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Thoughts from a Non-Catholic

I’m a big fan of Catholicism. I love and respect the Roman Catholic Church immensely, as well as many of its members and former members.  I believe in many of the central, non-distinctive moral teachings within Catholicism (e.g., love, kindness, charity, forgiveness, faith, hope), but I do not believe in papal infallibility, transubstantiation, Catholic apostolic succession, or the necessity and efficacy of Catholic ritual or priesthood authority, or any of the other principles that are unique to the Roman Catholic Church.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, since I’m not a Catholic. My position on these issues, therefore, isn’t really controversial.

But if I were to join the Catholic church, these positions might cause some problems, both personally and institutionally. That would be especially problematic if I were to publicly announce my disbelief in the church’s central tenets on a website that provides a forum for some of the church’s most virulent critics, all the while doing so under the auspices of being a Catholic in good standing.

You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

“I have deep love for the LDS church, for its members, and for its former members,” writes John Dehlin, the proprietor of the Mormon Stories website, whose front page now features a four-part hagiographic interview with Sandra Tanner, arguably the most prolific and prominent anti-Mormon of the past fifty years. Dehlin goes on to say the following:

I believe in many of the central, non-distinctive moral teachings within Mormonism (e.g., love, kindness, charity, forgiveness, faith, hope), but either have serious doubts about, or no longer believe many of the fundamental LDS church truth claims (e.g., anthropomorphic God, “one true church with exclusive authority,” that the current LDS church prophet receives privileged communications from God, that The Book of Mormon and The Book of Abraham are translations, polygamy, racist teachings in the Book of Mormon, that ordinances are required for salvation, proxy work for the dead).

In other words, Dehlin wants The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to continue to allow him to represent himself as a member of that church, while, at the same time, publicly rejecting that church’s doctrines – some of which he misrepresents in that statement – and running a website that is largely antagonistic to both the church and its mission.

That simply doesn’t make any sense to me, but others seem to see it differently.

Recently, a New York Times story announced that Dehlin and Kate Kelly, the founder of the Ordain Women movement, are facing church discipline and possible excommunication for apostasy from church teachings. This set the Mormon blogosphere afire, and many of my friends lamented that that my church refuses to accommodate any doubt or dissent within the rank and file.

I’m not going to get into Kate Kelly’s case here. While it has considerable national prominence, I’m less familiar with it than I am with Dehlin’s situation. (Perhaps I will research and discuss Kelly and Ordain Women in a later post.) Instead, I want to demonstrate that Dahlin’s defenders seem to be missing the point altogether.

Reread Dehlin’s statement where he rejects the church’s priesthood authority and denounces The Book of Mormon as a fraud. Why, then, would he be upset that this church he calls fraudulent no longer wants to associate with him? And why would he want to continue being recognized as a member of a fraudulent church?

Dehlin’s defenders cite President Uchtdorf’s masterful conference talk “Come Join With Us,” where he calls for inclusion for people who struggle with doubts. “To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here,” President Uchtdorf said. “It’s natural to have questions… There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions…If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.”

So, in light of that, how could anyone say there may not be room for John Dehlin?

The answer, I think, is that doubts are different from decisions. Genuine doubt is rarely a permanent condition, since it usually resolves itself on one side of the question or the other. It is one thing to stay in the church if you doubt whether or not The Book of Mormon is true. It is quite another to decide that it isn’t true, actively and publicly preach against it, and then expect the church to accommodate your antagonistic efforts.

Dehlin, therefore, is no longer a “doubter,” because he’s pretty well made up his mind.

There is plenty of room for the people who haven’t figured out which way they’re going to land. But those who choose to come down on the other side of church teachings ought to be intellectually honest enough to voluntarily disassociate themselves from the church they reject. At the very least, they ought not be surprised or upset when the church ratifies a decision they’ve already made.

Again, I recognize many disagree and insist that the Church ought to be inclusive of all points of view, even if it means retaining members that are openly hostile to church doctrine. But ultimately, that means the church ceases to be much of anything at all. How can the church continue to preach The Book of Mormon if it accommodates those who actively preach that Joseph Smith made it up out of whole cloth? How could the Catholic Church survive if it gave people like me equal time at Mass to tell congregants that Thomas S. Monson, not Pope Francis, is the true heir of St. Peter?

I also recognize there are plenty of caveats to consider. I don’t know John Dehlin personally, and I don’t know his heart. I also don’t know what his local leaders are considering, and the confidentiality of church disciplinary proceedings prohibits them from telling their side of the story. As of this writing, Dehlin has not yet been disciplined, and it is possible that he will remain in the church. Regardless of what happens, I wish him and his family well, and I hope the church will not cease its efforts to minister to him and work for the welfare of his soul.

The larger principle here is that a church that permits everything ultimately stands for nothing. Granted, there are churches like that – the Unitarians come to mind – but, thankfully, neither the Roman Catholic Church or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fit that description.

I hope they never do.

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  1. Very, very well said and 99% correct. Dehlin isn’t a Mormon if he doesn’t buy into the Book or the distinctly-Mormon beliefs.

    The 1% you get wrong, though, is here:

    “The larger principle here is that a church that permits everything ultimately stands for nothing.”

    The Mormon Church without the Book of Mormon and the other Mormon rites and rituals is not the Mormon Church. A Catholic Church without an infallible pope and the other Catholic rites and rituals is not the Catholic Church.

    And, concurrently, without these distinct and enforceable rites and rituals these churches cannot exert control over their members.

    But when the Church recognizes that the true function of ritual is to prepare the spirit for contact with the Infinite, the source of the ritual itself becomes insignificant and the members of the Church are freed to find the ritual(s) that best serve that purpose, for themselves individually. The Church hierarchy become less Masters than fellow travelers when these things spiritual are shared, rather than dictated.

    The Church then becomes a non-political entity, which stands for the spiritual health of its members. And there is no higher calling for this thing called “Church.”