Whether Mormons are Christians?

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.

In sum

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).]

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9 thoughts on “Whether Mormons are Christians?

  1. If being a Christian is defined as being a baptized member of Christ’s own Church, then it’s understandable that you would not regard Mormons (or Protestants) to be Christians. Of course, it cuts the other way: It should be equally understandable that I would not regard Catholics (or Protestants) as Christians, under this definition.

    I do, in fact, regard both Catholics and Protestants as Christians, because I think this definition is too narrow, and prefer the commonly understood definition of the term.

    It is true that I would not regard someone who merely professed a belief in Mormon teachings, but did not receive Mormon baptism, as a Mormon (though, interestingly, the phrase “dry Mormon” or “Jack Mormon” has historically been applied to such individuals.) For that matter, I would not regard someone who merely professed a belief in Catholic teachings, but did not receive Catholic baptism, as a Catholic. So I’m not sure your last analogy really works.

    The picture is further muddied by the Mormon teachings of degrees of salvation and of evangelization of the dead. A belief in Christ sufficient to motivate a man to good works, though not to led the man to accept Mormon baptism, is nonetheless adequate according to Mormon theology to save the man from Hell. (However, it is not sufficient to qualify the man to dwell in the presence of the Father, but only to receive the ministrations of the Son.) So for a Mormon to call a non-Mormon a Christian is not just a nod towards tolerance and a concession to tactfulness, but has some real meaning. When I call you a Christian, I mean that you seem to be on a path that will actually steer you clear of Hell, though I believe there is more to hope for than that. Perhaps that last sentence also describes your own feelings about Protestants and Mormons; it would be interesting to know.

    The belief in evangelization of the dead implies a hope that good (non-Mormon) Christians may “see the light” in the next world if not in this one. So perhaps a somewhat whimsical interpretation of a Mormon calling a non-Mormon a Christian is that it is an expression of hope for the future. I recognize that can cut both ways, of course.

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  2. Well, must say I’m relieved. I had some apprehension about this post possibly causing offense, and didn’t want to spoil the friendly relations we have enjoyed up to now. Still, for a while I have felt like I wanted to get this off my chest, since I had a feeling I was not being completely candid. I’m grateful we can disagree like gentlemen. Of course I thought we could, otherwise I might not have posted it. But people don’t always take things the way you expect.

    Anyway, Vader:

    I didn’t say Protestants in general are not Christians, but unbaptized Protestants, as well as Protestants who don’t baptize validly.

    Not to debate the point, but to clarify: I understand baptism as joining one to Christ (among other things); and I understand being a Christian as being joined to Christ. The scriptures make clear, and in any case it’s been the clear and constant Catholic teaching, that baptism is what joins one to Christ. The Christian faith being a covenant, there is a parallel with the Old Covenant: As circumcision joins one to the Old, baptism joins one to the New.

    And again the Church being the Body of Christ, with Christ as its head, one becomes joined to that Body through baptism. So one who is not baptized is outside the covenant and separated from the Body, and has not Christ for his head.

    This is why I can’t call someone a Christian as a token of hope or a recognition of good faith. Nor is it a matter of what I would choose to call him. It’s like being pregnant or dead: You’re it or you’re not, there’s no leeway.

    This is not to say that everyone who lacks valid baptism is necessarily damned. But at the same time, it would be wrong of me to say, “No matter, baptism makes no difference”. That would be uncharitable in me to the extreme. I want you to know that baptism matters, because nothing can be more important to me than that all the people I care about (and even those I don’t care about, since I should care about everyone) be fully joined to Christ and thereby saved. And I have no doubt that wish is mutual.

    Still, as you may know, the Church teaches that salvation is possible to those who are not baptized, in various ways. She does not pronounce Mormons hopeless reprobates, nor consider them morally worse than the validly baptized, merely by virtue of being Mormon.

    Enough clarification.

    You write, “For that matter, I would not regard someone who merely professed a belief in Catholic teachings, but did not receive Catholic baptism, as a Catholic. So I’m not sure your last analogy really works.” I don’t seem to catch your meaning here. Can you clarify?

    You write, “When I call you a Christian, I mean that you seem to be on a path that will actually steer you clear of Hell, though I believe there is more to hope for than that. Perhaps that last sentence also describes your own feelings about Protestants and Mormons; it would be interesting to know.”

    Yes, as I said, there is hope for Mormons and unbaptized Protestants to be steered clear of hell. You may have heard of the doctrine of invincible ignorance. Basically it means that some people can’t help that they don’t believe the Gospel (by which I am referring to the Catholic faith). Some disbelief is culpable, and some isn’t. It depends on the mysterious movements of the depths of the human heart, of which only God can judge.

    I have to say, at the risk of encouraging you in error, that having gotten to know you guys over the past several months, and listening and talking (so to speak) without debating (as I was wont to do with Mormons in my younger days), I have come to think that there is something good in Mormon faith. Of course it stands to reason since we, like you, believe that all religions contain some goodness and truth. So I do have some real hope for you (I don’t mean that to be as condescending as it sounds). But obviously, I would far rather you embraced the Gospel in its fullness — and again I’m sure it’s mutual.

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  4. Agellius, on your inability to call one a Christian in hope (analogizing it to being pregnant or dead, which you either are or aren’t): I think you’ve hit on a key difference in our worldviews there. To me and Vader, nothing done in this life or after, until the Last Judgment, is final or sure. We are in a quantum state right now and in a sense whether I will ever have been baptized a Mormon has yet to be decided and you, it may turn out, have been a baptized Mormon all your life. Have you ever read the Great Divorce? C.S. Lewis’ has a frightening vision of the characters making final choices that roll backwards through time.

    Of course that’s entirely different from the linguistic issue of what ‘Christian’ means in common speech which, as you properly acknowledge, is different from the technical prescriptive meaning you would like it to have.

    As for why you haven’t offended us, well, its pretty obvious that you’re a convinced Catholic and tolerance means accepting that you accept your own premises. When you call us ‘not Christian’ but make clear that you are using the word ‘Christian’ in a specific technical sense, you are not bearing false witness against us.

    You may find this long and involved discussion on the subject interesting:
    http://www.scifiwright.com/2012/01/shout-out-to-the-latter-day-saints/

    By the way, I understand that as a faithful Catholic you are obligated to accept the conclusions of whoever it was that decided that Mormon baptisms weren’t valid, the Congregation of Whichever, and perhaps even the reasoning behind it; but the reasoning itself is laughably bad even if you accept Catholic premises.

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  5. I have read The Great Divorce — in one sitting in fact, but many years ago so I don’t recall the thing about choices rolling backwards through time. It’s an odd concept and I don’t understand how it would work, but maybe I need to read it again.

    It would seem that since you don’t know what people are going to end up having been, that you would have even less reason for saying people are or are not Christians. Why not just leave it an open question?

    In a way we might agree: I admit that people could be “joined to Christ” in other ways known only to God, and therefore could turn out to have been Christians all along in that sense. Still, I can’t make judgments about such cases. I can only talk about the ways of joining people to Christ that I know about because they have been revealed.

    “You may find this long and involved discussion on the subject
    interesting: …”

    Very interesting! My son and I both loved the Golden Age trilogy. I didn’t realize Wright had a blog.

    “… the reasoning itself is laughably bad even if you accept Catholic premises.”

    Touche! Well, the response to a dubium was made by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who at the time was Josef Ratzinger. Pope John Paul II approved it and ordered it published. So
    basically, the two most recent popes were in on it. I have read one LDS
    response to it, which I thought missed the point in many ways:
    http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=13&num=2&id=394

    But I’ll bite: What do you say is laughably bad about the reasoning?

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  8. I am a Mormon and as far as your question goes regarding baptism, the answer is that in order to truely be a member of the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, you must be baptized by someone with the proper authority or the priesthood that the individual recieved from someone else who obtained it from someone else who obtained it from someone else… all the way back to Jesus Christ. However for one to be called a christian I think this is very much a different matter seeing as there would be a great difference in everyones idea of who is actually christian or not, which I think would defeat the purpose of the umbrella term of Christian. To me it seems that for someone to be called a Christian they must believe in Jesus Christ and recognize that it is through him that you are saved and it is through him that you are resurrected, which is the very core idea of the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints.

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