and never was) the same Church Christ setup. Since this is the crux of their story/meme, we represent an incompatible counter meme.

    Second, I can’t really tell you why Catholics are more comfortable with Protestants than Mormons. Well, yes, I can. It’s because Protestants are more like Catholics than we are. What I mean is I can’t give you a rational reason for it because I doubt there is one. My friend, Agellius, once gave to me this ‘definition’ of what it meant to be a Christian to explain why Mormons are not Christians to him:

    I think there has to be some kind of descent from the original Apostolic church, which according to my beliefs is the Catholic Church. Basically this is because the Church is a covenant family, so a Christian should have some relationship to the family. [The Church is also called the Body of Christ, so one needs to be a member of the Body to be a Christian.]

    The Eastern Orthodox and the Protestants (as we see it) were Catholics who broke away, so they do have that family tie, even though they are prodigal sons, in a sense; especially the Protestants, much less so the Orthodox. The Mormons, on the other hand (as we see it) rose up independent of any existing Christian body, and in fact immediately announced that they rejected all existing Christian bodies, which they said were all corrupt and apostate. So as I see it, they renounced any ties to the existing covenant family [and thus membership in the Body].

    Now if you know any Protestants or Eastern Orthodox, you know that most of them do not consider themselves to have broken off from the Catholic Church and think Catholics are arrogant for claiming that. Further, the general Protestant attitude is not much different from the stance he (accurately in my opinion) ascribes to Mormons.

    So there is, without a doubt, a subjective quality here. Protestants believe that they did not break off from the Catholic Church, but Catholics have subjectively decided that they did, and so they will treat them as fellow Christians. Mormons they will not because Mormons (subjectively) really did form independently.

    (By the way, as I told Agellius, I have no issue with people coming up with their own definition for ‘Christian” and I don’t even have a concern with an obvious attempt like this to exclude Mormons from the definition. Heck, if they want to exclude Mormons from being Christians by saying “A Christian is anyone that accepts Jesus as Savior and Son of God and isn’t a Mormon” I’m fine with that too. My sole and ongoing concern with defining Mormons out of Christianity is that they at least admit that complex definitions like the above aren’t what the average person understands the word “Christian” to mean. It’s not even what the average Catholic understands the word to mean. I ask only that they follow the command to not bear false witness by simply admitting that whether or not Mormons are Christian depends on what definition people have in mind at the time. Mormons are Christian under certain widely accept definitions and are not under specific denominational definitions like the above. Failing to admit this proves one intentionally deceptive in my opinion.)

    Third, does it really sting any more for Catholics to have Mormons not accept them as the one true Christian Church than it does for Catholics to not accept Mormons as the one true Christian Church?

    Fourth, does it really sting any more for Catholics to have Mormons not accept them as the one true Christian Church than it does for Buddhist to know that Catholics believe God is going to send them to hell forever and ever without possibility of repentance for nothing other than being born into the wrong religion?

    Fifth, does it really sting any more for Catholics to have once (by apparently a single authority) been called by Mormons the ‘abominable’ Church than any of a myriad of similar statements by way way more Protestants? (Jettboy’s point)

    Sixth, does it really sting any more for Catholics to have once been called by Mormons ‘abominable’ than numerous things I and the LDS Church have been called by some Catholics and even some Catholic authorities?

    I do not agree that Catholics are the ‘abominable church’ at all. Not at all. McConkie was wrong and admitted it publicly. So it’s time to let that sting drop all together. I do agree that Mormons and Catholics should actively work to convert each other and should actively continue to both claim to be the Church Jesus setup and there is no other. So I see no way to remove that sting through requiring the other Church to change.

    I think people need to mature spiritually to learn to accept that this is the best possible approach and to stop acting hurt as a way of trying to cause guilt — but then committing the very same ‘crimes’ themselves. This is just hypocrisy, plain and simple.

    In my perfect world, all religions would take themselves seriously and work to advance their mutually exclusive truth claims at the expense of all the other religions. Oh wait! I just defined how it really is. Guess I’m pretty satisfied then.

  4. Spinning off of Jettboy’s comment, I think a case can be made that it was the Mormons were the bullies in Utah in the 50s and 60s. If you’ve read the Prince biography, the McConkie episode wasn’t an isolated incident.

    Westbrook made a point in his Q&A that after the Vatican II reforms, the RCC doesn’t hold as tightly to the notion of being the only true church in a way that is symmetrical to the way the LDS still do. So they have relaxed on their boundary maintenance and their ecumenical talks are very much about boundary renegotiation. I imagine it must help when Protestants can back away from some of the hurtful things they have said in the past, not being tied to certain scripture interpretations. The Catholics have a similar concern with Mormons regarding whether we are tied to traditional interpretations of scriptures or not.

    I get the impression that the concern is about clearing the air and not so much as holding a grudge. I think it helps us to admit that we have relied heavily on old Protestant scholarship in justifying our beliefs about the apostasy and are in the midst of paradigm shift signaled by the book Early Christians in Disarray.

  5. Keller, good points.

    One thing to keep in mind though with Jettboy’s comment, I don’t think he was holding a contest about who has been less the bullyin the past. I think his point was that the Roman Church probably isn’t forming it’s opinions of Mormons based primarily on how Mormons in Utah in the 50s acted towards local Catholics. So it’s probably based mostly on doctrinal interpretations, as you suggest yourself.

  6. Keller, one thing I’d like for you to explain further because I’m interested:

    “RCC doesn’t hold as tightly to the notion of being the only true church in a way that is symmetrical to the way the LDS still do”

    It was my understanding that the Catholics do still hold that they are the one historic Church setup by Jesus. (At least compared to Protestants, I’m less sure on how they view Orthodox.) But that they do not believe one has to be part of the Church to receive salvation. Rather being part of the Church gives one access to authoritative sacraments that make the Grace of Christ available. Thus it helps greatly to be a part of the Catholic church but you are not necessarily damned for failing to do so. It’s also my understanding that they do not believe baptism has to be done by authority. (Thus casting as wide a net as possible on baptism without giving up on its essential nature.)

    If this is correct, this seems relatively symmetrical to the LDS view. The difference being that the LDS Church requires vicarious ordinances after mortality rather than leaving it in a gray area as to how, precisely, not being part of the covenant Church affects you.

  7. I advocate applying Krister Stendahl’s rules for religious conversations between those of different faiths. One of those is not to compare the other faith’s worst to your best. I have never felt the need to bring up things like the sex abuse scandal, I get the impression that lay Catholics are already profoundly remorsefully for things like that and problematic aspects of their history even though they are not responsible for them.

    The closest way that I reciprocate is feeling sorrow for events like the Mountain Meadows Massacre and some of the racism that flourished during the priesthood ban era. But my feelings are not typical of Mormons, who may ignore or rationalize those problems, or deal with them in some other constructive way.

    In the interest of comparing best to best, Westbrook brought Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo religious tolerance. Mormons tend to get a lot of mileage out of the John M. Reiner quote, though much has changed since then.

  8. Bruce, You would probably have to ask a Catholic to explain how they currently view the position of the RCC relative to Protestantism.I will probably get myself in trouble trying to answer your question off the cuff.

    When it comes to baptism and marriage, I think Catholics don’t claim an exclusive on the authority needed for those sacraments (LDS: “ordinances”). For marriage, the ministers or conduit of authority is the marriage partners and not the priest. For baptism, having the right intentions and form sufficiently authorize the officiator.

    Where Catholics do claim an exclusive authority is in regards to ordaining bishops and sharing Communion (LDS: “sacrament”). Even though some profound doctrinal differences exist between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic, they still recognize each others’ authority and share Communion.

    If I recall correctly, some Lutheran bishops and some Episcopalian bishops can trace their ordinations back to Catholic bishops. So ecumenical talks aimed at reunification have a chance, however remote, of Catholics recognizing that authority in exchange for Protestants to recognizing the Catholic source of their authority.

    My source on marriage is What Binds Marriage? Roman Catholic Theology in Practice by Timothy J. Buckley

    A source I have read about bishop’s ordinations is Francis Sullivan’s From Apostles to Bishops.

  9. I don’t have much to add, but I would like to say I think this is an outstanding post and discussion.

    I would like to say though that in my experience, it is difficult to properly appreciate Mormon theology without a decent understanding of the history of classical Christian theism in general. Not just what happened in the first couple centuries after Christ, but what has occurred since then as well.

    The entire grace works debate is more or less incomprehensible without it, for example. Or if you want to understand the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, or original sin, it helps to understand a little about Aristotelian metaphysics, because it is the framework for classical Christian apologetics going back at least eighteen hundred years.

  10. My dearest friend is a devout practicing Catholic. I am sure that he would love to win me to the faith. There is much that I admire in Catholicism not the least of which is that it carried the torch for Western Culture for so long. That there was apostasy is certain but that it didn’t go further is a blessing indeed. We would all be Muslim without the Catholics.

    I am willing concede Catholic authority up to and including the Terrestrial Kingdom 🙂 (Not that we care so much for that territory). I do respect their emphasis on the mind and think that it should cause us all to remember that the Holy Ghost bears witness to our minds and to our hearts.

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