How the Mormons got an invitation to the Pope’s ecumenical meeting

In the latest issue of Ecumenical Trends, James Massa, who heads ecumenical outreach for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, tells the inside story behind the invitation to the Mormon Church to attend the ecumenical meeting with the Pope during his April 2008 visit to the U.S.

The request to attend the meeting came from Ralph Hardy, an LDS Area Authority Seventy and DC attorney. Massa writes how the request ended up posing the usual question: are Mormons Christian? The Pope was to host two meetings, one “ecumenical” with Christians; and one “interreligious” with non-Christians (Buddhists, Muslims, etc.). Which meeting should the Mormons attend?

Massa asked the Vatican for advice; the Vatican told Massa that the decision was his. He asked Orthodox and Evangelical attendees whether a Mormon presence would cause offense. The upshot was that the Mormons could come, but were not to be given prominence (Elders Cook and Ballard were given second row seats).

That Mormons had any seats at such an ecumenical event is quite unusual. Massa relates some of the theological grounding for such an arrangement: although Mormons are not sacramentally initiated Christians (Mormon baptism is not a valid Christian baptism according to the Vatican), “room must be made for those who seek salvation under the mantle of Christ’s saving cross, even while denying other essential elements of the Christian faith.”

Theologies aside, there is another reason for this Catholic move to recognise Mormons as Christian. Massa explains the friendly relations between the past and and present Bishops of Salt Lake City and the LDS hierarchy. Certainly George Niederauer and Prop 8 have played a role here.

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  1. HT: Massimo Introvigne.

  2. This is great. I wasn’t even aware of this meeting. Any idea where one can read the content of the meeting?

  3. This is a nice step.

  4. “Mormon baptism is not a valid Christian baptism according to the Vatican”

    Of course Catholic baptism is not “a valid Christian baptism” according to Mormons, either. Perhaps that goes without saying around here, but I certainly know some Mormons who get offended by this and don’t stop to look at it in the other direction.

  5. PJ,
    I suppose some could quibble at that characterisation, actually. Certainly, Mormons might say that Catholic baptism is “valid” in the sense that it makes a Catholic “Christian”, but that it’s not valid as a “saving ordinance”. Splitting hairs maybe.

  6. StillConfused says:

    What does “ecumenical” mean?

  7. It’s sort of a unifying or all comprising group of various churches working together. I used to work at the ecumenical house associated with San Francisco State for years (just the cafe) :-( but the ec house was a really interesting cooperative group of churches that were all represented at the university. LDS was not among them though.

  8. Ronan,

    Can you clarify for me, who is on the front row?

  9. Truly interesting, Ronan. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. Jacob,

  11. Ronan,

    I do think it’s splitting hairs for one reason: if you wish to become a Mormon, you must get baptized. No previous baptism matters. So it makes at least some sense that if you decide to leave the Mormon church and join another one, that you would need to get baptized going in the other direction, too. In other words: Mormons don’t think other church’s baptisms count, so why should those churches treat Mormon baptisms any differently? If Mormons insist that their baptisms are different, maybe other churches should indeed respect that, as they’ve done.

    I don’t intend this to single out your post, by the way, which didn’t make a big deal out of this. Obviously, it’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

  12. PJ,
    Fair enough.

  13. The Episcopal Church, fwiw, recognizes Mormon baptism.

  14. Re: #6–“Ecumenical” tends to refer to different denominations within the same religion working together (e.g, Baptists and Methodists), as opposed to “inter-religious,” which refers to multiple religions (e.g., Christians and Muslims).

    Mormons can be difficult to place in setting up such dialogues; are we best understood as another denomination within Christianity, or as a new religion altogether? It’s maybe worth noting that the question of whether Mormons are Christians doesn’t only arise in the familiar context of those who are seeking to cast doubts on the validity of Mormonism, as in the anti-Mormon literature distributed by some evangelical Protestants; it also has bearing on things like Rodney Stark’s work, which is quite sympathetic to Mormonism (and which Mormons often quote favorably, particularly his growth projections). But if one accepts Stark’s classification of Mormonism as the next “new world religion,” that places the church in a somewhat different category than simply another denomination of Christianity.

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Ronan; that’s very interesting.

  15. #11: A lot of churches don’t tie baptism to membership in their church . They see them as two different things. Therefore, you can become a member of their group, and keep your Mormon baptism. Or, as one pastor told me, “You can take a walk in the rain and ask Jesus to accept that as your baptism or commitment to him.”

  16. PJ, your critique whithers in light of the example of any “anabaptist” Church. Many Christian churches have believers or adult baptism by immersion and reject infant baptism. However, the Catholic Church codified in the 4th century that heretical baptism is valid, regardless of whether the heretics viewed the Catholic Church as being valid.

  17. Brad, you got a source for that? Having recently been a close observer of a Mormon to Episcopal conversion, I’m not sure your statement is uncomplicatedly accurate.

  18. Left Field says:

    #11: I think there’s a lot more to it than simple reciprocity. Catholics and Mormons have entirely different sets of criteria for what constitutes valid baptism. And neither has, as far as I know, a general policy of “if you recognize ours, we’ll recognize yours.”

    Given the different criteria, it doesn’t follow that if Catholic baptisms fail to meet Mormon standards, that Mormon baptisms necessarily fail to meet Catholic standards.

  19. re: 13, 17

    Yeah, I think you’re wrong on that one Brad. Please document.

  20. #18: Or the same criteria: Having the Authority to act in God’s name. ( A Priesthood).

  21. Left Field says:

    That’s one criterion. What about immersion? Age of accountability?

  22. The rules vary from congregation to congregation. But a friend of mine converted to Episcopalianism from Mormonism (and then back again) and the congregation where she worshiped acknowledged her Mormon baptism.

    My original comment should have been attenuated to not imply that all Episcopal churches accept Mormon baptism.

  23. I think the prop 8 connection is interesting. There were a lot of cries about the damage the image of the church took for taking a strong stand on that issue. If prop 8 really played a role here then we have evidence that the image of the church was improved in some quarters at least.

  24. Last Lemming says:

    So if we had been invited to the inter-religious meeting instead, would we have accepted and risked appearing complicit in our own exclusion from the Christian community?

  25. Last Lemming,

    I hope we would not have accepted an invitation to the inter-religious meeting for the reason you cite. Our acceptance of a place on the second row potentially has the same danger (are we accepting the premise that we are only quasi-Christians), but I can’t really tell if it implied this or not. If all they did was give us a place of less prominence, as Ronan put it in the OP, then I think that is just fine. After all, I’m sure we don’t want to stir up a hornets nest there any more than those organizing the meeting.

  26. Peter LLC says:

    we have evidence that the image of the church was improved in some quarters at least.

    This should have been obvious from the get-go. When people fuss it’s likely because they feel the church’s image has taken a hit in other quarters that are nearer and dearer, such as among their friends and neighbors; never mind the impact in Rome.

  27. re: 23

    Any chance your theologically itinerant friend had an infant baptism in another church when she was born?

  28. #28,
    Nope. Her priest was explicit that her Mormon baptism fulfilled the sacramental necessity.

  29. Glenn Smith says:

    That LDS baptism remains distinct is important to be the saving ordinance with proper priesthood authority that it is. If another church wishes to recognize it as meeting their criteria, all well and good. Nothing really to worry about. We will continue to baptize all converts.

    I have found it curious that those who do not recognize our baptism are so opposed to our baptism for the dead and block access to records for family history research. If, in their eyes the baptism is invalid, that we don’t have true priesthood, why do they object so strenuously to baptism for the dead. What difference should it make for their ancestors; just some Mormon got wet needlessly. Of course, the principle of agency applies to the dead and living, and our baptisms are ‘just in case’ the dead accept it.

  30. re: 30
    I’ve always wondered the same thing: why do people care so much about LDS baptisms for the dead? Guess it’s the symbolism.

    Personally, I wish other religions offered something like this. I would arrange to receive all of them after my death, just to cover my bases.

  31. #29:

    There is a distinction made in Catholic theology between “valid” and “licit”. Crudely speaking, “valid” depends on the faith of the sacrament receiver, “licit” on the legitimacy of the giver.

    If a defrocked priest (or even a fraudulent priest) offers me mere bread but says “[this is] the Body of Christ” and I believe it to be so, then God himself transsubstantiates it on my behalf (in a “your faith has saved you” kind of way). Or if a priest on a desert island has no unleavened bread available and uses leavened bread (or a cookie) as an emergency substitute, that is illicit but still valid. And on and on.

    This line of thinking starts with “it doesn’t seem fair that…” and ends “with God all things are possible”.

    This logic of course has its limits. The Catholic Church views itself as the One True Holy Catholic (i.e. universal) and Apostolic Church. That means it is the sole licit and valid successor to Peter. Consequently, acceptance of well-meaning faith from “defective” Christian churches is intended and offered as an upgrade. Implicit in the validity of this offer is eventual acknowledgement by the receiver of this. Explicit and intentional disavowal of Catholic primacy impedes not only the licitness but also the validity of the sacrament.

    # 6, #14:

    I think you are not fully grasping what Catholics mean by ecumenism (as opposed to Protestants). Ecumenism is not a meeting of equals, but the attempt to seek out lost sheep, a sort of passive proselytization. Its purpose is not issue-specific (like Prop. 8) — for that there are ad hoc working groups. It is intended to hold open the door, but ultimately has no effect if the person does not walk in. Very recently, the U.S. Catholic Bishops came under attack for making this explicit regarding Jews.

    For Catholics, ecumenism is distinct from mere interfaith dialogue, which has no such restriction or hidden agenda.

    In other words, Prop. 8 will never buy Mormons validity with the Vatican. Gratitude, but not validity. To the Vatican, LDS is still a heretical cult (not that anyone should care!)

  32. #30: What would be your reaction if our friend told you he had married your wife or daughter at his church last Sunday? Would it be “Whatever”?
    #32: The problem you create when you say it’s not impotant that the Priest’s actions are right, (IMO) is that you saying Priesthood legitimacy is not really needed in these acts.

  33. I never said it wasn’t important. Suppose two good friends show up at your house hungry, honestly believing that you had plans to host them for dinner. You and your wife are on your way out to celebrate your anniversary. What would Jesus do?

    (I’m guessing) He would not want you making a slothful habit of freeloading, but would he send you home hungry? I imagine he would say, eat up, then go and next time RSVP so we can do it up right.

  34. w/r/t episcopal (and other main-line protestant) acceptance of LDS baptism, timing may matter here. I’m pretty sure that it was only within the past 10-15 years that this issue was addressed in most denominations. Different communities have resolved it differently, since there is no concrete reason they can’t accept it (the same words are used, and Catholics and mainline protestants have no reason to reject immersion, they just usually don’t do it themselves).

  35. Glenn Smith says:

    To Bob #33 re my #30
    Are you asking if he performed a marriage ‘or’ if he got married to my wife?

  36. So, if Mormonism is the reincarnation of Gnosticism (which it might be as the Restoration of the original Church), what does that make Mormon baptism?

  37. Glenn Smith says:

    For more on baptism, see Elder Dallin H Oaks article in September 2009 New Era. One quote:

    Only the priesthood of God can administer a baptism that will satisfy the divine decree that “except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

  38. If prop 8 really played a role here then we have evidence that the image of the church was improved in some quarters at least.

    I guess that old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing still plays in some quarters.

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