As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I have been impressed with certain developments in the Catholic Church over the past year that should inspire Mormons as well.
I am old enough to remember earlier pronouncements by certain 20th century LDS leaders disparaging the Catholic Church. Happily, these unfortunate characterizations have largely disappeared from both leaders' rhetoric and members' mind sets. Still, we Mormons sometimes find it hard to believe that we can learn from the Holy See.
Let me suggest that three changes which occurred in the Catholic Church in 2013 might also be a good idea for the LDS Church in 2014. First, prompted by what he would later call a "mystical experience" and failing health, Pope Benedict XVI resigned the papacy on Feb. 28. "My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry," the 86-year-old pope said. It was the first time in over 600 years that a pope had resigned.
In the late 20th century, the Mormon Church instituted new policies essentially mandating retirement at the age of 70 for certain full time "general authorities" who were members of the church's governing quorums of seventy and fixed five-year term limits for others. These retirement "reforms", however, did not apply to the highest governing bodies of the church: the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. As a result, some of the men serving in these positions are of advanced age and failing health.
I believe it is time for the LDS Church to learn from Pope Benedict's enlightened example and allow our older leaders whose health prevents them from fulfilling their callings to resign with dignity and respect.
Second, Pope Benedict's successor, Pope Francis Time's Person of the Year has taken office and changed the conversation and focus coming from the Vatican. Eschewing the trappings of the office, the new Bishop of Rome lives in a modest apartment and rides in a Ford rather than the customary Mercedes. He has lashed out at the "idolatry of money", calling unfettered capitalism "a new tyranny" and urgently demanding the gap between rich and poor be shrunk.
The official three-fold mission of the LDS Church is to proclaim the gospel, perfect the Saints (i.e. members) and redeem the dead. Although there was some discussion a few years ago about adding a fourth mission to care for the poor and needy, and while the humanitarian assistance provided by the Church through its welfare organization cannot be gainsaid, the fact is many Mormons still do not consider care for the poor and needy as essential for salvation, despite numerous scriptural admonitions, especially in the Book of Mormon.
LDS leaders only rarely speak of this overarching obligation from the pulpit of General Conference. We Mormons should follow the good example of Pope Francis and reorient our religious priorities. Caring for the poor is not simply "icing on the cake" in our busy religious lives. It is the very cake itself.
Third, the Mormon Church can learn from Pope Francis' attempts to fix the troubled Vatican Bank and adopt greater financial transparency. This is not to suggest that the finances of the Mormon church, prodigious as they obviously are, are mismanaged or share the troubles of the Vatican Bank. Nevertheless, greater transparency in its financial affairs could help the Mormon church rise above any suspicions and false accusations. The church has not publicly disclosed its financial statements since 1959, but if it felt it was acceptable before that, it seems that it could be acceptable again.
As Joseph Smith once wrote, Mormons believe "if there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things." Surely, we Mormons can learn much from the praiseworthy actions of our Catholic sisters and brothers.
Cole R. Capener lives in Park City.