By Eric Johnson
They say a photo is worth a thousand words, and certainly this photo from the Vatican is worth double that amount. With Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church looking on, the LDS First Presidency presented a Christus statue at the Vatican in Rome, Italy on Saturday, March 9, 2019. The occasion for the LDS leaders being in Rome, along with all twelve apostles, was the dedication of the new LDS temple in Rome that took place on Sunday, March 10, 2019.
Seventeenth LDS President Russell M. Nelson—who serves as a type of “pope” for the 16-million member LDS Church—and Pope Francis met for more than a half hour as they discussed social issues as well as concern for youth in the church and the desire for people to worship God. Pope Francis, who is liberal in both his political and religious views, has many vocal opponents within his church disagreeing with his socialist agenda.
According to the LDS Church’s official newspaper Deseret News, Nelson gave the pope a Lladro figurine of the Christus statue as well as a copy of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Meanwhile, the pope gave Nelson his declarations on the family and on the Islamic faith.
Nelson told reporters outside St. Peter’s Square after the meeting:
The differences in doctrine are real and they’re important, but they’re not nearly as important as the things we have in common — our concern for human suffering, the importance of religious liberty for all of society, and the importance of building bridges of friendship instead of building walls of segregation.
The Deseret News article pointed out how the two churches have made inroads in conversation in the past five decades. In fact, they have combined their efforts in humanitarian efforts, including emergency and humanitarian aid, while “working to defend religious liberty and bolster families.”
Apostle Russell M. Ballard said, “We explained to His Holiness that we work side by side, that we have projects with Catholic Relief Services all over the world, in over 43 countries. We’ve been shoulder-to-shoulder as partners, and try to relieve suffering, trying to help people that are struggling. He was very interested in that and was very cordial, very kind to us.”
It is good leaders for leaders of different religions to have cordial relationships. However, if the impression given is that two religions are similar, if not the same, based on their combined efforts on charity work, this is dangerous. Why did Nelson and the LDS leaders present a statue of Jesus to the pope and not a statue of Moroni? Certainly this statue symbolizes the appearance that there is a shared belief between the two religions, but when it comes to the essential beliefs of Christianity, including the view of Jesus, there are many differences that cannot be reconciled. (To see the differences between the LDS Jesus and the Jesus of biblical Chrsitanity, click here.)
What about official LDS teaching?
One need go no further in showing the differences between Catholicism and Mormonism than pointing to a statement supposedly given by God as recorded in LDS scripture. According to Joseph Smith-History 1:19 in the Pearl of Great Price—one of the four standard works in Mormonism—Joseph Smith asked God which church he should join and was told that he 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; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
If God truly said this, then these points must be understood:
- “All (not some of) their creeds were an abomination in his sight.”
- Their “professors [priests, pastors, etc.] were all (not partially) corrupt.”
- “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”
- They teach doctrines that had been corrupted by men.
- They appear godly but deny God’s power.
These are serious charges. Then, in verse 20, it said that God “forbade” Smith “to join with any of them.” Notice, it doesn’t say “join” other churches but “join with any of them.” If there is any verse to show that Mormon leaders should not be joining hands with other religions such as Catholicism, this would seem to be it!
I find this statement in a current church manual to be appropriate: “Many in the Christian world are sincere, and their false doctrinal conclusions are not their own fault” (Old Testament Student Manual 1 Kings-Malachi Religion 302, 2003, p. 166). If those outside of Mormonism who consider themselves to be “Christian” have “false doctrinal conclusions,” shouldn’t JS-History 1:19 be more emphasized throughout Mormonism in order to not perpetuate a myth that all sincere believers in God are on the same path to salvation?
What did Apostle Bruce R. McConkie have to say about the Catholic Church?
At the beginning of the article, President Nelson was cited as saying, “The differences in doctrine are real and they’re important, but they’re not nearly as important as the things we have in common. . . ” While Nelson acknowledges there are differences, he appears to want to minimize these differences by accentuating the “similarities,” such as combined efforts to do social work while teaching its members to do good. Yet the teachings of many previous leaders in the LDS Church make it clear that the differences are just a sidelight.
Let’s consider one leader who was unabashedly critical of Catholicism. In the first edition of his encyclopedic book Mormon Doctrine originally published in 1958, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie included a reference for “Catholicism” by having the reader “See Church of the Devil” (p. 108). Thus, readers who went to this entry would have read this in the first paragraph:
All churches or organizations of whatever name or nature—whether political, philosophical, educational, economic, social, fraternal, civic, or religious—which are designated to take men on a course that leads away from God and his laws and thus from salvation in the kingdom of God (p. 129).
Saying that a religion such as Catholicism is taking “men on a course lead(ing) away from God” and hence from “salvation in the kingdom of God” is a condemning statement. McConkie went on to say that
there is no salvation outside this one true Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. There is one Christ, one Church, one gospel, one plan of salvation, one set of saving ordinances, one group of legal administrators. . . . Any church or organization of any kind whatever which satisfies the innate religious longings of man and keeps him from coming to the saving truths of Christ and his gospel is therefore not of God.
Although the later 1966 edition took the next part out, the original edition continued, “Such agencies have been and are founded or fostered by the devil who is an enemy to all righteousness.”
McConkie then cited unique LDS scriptures and then referred to the Book of Mormon character Nephi who
saw that this church took away from the gospel of the Lamb many covenants and many plain and precious parts; that it perverted the right ways of the Lord; that it deleted many teachings from the Bible; that it was the “mother of harlots”; and finally that the Lord would again restore the gospel of salvation. (1 Ne. 13:24-42).
The next paragraph was also taken out of the 1966 edition where McConkie continued:
Nephi beheld further that this church was the “mother of abominations,” and “the whore of all the earth” who “sat upon many waters; and she had dominion over all the earth, among all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people.” In contrast, the dominions of the true Church were small upon the earth. (1 Ne. 14:9-17; 2 Thes. 2:1-12.)
Who was McConkie referencing? In the 1958 edition it was made very clear: “The contentions and entanglements between the Catholic Church and the communist forces could well lead to a fulfillment of this prediction.”
McConkie finalized his entry by giving four points on how to distinguish the true church (obviously Mormonism) with a false church (Catholicism, Protestantism, and any other “ism”):
- It would be called in his name
- It would be built upon his gospel
- The Father would show forth is works in it
- It would not be cast into eternal fire like the “great and abominable church”
Did McConkie have a high view of the Catholic Church? The answer is no. He considered his description of the “Church of the Devil” to be synonymous with Catholicism, a church that failed in the four-fold test above.
What about the views of other leaders?
Some might think that perhaps what McConkie said was his own opinion. Although current leaders are careful in their political correctness, 15th President Gordon B. Hinckley, a man who was highly respected by the vast majority of Latter-day Saints, made it very clear that he did not want to be associated with other religious belief systems. For instance, he wrote a 1976 church tract that said,
They [Mormons] are generally classed as Protestants, since they are not Catholic. Actually they are no closer to Protestantism than they are to Catholicism. Neither historically nor on the basis of modern association, theology, or practice can they be grouped with either. …Suffice it to say that its theology, its organization, and its practices are in many respects entirely unique among today’s Christian denominations (15th President Gordon B. Hinckley, What of the Mormons? a non-paginated tract, 1976. Brackets and ellipsis mine).
Hinckley emphasized the differences, not the similarities. He didn’t offer a Christus statue to other churches to be mistaken as a token of the similarity between his faith and others. He even made it a point to show that the LDS doctrine of God was completely different from other religions calling themselves “Christian.” Hinckley pointed to the First Vision, as cited above, and explained,
Our Catholic friends, our Protestant friends, give us their definition of deity in the Nicene Creed. But that’s just a creed that came of the discussions of men. The marvelous thing is that the boy Joseph was able to testify of the real nature of God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. And that makes it possible for you and for me to understand our relationship to them. Each of us is a child of God. A son or a daughter of God in a very real sense and we can pray to Him and He will hear and answer our prayers (“The Nature of God,” Church News, July 1, 2006, p. 2).
Hinckley acknowledged the difference in beliefs other religions had with Mormonism concerning Jesus:
In bearing testimony of Jesus Christ, President Hinckley spoke of those outside the Church who say Latter-day Saints “do not believe in the traditional Christ.” “No, I don’t. The traditional Christ of whom they speak is not the Christ of whom I speak. For the Christ of whom I speak has been revealed in this the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. He together with His Father, appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the year 1820, and when Joseph left the grove that day, he knew more of the nature of God than all the learned ministers of the gospel of the ages” (“Crown of Gospel is Upon Our Heads, Church News, June 20, 1998, p. 7).
As a church we have critics, many of them. They say we do not believe in the traditional Christ of Christianity. There is some substance to what they say (“We look to Christ,” Ensign (Conference Edition), May 2002, p. 90).
In addition, the view of God is a major point of disagreement. Robert L. Millet, a professor emeritus from church-owned Brigham Young University, explained his rejection of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:
If an acceptance of the doctrine of the Trinity makes one a Christian, then of course Latter-day Saints are not Christians, for they believe the doctrine of the Trinity as expressed in modern Protestant and Catholic theology is the product of the reconciliation of Christian theology with Greek philosophy (A Different Jesus? The Christ of the Latter-day Saints, p. 171).
Many Latter-day Saints may attempt to bridge the gap and will not purposely point out issues emphasizing the differences but rather the perceived similarities. Still, no matter how many similarities are given, there is one important difference as it is brought out in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
Latter-day Saints hold that Christians in the broadest sense are those who base their beliefs on the teachings of Jesus and who have a personal relationship with him. Within that definition they recognize Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, and Latter-day Saint Christians, with the understanding that Latter-day Saint Christianity is the restored fulness of Christ’s gospel (Encyclopedia of Mormonism 1:271).
Notice that last statement very carefully: “…with the understanding that Latter-day Saint Christianity is the restored fulness of Christ’s gospel.” At the foundation of Mormonism’s presumed ecumenical leaning is the idea that this church is the only church with authority. It is, as many Latter-day Saints so understand it, the only one with a prophet and apostles with a direct connection with God. This is why Mormon leaders will not allow:
- A person to join their church unless that person is baptized into Mormonism, administered by those with “priesthood” authority—even if that person had already been baptized by an outside “Christian” church
- A member of any other church to enter an LDS temple or join in any of the temple ordinances
- A non-member to teach or have leadership role in the church.
Of course, I wouldn’t expect the LDS Church to allow for any of these things. It is, after all, its own unique religion. To give the pope a figurine of the Christus in what surely looks like an attempt to make Mormonism and Catholicism appear to be on the same page is both disingenuous and misleading.
What have other leaders said
Just to be clear about what other general authorities have said about the LDS Church, let me provide some citations from other leaders. (Note: I doubt any of these citations were mentioned by Nelson to the pope in their half-hour meeting):
“Secondly, it is objected that if the Church of Christ has not continued, then the gate of hell must have prevailed against her; and they refer us to that cheering passage in Matthew 16:18 which reads thus:—‘And I say also unto thee, that thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall riot prevail against it.’ They argue, that if the Church has ceased to exist, the gates of hell have prevailed over her and the promise of Jesus must be falsified. But we would inform the Catholics, that the Church of Christ has not ceased to exist, neither has Peter ceased his existence, but both the Church and Peter are in heaven, far out of the reach of the gates of hell, and far out of the reach of the abominable soul-destroying impositions of popery. The gates of hell have prevailed and will continue to prevail over the Catholic mother of harlots, and over all her Protestant daughters; but as for the apostolical Church of Christ, she rests secure in the mansion of eternal happiness, where she will remain until the apostate Catholic church, with all her popes and bishops, together with all her harlot daughters shall be hurled down to hell; then it shall be said, ‘Rejoice over her thou heaven, and ye holy apostles and prophets; for God hath avenged you on her;’ and then shall be ‘heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia: salvation, and glory, and honor, and power, unto the Lord our God; for true and righteous are his judgments: for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornication, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand.’ And again they shall say, ‘Alleluia,’ and her smoke shall rise up for ever and ever. And thus when the Catholics and Protestants hear all the heavens, and all the holy apostles and prophets, rejoicing over the downfall of Babylon, they will learn that the Church of Christ still exists in heaven and that the gates of hell have not prevailed against her; then they will learn where the apostolical and prophetical power rests; then they will perceive the difference between the glory of the Church of Christ and the misery and wretchedness of their own fiery torments” (Apostle Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, No. 3, p. 44).
“John predicts another great event to take place immediately after the proclamation of the everlasting gospel—namely, the downfall of great Babylon. After the first angel had finished his mission, he says, ‘And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.’ [Revelation 14:8.] The Revelator has told us what Babylon means in the seventeenth chapter: it is represented under the figure of a woman called ‘THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.’ In the first verse, this woman is represented as ‘the great whore that sitteth upon many waters.’ In the fifteenth verse, the angel said to John that, ‘the waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples and multitudes, and nations and tongues.’ [Revelation 17:1, 15.] The Roman Catholic, Greek, and Protestant church is the great corrupt ecclesiastic power, represented by great Babylon which has made all nations drunk with her wickedness, and she must fall, after she has been warned with the sound of ‘the everlasting gospel.’ Her overthrow will be by a series of the most terrible judgments which will quickly succeed each other, and sweep over the nations where she has her dominion, and at last she will be utterly burned by fire, for thus hath the Lord spoken. Great, and fearful, and most terrible judgments are decreed upon these corrupt powers, the nations of modern Christendom; for strong is the Lord God who shall execute His fierce wrath upon them, and He will not cease until He has made a full end, and until their names be blotted out from under heaven” (Apostle Orson Pratt, Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, No.6, pp. 84-85. Brackets in original).
“Christianity, as it is known in the world today, has fallen far short of the accomplishment of what might have been expected of it. It has failed in establishing those principles which Christ taught among the children of men. The great Catholic division of the Christian world, the Catholic church, is a national liability to any country. It wields a great power over the minds and the hearts of the children of men, but it is a power for evil rather than for good. It brings countless thousands regularly to confession; it rarely brings a single man to repentance and the abandonment of his sins” (Apostle Hyrum M. Smith, Conference Reports, October 1916, p. 42).
“Here is divine authority. Do any of our friends or neighbors make such a claim? We know the claim of the Catholic church, and all we say in response is that ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ These were the words of our Savior, and that is enough on that score. But our Protestant friends do not even have that much of a claim. They have a form of godliness, but deny the power thereof. And because they do not have the authority themselves they think no one else has” (First Presidency member Charles W. Nibley, Conference Reports, October 1926, p. 24).
“The Protestant Reformation, which resulted in the establishment of numerous Christian denominations—approximately two hundred and fifty of them existing in America today—bears unimpeachable evidence to the fact that a great apostacy did occur as the Master and the prophets of old had predicted it would. Martin Luther, John Calvin, the Wesley brothers, and the other protestors against the erroneous doctrines which had corrupted Catholicism did not claim divine restoration of the Holy Priesthood nor of the principles and ordinances of the gospel” (Seventy Milton R. Hunter, Conference Reports, April 1946, p. 143).
“At one time it grieved me to know that this Church was not numbered among Protestant churches. But now I realize that the Church of Christ is more than a protest against the errors and evils of Catholicism. This Church was established in the only way in which the Church of Christ can be established, by direct authority from God” (9th President David O. McKay, Conference Reports, April 1927, p. 105).
“This brings us to the point of the atonement of Jesus Christ. I speak it definitely: No Catholic priest from the pope down, understands the atonement of Jesus Christ! If they did, then this abominable doctrine of original sin would be abolished. So the atonement and its relationship to the human family is the next point which proves the apostasy of the Catholic Church” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 3:178-179).
“[Referring to Matthew 16:13-19] The interpretation placed on this conversation by the Catholics is extremely absurd. It is contrary to reason to think that the Lord would establish his Church upon any man, no matter how faithful and wonderful he might be. It is the Church of Jesus Christ, not the church of Peter” (10th President Joseph Fielding Smith, Selections from Answers to Gospel Questions: A Course of Study for the Melchizedek Priesthood Quorum 1972-73, p. 188. Brackets mine).
From the First Vision to the words of leaders speaking during a “politically incorrect” period of history and even to the leaders in recent times, Mormonism has never considered Catholicism to be a religion that leads people to the celestial kingdom. Perhaps the pope doesn’t understand or even care that great LDS missionary efforts are made in Catholic countries in Central and South America as well as the Philippines, with hundreds of thousands of Catholics having been converted to its way of belief. Joining hands with the leaders of the LDS religion could have many ramifications, as I can only imagine LDS missionaries showing prospective Catholic converts photos of the pope meeting with their leaders in Rome. As long as Mormonism holds to the idea that it is the “restored” church with the keys to the priesthood, Catholicism will continue to be seen as outside the “fold” of true Christianity by the Mormon leadership.