LDS and Catholics look ahead
Mormons embraced John Paul II with a kind of folk ecumenism.
They liked his attacks on Communism and defense of the faith against the rise of secularism. They marveled at his linguistic prowess, outspokenness on moral questions and strength of will. They identified with an aging, frail leader who warned them against the ills of the modern age. And, like so many other Americans, they were drawn to his charisma.
On April 2, the day the pope died, many Mormons joined Catholic friends and neighbors at parish churches or the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. On Wednesday, the downtown chapter of the mostly Mormon Sons of the Utah Pioneers is giving the pope a posthumous award as "an exemplar of truth and virtue."
Walter Whipple, who was an LDS mission president in Poland and now teaches Polish culture at Brigham Young University, called John Paul "a man of faith, vision and intellect, and one more thing, courage."
Despite Mormon teachings about how Christianity lost its way after the death of Jesus' apostles, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley offered his respects, even adulation, for the man believed by a billion Catholics to be St. Peter's successor.
Gone are the days when an LDS apostle would say, as one did in 1888, "[The Catholics] have a wicked, corrupt, uninspired pope.''
Ever pragmatic, the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows its global missionary efforts would benefit from a pope like John Paul, who had an openness to any faith that shared his positions on social issues. So a small LDS delegation, including Elder Luigi S. Peloni, an Area Seventy in Europe West Area, attended the pope's funeral. And all three members of the church's governing First Presidency attended Friday's Mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City.
"John Paul's attention was focused on issues like abortion and common moral problems in the U.S.," said Massimo Introvigne, managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Torino, Italy. "He was a man of prodigious culture and surely did know at least the basics about Mormonism."
Bishop George H. Niederauer attests to that.
On three occasions when Niederauer met personally with John Paul, the pontiff asked about Utah Catholics' association with Mormons.
"He wanted to be assured we had a good working relationship," Niederauer said.
Now Mormons have a stake in the selection of a successor.
A European pope would "probably be as open as John Paul was," said Introvigne via e-mail. And Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria, mentioned often as a leading candidate, discussed the "possibility and advisability of a dialogue with Mormonism" at a conferences on new religions Introvigne organized some years ago.
But it could be trouble for Mormons if the conclave elects a Latin American prelate, he said. The church's proselytizing there "surely did alienate the local Catholic hierarchy."
Comrades in antagonism: Mormonism and Catholicism have had a somewhat contradictory relationship since the LDS Church began in 1830 at the height of the Second Great Awakening, an American religious revival.
The newborn faith claimed to be a "restoration" of authentic Christianity, with true priesthood authority that came directly from God. It saw reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin as opening the door for Mormonism.
But Mormons were no more welcomed by American Protestants than Catholics had been for a century. Both groups were dominated by European immigrants, had a strictly hierarchical structure and were seen as threatening to the nation's separation of church and state, said LDS researcher Michael Homer in a speech about Mormon attitudes toward the Catholic Church.
Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, preached a sermon in Boston in 1834 titled "The Devil and the Pope of Rome," which prompted mob violence and the burning of an Ursuline convent and schools, Niederauer told the Cannon-Hinckley (LDS) Church History Dinner Group last month.
Ten years later, a request by Philadelphia Archbishop Kenrick that Catholic students in public schools be allowed to use Catholic Bibles, instead of Protestant ones, led to a three-day riot, the burning of two Catholic churches, the plundering of Catholic homes, 13 deaths and 50 injuries, Niederauer said.
LDS Church founder Joseph Smith abhorred the violence.
"The same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints," Smith wrote in 1843, "would trample on the rights of the Roman Catholics or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves."
Brigham Young believed the Catholic Church was "the closest, in terms of allegiance, to Mormonism as any church on the earth," Homer said.
Still, anti-Catholic sentiment, largely a product of Protestant thinking grafted onto Mormonism, continued to simmer beneath the surface.
In 1958, LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie published Mormon Doctrine, a dictionary of theological concepts. The definition of "church of the devil'' was the Roman Catholic Church. And under "transubstantiation'' - the Catholic belief that communion bread and wine actually became Christ's body and blood - McConkie wrote in part:
"The doctrine is a sort of religious cannibalism which partakes measurably of the same spirit, and is enshrouded by the same blanket of satanic darkness, as the murderous blood drinking orgies of the most degenerate pagan peoples.''
Bishop Duane G. Hunt, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City at the time, objected to McConkie's language and sections were deleted in subsequent editions. Today Mormon Doctrine no longer contains any references to Catholics.
Since then, the two faiths have found mutual understanding and common cause.
In 1992, Hinckley, then a counselor to the late church President Ezra Taft Benson, was received graciously at the Vatican archives, when he donated a copy of Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
And in Utah, the two faiths have joined forces on social issues such as feeding the homeless and fighting pornography. The LDS Church contributed heavily to the renovations of the cathedral, and when the Mormons were looking for a vehicle to get food to starving Ethiopians, they chose Catholic Relief Services.
Though they wrangle for converts in the Catholic flocks of Brazil, Spain and Mexico, most Mormons seem to like the shepherd.
The pope "has been a true Christian his whole life and a marvelous example of Christian charity and love to the whole world. He has 'restored' much dignity to Christianity and has played an active role for the good in world affairs," wrote John Fowles of Salt Lake City on the blog bycommonconsent.com. "I am confident that he will make the right choices in the spirit world."
In other words, join the LDS Church.