Female Priests Among Christians and Mormons, Part 5

[You can find the whole series here.]
Modern knowledge, historical, scientific, theological, etc. is, or I think should be, part of a process that contributes toward reformation or modification of ancient (or just past) thought, yes, even doctrine. The important word here is contribute not control or dictate. No theologian, scientist, historian, etc., can formulate doctrine or perhaps a better word is teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s an ideal I think and it also exists in other Christian denominations. When this boundary shifts it can be unhealthy for the institution and the individual. Scholarship of various sorts has to be assessed in the wider context of a church’s life as guided by the Holy Spirit. Yes, I think God is active in the guidance of sincere supplicants, be they lay persons, Popes, bishops, Mormon or not, and of course I don’t NEED to call this out but given the theme, women who lead in some church capacity.

Scholars can put their evidence at the service of the official church. That can happen through the natural circulation (by publication, say) of knowledge, theory, process of investigation (an example is Lester Bush’s 1973 work in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought a source held in some suspicion at the time by conservative elements but it influenced Spencer W. Kimball in his thinking about race and priesthood according to his son/biographer) or it might happen because they are consulted or assigned by the official church to some action. An example of such an assignment was related to me by a friend. He told me about his experience of dealing with confidential files of the LDS First Presidency as a computer consultant. It was in the mid 1970s and church leaders wanted to be able to have quick access to past decisions of the presidency for research when they faced some or other issue. Such past decisions were treated with deep respect and no one wanted to make policy or decide doctrine, etc., etc. if that might go against decisions rendered in the past. At least, they wanted to be careful about that process (there’s a well known quote from Joseph Smith about keeping track of your decisions in such bodies). My friend told me of the rather long process of dealing with these confidential documents as a computer scientist and how that worked. There were a lot of barriers between the presidency and his work. Those barriers existed on both sides of the interface between his company and the church (his boss was one, secretaries in the presidency’s office, and so on) and he finally couldn’t really make progress without talking to the men themselves. Finally he had an audience with the presidency and the apostles in the Salt Lake temple. The removal of barriers between him and the ultimate users made his work possible, initiated trust on both sides, and allowed the process to go forward. Some ignorance on both sides was erased and a constructive relationship was built. There are many examples like this. Others include members writing (without request from headquarters) papers on various topics, suggesting organizational and policy changes or emphases. These can get audience and they can have influence. I have no idea how common it is that ideas/inspiration from Mormon feet make it to the Pauline head but I know it has happened both recently and a century ago. There may be tension in some of these interactions. I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing depending on the nature of that tension.

I once heard a Catholic scholar tell the complicated story of evolution and Catholic doctrine. One of his points was the continuing clashes between, what he called, “right wing vigilantes” who pretend to be able to speak for the Vatican (and continuously hark back to the hermetically sealed modernist-fearing papacy of Pius X) in attacking every new idea and the more moderate voices among Catholic scholars and Bishops who tend to support the theological investigation of church problems. One of his points was to urge that we dispel the “fundamentalist” (I use the term advisedly) supposition that a theologian or scholar is more loyal to the church if he does not acknowledge that a problem exists and of course, then fails to discuss it. Problems only exist because the masses harbor disobedients is the claim of some. These sorts of attitudes are pretty common in religious institutions and they exist in Mormonism in particular as the recent dust up over the Book of Abraham volume of the Joseph Smith Papers illustrates. One of the points here is that there are always internal groups who believe they must protect the institution from itself. Whether that protection is retrograde or progressive is an important question. And that’s useful going forward.


  1. Thanks, for this series, WVS. And thanks, too, for using “hark back” correctly. It warmed my heart.

  2. I’ll add to this that I think weaponizing theologians has been a temptation. I think that makes the notion less useful in the long run.