Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting Out Into The Deep
September 7, 2012
In the days leading up to Republican Convention, there were various television specials and articles about Mormonism, since Mitt Romney is the first Mormon ever to be nominated for president and very few Americans outside of those parts of the United States where Mormons are concentrated know much about it beyond its polygamous history.
The programs and articles touched a little on the founding of Mormonism, when, according to legend, Joseph Smith Jr., found in Manchester, N.Y. in the 1820s a group of golden plates bound by rings and inscribed on both sides with text in “reformed Egyptian.” The texts contained the writings left by indigenous Americans, members of the lost tribes of Israel, centuries before Christ’s birth, which Smith translated into a tome that became the Book of Mormon.
Some programs took up the question of whether “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” is actually Christian. The Catholic Church doesn’t consider Mormons Christians, or accept Mormon baptism, because, among other things, Joseph Smith claimed that God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were not three persons in One God but three separate beings or “personages.”
A few touched on some of the peculiarities of Mormon theology and practice, such as baptizing the dead, the rejection of original sin, the belief that man, like God, is uncreated and eternal and that the world was formed, not out of nothing but of pre-existing matter, and the idea that God reestablished the Christian Church through Joseph Smith, having Peter, James, John and John the Baptist appeared to him giving him priestly authority.
But most focused on what makes Mormonism a compelling reality rather than a curiosity: that despite its historical and theological oddities, Mormonism is the fastest growing religion in the United States. This should bring all those of religious faith to ask why. It’s especially important for Catholics to consider what we can learn from the growth of Mormonism, because many of its most alluring attributes are things for which the Catholic Church was once famous.
The first thing that is striking about Mormons is their commitment to their faith. Soon after high school graduation or the first couple of years of college, most Mormon young men voluntarily serve two years in a mission, often far away from home, supporting themselves with money they’ve saved during their teen-age years. Many young Mormon women willingly do the same on 18-month missionary tours. Mitt Romney, even though his French was not very good, spent two years in France. Dressed in dark pants, a white shirt, tie and a name tag, these Mormon young people crisscross neighborhoods trying to engage people in conversation about life, faith, and Mormonism.
During my time as a priest in this diocese, I’ve admired the Mormon apostolic pairs going door-to-door in the neighborhoods of Fall River and New Bedford, no matter the weather. Many times their knocks are ignored. On other occasions, doors are slammed in their faces. It’s not easy work. During the summer of 1995, with three other diocesan seminarians, I sought to bring the Gospel to the housing projects of Fall River and I can testify personally to how demanding this work is. Most Mormon young people, however, look forward to it despite the routine setbacks. It’s an example for all Catholics — young and old — who by Baptism and Confirmation have been called and strengthened by God to be missionaries. The Mormon commitment to bringing their faith to others is clearly bearing fruit. The more one gives, the more one receives.
This period of missionary work is not the only commitment that Mormons make. It’s really the fruit of a tremendous earlier dedication. Every day in most Mormon homes, the family gets up early to study the Mormon Sacred Writings (the King James Bible plus the Book of Mormon and a Book of Doctrines and Covenant). When Mormons reach high school, they sacrifice sleep and comfort to leave home early in the morning before school each day for 45 minutes of “seminary,” focusing on one of these four books each year. By the time they graduate high school, most have a systematic understanding of their faith, capable not only of going on mission but also in defending his or her faith when challenged. The results are impressive. Seventy-four percent of Mormon teens say their religious beliefs are very similar to their parents, compared to 32 percent of Catholic teens, who, if they’re lucky, have one 45-minute catechetical class a week until Confirmation in eighth, ninth or 10th grade. The much greater commitment to the formation of the young creates a situation in which young Mormons are able much more easily to find role models and friends who support their faith in the face of secularizing peer pressure in public schools and wider society as a whole.
The commitment of Mormons is also seen in their generosity and charity. Mormons tithe, giving 10 percent of their income after expenses to the needs of the Church and her charitable outreach, caring for those who are struggling with food, rent and other necessities. In one television special there was a feature on the giant warehouses Mormons have built that distribute food wherever there’s need as well as the “retail” places where all the food and goods are free for those referred by the lay leaders — “bishops” — of the various congregations. The quantity of Mormon charity is dwarfed by all the work done by Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and so many parish food pantries, but the per capita Mormon involvement in Mormon charities is very impressive nonetheless. The average Mormon adult in the United States sacrifices nine hours a week for charity, compared to the national average of one hour a week. The impact of this charity is that, in addition to addressing material needs, it forms friendships, fosters widespread cooperation and concern for those in need and helps all Mormons realize that living the faith means more than coming together for worship.
We can also applaud the Mormons for their commitment to marriage and family. The Mormons are serious about helping the young to understand the beauty of chastity before marriage and young Mormons by and large look at it not as a burden but as part of their sacred commitment to their future husband or wife. They are likewise serious enough about living a holy marriage that they almost always seek to marry someone of their own faith, asking potential spouses to convert once the relationship gets serious. This not only lessens the potential of future conflicts over the education of children but brings a greater harmony to the bond. Monday nights are generally dedicated to family time, to praying, talking and playing together. Catholics were once distinguished by similar practices flowing from our Catholic faith, but whereas many Catholic parents, kids and sometimes catechists have lost confidence in the beauty of these priorities and practices, the Mormons happily maintain them.
As we prepare for and participate in the New Evangelization, it’s important for Catholics to ponder the recent spiritual fruitfulness of Mormons in America and recover a similar commitment to family, sacrificial giving in tithing, time, and talent, to the formation of the young, and to the missionary commitment of all the baptized. These have characterized the Church’s evangelical expansions in the past — and despite pusillanimous and pessimistic prophets preaching accommodation to opposed “modern” trends — they’re all crucial to the reproposal of the Gospel in the modern age.