Catholicism and the Cross

I was inspired by the good-faith question of a Catholic on the FAIR boards. In spite of growing up with Catholic friends and serving a French mission, I realized I’d never actually read any Catholic sources. Just a little hypocritical, since I hold to Krister Stendahl’s three rules of inter-religious study, one of which is “use their own sources and try to understand on their own terms.”

And so, I have slowly been reading through Catholicism for Dummies. The Catholic Church has a formal mechanism for its adherents to know if something represents Official Catholic Doctrine, the stamp of Imprimatur. Catholicism for Dummies bears that stamp, so it’s actually a good place to start.

Something I read about the cross resonanted with me a good bit. The cross has three symbols. Primarily, of course, it represents Jesus on the cross. However, the vertical post also stands for an individual’s personal vertical relationship with God, while the horizontal post represents the fact that each individual believer also has fellowship and responsibility with the earthly community of believers.

I like that. With that kind of symbolism, I would have no problem wearing a cross around my neck. Perhaps it would remind me that home-teaching (something I have trouble with) is not merely a hoop to jump through.

49 thoughts on “Catholicism and the Cross

  1. I’m looking forward to more reports as you read through the book, Ben. Would that Catholics interested in Mormonism go read Mormonism For Dummies (which does not bear any official stamp of the Church but is probably a good place to start anyway).

  2. Ben, in Latin America, a lot of Church converts continue wearing the cross. I can’t think of anything wrong with that, and when I was a bishopric in Brazil I never suggested to anybody they should stop wearing a cross. I doubt many Catholics actually know of the three-fold purpose of the cross, however.

  3. I doubt many Catholics actually know of the three-fold purpose of the cross, however.

    That’s quite likely. Most believers aren’t academic believers, whatever their tradition.

    Dave, you’ll have to wait a while for further updates. I’m doing some traveling in the next few weeks and either won’t have time or internet access to post.

  4. Modern Mormons not using crosses and crucifixes must have been an historical accident. Even BY said keep your mind focused on the cross. The “it focuses too much on the dead Christ”, that we often hear, sounds like a bogus explanation of present LDS custom, akin to the bogus party line explanation of the WofW becoming a commandment.

    I will say the later two symbols you site do nothing for me. I see the cross/crucifix, stations of the cross, etc as very simple and helpful worship aids that help us grasp the reality of the sacrifice and draw one closer to G-d.

    Not using the cross may have some advantages when proselyting to non-Christians, as the cross/crucifix is a very in-your-face symbol that can turn some people off, but the same could be said for the odd period clothing our male bike riding missionaries wear, so I doubt that has anything to do with current LDS practice.

    BTW, Francophone missions rock!

  5. This post got me thinking about the Church’s official refusal to use the cross as a symbol.

    Usually, when a GA explains why, it goes something like this:

    “We do not focus on the death of Christ, but in His life and resurrection.”


    “The true symbol of the LDS faith is its people.”

    I’m especially interested in the second explanation.

    Putting the “saints” themselves as this religion’s symbols is, quite frankly, problematic.

    What happens when the LDS guy lies to you and sells you a defective car? What about when all the ward members start a mean-spirited gossiping campaign? What if the “special glow” just isn’t there. You get the point.

    So much for our symbol.

    But Church doctrine on this isn’t just limited to statements in firesides and General Conference. The Book of Mormon also definitively claims “by their fruits shall ye know them.”

    According to this scripture, when I find my local LDS members to be wretched people, Alma himself exhorts me to conclude that this is a wretched church.

    This is not a problem for your average Catholic. They can raise the cross as a shield and remind us that there are higher principles here that are independent of whether some Bishop abused children, Irish social upheavals, or whether the Pope supported Hitler or not. The cross can theoretically remain unblemished even in the face of all the worst abuses by its followers.

    The Mormons have no such defense. Our Church has unequivocally stated its willingness to be “judged of its fruits.” We are expected to judge this religion by not only its influence on its followers, but its worldly success generally.

    This leads to a personally disturbing conclusion.

    The assumption that “this Church can carry on without me” is dead wrong. The idea that this Church cannot be judged on the actions of its members is hogwash. God is allowing Himself and His work to be judged of humankind based on our actions.

    God is on trial today, and you and I are the evidence. Our actions will either support or condem Mormonism, but none of us are given the luxury of fooling ourselves that our conduct doesn’t matter.

    It matters more than most Mormons are willing to admit.

  6. I wear a St. Catherine’s cross under my clothes most of the time. It’s something I picked up while I was an Episcopalian. Nice to know that there are other Mormons who don’t find it too jarring.

  7. I wear a cross and i am a member. i wear a cross because i know alot of pagan people, they are my friends, so when i hangout with them and i meet some new people there is no confusion as to my basic religious beliefs, also i have realized that it cuts down on christian bashing, i also wear my ctr ring and/or necklace because that brings in the discussion of what i believe, and moral codes and stuff like that.

  8. Suzanne brings a question to my mind: would we be better accepted as Christians if we chose to share their symbols? Obviously some objections would remain, but would run-of-the-mill Protestants and Catholics be more open to “we’re Christians too” if we wore crosses?

    I think the answer is yes.

    SteveEM, I’ve been wondering for a while now… why do you say G-d instead of God?

  9. The one item I gained from this post is the term “Imprimatur”. As I have seen people argue ad-naseum over small, and big, questions of doctrine I notice that they each have the habit of attacking the source material of the other person. It would be nice if the church would come out with their own version of this.

  10. Like y’all, my first instinct when I learn something interesting about Catholics is to criticize the leaders of the Church.

  11. There’s only one statement in one comment that could even remotely be understood as critical of the leaders of the Church. It seems that “y’all” paints with altogether too broad a brush–but then again, maybe Arizona really is just a county in Texas.

  12. The problem with wearing the cross for Mormons is we DO have our own symbols that are of theological importance. They are very specific and have some strong associations with the atonement. Wearing a cross (and a CTR ring for that matter) is redundant and perhaps confusing the issue.

    I agree that the outspoken reasons for not using the cross are rather recent, but I don’ think its an accident of history. Nor do I think the reasons given are wrong. If G-d saw a reason for us to adopt the cross as a symbol He would have given prophets a reason to introduce it as a major component of our doctrinal culture. Temples and our lives are the Mormon outward symbols of the atonement. And YES that can condemn the Church and its members if things are not going the way they should. But then, if you read the Scriptures, G-d intends it to be that way because we ARE supposed to live by higher ideals and stronger faith.

    With charity I can understand and not judge members who wear crosses. On the other hand, I will never wear one because I think there are reasons (both said and unsaid) that Latter-day Saints are not supposed to have them. Again, I believe that Baptism, the Sacrament, our Lives, and especially the Temple are our symbols for the Atonement and Christian Faith. CTR rings might even need to be disregarded as religiously questionable.

  13. I don’t see why “Catholics and Protestants accepting us as christians” would count as an advantage to wearing the cross. I don’t think we have any interested in being socially assimilated on those terms.

    We do have symbols. They are sacred, and we display them sparingly, which keeps them from becoming shopworn. Not to be too crass, but if all the Christ-centered symbolisms from the temple, for example, were made so commonplace that we emblazoned them on coffee mugs and hung them from our rear view mirrors, something very crucial and special to Mormonism would be forever lost through overfamiliarity.

    I think that’s the advantage our using less-sacred symbols for our everyday tokens of religious identity. Think about it: the CTR ring is a worthy, virtuous symbol, but one that bears with it a slight campy charm: it is, after all, a leftover token borrowed from primary children. By using something that is harmless, righteous, but nontheless extraneous to our devotional theology, such as the CTR ring, it reserves a different, and I think higher, kind of reverence for the Christ-centered symbols of the temple.

    I don’t see why diluting those symbols by appropriating the cross as a public symbol would do us any good.

    Let me also add, however, that I have _NO_ problem if someone who converted to Mormonism from another faith tradition, and who already has a special spiritual and emotional attachment to the cross, continues to wear the cross after baptism.

  14. One of my Irish Catholic friends related how he did not want to attend an open casket funeral when he was four years old because he was afraid of the corpse. His grandma took him aside and said: “We are not afraid of death like the Protestants. We see the body of Jesus on the cross just like the body at a funeral.”

    In many ways, Mormonism is a Catholic creed, especially the emphasis on sacraments, authority, and obedience is a Catholic feature. We could learn a thing or two on how to deal with some of the problems that are part and parcel of an authoritarian sacramental theology from the Catholic Church.

    Catholics never need to wonder, for example, if a pronouncement of the Pope is the authoritative word of God or personal opinion. In Mormonism, often one is not quite sure.

    Catholics also enjoy the rule of law when they become subject to ecclesiastical discipline including canon law, legal representation, and an uncompromised appeals process.

  15. Yes Hellmut,

    But the scripture has been so often used to support the general rightness of our faith and followers, that it has become almost a de facto doctrine in popular LDS consciousness. It’s not just about false prophets anymore, even if that was the scriptural intent.

    Adam, I hope you don’t think I’m dissing on General Authorities. My point was not that putting the saints as living symbols is problematic for Pres. Hinckley’s credibility. My point was that such symbolism is problematic for our salvation and destiny as members.

  16. Ariel #9,
    “G-d” is a habit I pick-up on my mission while corresponding about faith with a Jewish investigator after I was transferred from his area. He did it to avoid the written equivalent of vain repetition. I’m not sure if the intent is accomplished, but it’s now a decades old habit for me.

  17. Matter of fact, apostles pushed the cross as a symbol of the Christian faith. According to Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible the word “cross” is used 28 times in the bible. Some noteworthy instances are:

    1 Corinthians 1:17-18
    17 For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with awisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.
    18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.

    Galatians 6:14
    14 But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.

    Ephesians 2:16
    16 And that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross, having slain the enmity thereby:

    Philippians 3:18
    18 (For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:

    I’m not a biblical scholar or anything, but from my own personal readings of the New Testament, it seems that the cross is a frequently used symbol, and cannot be singled out as simply a sign of Christ’s death. It served in times past a symbol of the Christian faith, even before the apostasy. Just because it is used by the Roman Catholic church and other Protestant churches as a symbol of Christianity does not make it an apostate symbol or idea. I believe it is one of the vestiges of the original church, left unchanged over thousands of years. I don’t wear a cross myself, but I have told my non-member friends who are aware that my church doesn’t use crosses in its buildings, and often discourages its members to wear them as well, that I probably would wear one if someone gave one to me, and that it wasn’t an issue with me as it appears to be with other church members, including my family. It is a symbol of the Christian faith, and I see no doctrinal reason for not accepting it as such. It is not merely a symbol of Christ’s death. It is not even primarily a symbol of Christ’s death. If you doubt me, ask an Evangelical or a devoted Catholic what the symbol of the cross means to them. They will not say: “Christ’s death” and leave it at that. They may not even mention His death. The only Christian group I can think of that believes the cross to be a symbol of Christ’s death is the membership of the LDS church. If it is a part of LDS culture that the cross represents Christ’s death, so be it. In that context the cross cannot serve as a useful symbol because it’s proper symbolism is not understood. But excepting that do not understand why the cross cannot serve as a symbol of our faith.

  18. Ben,

    While eating lunch with friends, I asked the Catholic ones about the vertical / horizontal motifs you addressed. To a man, these three practising Catholics, all of whom are Ph.D candidates in OT, said they’d never heard of the idea. They also said, however, that it wouldn’t surprise them to find it in some “religious studies” material that did bear the imprimatur. Apparently they have the same sort of issues we do with what’s official, really official, downright official, and doggone official depending on just who you ask.

    Just thought I’d bring that to your attention so you could take some salt with that “for Dummies” book if necessary.

  19. Unfortunately, the Imprimatur isn’t as definitive a sign of orthodoxy as it should be. As I understand it, it’s simply the local bishop’s permission (symbolic today) to have the material published in his diocese, although if it also has a Nihil Obstat, it’s passed a slightly higher standard by getting past a Vatican-authorized censor. And I don’t have to tell Mormons how un-homogenous bishops can be. 🙂

  20. The other thing to remember about an Imprimatur and the Nihil Obstat is that are a negative guarantees that nothing is contrary to the Catholic faith. That allows room for an awful lot of speculation. There are several defined levels of Catholic doctrine such as:

    Fides Divina – statements that occur within words of divine revelation itself.

    Fides catholica / fides ecclesiastica – statements made through the infallible teaching authority of the church. “De Fide Definita” if the statement itself is promulgated by an ecumenical council or papal judgment ex cathedra.

    Sententia theologice certa – statements which do not fall into any of the above categories, but which can be derived from infallible truths by short chains of argument

    Sententia communis – a judgment broadly held by the vast majority of theologians

    Theological statements of lesser grades include (in declining order): sententia probabilis, sententia bene fundata, sententia pia, and opinio tolerata. [ie, opinions that are, in order, probable, well-founded, pious, and tolerated].

    (That list is quoted from; also see

  21. “Catholics never need to wonder, for example, if a pronouncement of the Pope is the authoritative word of God or personal opinion. In Mormonism, often one is not quite sure.”

    Catholics have more resources than we do to answer the question, but I can tell you that even among educated, knowledgeable Catholics there are all sorts of disputes about what’s binding, what’s not, etc. Atlantic’s comment is spot on.

  22. That brings up a question I’ve wondered about: How do Mormons know when a statement is ex cathedra (or the LDS equivalent)? Is there a rule of thumb, or does the prophet have to say so explicitly?

  23. Interesting comments.

    For our LDS friends, Papal ex cathedra statements have only occured twice in the 2,000 years of the Church – once in the 19th century and once in the 20th.

    I leave it to your curiosity to discover the teachings. Hint – the 20th century ex cathedra occured in 1917 (near the end of WWI.)

  24. “And so, because our Savior lives, we do not use the symbol of His death as the symbol of our faith. But what shall we use? No sign, no work of art, no representation of form is adequate to express the glory and the wonder of the Living Christ. He told us what that symbol should be when He said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments””

    That’s from the Hinckley talk linked above. I see nothing in it that says I can’t use a cross personally — if only because I think it’s clear that it can’t possibly proscribe using a picture of the temple or a depiction of Christ (including but not limited to the picture that you see in half the LDS homes out there, or the Christus statue sitting in the SLC visitor’s center.) All I’m reading is a “we don’t use this as a group, and here are some reasons we don’t want it to stand for us as a group, and by the way no physical symbol is adequate to do that job so we don’t use a physical symbol at all, officially, in that manner.” No CTR ring can do that job, either, and we’re not stopped from using it. The key difference is that we also don’t use a cross, in particular, in lessons or sacrament meetings or the temple — but how many different restrictions are there on those particular settings? I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to quote from Ghandi or Abraham Lincoln in my Primary lessons, and I’m not even supposed to buy a book from Deseret Book and use it to supplement the lesson in the lesson manual. We’re an international church and correlation and so forth.

    None of which keeps me from using a cross, or a star of David, or a toothpick wrapped in used bubble gum, to bring myself closer to God on my own time (or, for that matter, in class — so long as I’m doing it myself, and not teaching the kids about it or having them do it too.) We’re minimalist on the special group symbolism, and I say good for us. Christ used dozens of different parables to speak to different people; why should symbols, which don’t have any power in and of themselves, be any different?

  25. I also dispute the somewhat common claim that there’ve only been two ex cathedra pronouncements. I think a more realistic number is somewhere in the teens.

    Personally, I think that this statement’s good enough for infallibility: “Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

    I’ll leave it to you to figure out the source and date on that one.

    (Also, one more thing. Without giving away the answer, the twentieth-century pronouncement that you speak of occurred in 1950, not 1917.)

  26. Interesting comments. I had heard the horizontal and vertical analysis of the cross. I listen to Catholic radio on my way to and from High Council. It helps get me into the mood for the spiritual feast that HC has become under the current SP.

    While in Mesa on business, I was reading my scriptures and came across JST Matthew 16:25-26.

    25 Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.
    26 And now for a man to take up his cross, is to deny himself of all ungodliness, and every worldly lust, and keep my commandments.

    I thought that I would like to get a cross and have it engraved with the reference to serve as a reminder that I should take up my cross daily. But, I couldn’t find one that was simple enough that it didn’t strike me as being suitable to wear to the great and spacious building.

  27. Through the last few years, I have come to better appreciate the cross, not only as a religious symbol, but also for it’s aesthetics. Some crosses, especially those of say, Celtic designs, are really attractive.

    I have one question that I hope will help make a point about the cross.

    Lets say you are lost in the wilderness for several days, thinking that you may not live much longer if you did not find help. Then suddenly, you come upon two houses, and one has a cross in the window and the other does not, which one would you most likely go to first for help? I know which one I would go to first.

  28. I am writing my MA thesis on _The Development of the LDS Church’s No-Cross Protocol_. Assuming that I finish it on schedule, it should be available to read by late spring (2008).

  29. I was watching a History Channel presentation on Christianity which claimed that the Cross was first used by the Emperor Constantine’s soldiers on their shields. He claimed that symbol helped him defeat a rival for the Roman Empire, and that’s what convinced him to support Christianity.

    In any event, if the Cross was not used commonly as a Christian symbol until the fifth century, if the Church of Jesus Christ is more closely related to New Testament Christianity than the Emperor’s Creeds, why would we want to use the Cross as a symbol?

  30. “No Cross” wrote: Cross was first used by the Emperor Constantine’s soldiers on their shields…

    Me: This is a bad assumption to make. Literary evidence indicates that although Christians had reservations about depicting the symbol of the cross materially, the reverenced the symbol none the less. They in fact (unlike Mormons today) actively looked for its manifestation in the world around them–whether in the sail of a ship, the sacred “tau”, or in the dimensions of the human body.

    Several early Christians had reservations about depicting ANY symbol (let alone the cross) materially for a few reasons:

    1. Due to heavy persecutions, Christians were forced to worship inconspicuously. Advertising a symbol of Christianity would blow their cover, and therefore threaten their safety.

    2. Christians were mocked over the idea that their god died a criminal’s death on the cross (one example confirming this is the Palatine graffiti), and so the symbol wasn’t good tool for attracting converts.

    3. Creating religious symbols materially was taboo among many early Christians, as it contradicted the second commandment.

    These factors are not relevant to Mormonism today. Latter-day Saints should therefore not use the Christian absence in artwork to justify their own. The Christian absence of the aversion is not at all the same as the Mormon aversion. The fact of the matter is that early Christians would have also objected against placing a gold angel statue on their architecture.

  31. I should have noted that the “early Christians” I am speaking of are those living PRIOR to Constantine’s rule.

  32. Edit

    I wrote: “The Christian absence of the aversion is not at all the same as the Mormon aversion.”

    This should instead read: “The Christian aversion is not at all the same as the Mormon aversion.”

  33. These factors are not relevant to Mormonism today. Latter-day Saints should therefore not use the Christian absence in artwork to justify their own.

    Unless they like the idea of trying to mimic the early community.

    But I do think that the early Christian reasoning and Mormon reasoning are different. The social factors are quite different and while some of the early Mormon reasons aren’t relevant today I’m not sure that entails we ought embrace the cross. I rather like the symbolism of Christ off the cross rather than the Catholic Christ on the cross or the Protestant empty cross. It gets the Protestant view that we should be focused on the resurrection but focuses more on Christ risen rather than his torture device.

    Having said that though clearly the cross is an important symbol in the Book of Mormon. (Although I’ve been debating with Blake Ostler about whether this is an 19th century expansion or part of the BoM text)

  34. Clark Goble: Unless they like the idea of trying to mimic the early community.

    Me: But the mimicking of the early community is superficial, so long as they continue to have angel Moroni Statues on their temples; or if they continue to insist that the cross as a mere symbol of death and torture, or a “catholic” symbol. This simply is not an accurate representation of the views of early Christianity. Contrary to what LDS apologists assert, the symbol was an extremely sacred symbol to early Christians. In fact, too sacred for depicting it with corrupt matter.

    Clark: Having said that though clearly the cross is an important symbol in the Book of Mormon. (Although I’ve been debating with Blake Ostler about whether this is an 19th century expansion or part of the BoM text)

    Me: Interesting. Thanks for the link. I will read the thread and give it some thought.

  35. Clark: The social factors are quite different and while some of the early Mormon reasons aren’t relevant today I’m not sure that entails we ought embrace the cross.

    Me: Maybe I am misreading your comment, but it seems as though you are assuming that the no-cross protocol existed in the early LDS Church. This would not be an accurate assumption to make, I am afraid. My research indicates that the protocol wasn’t born until the 1950s. Consider that, in 1916, the Church had even petitioned the Salt Lake City council to erect a cross monument on Ensign Peak. The proposal failed (for several reasons–one being that some vocal critics contended that it was in conflict with separation of church and state), but this petition at least shows that the “no-cross protocol” was not in place yet. It wasn’t put in place till several years later, under the direction of David O. Mckay. And the reason McKay gave was that it was a “Catholic” symbol—erroneously implying that it wasn’t a symbol for true Christianity.

  36. Correction: And the reason McKay gave was that using cross images was purely “a Catholic form of worship”—erroneously implying that such was in direct conflict with the worship of true (restored) Christianity.

  37. Note Michael I didn’t talk about an anti-cross sentiment. But it seems undeniable that early Mormons didn’t embrace the image of the cross except in a few tangental ways. It’s just not a big part of 19th century symbolism. For various reasons 19th century symbolism owes much more to Masonry than to minimalistic Protestant symbolism with a few exceptions.

  38. To add, that’s not to say they didn’t embrace discussion of the cross. But I think the emphasis of Mormons tended to be the resurrection rather than the suffering on the cross. (Obviously one can find many exceptions)

  39. Clark: Note Michael I didn’t talk about an anti-cross sentiment. But it seems undeniable that early Mormons didn’t embrace the image of the cross except in a few tangental ways. It’s just not a big part of 19th century symbolism. For various reasons 19th century symbolism owes much more to Masonry than to minimalistic Protestant symbolism with a few exceptions.

    Me: Understood (in regards to your first statement). But I disagree with your assessment that the early Mormon usage of the cross was minimal and tangential. Not only was literary symbolism of the cross fairly popular among LDS, but the material depiction was common place in LDS funeral floral arrangements. I have also gather dozens of additional examples of the Cross being used by prominent Saints. Cross necklaces (and even a few rosaries) were worn by several LDS women in the Church (including Brigham Young’s polygamous wife Amelia Folsom Young), the official Church brand was a cross, crosses were sewn into quilts, divine manifestations of crosses were envisioned, crosses were drawn as notation symbols, and Church buildings were constructed in cruciform designs.

    The cross was of particular interest because 1) some early saints were involved in freemasonry and folk magic (both of which promoted the use of the cross), and 2) because the Pre-Columbian use of the cross was of significant interest to the Saints (validating in their minds the validity of the Book of Mormon).

    This is not to say that the cross was the MOST popular symbol of Mormonism. No, not at all. But it is certainly an overstatement to claim that the uses were few and far between.

    Clark: I think the emphasis of Mormons tended to be the resurrection rather than the suffering on the cross. (Obviously one can find many exceptions).

    Me: And these exceptions would included every Sunday members symbolically commemorating the death and suffering of Jesus on the cross… or every time a temple endowment is performed, symbolically referring to one of the other instruments used to kill Jesus (don’t want to be specific here, but Isaiah 22:25 should be helpful).

    I am sorry, but No… this is an invented post-hoc rationalization that doesn’t explain the real reasons for the no-cross protocol.

  40. We all want to give our loved ones the best send-off we can. But when someone passes on, we don’t all have the cash required to give them a five-star luxury funeral. In fact, many of us find that funding a funeral is close to impossible, trumnyand worry that we won’t be able to say goodbye to our loved ones in the style in which they were accustomed.

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