W. H. Auden once said “truth is Catholic but the search for it is Protestant.” Auden’s distinction between Catholic and Protestant is not about liturgical style or doctrine. Rather it is about differing approaches to truth. Are you a Catholic Mormon, or a Protestant Mormon? Do you submit to the authority of the Mormon church as the divine arbtrar of truth, or do you see yourself, along with the church itself, as being on a path towards truth?
I was having a family discussion about Eugene England’s view that the LDS church was the “true” church because it was the “best” church. I somewhat disagreed with this view and this prompted a discussion of Catholic versus Protestant approaches to truth. Bro. England had written:
“We can accurately call the LDS church “the true Church” only if we mean it is the best organised method for doing that (understanding life and the gospel) and is made and kept so by revelations that have come and continue to come from God.”
My “Catholic” Response:
I disagree with Bro. England’s statement because it imposes a test upon the church. “We can call the church the true church ONLY if we mean it is the best organised method AND is kept so by revelations that come from God.” It implies that we as members of the church can sit in judgement of the church if we see that it doesn’t explain enough or seems to fall short compared to other philosophies or religions we might like better.
The church is a singularity (one Lord, one faith, one baptism), and the members are a plurality. No single church could reflect all the criteria, judgements, morals, and ideals of its diverse membership. So churches can’t be accountable to individuals. Rather, individuals must be accountable to churches. Churches can try to be popular, try to figure out what will appeal to the most people at any given time, and craft their doctrine accordingly. But this just makes them like democracies which are notoriously changeable, and ultimately churches who have become more liberal have wound up losing more membership than conservative ones who aren’t blown about by every wind of doctrine. The great thing about a church is that it is an authority.
“You’ve got to serve somebody” as Bob Dylan says. That is where religion comes in. It presents itself as a divine authority. Will you trust that there is something greater than yourself? Or will you always submit only to your own mind, your own reason, which for all we know, will simply dissolve at death? A religion might have things in it that sound crazy to your reason, but by submitting to it, you show humility in the face of your mortality and the fallibility of your reason, and trust that there is something that transcends you.
What is important is the symbol. You participate in humanity’s collective expression of faith in something that transcends its mortality. These collective religious expressions may vary according to time, place and culture. We were fortunate to be born in the LDS faith, which gave us a strong iron rod to grasp, a compelling, beautiful theology, and a powerful sense of its divine authority, which it expresses as “only true church.” We embrace it, not because we examined it thoroughly and found it was all perfectly consistent with the reason of our mind. We embraced it because we were called into it, by virtue of our birth, our heritage, or our personal spiritual call. Our ancestors sacrificed and died so we could worship, and we, being part of them, being, even in our own bodies which come from them, an expression of their faith, their love, and their aspirations, we continue the collective worship through the generations.
My brother-in-law Ryan Lane’s “Protestant” Response:
There are several definitions of the word “church.” One definition is that the church is an institution ruled by hierarchy. But I prefer the definition that I think is more scriptural, which is that the church is simply the people that make it up. These people are the body of christ and the living temple, and the family of God. The church was never intended to be like the “buggers” in Ender’s Game, which is an army of drones ruled by the single will of the queen. The church has multiple people with multiple talents and multiple perspectives. The president of the church is one of these people with a particular set of talents and perspectives. He works out his salvation with God like we all do. It is possible, and too common, for church members to obsess too much about the hierarchy and what they are thinking. It is better to focus on God, or truth, or beauty, or goodness.
Yes the institution falls short and sometimes fails its people. But in the institution’s failure we sometimes see it’s greatest successes. The protestant reformation occurred because of the success of the catholic church in creating a people who cared enough about the gospel to recognise when the church didn’t live up to it. As Mormons we often use the terms “church” and “kingdom of God” interchangeably. But Protestants (like Bonhoeffer) don’t do that. To them, the kingdom of god is not the church, it is something that we sometimes catch glimpses of, something we can hardly discern, something that is coming in the future. God is Spirit (John 4:24). God is love (1 John 4:8). God is a person. God is not a building or an institution or a hierarchy, or a set of principles, or doctrines or ordinances or covenants, or keys, or temples. All these things are fine but they are just things. But God is a person. If God is the bridegroom, he doesn’t marry a thing, he marries people. And the church is people, not a thing.
Even though my nature is Catholic, I like my brother-in-law’s Protestant view. I think it is interesting that he says: “The Protestant Reformation occurred because of the success of the Catholic church in creating a people who cared enough about the gospel to recognise when the church didn’t live up to it.” That’s a fascinating interpretation: to credit the Catholic church with the reformation! But Martin Luther WAS a Catholic trained priest, reading a Catholic Bible. So the seeds for reformation were present within the church itself. Others, like St. Francis also recognised the need for reform, but they did it, not by challenging church authority, but by creating orders of devout Catholics who were extra-faithful to the gospel, as they saw it, which were later embraced by the official church.
We Are Both Catholic and Protestant
In the end, I think Auden’s phrase (truth is Catholic, the search for it, Protestant) points to a basic duality of human nature: the need for authority, and the need for autonomy. We need to find something to worship which transcends ourselves (Catholic authority), but we also need to follow our heart, because God speaks in our heart too (Protestant search for truth). And I think we all basically end up with some kind of mixture of both in our lives. Even Protestants at the end of the day have to settle down and worship at some kind of church which claims some kind of authority. If not, you end up like my Evangelical uncle, who bounces from church to church, unsatisfied because none of them follow the Bible. Eventually he ends up starting his own church in his living room, which only lasts as long as his children stay in it. Someone who is too Protestant risks cutting himself off entirely from a community of worshippers, thus denying himself a fundamental aspect of the Christian life.
I too have a Protestant side to me, in that I read, explore, and write about extra-Mormon things, and challenge some orthodox Mormon ideas. In doing so, I think I am giving my Protestant soul wings upon which to fly. However, I try to keep myself tethered to the church so I don’t become completely blown about by every wind of doctrine. Some might say that is harmful because it limits my freedom and keeps me stuck in some false religious ideas. But I think everyone needs some kind of point of reference upon which to build his life. Otherwise, we are all just swimming about aimlessly in a limitless expanse.
- Are you a Catholic Mormon or a Protestant Mormon and why?
- Do you submit to the authority of the Mormon church as the divine arbtrar of truth, or do you see yourself, along with the church itself, as being on a path towards truth?
Used to be quite the Catholic Mormon, but moved to be Protestant Mormon in my attempt to stay being any kind of a Mormon.
It is not the true church because it is the best it is because of Matthew 18:18-20.
When you have doctrine that contradicts such as omniscience and eternal progression then whatever the Prophets believe today, I believe. However, I reserve the right to question, search, and pray and articulate things in a way to get the maximum attention and thought.
I am more of a Unitarian Universalist Mormon because I believe that the values and service performed by the community are more important than the truth claims. I don’t think we should believe in things that are false and I don’t see a lot of value in believing in things that cannot be proven.
If the Mormon church is still the divine arbtrar of truth it is due to ongoing revelation and open cannon. Unfortunately there is very little evidence of this today. “Revelation” has been watered down to a committee inspiration process that any well intended church might claim!
Today this inspiration process produces infrequent “revelations” such as calling younger missionaries, perhaps this is “truth” at some administrative level but it is hardly the level of truth implied by this article.
I see myself on a path towards truth and I believe bloggernacle exposure and debates has forced the church to reconsider some of it’s arbitrary authoritarian positions in favor of more of a path towards truth enhanced by the approaching die off of half of Q15 and a potential changing of guard.
I’m guessing I’ve always been “Protestant”. I’ve certainly always been protesting.
Hoffbegone, your Matthew 18:18 speaks of binding on earth and heaven, so I assume that means you are on the Catholic side. You also reserve the right to question, which is also Catholic, inasmuch as Catholics don’t really believe everything their church says is true. Rather what is most important for them is the authority, the tradition, or the spiritual call.
So I would also say Joel’s “Unitarian Universalist Mormon” is also a Catholic approach, because you are not subjecting the church to criticism regarding its truth claims, rather letting them be and focusing on what you find to be the most important: community and values.
I think it is important to understand that being a Catholic Mormon does not mean that you automatically believe everything the church says. In fact, being really apologetic about the church and the infallibility of its teachings is more of a Protestant approach, inasmuch as you are trying to defend the church as rationally “the best” and “the truest.” A Catholic has no such need. The Catholic church is not true because it is the best, but only because it has the authority. Catholics trust the authority without being bothered by the truth claims.
Howard is the true Protestant, who sees the church as having lost its bearings and is not content to let it be “the true church” simply because of its authority.
A non-member criminal defense attorney friend once described a client who said he was a Mormon Jew. (In reality, I don’t think the client was either Mormon or Jew.) I kind of like that.
Definitely a Jewish Mormon who believes that embracing the Hebraic roots is the means for needed revitalization. And who looks forward to a family reunion between Judah, Ephraim and all the tribes of Israel. (See Isaiah 11, Ezekiel 37, Jacob’s allegory of the Olive Tree, etc.)
* * *
If a Jew has no one to quarrel with, he quarrels with God, and we call it theology; or he quarrels with himself, and we call it psychology. Or he quarrels with the psychoanalyst, and we call it literature.
Two Jews and three opinions are better that three Jews with no opinions. Passionate arguments are better than passionless acceptance.
– Elie Wiesel
Nate, was this prompted by the discussion a while back on the “Jesus, Lover of my Soul” post?
Personally, I find the church to be much more “Catholic” in most of its key doctrines. Things like the necessity of ordinances, the need for proper authority, the church’s role as the arbiter of the authority to perform ordinances, the need for righteous living, the idea of an open canon, and the idea that the church is divinely guided and not necessarily bound by previous written revelations, the idea that the prophet is fallible, but “will never lead the church astray,” the importance of free will, the idea that we must choose to have faith to be saved, etc.
Even things like the weeping God of Enoch’s vision could be compared to Catholic ideas that portray Jesus or Mary as the one who mourns with us, the idea of the saints being “saviors on mount Zion” could be compared to Mary’s role as “co-redemptrix” with Jesus, etc.
Certainly there are “protestant” ideas in our teachings and beliefs, but they are usually things that are present in both catholic and protestant traditions, and just given more emphasis in protestantism (like the idea that we are saved only by grace), or things that are accepted by only some protestant traditions, but not all or perhaps even most (like the teaching against infant baptism, the idea of a lay ministry, or the lack of a liturgical calendar); very few of them are ideas that are uniquely protestant.
It is because of this that I find it a little ironic that our great apostasy narrative has developed in such a way that it largely relied on standard protestant anti-catholic views of the so-called dark ages. That is probably our most protestant feature.
Definitely the Protestant variety, although I am a fan of Catholicism for its ability to embrace all sorts of believers, whoever wants to be there. In short, without personal seeking, what is the point? I am not impressed by authority, but I am pretty impressed with myself. 😉
I think Howard meant “open canon” or an ever evolving set of religious books (through revelation) which is a Protestant notion. “Open cannon” sounds more like the description of the authority based Catholic model, training an open weapon that can be wielded by a single person on the populace.
How are the Catholic Mormon vs. Protestant Mormon labels different from the Iron Rod Mormon vs. Liahona Mormon labels?
Lol! Open cannon and open fire!
Wow, imagine my surprise to find myself quoted today!
To me this is the main difference between catholic and protestant:
Protestants emphasize the direct connection between you and God. Catholics require a priest or a church to mediate between you and God.
Protestants emphasize the gifts of the spirit, Catholics emphasize the keys of the priesthood. Catholics emphasize tradition and priestly authority, protestants emphasize scripture.
Growing up, I thought Mormons identified more with protestants, because the restoration has a Pentecostal feel to it, where every person speaks in the name of God. As I have grown older I have the impression that the church has taken on more of a catholic feel: less emphasis on scripture and spirit and more emphasis on authority and ordinances.
I agree with Nate, both perspectives play an important role. The key is to keep them in balance. That’s why I often attend Protestant churches, to hear things that balance what I hear in my LDS ward. I’m not usually a big fan of authority, but I do recognize that has an important role to play.
Also, Protestants are kind of like fundamentalists. Historically, their dream has been to use the scriptures to recover the “pure and original” Christianity. This was the promise of the Restoration. This is why from historically, Mormonism is fundamentally Protestant-like.
Ryan, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad to hear you value the Catholic perspective and recognise its importance. I agree that there needs to be a balance between these two perspectives, and I think that generally there is in the membership at large.
I also think its true that the Protestant side can be more fundamentalist. And this should give us pause. If we have strong disagreements with the authority of the church, even if those disagreements are progressive in nature (women and the priesthood for example), by advocating for them, we are expressing more of a fundamentalist nature which seeks to impose our strongly felt sense of morality upon others. Catholics are more live and let live. They don’t care so much if their church is stuck in the past.
I served a mission in Italy, where the Italian loyalty to church and family drove me crazy. But they didn’t care about Catholic doctrine, and thus could not appreciate all the ways in which LDS doctrine might have been better.
Yet ironically, it is this same loyalty that I feel to my church and family heritage that keeps me in the LDS church now. And I find myself admiring the wilful blindness of the Italian Catholics which gives them a sense of loyalty, tradition, cultural morality, and reverence for authority and heritage.
Great comment, and great post, Nate! I love your story here:
“I served a mission in Italy, where the Italian loyalty to church and family drove me crazy. But they didn’t care about Catholic doctrine, and thus could not appreciate all the ways in which LDS doctrine might have been better.
Yet ironically, it is this same loyalty that I feel to my church and family heritage that keeps me in the LDS church now. And I find myself admiring the wilful blindness of the Italian Catholics which gives them a sense of loyalty, tradition, cultural morality, and reverence for authority and heritage.”
I’ve often wondered if it is possible to be a “cultural Mormon.” Many people think that it is, but I have not found it true for myself. Personally, I would love to see a Mormon church where more people were comfortable being cultural mormons–not necessarily participating in the services every week yet still strongly identifying as Mormons. Maybe this is what we would call a “Jack Mormon,” but that term is usually derogatory and used to imply that these aren’t really mormons. Even exmormons are often critical of jack mormons. But if Mormonism was a space where everyone was accepted regardless of how they expressed belief (perhaps like Catholicism in Italy), then that’s a Mormonism I’d personally be much more comfortable with. Unfortunately, though, Mormonism imposed so much baggage on me growing up that I refuse to identify with it as a religion or culture at all.
I served a mission in Ireland in the 1960s. In Belfast there was a war between the Protestants and the Catholics. The Catholics lived in one set of suburbs and the protestants in a another set. Catholic kids went to catholic school, and protestants to state school.
When someone who lived in a catholic area joined the church, they still lived in a catholic area, kids went to catholic school, and when there was a riot still had to fight on the catholic side, and were not allowed to associate with protestants, or their house was likely to be fire bombed. So they were Catholic Mormons. The same for the protestants.
I was a little confused by your blog because whether I am catholic or Protestant seems to change depending on which characteristics are being considered, but I thought I’d tell you about the other catholic and protestant Mormons.
hawkgrrrl, I’m a little confused by your comment that an open canon is a protestant idea. I thought the idea of new revelation on par with the scriptures was inconsistent with the notion of sola scritura, at least the way most protestants seem to interpret it. Not arguing, though, just curious.
Have to agree with JKC. While the definition of Protestant Mormon above would seem to be more okay with additional revelation, the older Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches are much more inclusive about canonizing additional scriptures. Because of the established authoritative structures, they can officially approve of scripture centuries and millennia after the fact. Protestants are very insistent that the Old and New Testaments as established in the early AD centuries represent God’s will and cannot be altered.
There is also the matter of Catholicism’s flexibility incorporating local belief customs and validation of new saints. A saint is defined by an individual’s relationship with God and the resulting miracles in their life. They become additional avenues of intervention with God by approval of the central authorities, even if that individual had never been part of the hierarchy in their life.
A protestant denomination’s authority is not derived by personal revelation and relationship to God, but by adherence to God’s previously decreed written word. Catholicism depends much more on relationships to God, mediated by church officials and established saints. Even loved ones can aid the progression of others. Prayers of those on earth offered on behalf of those in purgatory enable those souls to enter heaven faster. Protestants see salvation happening on an individual basis – one mortal cannot aid another mortal’s progress. If you’re looking for a category that values the church as a community of interconnected members, I’m not sure Protestant is the right one.
That’s why I mentioned the Iron Rod vs. Liahona labels. I think they reflect more accurately the different perspectives in the OP.
Interesting thoughts Mary Ann. Are you saying that Iron Rod is more Catholic, and Liahona is more Protestant? I think that would generally be the case. Liahona implies more flexibility, more “spirit of the law” than “letter of the law.” Yet interestingly, I think that embracing the letter of the law from a Catholic perspective will ultimately give you more flexibility in the long run.
For example, in the word of wisdom, the letter of the law says “no coffee.” Someone with a protestant mindset will look for the spirit behind the letter, which would be “no addictive substances” or “no caffeine.” Therefore they are bound to try to obey a more strict interpretation of the law than a Catholic Mormon, who only looks at the letter, and sees it merely as a token of their faith and obedience, the same as Catholics who don’t eat meat on Friday. Catholic Mormons are free to drink as much Red Bull as they want.
Of course I understand I’m making up my own definitions here. It’s a paradigm I use, but I grant it is quite arbitrary.
I’m saying the definitions you presented don’t hold up well to real Catholicism and real Protestant practices. If I’m reading your argument correctly, your Catholic Mormon is a rehashing of an Iron Rod Mormon, and your Protestant Mormon is a rehashing of a Liahona Mormon. You are using incredibly loose definitions of Catholics and Protestants. The post is to me a simple reframing of the authority vs. personal revelation tension in our church.
In answer to the original question, I guess I’d say I’m a Catholic Mormon with Protestant tendencies.
When I first saw the title, I thought Catholic as in catholic. Lower-case catholic means all embracing. As Mary Ann stated, the early Catholic church incorporated local customs and beliefs, which is what made it catholic.
We could even go so far as considering Muslim Mormons. Muslim is defined as submission to God. Based on this, what characteristics would a Muslim Mormon have?
I guess, if we took King Benjamin seriously, we would be Buddhist Mormons?