For a long while I have deliberately refrained from anything which might be construed as “attacking” the Mormon religion. When I was younger I thought Mormons needed to be “enlightened” by being told the “truth” about Mormonism, and the more directly the better. But after many bitter, fruitless battles, I came to realize that that tactic was a waste of time and energy. I had been baffled as to how Mormons could remain Mormon after hearing what I had to say. But with the passing of years I have realized that there is a lot more to people than meets the eye.
In any event, I gave up the “attacking” tactic and started trying to be patient and respectful, and seeing if I could learn what makes Mormons tick. I had obviously been missing something. What was it?
A lot, as it turns out. When you approach Mormons as a friend instead of an adversary, you see a whole different side to things. For one, you see that the similarity between Mormonism and other Christian faiths is apparently more than skin deep. What you thought was simply a fake Christ, is not so easy to dismiss.
I have been listening to a series of lectures on how the early Christian Church came to adopt some of the methods and forms of classical culture, philosophical and rhetorical methods, literary forms, etc. Some of the early proponents of doing so argued that even when people didn’t know Christ, nevertheless whatever they said and thought which was good belonged to Christ since he was the Logos, the source of truth and reason. Therefore Christians should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather they should sift through the fruits of classical culture and keep what was good, discarding only what lacked merit, and putting what was worthy to the service of Christ.
If the good produced by the ancient Greek and Roman pagans belonged to Christ, why not the good produced by Mormons? How can we say that people who actively profess the name of Christ, have nothing good which is attributable to Christ, while attributing the good in those who never even claimed to know Christ, to Christ?
Lest anyone worry (or for that matter be unduly hopeful), I’m not a Mormon and have no plans of becoming one. I have posted previously on whether Mormons are Christians (see also this), so I think my position on that is clear. After all, even if the good in the Greek and Roman pagan systems of thought was attributed by some to Christ, they still were not called Christians. But it becomes clearer to me how a non-Christian (according to my definition) religion can have some of the outward marks of a Christian religion. And it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Christ himself guides and inspires devout Mormons insofar as they are striving to live in accord with his authentic teachings. If this were not the case — if it were true that Christ withdraws all grace and assistance to the members of non-Catholic Christian religions — then one would expect every one of them to be an absolute cesspool of falsehood and immorality. Instead it appears that when anyone strives to follow Christian moral teachings, those efforts bear good fruit. And if you think about it, why should they not?
If moral teachings are like treating your body and soul the way God intends them to operate, as suggested by C.S. Lewis, then it would seem that anyone who tried to obey them would reap the benefits of operating themselves in the proper manner. Just as performing the proper maintenance procedures on your car will result in a well-running car, even if you learn the procedures from a counterfeit copy of the maintenance manual.
By the same token, while some may argue that the Mormon Christ is not the genuine Christ, nevertheless Mormon teachings about Christ are not completely false. To the extent that they are true, why shouldn’t they enable people acting in good faith to know the genuine Christ? Someone who got basic facts wrong about me, might be hindered in knowing what makes me tick, and therefore misinterpret things that I say and do. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t know me at all.
Speaking frankly, none of this should be taken to mean that I find no harm in the Mormon religion. Like most other non-Catholic Christian religions (now I’m including the Mormons under the heading “Christian” in the broad sense explained in my other post), the more of them exist, and the more they contradict the authentic teachings of the Catholic faith, the more confusion and division they sow among Christians. Obviously it would be better if there were but one Christian faith. And the Mormon faith in particular, by its mere existence as well as its explicit teachings, takes direct aim at the Catholic Church and tries to undermine its claim to be the Church founded by Christ and existing continuously ever since its founding, with apostolic succession and a valid priesthood and sacraments. These are certainly grave evils from the Catholic perspective.
But the Catholic Church has taught that we cannot hold present-day members of Protestant sects to be as culpable as the original Reformers themselves: Having been Catholics they should have known better, whereas people born Protestant centuries later cannot be held to the same standard as an educated Catholic apostate of the 16th Century. I don’t know Joseph Smith’s motives in founding the Mormon religion. I can’t say for sure whether he was a conscious fraud or sincerely deluded (sorry, but to a believing Catholic those are the only options). But even assuming the worst motives on his part, one can’t hold present-day Mormons — not even their leaders — accountable for them. Charity requires us to put the best possible construction on the actions of others. Therefore it seems we’re bound to assume the sincerity and good faith of every Mormon from the Prophet on down, even while considering the Church’s inherently anti-Catholic claims to be objectively evil.
If, then, we assume the sincerity of Mormons, it is not beyond probability that many of them know the real Christ and are sincerely trying to live in accord with his teachings as they understand them. Therefore it should not surprise us to find the present-day Church and its members bearing various kinds of good fruit, and we should not be precluded from attributing those good fruits to their attempts to know and obey Christ — even if we are not obliged to conclude from their existence that the Church is what it claims to be. Both statements can be true: The good fruits can be attributed to Christ, notwithstanding that the Church’s claims about itself must, for a Catholic, be judged false.