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Rambling Thoughts on Church HistoryMormons, Catholics, and the Pope
by James B. Allen
One of the wonderful changes in LDS attitudes that I have witnessed in my lifetime is a broader, more understanding, and more positive attitude toward other churches, and particularly the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, I remember all too well a time when many of the Latter-day Saints I knew looked at the Catholic Church as the “great and abominable church” and the “church of the devil” described in certain passages in the Book of Mormon. Not that everyone thought this way, but I remember hearing it enough that it seemed as if it were a general Church belief.
The idea that the Catholic Church was the “great and abominable” was never promulgated officially, but I sometimes heard it Sunday School and, at times, it was taught even by a few Church leaders. It became popularized more generally when, in 1958, Bruce R. McConkie of the First Council of the Seventy published a book titled Mormon Doctrine, identifying the Catholic Church just that way. President David O. McKay was shocked, especially because he and Bishop Duane G. Hunt, the Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, were good friends and Bishop Hunt had long been a friend of the Mormons in general. However, the book became a best seller for it listed almost every topic Mormons might be interested in and gave what seemed to be authoritative statements about each of them. It was an easy way to find answers, which is why the book was so popular, but, sadly, many of those answers were simply wrong. In fact, after President McKay asked Elders Mark E. Peterson and Marion G. Romney to carefully critique the book they came back ten months later with a list of 1,067 errors that they thought must be corrected if it was ever republished. After more discussion, President McKay directed that the book should not be republished at all. He also made it very clear that this was not an authoritative publication of the Church, but only the opinions of Elder McConkie. But the damage had been done, for the book popularized this, and other erroneous ideas, as many Latter-day Saints took whatever it said as doctrine. In 1966, apparently misconstruing the instructions from President McKay, Elder McConkie published a second edition of the book, though the statement about the Catholic Church was removed and many other offending statements had been removed or altered.
Of course, no one was saying that Catholics, as a people, were somehow tainted—only that their church as an institution was what Elder McConkie and others said it was. But that was bad enough and could hardly help but evoke a certain general prejudice on the part of those who heard the teaching.
But there are many other sides to the story of the relationship between the LDS and Catholic churches. In the early days of the Church in Utah, for example, there was real friendship and cooperation between the two. As we wrote several years ago in The Story of the Latter-day Saints:
Roman Catholics came to Utah in 1862 as members of the California Volunteers. In 1866 when the Reverend Edward Kelly was looking for a place to celebrate mass, he was allowed to use the old tabernacle, and Brigham Young helped him obtain a clear title to land for a church in Salt Lake City. Though the Catholics and the Latter-day Saints had little in common theologically, they maintained general good will. The Reverend Lawrence Scanlan arrived in Utah in 1873, eventually became a bishop, and remained until his death in 1915. He established parishes wherever possible and on one occasion in 1873 was invited by Mormon leaders in St. George to use their tabernacle for worship. Fearful that part of the service would have to be omitted because it called for a choir singing in Latin, he learned to his surprise that the leader of the St. George Tabernacle choir had asked for the appropriate music and in two weeks the choir would sing it in Latin. On May 18 a Catholic high mass was sung by a Mormon choir in the St. George Tabernacle, symbolizing the good will that existed between Father Scanlan and the Saints. (James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints [2nd edition, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992], 349)
The good will continued in many ways, not only from Church leaders but also among members who were less dogmatic than others in their interpretations.
In my own case, I actually remember when Pope Pius XII was inaugurated in 1939. I was not yet twelve years old, but I remember it because I remember my mother talking about the pope, saying what an important person he was, and what a good man the previous pope, Pius XI, was. This somehow affected my attitude (thank goodness for good mothers!) and as I grew older I developed even greater respect for this pope, who remained on the papal throne until his death in 1958.
Meanwhile, I learned a bit more about the Catholic Church and even, at times, enjoyed going to a Christmas Mass. I also had a few Catholic friends. In 1946, while I was in the Navy, I was sent to photography school in Pensacola, Florida. One of my best friends there was a Catholic who wanted to become a priest after he left the Navy. My goal was to become a Mormon missionary. We often met together (along with a Baptist friend) and talked about our religious differences and why we wanted to pursue our special paths. Neither of us persuaded the other, but I learned to respect both him and his beliefs. We did not agree, but I gained a better understanding, which made me much less judgmental than I might have been. Maybe that is one reason why I was one of those who was very disappointed and upset when the McConkie book came out. By that time I was teaching in the LDS Institute of Religion program. I was not outspokenly critical, but I remember that some of my more “liberal” colleagues were.
Over the years, therefore, I have been delighted as I have seen the Catholics and the Mormons cooperating in numerous things, including humanitarian service.
For example, I loved the story of what happened in 1985, after a devastating famine struck Ethiopia, killing a million people and leaving millions more on the brink of starvation. Church leaders called for a church-wide fast and, as a result, collected $6 million for Ethiopian relief. Elder M. Russell Ballard headed the LDS group that went to Ethiopia and there he met and eventually developed a long-time friendship with Frank Carlon, head of Catholic Relief Services. They made the decision that much of the money would be handled by Catholic Relief Services. And, as Elder Ballard remarked later, “Ever since then, we've been building that relationship stronger and stronger.”(As quoted in Deseret News, November 27, 2010)
The warm relationship between Latter-day Saints and Catholics continues, exemplified by several incidents. In 1990 members of the Church contributed generously to the renovation of one of Salt Lake City’s architectural gems, the Catholic Cathedral of the Madeline. In August of the year 2009 the hundredth anniversary of the Cathedral of the Madeline was celebrated. At the service commemorating the anniversary, President Thomas S. Monson was one of the speakers.
I imagine nearly everyone was just as interested as I was in the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the choosing of a new pontiff, Pope Francis I.
As I kept up with what was going on, I remembered hearing stories about Latter-day Saints having audiences with the pope, and presenting him with the Book of Mormon. I took a little time to try to find some of those stories, partly because I thought they were missionary stories. I found only two, and neither was about missionaries, but I thought you might be interested in them anyway.
The first took place in 1949. Eldin Rick (who later became a member of the religion faculty at BYU) was a chaplain during World War II, stationed in North Africa and Italy. The story of his visit to the pope is told by Richard O. Cowan:
While visiting Rome in August 1945, a few months following World War II, Chaplain Ricks had a unique experience. He and three other Latter-day Saints planned to attend a public audience with Pope Pius XII at which up to two thousand people might be present. He first went to visit Beth Davis, whom he had met at BYU and who was then working at the United States Mission to the Holy See (comparable to an embassy at the Vatican). After chatting for a little while, he casually remarked to her, “Beth, we’re on our way over to see the pope.”
“Oh, would you like to see the pope?” she responded. With surprise, he realized that she might be able to arrange a personal visit. “Beth, if you could arrange a private audience for us, I’d love you for life,” the young chaplain remarked.
Beth introduced Chaplain Ricks to her superior, suggesting the possibility of arranging the audience. Rather skeptically, the woman asked about the purpose of the visit. Having wondered for some time what it would be like to meet the pope and give him a copy of the Book of Mormon, he answered, “To present the pope with a copy of Mormon scriptures.” Eldin held his breath until she acknowledged that this would be a good reason. She said, however, that such visits were arranged from two to six months in advance and asked the chaplain when he would like to schedule the appointment. “It doesn’t matter to us,” he replied, “as long as it is before two o’clock tomorrow afternoon.” She laughed, doubting whether this would be possible, but instructed him to call back later that afternoon. After calling, he was delighted to learn the appointment had been made.
At 12:30 the next afternoon, Eldin and his companions were at the Vatican. After passing through a series of rooms, they were just outside the chamber where the pope granted private audiences. They were told that it was customary for visitors to kneel and kiss the pope’s ring. They wanted to be courteous but felt it would not be appropriate to do either. Finally a bell tinkled, and they were ushered in. Pope Pius XII extended his hand in greeting, and the visitors shook hands with him. He initiated the conversation by asking how long they had been in Italy. Then, after visiting about his trip to the United States a few years earlier, the pope offered to give his guests souvenirs of their visit: crucifixes, missals (books containing what is said and sung during mass), or other mementos. After accepting these gifts, Chaplain Ricks announced: “We too would like to leave a souvenir of our visit with you. We have visited St. Peter’s Cathedral, and there we see the treasures brought by the rulers and representatives of many nations. Our gift by comparison is of very little value in dollars and cents, but the message it contains is of infinite value.” Eldin then handed the pope a copy of the Book of Mormon and explained that it was a record of God’s dealings with a branch of the house of Israel that inhabited ancient America.
“Do you mean that Christ was in America?” the pope inquired.
“Yes, sir,” the chaplain affirmed. Eldin then reminded the pope of Christ’s promise to visit “other sheep” as recorded in John chapter 10. The pope seemed sufficiently interested that Eldin reached for the book and turned down the page at 3 Nephi chapter 8, explaining that here was the record of how the Savior’s promise had been fulfilled. As Eldin returned the book to him, the pope asked, “You mean I may have this?”
“Yes, sir,” Eldin eagerly affirmed, “we wish it to be our gift to you, and we urge you to read it. It is a message for all people everywhere, and we are certain of its truth.” (Richard O. Cowan, “The Story of Eldin Ricks,” in Religious Education [BYU Religious Study Center], Fall 2008.)
The next story took place in 1993. It was published in the Church News on May 22 of that year:
Jon M. Huntsman, a regional representative and an industrialist who has financed humanitarian relief efforts worldwide, was greeted May 12 by Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in Rome.
Elder Huntsman, who serves as regional representative to the Kearns Utah Region, was invited to visit the Vatican as an expression of appreciation for a financial gift to St. Vincent de Paul and for his role as co-chairman for the restoration of the Catholic Church's Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. Elder Huntsman and his family have been major financial supporters for many years of St. Vincent de Paul, which feeds the poor and destitute throughout the world. St. Vincent de Paul is an arm of Catholic Community Services, an agency to which the LDS Church also has contributed humanitarian relief funds.
Patrick A. Shea, a member of the Catholic Church and an attorney in Salt Lake City, helped with arrangements for Elder Huntsman's visit to the Vatican. Mr. Shea said the Vatican visit came about through the suggestion of the Most Rev. William K. Weigand, Bishop of the Catholic Church's Salt Lake Diocese.
Mr. Shea, who has made several visits to the Vatican, accompanied Elder Huntsman. Also accompanying Elder Huntsman was James N. Kimball, an LDS Church member and director of media relations for Huntsman Chemical Corporation. Vatican officials were aware of Elder Huntsman's membership in the LDS Church, which has channeled some of its worldwide humanitarian relief efforts through Catholic charities.
“His [Elder Huntsman's] visit was well received within the Vatican because of the Catholic Church's interest in coordinating emergency relief efforts with other Christian denominations," Mr. Shea said. "One Vatican official said they were very aware and very pleased at the energy and scope of the Mormon Church's relief efforts. The pope, in part, granted an audience with Mr. Huntsman in recognition of that coordination."
Mr. Shea said Elder Huntsman was able to visit the pope's private quarters and saw the balcony over St. Peter's Square where the pontiff gives his weekly blessings. He also saw the chamber where the College of Cardinals meets to elect each pope.
Mr. Shea indicated to the Church News that Elder Huntsman and the pope met with a common desire: to relieve suffering among the peoples of the world, whether it comes by war, famine, natural disasters or other problems.
To help put in perspective the significance of an LDS regional representative's visit with the pope, Mr. Shea said: "The Mormon Church is embracing with the Catholic Church Christ's message to provide relief to those suffering, regardless of denomination or race or ethnic background. The world needs to have Christ's message of relieving suffering rather than inflicting suffering. The pontiff has a council for Christian unity. The monsignor on that council who met with us said even though there are deep differences between the Catholic Church and the Mormon Church we need to focus on those areas of common concern and work together."
In a news release prepared after his visit with the pope, Elder Huntsman was quoted as saying, "His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, is a person with great love and concern for all humanity."
Then, in 2008, came something that, to me, was truly a highlight. Two apostles attended an ecumenical prayer service in the presence of the pope—the first time in history that this had happened.
On April 15-20, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States. On the night of Friday, April 18, he conducted a prayer service in St. Joseph’s Parish in New York City, with leaders of Protestant as well as Orthodox Christian churches. Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook were in attendance. As the Catholic News service noted, obviously with tongue-in-cheek, “it all started over coffee.” The event was not highly publicized in Utah, but the Catholic News service thought it significant enough to run a story on it. Here is the story, in part, as told by the news service:
In an interview with Catholic News Service and other reporters before the start of the ecumenical prayer service at St. Joseph's Church in New York April 18, Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said that during a coffee break at a recent meeting a representative of the Latter-day Saints asked him if there was any possibility of their participation in the papal visit.
"My reaction was, 'Why not?' We have shared values and there is a possibility of collaboration on a number of social issues while respecting our theological differences," he said.
Father Massa said, "We're not making any theological statements today," adding, "This is a very big statement they (the Latter-day Saints) are making."
He said the Latter-day Saints are "a bit bruised" by reaction to the presidential campaign of Republican Mitt Romney...
Representing the Latter-day Saints at the April 18 meeting in New York were two members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook.
Father Massa described the request as coming out of a growing respect between Catholics and Mormons, which began under the leadership of the late Gordon B. Hinckley, longtime president of the Latter-day Saints.
During Hinckley's 13-year tenure as president, he met with the current and former bishops of Salt Lake City. And Chicago Cardinal Francis E. George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sent condolences when Hinckley died in January.
"I think these developments have prepared us to begin a new phase in our relationship," Father Massa said.
Although media representatives of the Latter-day Saints did not respond to a request for comment on the papal prayer service April 18, a statement on "respect for diversity of faiths" was posted on the church's Web site the same day as the New York meeting.
"Members of the (Latter-day Saints) church do not view fellow believers around the world as adversaries or competitors, but as partners in the many causes for good in the world," the statement said, noting the church's cooperation with Catholic Relief Services in efforts to assist victims of famine and natural disasters.
CRS is the U.S. bishops' overseas relief and development agency.
"It is important to note that interfaith cooperation does not require doctrinal compromise," the statement added. "It is necessary to maintain a separation between charitable efforts and doctrinal tenets, while at the same time sharing a mutual concern for those in need.
"People of good faith do not need to have the exact same beliefs in order to accomplish great things in the service of their fellow human beings." it said.
In recent years the Mormon church sometimes has joined Catholic officials in initiatives both churches supported, such as opposition to same-sex marriage. (Story accessed online at http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0802159.htm)
And now there is a new pope—apparently a man who is worthy of universal respect and admiration. We wish him well, hoping that he will have a strong and positive influence on the world as he seeks to promote peace as well as empathy toward the poor and downtrodden. I was delighted last Sunday (March 17) when the brother who gave the opening prayer in our sacrament meeting prayed for the pope and his success. I was also delighted when the First Presidency of the Church issued the following statement:
On behalf of the leadership and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we extend our warmest wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis and pray he will feel the peace of the Lord as he serves as pontiff of the Catholic Church.
We have been honored and pleased as our two faiths have worked together on issues of faith, morality, and service to the poor and needy. We value the relationships that have been formed in these joint efforts and are grateful for the good that has been accomplished.
We look forward to pursuing together, as the Apostle Paul wrote, all things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and of good report.” (Church News, March 17, 2013)
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