Mormon Christianity: A Little Bit Catholic

January 25, 2014 | 8 comments
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I’m about a third of the way through Stephen W. Webb’s Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn From the Latter-day Saints (OUP, 2013). Webb is a Catholic professor of philosophy and theology turned writer. His Catholic perspective on LDS doctrine and his evident sympathy for the LDS approach to Christianity make this insightful outsider treatment of LDS theology quite refreshing. I will no doubt post a longer discussion of the book in a week or two, but here is a quotation highlighting some similarities between Catholic and Mormon approaches to Christianity (apart from both traditions being the target of historical Protestant animus, of course):

Mormonism and Catholicism have a lot in common, in spite of the fact that Joseph Smith had little contact with Roman Catholics during his formative years. These two traditions share a love of ritual, an affirmation of the holiness of space (the desire to worship in holy places), robustly conservative moral traditions (especially a commitment to traditional views of marriage and gender), a respect for authority (especially in its role as an ongoing, institutionalized, and living voice), and a strong sense of a community of believers that transcends the limits of time to include the dead (Mormons baptize the dead, while Catholics pray for them and ask for their prayers). (p. 73.)

Webb then goes on to express some surprise that, with this much in common, the two traditions have such radically different views of the Eucharist (LDS: sacrament). The Catholic view:

Transubstantiation involves more than just the transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. Transubstantiation is the ritualistic foundation of Catholic Christianity because it reveals the fundamental relationship between matter and spirit. Jesus Christ united divinity and humanity in his own incarnate form, but that unity, Catholics believe, is made visible and accessible to his followers in the Eucharist. It is no exaggeration to say that the entire edifice of the Catholic Church rests on the presupposition that the simple material of grain and grapes can become a conduit of God’s real presence in the world. In this ritual, the incarnation becomes a reality that pervades everything Christians do and believe. (p. 71.)

Here is Webb’s description of the Mormon view of the Eucharist: “Mormons, by contrast, have a very Protestant, indeed, a very rationalistic, understanding of communion. The Saints treat the Eucharist as a common, ordinary, and token meal, hardly more than a symbolic and visible lesson of invisible truths” (p. 73-74).

So when you bring a Catholic friend to an LDS sacrament meeting, warn them ahead of time that we take a more relaxed approach to the Eucharist, administered by teenage boys and distributed to the congregation (both bread and water) by preteen boys. If it helps, you can tell them that in the early LDS Church we used wine and distributed it from a common cup.

8 Responses to Mormon Christianity: A Little Bit Catholic

  1. Nancy Browne on January 25, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I have a strong interest in this topic and will definitely read the book – thanks for the endorsement. I would be particularly interested in how he presents our view about the apostasy and the creeds. I don’t think he’s going to find much symbiosis between Mormonism and Catholicism there.

  2. Dave on January 25, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Nancy, here is from page 164: “Mormons did (and some still do) talk about a Great Apostasy, which can evoke an evil conspiracy of shady clerics intentionally betraying Jesus, but there has also been a concerted effort in recent years by young Mormon scholars to rethink the concepts or restoration and apostasy.”

    Interpreter just put up a post on the LDS view of the apostasy, which does a good job showing what’s wrong with the traditional LDS approach: the article starts with the conclusion (“join none of them, for they were all wrong,” from Joseph Smith’s vision) and works backwards, looking for facts.

    http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/when-was-the-apostasy/

    I wrote a T&S post in 2012 that suggests problems with the traditional LDS view in light of recent scholarship, which also produced some very nice discussion in the comments.

    http://timesandseasons.org/index.php/2012/02/the-not-so-great-apostasy/

  3. Steve Martin on January 25, 2014 at 10:15 pm

    I also see the similarities between Catholicism and Mormonism.

    Actually, many Protestants have a similar theology ( a lot of God and a little bit of me).

    Luther called the radical reformers of the time (the Anabaptists), and the Catholics…”two wolves tied at the tail.” They outwardly showed much disdain for each other…but their theologies were actually quite similar.

  4. Michael on January 26, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I think Mr. Webb hit it right on the mark. As a Latter-day Saint convert from a strong Catholic upbringing it is still a source of amazement to me how we classify the weekly partaking of the Sacrament as one of our most important ordinances and yet it is generally treated as a token acknowledgment of the full Atonement using store-bought, white fluffy bread and tap water.

    And the fact that such a sacred ordinance is performed by 16 and 17 year old boys who have little depth of theological knowledge or who have spent the previous evening in worldly pursuits is perplexing.

  5. Chris on January 27, 2014 at 1:11 am

    Michael, I had an experience a year or so ago where I was struck by the deliciousness of the water and how that deliciousness connected me to the atonement. The bread ought likewise be delicious so that both can be richer symbols of the atonement. The flavor and symbolism of miracle bread are both pretty empty.

    Interestingly, the use of teenagers to pass and prepare the sacrament was a response to flagging interest among the men who were called as deacons, teachers, and priests during the early days of the church in Utah (see this article: http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1026&context=mormonhistory). There’s little reason, I think, to remain fixed on the use of teenagers, although I remember sometimes finding it meaningful “to stand in” for the Savior in passing the bread and water.

  6. Michael on January 27, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Chris,

    Thanks for that link. Very illuminating.

  7. Old Man on January 30, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Nice post. I definitely want to read Webb’s book.

    Chris, I also had an experience which reinforced to me the direct connection between the sacrament and atonement was far greater than merely symbolic.

  8. Christopher on January 30, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    Thanks for this, Dave. I need to make the time to read Webb’s book. On the subject of apostasy, readers might be interested in this forthcoming volume from OUP, set to hit shelves in just a few months. It is the expanded and published version of the several papers presented at the 2012 conference at BYU you note in your post linked to in comment #2.

    http://global.oup.com/academic/product/standing-apart-9780199348145?q=Standing%20Apart&lang=en&cc=us#

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