A response to “Maximus Nothus Decretum”, by Alonzo Gaskill (re the validity of Mormon baptism)

This is a response to “Maximus Nothus Decretum: A Look at the Recent Catholic Declaration regarding Latter-day Saint Baptisms”, by Alonzo Gaskill (FARMS Review: Volume – 13, Issue – 2, Pages: 175-96).  A review of “The Question of the Validity of Baptism Conferred in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” by Luis Ladaria.  Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 2001.

[Please understand that if my tone in this post seems unfriendly, this only mirrors the tone of the article to which I’m responding, which I consider unnecessarily hostile to the Catholic Church.  It has nothing to do with my feelings towards Mormons or the Mormon religion in general.]

On June 5, 2001, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a “Response to a Dubium on the validity of baptism conferred by “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, called ‘Mormons’”, which states, very briefly, that Mormon baptism is invalid.

At or around the same time, apparently (the article is undated), Fr. Luis Ladaria, S.J., wrote an article titled “The Question Of The Validity Of Baptism Conferred In The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints” in an effort to explain the reasons behind the negative response to the dubium.

At some later date in 2001, Alonzo Gaskill wrote a review of Ladaria’s article, titled “Maximus Nothus Decretum: A Look at the Recent Catholic Declaration regarding Latter-day Saint Baptisms”.  This in turn is a belated response to Gaskill’s article.

The Latin phrase in Gaskill’s title purports to mean, “The Great Illegitimate Decree.”  My son, the Latin scholar, translates it as “Greatest Spurious (or Illegitimate) Decree”; however he notes that it should actually be rendered “Maximum Nothum Decretum”, otherwise you have gender agreement problems.

Gaskill correctly notes that the Church has not issued an official explanation of this decision.  Ladaria is currently the Secretary of the CDF (not its head, who is called the Prefect).  But at the time he wrote the article, according to Wikipedia, he was a consultor.  The point being that his article explaining the reasons behind the CDF decision, does not constitute an official explanation.

On to the substance of the article

In short, Gaskill, in my view, is shadowboxing. He responds to arguments Ladaria doesn’t make, and ignores the ones he does make.

According to Gaskill, the two main “areas of concern” to the CDF are “(1) the Latter-day Saint rejection of traditional trinitarian definitions of the Godhead and (2) a stated difference in the understood purpose of baptism.” Gaskill purports, in the rest of the article, to show that the CDF’s concerns in these areas are unfounded.

Gaskill’s arguments on the Trinity miss the mark

In addressing (1), Gaskill spends a lot of time arguing, basically, that the doctrine of the Trinity is unbiblical (with which he claims many or most Catholic scholars and theologians agree), and that it’s of late development. And further, that some Church Fathers were subordinationists (believing the Son’s nature to be subordinate to the Father’s). This being the case, his contention apparently is that one can’t argue against Mormon baptism without also arguing against early Christian baptism. Also, since the Church has always considered the baptisms of heretics such as the Arians to be valid, it has no grounds for considering Mormon baptism invalid.

But this misses Ladaria’s point. Ladaria doesn’t argue that Mormons are wrong on the Trinity, and are therefore heretics, and therefore Mormon baptism is invalid. On the contrary, he argues that Mormon baptism is invalid specifically because Mormons are not heretics.

Ladaria’s arguments: What is a heretic?

Ladaria does speak of problems (from the Catholic perspective) with the Mormon conception of the Godhead. He goes into a fair amount of detail, citing numerous sources showing that Mormon authorities have taught ideas about the Godhead that are repugnant (logically) to the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Gaskill does not deny that any of these ideas were taught.)

And Ladaria does conclude from all this that “the words Father, Son and Holy Spirit, have for the Mormons a meaning totally different from the Christian meaning”. But, he isn’t finished yet.

He proceeds: “The differences are so great that one cannot even consider that this doctrine is a heresy which emerged out of a false understanding of the Christian doctrine. The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix. We do not find ourselves, therefore, before the case of the validity of Baptism administered by heretics, affirmed already from the first Christian centuries….” (Emphasis added.)

A heretic, you see, is a Christian who has got a doctrine wrong. It’s someone who starts out in the Christian Church, professing belief in the Christian faith and its doctrines, but then goes astray on one or two points. As St. Thomas Aquinas defines it, “heresy” is “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas”.

Mormon theology, he argues, is so far out of line with Catholic orthodoxy – so very, very far – that it arises not from within the historical Christian church, but from within “a completely different matrix”. Mormons don’t get it wrong on a single point like the Arians, who believed Christ was a created man. They get it wrong on point after point after point (recall that I’m referring to the points raised in Ladaria). Their beliefs are so foreign to orthodox Trinitarian beliefs, that they can’t even be supposed to arise from the same doctrinal tradition. They are not distortions or misunderstandings of orthodox dogmas, but are arranged within a totally different doctrinal structure.

New beginning, different matrix

None of this is surprising, given the manner of the LDS Church’s founding. Joseph Smith reports that in his first vision, he was told by the Father and the Son, of the existing Christian churches, that “I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight”. (Emphasis added.)

He later taught that there was a Great Apostasy, a falling away from the true Christian faith in which the priesthood and teaching authority were lost from the earth. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles writes, “[Many Christians] believe that God is a spirit and that the Godhead is only one God. In our view, these concepts are evidence of the falling away we call the Great Apostasy.” In other words, the very existence of the doctrine of the Trinity, is evidence that the Gospel was lost from the earth and had to be rebuilt, so to speak, from the ground up.

Which is what Joseph Smith proceeded to do, instituting an entirely new church structure (from the Catholic perspective), with a Prophet and President of the Church as the highest earthly authority – pretty much a direct rival to the Pope; as well as new ordinances or sacraments under new forms, and new theology based on theretofore unknown historical figures and events, and a recasting of some biblical figures in new roles.

In short, the Mormon Church – by its own admission — did not grow out of either the Catholic Church or its offshoots. Rather, it purports to be a “re-boot”, discarding a millennium and a half of accumulated Christian tradition and doctrinal development, and starting (or resuming, from its point of view) its own tradition.

This is the “completely different matrix” to which Ladaria refers. Thus, he asserts that the Mormon religion, from the Catholic perspective, is not a heresy but a completely new faith with its own foundational principles. Accordingly, the argument that the baptisms of heretics were never considered invalid, does not avail in the context of Mormon baptism.

Gaskill’s arguments: We intend what you intend

In addressing the second “area of concern”, that of “the understood purpose” of baptism — which Ladaria and the Catholic Church refer to as “intention” — the essential points for Gaskill are as follows: According to the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, the “three primary purposes” of Catholic baptism are: (1) causing one to become a member of the Christian community; (2) pardoning sin and rescuing recipients from the power of darkness; and (3) making recipients new creations and sons and daughters of God. But each of these is consistent with Mormon beliefs about baptism. Therefore, Gaskill argues, there is no difference of intention.

But Ladaria never raises these points: He never argues that Mormons deny that baptism causes one to become a member of the Christian community, etc.

Ladaria: No you don’t

The points he does raise are these: (1) That Mormon baptism is not the same as the baptism instituted by Christ while he walked the earth; (2) that Mormon baptism lacks the intention of remitting original sin; and (3) that Mormon baptism lacks the intention of imparting an “indelible mark” to the soul.

As to the first point, Ladaria explains in detail that Mormon baptism originated not with Christ on earth, but at the time of Adam (see, e.g., Moses 6:64-68); an assertion which Gaskill does not deny. In which case, Ladaria says, it’s not Christian baptism. The Catholic Church admits that other forms of baptism existed before Christian baptism, specifically the baptism of John, which is distinguished in scripture from Christian baptism. Christian baptism, he says, “means participation in [Christ’s] death and resurrection”, which was not the case with John’s.

A baptism that existed as long ago as the time of Adam, cannot be the baptism instituted by Christ while he walked the earth. Ladaria’s point being that Christian baptism was a totally new thing at the time when Christ instituted it, so if Mormon baptism did exist from the time of Adam, then it can’t be the one instituted by Christ.

Gaskill doesn’t address Ladaria’s arguments on this point at all, even though this makes up the bulk of his argument on the issue of intention.

Ladaria’s second argument, which Gaskill also makes no effort to rebut, is that unlike Mormon baptism, Catholic baptism “cancels not only personal sins but also original sin”. Thus, part of the intention of Catholic baptism is to cancel or wash away the “stain” of original sin. (Catechism 12501279, etc.)  Since Mormons don’t believe in original sin – and for that reason don’t baptize infants – they lack this intention in their own baptisms.

And thirdly, Ladaria points out that Mormons, when returning to the Church after being excommunicated or having renounced their Mormon faith, are rebaptized. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, teaches that baptism leaves an “indelible mark” on the soul, and for that reason cannot be repeated. (Catechism 1272.)  Thus, Mormon baptism lacks the intention of leaving an indelible mark on the soul.

Accordingly, on at least these last two essential points, Mormons when baptizing do not intend to do what the Catholic Church does in its own baptisms.

Gaskill, again, leaves these points unrebutted.

Gaskill makes one other point which does not respond to anything in Ladaria, but which also touches on the issue of intention: In response to certain statements by the then-bishop of Salt Lake City, Gaskill says that the reason Mormons re-baptize converts is not because of differences in belief, but because they need to be baptized with the proper priesthood authority. But this seems to point up another difference in intention: Mormons intend to baptize with priesthood authority — a priesthood which is foreign to that held by the Catholic Church.

A (fruitless) digression into Catholic soteriology

Gaskill goes on to discuss Catholic soteriology (doctrine of salvation). He spends several paragraphs arguing that the Catholic Church no longer teaches that non-Catholics, Christian or otherwise, can’t be saved. Thanks to Baptism of Desire and the “dogma of anonymous Christianity” (a dogma of which, if it exists, this particular Catholic is completely ignorant), salvation is possible even to the unbaptized. But this has no relevance to either Ladaria or the CDF decision. Whether Mormons can be saved and whether Mormon baptism is valid are totally different questions:  If the doctrines of baptism of desire and anonymous Christianity are true, they would apply regardless of the validity of anyone’s actual baptism — since they expressly apply to people who are not baptized at all!

By what authority? Why, the Pope’s!

Gaskill next argues that the CDF lacked the authority to make this decision (trying to persuade Catholics to rebel, apparently). He argues — in case Catholics didn’t know — that an instruction or directive of the CDF is “not binding and is potentially fallible” (gasp!), and that this fact should serve to “’delegitimize’” the CDF decision in the minds of “Catholic scholars, the magisterium, and the laity” (he leaves out the clergy for some reason). In which case, one wonders why all other directives of the CDF should not be “delegitimized” as well.

The reason the CDF decision lacks authority, he says, is that “[t]he obligation to observe and accept constitutions and decrees is only present if the document or pronouncement is offered by the pontiff or college of bishops.” Since it wasn’t issued by the Pope, it’s entirely non-binding.

But he seems to overlook the following language in the response to dubium: “The Supreme Pontiff John Paul II, in the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect, approved the present Response, decided in the Sessione Ordinaria of this Congregation, and ordered it published.” So it was issued by the Pope after all. As a matter of fact, the CDF acts under the Pope’s authority and at his direction. That in fact is its purpose: It is delegated by the Pope to fulfill certain responsibilities on his behalf — one man can’t do everything. An approved directive of the CDF is therefore a directive of the Pope.

Gaskill concludes, “’Whereas Canon Law does not require rebaptism of converts from other Christian denominations,’[74] this document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does, but has no authority to do so.” But this begs the question whether Mormonism is a “Christian denomination”, as understood by the Catholic Church, in the first place — which in turn depends on whether Mormon baptism is valid.

As to whether the CDF had the authority to make this decision, the Pope, in fact, has “full, supreme and universal power over the Church.” (Lumen gentium 22.) Given that he approved and ordered the response to dubium to be published, it’s safe to conclude that the CDF had the authority to do so.

Not offended, only shocked

Gaskill notes that “The Church of Jesus Christ is “neither concerned nor offended” by the directive”; and that “[t]hose who firmly believe in the restoration of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ know that [the CDF decision] does not [make any difference]”. Well good. Then no one’s upset, and nothing has changed.

And yet – “[T]hese thoughts are an expression of ecclesiological, theological, and soteriological shock at what I deem a contradictory and illegitimate act on the part of the magisterium of the Catholic Church….” He’s not upset. He’s just shocked that the Church would commit an illegitimate act.

But when you’re shocked about something, doesn’t that imply that it was, more or less, completely unexpected? Yet, isn’t this the same Church that bastardized the doctrine of the Trinity and entered into a Great Apostasy over a millennium and a half ago, causing priesthood authority to vanish from the earth, and delegitimizing the very Gospel itself? Was Gaskill, then, under the impression that the Church had changed since that time, reforming itself such that it may now be trusted to only make decrees that are legitimate?

If not, then I’m at a loss to understand how an illegitimate decree of the Catholic Church could engender shock in a believing Mormon.

The pot and the kettle

In closing, Gaskill suggests that what this is, is an early indicator of persecution to come:  “Just as the early Christians were hated and persecuted by those who also professed membership in the house of Israel, Latter-day Saints will surely see a manifest increase in persecution and hatred by those who likewise profess a belief in Christ. … This recent decree by Catholicism’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may simply be a sign of the times and an indication of that which is to come.”

In fact, “’Where the gospel is, there will be opposition and persecution, for Lucifer [!] will not stand idly by while the work of God rolls forward.’”

Is Gaskill overplaying the persecution angle? I would suggest he is.

A quick summary of the facts: The Catholic Church issued a document in which it found that Mormon baptism is invalid — but recall that the LDS Church has considered Catholic baptism invalid for over 150 years. A CDF consultor writes an article explaining the bases for the decision, which he closes by saying that the decision “does not indicate a judgment on those who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”, and expresses the hope that “through further studies, dialogue and good will, there can be progress in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect”.

In response, Gaskill writes an article accusing the Catholic Church of committing a shockingly illegitimate act, done by a Congregation which had no authority to do it, and which contradicts the Church’s own teachings; implying disingenousness on the part of the Church, in suggesting that the decision “is grounded … in recent conversion rates” rather than any honest assessment of the facts; and finally, concluding that it might be the first step in a coming persecution; indeed, implying that Lucifer himself is behind it.

Who, then, is persecuting whom? Gaskill is concerned that “many Catholics will think differently about Latter-day Saints” as a result of the CDF decision, presumably in a negative direction. But in what direction will Gaskill’s article tend to influence Mormon attitudes towards the Catholic Church?

Yes, I would suggest the persecution angle is slightly overplayed.

P.S.  I happened to come across this article[1] this morning.  Eleven years after issuing the response to dubium, this is the progress the Catholic Church has made in the direction of persecuting Mormons.

[1]  Stack, Peggy Fletcher, “We stand with Mormons as Christ’s witnesses, says Utah’s Catholic bishop”, Salt Lake Tribune, September 21, 2012.

5 thoughts on “A response to “Maximus Nothus Decretum”, by Alonzo Gaskill (re the validity of Mormon baptism)

  1. Agellius,

    I came across you blog yesterday and felt I needed to respond. When I read the first few paragraphs, as a practicing Mormon, I expected to be disappointed with the rest of the post. However, I found myself greatly appreciating your writing style and thoughts.

    Perhaps most startling, was the way you presented the Mormon beliefs without trying to demonize or criticize them. That is rare in today’s society. While it was clear that you do not accept those claims as truth, you recognize that others do. Such respect is rare and valuable.

    I have a few thoughts in response, in no particular order:

    1) Mormons do have a tendency to take the persecution thing a little too far. I understand why that is. The history of the LDS Church contains many examples of intolerance and persecution. Mormon beliefs are often misrepresented in the media. And this whole Christian vs. Cult issue creates additional emotion.

    2) From the Catholic perspective, I understand the rational for this decision on Mormon baptism. I think many Mormons interpret this decision as a rejection on the part of Catholics of our claim to being Christians, hence the tone of Gaskill’s article. His response seems like an attempt to prove that Mormons are Christians.

    While we acknowledge substantial differences in theology, we do worship the person known as Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, the Son of God, and Savior of the World. We believe our faith is identical to that shared by the Apostles and other first-century Christians. We also believe that the worship of Christ was the central component of the individuals in the Old Testament as well, as Isaiah and others prophesied of a Messiah

    3) The funny thing is, I didn’t interpret the CDF statement as a rejection of Mormons’ claim to Christianity. It seemed to clearly outline the ways in which the theological underpinnings of baptism are sufficiently different to warrant new baptism.

    4)I understand how the Catholics can view the LDS Church as non-heretics. Mormons specifically make the claim that the Restoration of the church was not analogous to any other Protestant movement. While Mormons believe that any second-century Church activity happened without divine priesthood authority, we must accept and respect the Catholic Church’s claims to the contrary. Once we allow ourselves to view the situation from that perspective, I believe that the CDF decision and statement is compassionate and appropriate.

    Anyway, thanks for you post. I appreciated learning more about your faith.



  2. Kevin:

    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your response.

    The reason I came to be aware of Gaskill’s article, and thereby came to write this post, was because I have been close friends with Mormons in the past, and currently have what I consider to be “online friends” who are Mormons, whose blogs I enjoy reading and who welcome my comments thereon, even when we disagree.

    Frankly it has been my perception in the past that Mormons are extremely touchy about any perceived attack on their religion, no matter how benignly intended such an “attack” might be. And so I posted this response with some trepidation, although with a feeling that it needed to be done since I felt many of Gaskill’s criticisms were unjust, when they were not simply off the mark. However, reactions like yours and those of others, have caused me to feel less and less apprehension about speaking my mind on subjects like these, and I’m grateful that this is the case.

    I admit, though, that quite likely the reason I am getting different kinds of reactions lately, is that I myself have learned to temper the way I express myself, so that my own statements probably don’t come across as belligerently as they used to. Part of this I attribute to growing older, and part to having had more experience of different Mormons and reading and getting to understand their point of view better and better.

    I appreciate you that can evaluate the CDF’s explanation of its action objectively, and assume the best of motives on its part. That’s really the best we can do (and the least we ought to do), when we can’t come to an actual agreement, don’t you think?

    Regarding the specific reactions you express:

    (1) Of course I understand that Mormons have been persecuted. I hope Mormons don’t forget that the same is true of Catholics, both in the past in in various parts of the world today. The same goes for being misrepresented in the media, big time. I agree that the “Christian vs. Cult thing” is ugly and stupid.

    (2) I agree that Gaskill’s response may have been an attempt to prove that Mormons are Christians. I think he also may have felt betrayed, in a sense. Since Vatican II, many in the liberal Catholic wing of the Church (and the theologians he cites, e.g. McBrien and Rahner, definitely belong in that wing) have been raising false expectations that the Church was softening the hard edges of its doctrines in order to make compromise and reunification possible; whereas in reality, the Church’s official teaching has not changed, and reunification is not possible so long as other Christian bodies remain in error.

    Gaskill may have felt that the CDF was (illegitimately) standing against a tide which he felt, from the Mormon perspective, had been moving in the right direction. Of course, as understandable as that is, it still misses the point of the article he purported to be responding to.

    (3) I agree the article was not specifically a rejection of Mormon claims to be Christian, and again, am glad you saw it objectively for what it was and wasn’t.

    (4) Again I think you saw the situation objectively, and I believe that’s a credit to your determination to put the most charitable construction possible on the situation.

    Best wishes and thanks again for taking the time to comment.


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