In 1971, Roman Catholic theologian Hans Küng published his Infallible? An Inquiry in which he declared his opposition to the doctrine of papal infallibility. This represented a very vocal apostasy from a core Catholic doctrine by a man who occupied an influential position as professor of Catholic theology at Tübingen. Küng was not excommunicated but was stripped of his missio canonica, the licence to teach as a Roman Catholic theologian. He was able to remain at the university as professor of ecumenical theology, however.
In 1983, the Code of Canon Law revised its statement on excommunication: no longer did it sever someone from the Church. Excommunicated Catholics are still Catholics. At no point does it cancel the sacraments — Catholics readmitted into communion are not required to be re-baptised, which is impossible anyway, given the Catholic theology of baptism. Of course, in Küng’s case this was all moot anyway. Despite his heresy, he was not excommunicated.
I point this out for two reasons. First, to remind readers that excommunication in a Mormon setting is the nuclear bomb of Christian excommunications in that it cancels the saving power of the sacraments. When you have the beating of the Catholics in the severity of your censures, it should give you pause. Second, excommunication for heresy is a rare thing in Christianity today. I do not mean to suggest that Mormonism needs to follow Catholicism in its modes of discipline, just that we should recognise the incredible significance of what is being proposed when we speak of excommunication.
The scriptural warrant for a form of excommunication is sound, and I will not argue against it. Shunning, though unpleasant, is fully Pauline (1 Cor 5; Romans 16). Occasionally, diseased members of the body — predators, mostly — have to be cut away. The governing principle should always be that excommunication should be for the benefit of the whole body of Christ. In the case of the mooted actions against Kate Kelly and John Dehlin, I am sincerely struggling to see how that could be the case.
On John Dehlin
The Mormon Stories community is not really my thing but I have met John and found him to be a pleasant chap. I can imagine that a case can be made for mildly censuring John, given that his podcasts sometimes give voice (and have done for a long time and with a large audience) to critics of the church. His reach is such that the church is justified in taking him seriously, i.e. he is not just some guy with a blog and ten readers.
John reports that his Stake President has invited him to leave the church or face a trial, after John expressed his desire to no longer be contacted by his ward. In my mind, that can only mean that the Stake President is already seriously considering excommunication rather than mild censure (disfellowshipping?) as the outcome of the court. Given what I said above about excommunication, this is very disturbing. If John were a Mormon authority or a teacher at BYU or for CES, I can see a Küngian censure as justified, but not excommunication, especially given that he is none of those things. I have not been in a ward in the church in the last few years (six wards, two continents) that has not had someone who considered themselves a fan of Mormon Stories. If John is excommunicated, it will be a blow to thousands. That may partly be the point — it is John’s influence that warrants the trial — but this is not the 1990s: social media will ensure that an excommunication will have no silencing effect. I think that disaffection will increase and am therefore struggling to see why anyone would want that.
I would also like some clarity as to the real grounds of the heresy charge (what Mormons problematically call “apostasy”). The New York Times has reported that his Stake President has expressed concern regarding “some of [his] recent statements and actions regarding this church and [his] place in it,” citing an Internet posting in which Mr. Dehlin wrote that “he no longer believed many fundamental ‘truth claims’ the church makes.” Does this mean that simple unbelief warrants a heresy trial? What exactly has John Dehlin done wrong? No doubt his local leaders will cite court confidentiality, but in our internet age, we need as much transparency as is possible or the painful miasma that surrounds the doubting and disaffected will thicken.
On Kate Kelly
If you wanted to somehow prove that women’s voices are not fully appreciated in the church, you could do nothing better than to have an all-male panel try a woman in absentia. Again, the reverberations of any censure are what concern me, although the personal hurt Kate will experience is of course also a bother. People inclined to sympathise with Ordain Woman will obviously take it as a blow; but the fall-out — in the form of an emboldening of those in the church who try to stigmatise and marginalise those who waver — will make Mormon life increasingly intolerable for many members, women especially. Once again, where is the benefit here for the body of Christ? I fear that division and protest will only get worse, to everyone’s shame.
I am also really struggling to see how asking for admittance to priesthood meeting (an action they did not intend to repeat next time), or asking the Brethren to open up a dialogue on women’s ordination, constitutes the “apostasy” of which she is accused. Apostasy would be setting up a rival church or ordaining women without ecclesiastical authority. Kate Kelly wants the priesthood but she wants it in the Mormon way. She may be an irritant and an agitator — there is no point in pretending otherwise — but there was a way to diffuse this and the threat of excommunication, and the somewhat underhand way it appears to be being pursued, is not it. Jesus did not say, “What man is there among you who, when his daughter asks for a loaf, will give her stone? But if she asks to talk with you, you can convene a church court.”
Again, it would be good to know exactly what the heresy here is. Criticising church policies? BCC and countless bloggers and intellectuals do that all the time. Should we expect letters? Organising (polite) protests? Being successful in organising (polite) protests?
And can someone please tell me how a Mormon man can organise what looks like an armed insurrection against his government and avoid any church action whatsoever (Cliven Bundy), while Kate Kelly faces being cut off from the church she so obviously loves?
The view from here
I am a life-long Latter-day Saint, a returned missionary, and a member of the bishopric in my ward. The church means the world to me and I serve as honourably as my fallen nature will allow. I am a small part of an LDS intellectual conversation that tries honestly to wed study and faith for the benefit of the church. I am trying to raise my children in the faith. Every Sunday I look at the emptying pews in my chapel in this small corner of the kingdom and feel disheartened. Our church is in serious trouble if its great modern crusade is seen to be the suppression of open discussion, the neglect of women’s voices, and an inability to raise its sights above the culture wars. Few converts will join such a church and our youth will increasingly find it intolerable.
This affects all of us, even the majority of the Saints who no doubt support these actions. The fact is that many of those rocked by these things are active Mormons who serve faithfully in their wards. I know that they are in a minority in the church, but they also tend to be people of great talent and experience and so their disaffection is a loss to more than just their own families. I know this because they are people I know, including members of my own family whose talents are really missed in wards that really need them. Their loss, or even their increasing apathy, will contribute to those empty pews remaining unfilled. The gospel of love, so desperately needed in a world in which we are crying out for the kind of principled leadership that can answer the great questions about conflict, about greed, about the environment, about the poor, about preaching Christ in a secular world, is being sold for a mess of boundary maintenance so narrow that it may one day exclude half of the church.
I really pray for John and Kate and their families, and also for their church leaders who, for whatever reason, feel that their faith leaves them no choice but to do this.
Mostly, I just feel really, really sad.
[I have made some minor edits to this post to better represent Catholic doctrine as well as the situation regarding John Dehlin.]