Superficial similarity may hide more fundamental disagreements

Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation
By Stephen H Webb and Alonzo L Gaskill, Oxford University Press, £18.99

‘We think that readers will be very surprised by how close Catholics and Mormons are on a number of the most basic theological topics.” So state Stephen Webb, a Catholic, and Alonzo Gaskill, a Mormon, close to the beginning of their ambitious book. They write of the “beauty that can be found through looking at another’s religious tradition with an open and understanding heart”, but they are after more than a cosy chat. Webb reveals that he has travelled “deep into the spiritual geography of Mormonism”, while Gaskill has learned to “love and appreciate Catholicism”. They conclude that “Catholics and Mormons may not be twins, but they are certainly siblings.”

A thematic approach is adopted, with the two men exploring the two groups’ positions on a particular issue and comparing them with views across the denominational aisle. We are told that both faiths understand the role of works in salvation (while never forgetting the crucial role of grace) and “see holiness as a journey not a state”. Next, we learn that, “united by a love of ritual”, Catholic and Mormon religious practices are “steeped in ceremony”, though, according to Webb, Mormonism has a “strong Protestant streak when it comes to the aesthetics of Sunday worship”. The temples are ornate but the everyday meeting houses tend to be plain. Marian devotion is another shared passion, and while Mormons revere their unique texts they certainly “do not shy away from the Bible”.

There is an effort to highlight differences, too, but when seeking common ground the book sometimes fails to distinguish between superficial similarity and fundamental theological agreement. There are instances of this in the aforementioned discussions, and we also hear that Catholics and Mormons share an appreciation for authority in ecclesiastical matters, a distaste for religious fragmentation and a universalist sense of their Church. This sounds reasonable, though there are major contrasts when it comes to how such authority should be articulated and enshrined.

Other points of supposed concord are even trickier. Mormons famously place emphasis on post-New Testament era revelations and it is explained that this should not, in and of itself, offend Catholic sensibilities. This, of course, is a long way from a Catholic looking kindly on the idea that “Joseph Smith is a modern Moses or Paul”.

We are also reminded that Mormons, just like Catholics, hold Jesus Christ in the highest esteem, but the specifics of Mormon Christology are not easy for a Catholic to swallow. Christ is seen as a “fully divine being who is literally God’s son”, but He is also “subordinate to the Father as He is dependent on the Father for His existence”. Catholics, of course, rejected such subordinationism back in the councils of the early Church.

Sometimes the authors readily admit to sources of tension. The respectful, friendly approach of the book does not preclude moments of candour. Gaskill reports that “while in the last 50 years they have become more ecumenical than ever in their history, as it relates to Mormons the Catholic Church is more closed-minded than ever” and notes that “we are almost the only Christian denomination they have singled out as ‘unacceptable’ ”. He adds that he does not take offence.

Webb, meanwhile, points to one of the major stumbling blocks to interaction between the two faiths. The Mormon vision of history identifies centuries’ worth of apostasy and decline prior to the arrival of Joseph Smith. This clearly places the continuous Catholic tradition, the entirety of Catholic history, in a negative light and Webb finds it a “bit frustrating” that Mormons can sometimes have such a roseate view of their own past, which was rocked by an impressive number of splits, rebellions and squabbles.

Then again, there are times when the book tries far too hard to locate shared horizons and this can lead to some curious statements. Are we really to accept, for instance, that “Mormonism and Catholicism are less like contrasting alternatives than complementary versions of each other?”

Conversation between faiths is, however, always an interesting idea and, as the authors explain, these two traditions have one thing very much in common, especially in the context of the United States. They have both been “vulnerable to spiritual typecasting” and have endured a “remarkably parallel list of affronts and denunciations”. In addition to shared enemies, they have also looked at each other with suspicion for a very long time and, latterly, “the media has not been slow to cover the tensions that can arise when Mormonism spreads into places where the Catholic Church has long been established”.

A “theological conversation” is therefore welcome and it is good to know that the authors “do not want to make Protestants the common enemy in order to draw Catholics and Mormons closer together”. The question is how close they can (or should want) to become. For all their good intentions, Webb and Gaskill cannot change the fact that, on some very fundamental levels, Catholicism and Mormonism are radically different faiths.

This article first appeared in the January 22 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here