Ecumenicalism run amok?

The Vatican is upset. Apparently, large numbers of American Catholic congregations are allowing unordained lay people to participate in Mass in semi-official capacities. Thus, too many non-priests and non-deacons are delivering sermons and preaching the gospel, when these important tasks should be left to the proper authorities. You can read about it here. This whole episode has me wondering … What would Pope John Paul think of my good friend Father Hans?

Father Hans is a “Catholic” priest whose congregation meets in Hollywood. I use the scare-quotes because Hans is an adherent of “Old Catholicism,” a schismatic movement that broke with the Roman church in 17th Century Holland. The Old Catholics retain the traditional, elaborate Latin liturgy, with all its bells and whistles, but seem more evangelically Protestant than Roman Catholic in theology. To cite its own sources, Old Catholicism values “collegial episcopacy, flexibility, moderate discipline, placing more responsibility on the individual to elicit a mature and free response from the individual,” rather than Roman Catholicism’s “exaggerated papacy, monarchical pyramid structure, with a burgeoning bureaucracy, legalistic mentality resulting in a multiplication of canon laws.” Hans rejects “Mary-olatry,” papal infallibility and Saint worship. He really likes Jesus, baptism by immersion and personal scripture study.

What makes Hans REALLY interesting, however, is his love for Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Gordon B. Hinkley. (He’s less fond of some of Brigham Young’s teachings, the Book of Abraham and King Follet — you understand). He’s been studying Mormonism for years, and he’s a better missionary for the Restoration than me or you. He hands out Books of Mormon at his work (yes, he has a job outstide of Church). He refers religious seekers to the Mormon missionaries rather than inviting them to his own services. When I introduced him to Blomberg and Robinson’s _How Wide the Divide_, he practically had a heart attack he loved it so much. Hans is a “Dry Mormon” par excellence. The fact that he ministers to his own congregation every Sunday, AFTER attending “his” own LDS ward, makes him all the more fascinating.

About a year ago, Father Hans approached me with an unusual request. Convinced that LDS missionaries are “angels,” and that they obviously love and follow Christ more than anyone in his congregation could ever hope to, Hans wanted to organize a Catholic-Mormon “hybrid” Mass. He proposed that my four full-time missionaries and I (the Ward Mission Leader) play an active role in his services. He would conduct as usual, waving the incense, reciting the liturgy and preaching a short sermon (complete with occasional Book of Mormon or D&C quotations – without attribution). We would stand on the stage with him as representatives of Christ, read excerpts from the Bible at key junctures and offer the closing prayer. I talked this idea over with my Bishop, and he agreed it would be an interesting idea. We have now held three of these ecumenical worship services. The Los Angeles Mission President was invited to the last one. He came, gave the sermon in place of Father Hans, and seemed to enjoy the afternoon enormously.

Needless to say, these were very unusual experiences. They were both spiritual and awkward, simultaneously moving but bizarre. A thousand questions were occurring to me that I would never otherwise have occasion to think about. Do we recite the ritual language, along with everyone else? Or do we stay silent? Or do we merely omit the theologically-incorrect phrases? Do we lightly bow to the Crucifix as we approach our seats, just as Father Hans just did? How do we refuse the chalice of sacramental wine when it is offered to us? (One naive elder almost took a swig, until I stopped him). What will the parishoners think if we do? Or if we don’t? What do they make of Mormon missionaries co-officiating in their services to begin with?

But there are even deeper questions to ponder. Is it appropriate for priesthood holders of God’s “true church” to be co-officiating in a Catholic Mass, complete with sacrament service? Even though we didn’t bless or pass the sacrament, we appeared to be endorsing an “apostate” ordinance. Were we using our priesthood inappropriately to jointly preside over the service? (Hans was adamant that we were “conducting” with him). Or were we, by definition, not really exercising our “priesthood” at all (which is how we saw things)? Then again, if we were introduced as representatives of Christ by Hans to his followers, does it even make conceptual sense to divorce our “priesthood” role from our “representative of Christ” role? I actually discussed some of these questions at length with Hans prior to the first Mass. He insisted that he saw us as his equals in our capacities to represent the Lord. I told him that we could not reciprocate the compliment, given our views on priesthood authority. He understood, and said he didn’t care.

So what does everyone make of all this? Maybe it’s time for President Hinkley to issue an encyclical and help me out.

Aaron B


  1. “I must confess I don’t see Father Hans’ surreptitious use of the Book of Mormon or D&C as anything to get worked up about.”

    Nor do I. Father Hans can do whatever he wants, and act however he feels he must with regard to his flock.

  2. Aaron,

    I don’t know — this whole arrangement sounds very sinful to me. Now go say two Hail Mary’s and an Act of Contrition.


  3. Aaron,

    The point I see as most confusing is that it gives an impression of the Church that is not entirely correct — that we implicitly approve of worship in the form Father Hans is performing. While from Hans’ perspective, it’s a sharing of experiences and different spiritual insights, I wonder what the congregation must be thinking, and I wonder what concept of LDS doctrine they must have.

    Ultimately, any of those parishoners who wanted to learn more about the LDS church would have to undergo a significant rewiring about how they perceive our religion, I think. Maybe I’m wrong — what did you think?

  4. Aaron:

    IMO, I think its great. Building on Common beliefs? Seems like Ammon agreed to serve for a long time…perhaps he lucked out re: sheep duty & didn’t have to do the “clean the pagan temple” duty.

    However, be careful abou tthe non “explicit” references. As previously noted in the Bloggernacle,
    not doing correct attribution is grounds for being kicked out of your graduate program, etc. I hope Father Hans doesn’t need to get another degree anytime soon. :)

  5. As a convert from Catholicism, my only comment is – can I come? If I ever make it out to LA again?

  6. I think it’s fabulous that you were able to meet people in a setting where 1) they were comfortable and 2) they were “at” spiritually. Otherwise, I agree with Dave in regards to the early church practice of attending other congregations.

  7. Steve Cannon says:

    I vote we merge with the catholic church. We take our doctrine and their art and architecture…

  8. I’m with Steve. I think the real question is how the congregation understood what was happening. The danger is that they might be giving the impression that the missionaries were in some way reducing their claim that the LDS Church is the only true church. At least from what Aaron says, I think the difference between this case and that of the early missionaries is that in the early cases they were explicitly preaching AS LDS missionaries. They didn’t, for example, conceal their Book of Mormon references.

  9. It seems to me that this is an excellent example of what Joseph Smith was talking about when he said:

    “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which he revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst; and they will do it before the millennium can be ushered in and Christ takes possession of His kingdom. ” (TPJS 313)

  10. My screw-up. I misread and thought that the mission pres or someone else was using the Book of Mormon without citing it as such. So I now repudiate the post made by some fool inhabiting my body and using my name earlier. Having offered public prayer in Mass and spoken in Protestant services more than once, that repudiation seems only consistent and probably reasonable.

  11. Steve and Jim,

    You have a point. This is one of many issues I thought about before, during and after the services. In my original post, I framed the question as one of “were we using our priesthood,” but perhaps a better question is “were we giving the impression that we were using our priesthood” or “were we giving the impression that we believe Catholic rites to be on par with LDS rites,” or “were we vouching for the efficacy of the Catholic sacraments?”

    Some thoughts:

    We did not participate in the formal blessing of the sacrament, and we did not partake of it. Our refusal to partake was overt and obvious, and if a member of the congregation was going to draw conclusions about our presence, they could not avoid taking into account our abstentions. Also, let me point out the obvious: The missionaries were dressed as missionaries, and were wearing their plaques. (Maybe this makes it better? Maybe this makes it worse?) So there was no question as to which religion we represented. Also, other than the “co-presiding” function that we served, we didn’t do anything that, say, an LDS woman (sans priesthood authority) couldn’t do in an LDS sacrament meeting. (It may be that you will feel these distinctions miss the point. If so, feel free to tell me so. I don’t have lots of time at the moment to think as carefully on some of these issues as I might like).

    I must confess I don’t see Father Hans’ surreptitious use of the Book of Mormon or D&C as anything to get worked up about. It’s not as if he pretended they were from the Bible when they weren’t. He just didn’t identify the references explicitly. I see this as a separate issue, and an innocuous one.

    There are other things to see. Later…

    Aaron B

  12. That is just incredibly interesting. I had a similar experience in Guatemala where I was working on a sanitation project in a tiny, remote village. The locals were so grateful to us that they requested that we attend their evening meeting at the Catholic Church (it wasn’t a Mass). After some prayers and other business they asked me to say a few words and pray for them. Obviously I wasn’t in the same predicament Aaron is, as I wasn’t officiating, but I was struck by the unusualness of it all just the same.

    I would say that if your bishop and the local mission president are on board than it’s okay (although that goes against what I would have said before knowing they were involved).

    Keep us posted.

  13. When my family lived in New Jersey many years ago, there was a local preacher who heard the discussions and basically converted to the gospel but didn’t get baptized. We visited a midnight mass on New Year’s Eve or Christmas (I forget which, exactly) that he conducted and I’ll never forget him talking about how “millions of families around the world choose a weekly night in which to gather and spend time together.” It was obvious to his LDS “parishioners” that he was talking about Family Home Evening. He kept asking how we got ward members to do hometeaching, which he thought was an incredibly inspired idea. If he only knew that some elders quorum presidents are asking the same question. :)

  14. Wow, that’s one of the most arresting Bloggernacle posts I’ve read–I was expecting something like “. . . then I woke up” at the end of the post, but no. I guess life really IS more interesting in Hollywood. Are you sure there weren’t hidden cameras somewhere and this was really a pilot for some clever new religious reality-TV show?

    Getting serious, I suppose the tradition of Mormon travelling, preaching missionaries in the 19th century who often addressed congregations of interested Christians is similar enough to what you’re doing that no LDS leader could really say anything you’re doing is “wrong.” And I think the presence of the Mission President effectively “blesses” the whole proceeding.

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