COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Many Catholics praised the speech Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivered here Dec. 6 (see Register editorial, page 8). It powerfully affirmed the role of religion in public life
But Romney ducked one key question some Christian voters are asking in the context of his candidacy: What does his Mormon faith actually believe about God and Jesus?
Indeed, given that Mormon theology differs so radically from orthodox Christianity, can Mormonism even be regarded as being part of the Christianity?
Romney said in his speech that “I believe in my Mormon faith, and I endeavor to live by it,” but he did not elaborate on Mormonism’s content beyond professing his personal belief that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind.”
The Register asked three Catholics with extensive knowledge about Mormonism — Patrick Madrid, publisher of Envoy magazine, Steve Clifford, a former Mormon who operates an apologetics website, and Catholic apologist and blogger Jimmy Akin — to discuss what Mormons believe.
Joseph Smith founded the Church of Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ, as Mormonism is formally known, in the early 19th century on the basis of revelations he claimed to have received from God in upstate New York.
Along with the Bible, Mormons regard the Book of Mormon, which Smith said he had translated from golden plates buried in a hill near his home, and two books written by Smith as holy texts.
Drawing on these additional writings, Mormonism departs radically from Catholic and Protestant theology in a host of areas, but its conception of God is perhaps the most basic difference.
In place of the Trinitarian understanding of one infinite God who has a single nature in three divine persons, Mormons believe God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are separate gods.
Jesus, in fact, is regarded as the offspring of a sexual union between God the Father and Mary.
Moreover, God the Father is not seen as an infinite, uncreated being. Instead, he is the progeny of a pre-existing god who was himself begotten as part of what Madrid characterized as an “infinite regression” of gods.
Mormon doctrine also says that by following Smith’s teachings, a devout Mormon will become a god like God the Father and Jesus in the next life. Like them, each Mormon will rule over a world of his own populated with “spirit children” created through sexual intercourse with multiple “spirit wives.”
Said Madrid, “The problem, of course, is not only is this polytheism but it also is a direct denial of the Trinity by splitting Father, Son and the Holy Spirit into three separate, tangible gods.”
Akin said that in light of the Mormon belief that Jesus is the “biological spirit child of God the Father” and one of his “spirit wives,” Romney’s comments about Jesus as the Son of God should not be interpreted by Christians as a profession of shared faith.
Said Akin, “That’s a very different understanding of what it means to be the son of God than what Christians have,” Akin said.
Clifford, who teaches CCD and RCIA at his parish of St. John Bosco in Woodstock, Va., said most people — and even many Mormons — don’t realize how differently Mormons interpret basic Christian terminology.
So when a Mormon says he believes Jesus is the Son of God and the Savior of the mankind, “that sounds really good to a Christian,” Clifford said.
But if Christianity is defined according to the Trinitarian doctrine of one God in three divine persons, Clifford said, “that is certainly not what Mormons believe.”
Mormonism’s non-Trinitarian foundation was at the root of a 2001 statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith denying the validity of Mormon baptisms.
The doctrinal statement came in the form of a brief note giving a one-word “negative” response to the question of whether Mormon baptisms are valid.
Most Protestant baptisms are accepted as valid by the Church, as long as certain conditions are met, including using the Trinitarian formula, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Madrid and Clifford pointed to Jesus’ scriptural declaration in Matthew 16-19 that that he was founding his Church on the “rock” of the Apostle Peter, and that “the gates of ell would not prevail” against that Church, as another fundamental point of separation between Mormons and Catholics.
In contrast to the Catholic understanding of the Church as a 2,000-year-old institution that traces itself back through an unbroken apostolic succession to the same Church founded by Christ on the foundation of St. Peter, Mormonism asserts that the apostles failed to pass along the full teachings of Jesus when they died.
Consequently, the Catholic Church has been in a state of apostasy throughout virtually its entire existence and a “true” Christian church didn’t exist for more than 1,500 years until it was “restored” through God’s revelation to Joseph Smith.
But Madrid said Christ’s promises to St. Peter in the Gospel of Matthew are only the most explicit of a “myriad” of Old and New Testaments texts attesting that the Church Jesus established in the New Testament era cannot be overcome, as Mormonism claims it was.
And Clifford said that along with rejecting Scripture, Mormonism is denying the known historical record.
“Through a very careful study of history and of the early Church and especially of the early Church Fathers’ writings,” Clifford said, “we can see that in fact there was no apostasy of the early Church.”
There are 14 million Mormons today, according to Keith Atkinson, public affairs director of the North American West Area of the Mormon church.
And according to the 2007 CIA Factbook, 2% of Americans, or approximately six million people, are Mormons.
In recent years, Mormon leaders have sought to downplay the dramatic doctrinal differences between Mormonism and orthodox Christianity, and have been more respectful in their comments about Catholicism and Protestantism.
Atkinson said that Mormons “certainly feel that we are mainstream Christianity.” But he stressed that from the Mormon perspective that does not include a belief in “post-Biblical creeds” such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, and he acknowledged Mormons don’t have a Trinitarian conception of God.
“In the New Testament, as we interpret it, God the Father refers to Jesus Christ as his son and a separate entity, and the Holy Ghost a separate entity beyond that,” Atkinson said.
The Mormon spokesman sidestepped the question of whether Mormons believe they will become gods after they die.
“To Mormons, it’s not a question of whether we can become gods,” he said. “The question is: Does God have the power to enable us to become more like him over an eternal lifespan? And to us, that answer is unequivocally Yes.”
Former Mormon Clifford said that Mormon doctrines are “a moving target,” and suggests his former co-religionists are beginning to discard the beliefs separating them from orthodox Christianity.
“I think the Mormon church is changing, and I think one of these days in the future it’s going to be incorporated into mainstream Christianity,” he said.
But Clifford, Madrid and Akin agreed that Mormonism isn’t there now.
“I guarantee you that the evangelical world resoundingly rejects Mormonism as in any way to be considered part of Protestantism in any broad sense,” Madrid said. “The Catholic Church has similarly said ‘no way.’ So any claims of being in the mainstream, I think that’s fanciful at best.”
Tom McFeely is based in
Victoria, British Columbia.
Voting for a Non-Christian Candidate
WASHINGTON — The consensus view of knowledgeable Catholics is that Mormonism isn’t part of mainstream Christianity.
But that probably won’t deter faithful Catholics from voting for Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, if they believe he is the best qualified presidential candidate.
Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things magazine and a convert from Lutheranism, said that voting for non-Catholics is something Catholics in America have long accepted.
“Few Catholics believe that a candidate is disqualified by being a Mormon,” Father Neuhaus wrote in a Dec. 7 entry on First Things’ website. “The reason is obvious: Catholics are accustomed to having heretics in the White House. Jews likewise are not offended that the president is not one of their own.”
Father Neuhaus said that it was evangelical Christians, for the most part, who are troubled by the prospect of a Mormon president.
“Evangelicals, by way of contrast, are accustomed to thinking of America as a Christian nation, meaning a Protestant nation,” Father Neuhaus said. “For many who lack a fully developed ecclesiology, America is something very much like their church. You don’t want a heretic as the head of your church.”
In an earlier essay on Mormonism, Father Neuhaus concluded it wasn’t part of historical Christianity. But he said many individual Mormons are authentically Christian and noted there is “much to admire” about the Mormon religion, especially the strong family impulse, upright sexual morality and strong community ethic that most Mormons share.
Catholic apologist Steve Clifford, a convert from Mormonism, agreed that his former co-religionists have many admirable qualities. And like Father Neuhaus, he thinks Catholics can feel comfortable in voting for Mormon candidates with solid personal and political credentials.
Said Clifford, “There are some very, very good patriotic Mormons that I wouldn’t have a problem voting for.”
— Tom McFeely