(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, go here.) There’s an interesting article in the Fall 2013 issue of The Journal of Mormon History. “Evil in the Family: Mormons and Catholics Struggling with the Dark Side of Their Histories,” by Father Daniel P. Dwyer, notes that both the Catholic and Mormon faiths claim their church as the one established by Jesus Christ. Yet, he adds, both faiths share atrocities committed by the most seemingly devout members of the respective faiths.
A lot of Mormons may take offense at their church being adversely compared to Catholicism’s long history of misdeeds. But compare these two accounts of atrocities, offered by Dwyer. Here is the first:
“Enrico and the rest of the band held a council and, after sunrise, attacked the Jews in the hall with arrows and lances. Breaking the bolts and the doors, they killed the Jews, about seven hundred in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex. The Jews seeing that their Christian enemies were attacking them and their children, and they were sparing no age, likewise fell upon one another, brothers, children, wives and sisters, and thus they perished at each other’s hands. Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised.”
Here’s the other example:
“I saw several bones of what must have been very small children. Dr. Brewer says from what he saw he thinks some of the infants were butchered. The mothers doubtless had these in their arms, and the same shot or blow may have deprived both of life.
“The scene of the massacre, even at this late day, was horrible to look upon. Women’s hair, in detached locks and masses, hung to (sic) the sage brushes and was strewn over the ground in many places. Parts of little children’s dresses and of female costume dangled from the shrubbery or lay scattered about; and among these, here and there, on every hand, for at least a mile in the direction of the road, by two miles east and west. there gleamed, bleached white by the weather, the skulls and other bones of those who had suffered. A glance into the wagon when all these had been collected revealed a sight which can never be forgotten.”
The former is an account of Catholic crusaders in 1096 killing Jews trapped in a hall, put there by a bishop for their “protection.” The latter is an 1859 account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Two years earlier Mormon “crusaders” had massacred non-Mormon settlers traveling to California. The massacre occurred as the settlers were being led to “safety.”
These are acts of pure evil, encouraged by Satan, if one is a believer. How does one square these massacres with belief in a faith? Dwyer offers three options: “we can try to rationalize the evil and explain it away; we can abandon our respective faiths and deal with, or ignore evil, from the perspective of outsiders; or we can try to admit and understand the evil and look for ways our traditions can help us cope with the aftermath and prevent recurrences.”
The third option is often attempted — at least in part — on a singular basis. The LDS Church, for example, has expressed regret for the massacre, among other gestures. The Catholic Church has attempted apologies for much of its sordid history and the priest sexual abuse scandals of the past several decades. However, to fully attempt to live the third option requires consistency. Example: the first option — rationalize and explain away — more or less still defines the LDS Church’s reaction to its “Jim Crow” policies toward blacks in the church, which lasted until 1978.
And, as Dwyer notes, the third option, to be consistent, must apply to all members of a faith, even the most powerful. Compare these two declaration, both from the same era. The first, from Pope Pius IX, in 1864, the Syllabus of Errors (NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING WAS URGED NOT TO BE BELIEVED BY CATHOLICS):
“Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.”
“Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion.”
“The church is not a true and perfect society.”
“The Roman pontiffs have, by their too arbitrary conduct, contributed to the division of the Church into Eastern and Western.”
“Catholics may approve of the system of educating youths unconnected with the Catholic faith and the power of the Church.”
“The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.”
“In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the state.”
“The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”
And, in early 1857, several months prior to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, LDS Church leaders Brigham Young shared this with the Saints in Salt Lake City, relates Dwyer:
“I have known a great many men who have left this church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force.
“This is loving your neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. Any of you who understand the principles of eternity, if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire. That is the way to love mankind.”
Both statements, from Pius IX and Brigham Young, are repugnant, and remind of the theology of radical Islam today. While Young’s words are more violent, the state theology espoused by the late pope would have likely led to violence. Yet, I’m glad Dwyer chose these two examples, precisely because both Pius IX and Young are beloved, often-honored figures within their faiths. Nevertheless, they made statements that no sensible Catholic, or Mormon, would adhere to today.
As Dwyer notes, there are contexts to the above statements. Both faced challenges by hostile powers. Both wanted to consolidate power for what they felt was a good cause. When looking at these examples, it’s best to understand that doctrine and practices for both faiths, Catholic and Mormon, is dynamic, in fact more dynamic than many members or leaders might see or admit to. That’s a good thing. A failure for any religion to change many of its practices or beliefs would nearly always lead to, at least, social ostracism, or at worst, violence and tragedy.
Later in the JMH essay, Dwyer compares the doctrine of papal infallibility with the role of a Mormon prophet. What happens when a pope, or an LDS prophet, spouts something that isn’t true? One example is Young’s failed effort to institute the “Adam-God Doctrine.” Dwyer offers these explanations:
“... even some of our own people misunderstand the doctrine of papal infallibility. It does not mean that a pope is always correct — even when he teaches doctrine. His teaching is infallible only under severely limited conditions. … So if Pope Francis told me the sky was green, it would still be blue.” Later, Dwyer answers the confusion Mormons may feel over Young’s insistence that Adam was God by writing, “If he was wrong, how could he have been a prophet, seer and revelator? Or, as in Catholicism, is the exercise of of the prophetic ministry something that happens only in very defined situations?”
These are interesting topics, and Dwyer’s article explores even more similarities and conflicts between Catholicism and Mormonism. What’s most beneficial is the advice that both faiths acknowledge a sometimes adverse, and wicked, past and that practical dynamism, and human fallibility, will create leaders who make mistakes, even in a church that proclaims itself THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST.
As Dwyer notes, in Romans 3:23, it reads “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The late Mormon scholar Eugene England extolled the strength of the church, its structure, its fellowship, and its role as a place to gain strength and learn to be a more godly individual; all of that occurs, of course, in the present and the future.