John Fowles’s comment on the Pope (namely, that he “has been a true Christian his whole life and a marvelous example of Christian charity and love to the whole world….I am confident that he will make the right choices in the spirit world”), made at By Common Consent and picked up (out of context) by the Salt Lake Tribune, has inspired a series of sharp exchanges at BCC. The argument there (which is a good one to read through) basically boils down to whether or not the belief that the spirit of Pope John Paul II, now presumably in the spirit world, will or ought to embrace the fulness of the restored gospel and accept vicariously the LDS ordinances of baptism, etc., in order to receive exaltation, exhibits “presumption, arrogance, myopia, and ignorance” (to quote one Sally M.). That is, it’s an argument about the quality and standing of our beliefs.
That’s a discussion worth having. But I’d rather have one about whether or not the presumption it makes about our doctrine is, in fact, true. That is, do we really affirm that the Pope needs to be baptized vicariously and become “converted” in order to achieve exaltation? Because I’m not certain he does.
Central to the self-understanding of the church is the necessity of priesthood ordinances–we are the true church, we are the only church on earth with the keys to act in God’s name, the ordinances of baptism and those in the temple are a gate through which all must walk through in order to return to God’s presence, etc., etc. The time and care which dedicated Mormons have spent working out the implications of this claim, and communicating this claim to the world, is tremendous, and I wouldn’t think of simply dismissing it out of hand. The priesthood plays a role in our salvation, of that I am certain.
What I am not certain of who the “we” in that sentence refers to–because God appears capable of performing saving and exalting acts separate from that which he has specifically required of “us.” My evidence? Doctrine and Covenants 137.
In this vision, received in 1836 and recorded in Joseph Smith’s diary, he sees his brother Alvin, who had died in 1823 at the age of 24, in the “celestial kingdom of God” along with Adam and Abraham. Joseph prevents there from being any confusion on this point–he specifically states that Alvin had “obtained an inheritance in that kingdom,” which Joseph found amazing, since Alvin had died before the priesthood restoration had commenced and “had not been baptized for the remission of sins.” In response to his wonderment, the voice of the Lord came to Joseph, telling him that:
All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
Now, we take this to be a sign of God’s omniscience and mercy–He will extend the full blessings of heaven to all those who truly and penitently desire it, or would have desired it, if it had been the case that they had able to do so. But it seems to me that it also tells us something else–namely, that God does not wait upon the temporal performance of priesthood ordinances. He will move to judge all His children as He sees their works and their hearts. And what does that mean? Well, as Paul put it in Romans 2:16, God will judge “the secrets of men by Jesus Christ”–or “through Christ Jesus,” as the Revised English Bible puts it. In other words, through Christ’s infinite atonement, we may all be ajudged has having either a heart open to the love of God, or closed to it, and our works (actual or hypothetical) will be dictated by, and will manifest, that which our hearts treasure (Matthew 6:21). Alvin, though he had not been baptized, much less received his endowment (indeed, there is no record of him having ever joined any church), had been a hard and humble worker, a young man of “singular goodness of disposition” in Lucy Mack Smith’s words; Joseph said his eldest brother had shown “no guile,” and had “lived without spot from the time he was a child.” Apparently, if we are to accept Joseph’s vision on its own terms (and if we don’t, what can of worms does that open up?), God agreed with Alvin’s family in an assessment of his heart; Alvin was saved and exalted on the basis of God’s judgment alone.
There are possible criticisms of this conclusion. Perhaps Joseph was seeing the future, after the ordinances had been performed? Perhaps, but he clearly didn’t think so, and so to inject such a supposition into the text requires some prooftexting. Well, we don’t know what position Alvin occupied in the celestial kingdom, do we–perhaps he still needs to be sealed and receive the highest ordinances? He never married, after all. That may be the case. But again, it’s not something which Joseph thought to ask–and given that this revelation wasn’t included in the D&C until 1981, long after such teachings had been established in the church, one must wonder why the leaders of the church at that time apparently weren’t sufficiently troubled by such possibilities so as to leave this revelation out either. Also, please note that Alvin is seen in the company of Adam and Abraham–both married, sealed, exalted beings, presumably. My conclusion is that we must accept that, however much we may be obliged by our membership and our covenants to perform the ordinances which mark the boundaries of our faith (in the same way John the Baptist was commanded to perform an arguably unnecessary baptism in order to “fulfill all righteousness”), God can and does exercise judgment as He sees fit.
So where does that leave the Pope? Well, I don’t know his heart. Perhaps it was secretly filled with anger or sexual perversion or dishonesty. Perhaps he was, in the eyes of God, a greedy, power-hungry, duplicitous individual. Perhaps God will hold him responsible for American bishops’ slow and tortured response to the pedophilia scandal in the U.S.; perhaps he is culpable for millions of arguably preventable AIDS deaths by insisting that his bishops preaching abstinence, rather than condom use, in Africa. I really don’t know. But, on the basis of his writings and works, he seems to have been an exemplary Christian, one which we disagree with in regards to doctrine, but not on the fundamentals of the Good News. Which suggests to me that, well….he’s probably already in. Does he probably still need to learn and progress? No doubt, but I’m not sure there’s any reason to suppose, at least insofar as returning to God is concerned (which is, in the end, what the gospel is all about, right?), that what lays before the post-mortal Karol Wojtyla is qualitatively different from what will lay before the post-mortal Russell Arben Fox. That is, assuming that my heart, when I stand before the Judge, is such that I may be able to get to that high place where I suspect he is, and thus have a chance to compare notes. My gut instinct when confronting that possibility? I should be so lucky.