Inspired by this post, and ensuing discussion, at Junior Ganymede, I have decided to weigh in on The Question: Are Mormons Christians? I know, it’s about time. Everyone has been dying to know, What does Agellius think?
What Agellius thinks
I believe the Catholic Church is, properly speaking, the Church founded by Christ. All other churches are not churches properly so-called — they are sort of “borrowing” the term (see Dominus Iesus 17). They have abstracted certain attributes of the one true Church, and apply the name “church” to their own “churches” based on their possessing these attributes. But of course other attributes of the one true Church are missing from these others.
So from the get-go, I consider the genericized use of the words “church” and “Christian” to apply to any organization, or member thereof, that sees fit to use them, regrettable and incorrect. Properly speaking, “church” applies to a specific Church, and a Christian is a member of that particular Church. But we can’t pretend we’re still living in the First Century, can we? These words have developed other connotations since the time of the New Testament.
Nevertheless, since I believe the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ, I believe that the normative way of becoming a Christian is by being baptized into this particular Church. Of course, baptism is accompanied by a profession of faith, so belief must enter into it as well: You can’t just go around baptizing people on the street and expect that to make them Christians.
Thus I believe proper baptism, as well as belief, is an essential element of a person’s being a true Christian. Someone may believe most or all Christian doctrines, but if he does not receive proper baptism he cannot properly be called a Christian, in my view.
What about Protestants?
Protestants also call themselves Christians. But since they are not members of the Catholic Church, should I deny them that title? It depends on several things. First, there are many different “brands” of Protestants: Some of them administer the sacrament of baptism, and some don’t. Those who don’t believe in baptism and therefore don’t administer it, as I have already said, I do not consider Christians. They may believe in Christ, and hold the correct doctrines of Christ’s divinity and of the Trinity, etc. But since baptism is the sacrament which makes you a Christian, they are excluded. It’s as simple as that.
Other Protestants do practice baptism, but don’t use the proper form: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. Since these baptisms are invalid, again I can’t consider them Christians properly so-called.
Still other Protestants practice baptism and do it validly. To the extent that they also profess that Jesus is the Son of God, true man and true God, who was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and died to save us from our sins, breaking the bonds of death and opening the gates of Heaven to those who would follow him, etc., I would consider them Christians. Admittedly, though, I would have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, and there may be cases where it’s a fine line separating those I would call Christians from those I would not. (You can’t expect everyone to be a theologian and to grasp the fine points of Trinitarian theology, for example.) However, it is to be remembered that it’s not my fault this is so difficult: Christ founded not thousands of churches but one Church, and if we had all followed his plan we would not be having this discussion.
Get to the Mormons already
Now like it or not, the Catholic Church has determined that Mormon baptism is invalid (see Response to a Dubium). Therefore, according to this strict definition of “Christian”, I cannot consider Mormons to be Christians. Arguments can and have been made as to whether the Church’s determination on this issue was correct [see, e.g., this]. But the determination has been made and has not been rescinded, so as a faithful Catholic I assent to it. The only way I could do otherwise would be if the Church rescinded the teaching, or if I ceased to be a faithful member of the Church. In other words, it’s out of my hands. Well, not totally. I could choose to stop being a faithful Catholic if I wanted to. I just don’t see any compelling reason why I should. Quite the contrary.
But aren’t there other definitions of “Christian”?
Now there are other definitions of “Christian” that people use. It may be argued (as I have heard done) that the most common understanding of the term is simply, “a follower of Jesus of Nazareth”. This usage adopts the Protestant idea of a Christian, that what makes you a Christian is a profession of faith in Christ. Period. No sacraments needed.
While I admit that this is a fairly common understanding since we are a historically Protestant country, as a Catholic I have to reject it as an incorrect understanding. Nevertheless, if we sometimes are to use words as they are commonly understood, and not always according to their strict definitions, then I can’t necessarily quarrel with this use of the term. If in a certain context it’s understood that this is the sense in which it is meant, then of course it would apply to Mormons.
I do object in principle to the word’s commonly being used in this sense. I think it’s a mistake because it’s incorrect: It’s an incomplete definition of a Christian because it omits the essential element of baptism. To be clear: My objection to this use of the term has nothing to do with my not wanting Mormons to be called Christians. I object to it mainly on the ground that I do not want the Protestant idea of what a Christian is, to be the assumed definition; to have it be commonly understood that valid baptism is irrelevant to becoming a Christian. I think that idea is potentially harmful to souls, since it encourages people to neglect baptism.
But in the context of, say, the mass media, what can you do? The media are painfully ignorant of religion in myriad ways. It’s hopeless to think you can correct their thinking on this point. So if I hear the LDS Church, or some Calvinist church, referred to in a movie or on the news, as a Christian church, I don’t go writing to producers and editors, explaining that Christ founded one true Church and you enter it through valid baptism, etc., and therefore technically Mormons aren’t Christians. It would be a hopeless exercise and a waste of time. Instead I simply assume that they mean it in the broadest possible sense — the lowest-common-denominator definition of a Christian — as one who professes faith in Jesus Christ. Which in fact Mormons do.
So: Do I admit that Mormons are Christians in a sense? Yes, in the apparently commonly understood sense noted above. Do I think they are Christians properly so-called? No, but neither do I consider unbaptized Protestants to be Christians properly so-called. Setting aside fine points of doctrine, for me it’s a matter of valid baptism. If the Catholic Church someday decides that Mormon baptism is valid, then we might discuss whether their admittedly distinctive beliefs merit their being deprived of the title. Until that time, the correctness or incorrectness of their doctrine, in my view, is moot.
Turning the tables?
I’m curious how a Mormon would answer this question: Suppose there was someone who studied the Mormon religion on his own and decided he believed in it, but declined to receive instruction from the missionaries, or to request baptism. Or, what if he got himself baptized, but not by a priesthood holder? Would he still be considered a true Mormon, based on his beliefs alone?
I hope answering this question might help some Mormons understand my position on what makes someone a Christian. As stated on the LDS Church website, “[Y]ou can become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by receiving the ordinance of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins by one having authority who after the baptism lays their hands upon your head, confirms you a member of the Church and then pronounces a blessing upon you that you may receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (see Acts 8:18-20).”
So the LDS Church seems to agree that “believing in Jesus” is not enough to make you a member of Christ’s own Church. It also requires valid baptism.
It appears our only disagreement is which church is “Christ’s own Church”. But that’s another discussion.
[Edit: Here is an excellent explanation of the requirements for full communion with Christ’s Church (from the Catholic point of view, of course).]