Last week, Russell Nelson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, released a statement expressing a preference for people to call that church by its full name and no longer by any “Mormon” nickname. A style guide published at the website mormonnewsroom.org (whose URL may change, given this update!) says:
While the term “Mormon Church” has long been publicly applied to the Church as a nickname, it is not an authorized title, and the Church discourages its use. Thus, please avoid using the abbreviation “LDS” or the nickname “Mormon” as substitutes for the name of the Church, as in “Mormon Church,” “LDS Church,” or “Church of the Latter-day Saints."
Patrick Mason, a professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, says of the change, “Mormon is a longstanding nickname for the church and for the movement, but the church leadership has always been concerned that the nickname has obscured the fundamentally Christian nature of the church and the religion.”
In my own writings on the subject, I will still use terms like Mormon and LDS for readability and because I don’t think they’re offensive. In conversations with individual Mormons, I’d recommend following their lead about which terms they prefer, since not all of them may agree with the new change.
Instead of spending time on names, though, we should focus on topics like the Book of Mormon and the revelations of LDS founder and self-proclaimed prophet Joseph Smith, because they reveal troublesome theology.
Once I asked two Mormon missionaries, “What’s the difference between Christianity and Mormonism?” One of them replied, “They’re basically just the same. Mormons are just like any other Christian.” But although the Catholic Church recognizes the validity of baptisms performed by other Christians, such as in Eastern Orthodox and most Protestant churches, it does not recognize the validity of Mormon baptism because it is not a Christian baptism.
Mormons use the correct matter (water), and the correct formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), but their baptism is invalid because the words have a radically different meaning from their traditional use for the past 2,000 years.
In an article published in the August 2001 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, Fr. Luis Ladaria said the differences between Mormonism and Christianity are so great that “one cannot even consider that this [Mormon] doctrine is a heresy. . . . The teaching of the Mormons has a completely different matrix.” For example:
- Christians believe there is only one God who exists as a Trinity of three persons. Mormons believe there are many gods and that the Trinity is incomprehensible. They believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are separate divine beings and they are “one” only in the sense of their perfect cooperation. Joseph Smith said of the Trinity, “[T]hree in one, and one in three! It is a curious organization. . . . All are to be crammed into one God, according to sectarianism. It would make the biggest God in all the world. He would be a wonderfully big God—he would be a giant or a monster” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 372).
- Christians believe that God’s divine nature is immaterial. Since God created all matter, he is not composed of matter. Although the Son has assumed a material, human nature since his incarnation, the Holy Spirit and the Father are both immaterial persons. But Mormonism teaches, “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22). According to the Book of Abraham (which is a part of the LDS scriptures called The Pearl of Great Price), God rules on a throne situated near a star or planet in our universe called Kolob.
- Christians believe there is one God, but Mormons believe there are many gods and that human beings can be “exalted” to godhood. The reason the God of this world has a physical body, according to Mormons, is because he was once a sinful man like us, but after death he was exalted and became the God who created this world. In a sermon for elder King Follett, Joseph Smith said, “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves, and to be kings and priests to God, the same as all gods have done before you.”
- Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the divine second person of the Trinity who has assumed a human nature. Jesus was always divine and always existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Humans, angels, and all other creatures began to exist at some point when God created them, and only God is eternal. But Mormons believe Jesus was once an eternally existing “intelligence” whom God chose to become “the first-born” among the intelligences, who eventually became “us” when God also gave them bodies. Joseph Smith claimed that Jesus said to him, “I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the First-born; and all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the First-born. Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth” (Doctrine and Covenants 93:31–33).
- Although it is not essential to Christianity, as is belief in the classical doctrine of the Trinity, Christians have traditionally believed that public revelation ceased with the death of the last apostle or apostolic man. But Mormons believe that revelation is ongoing and that the president of their church is a living prophet (Nelson claims that the new name focus came to him by a special revelation from God). Moreover, they believe that ancient Jews traveled to the Americas and founded a civilization that Jesus later visited. The teachings of these peoples became “another testament of Jesus Christ” that was published in 1830 as a set of inspired scriptures called the Book of Mormon.
Even though Mormon doctrine stands in stark contrast to historic Christianity, there are some things on which Mormons and Catholics agree. For example, we both reject the Protestant doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide, and we both believe that there is a ministerial priesthood that serves the body of Christ.
We also agree about a principle related to an event Mormons call the Great Apostasy. Mormons believe that, shortly after the time of the apostles, there was a massive falling away from the faith, in which the Church became corrupted by pagan influences and ceased to have the authority to ordain priests and administer the sacraments. The Book of Mormon even describes the post-apostolic Church as “the great and abominable Church” that “took away the plain and precious parts of scripture” and “persecutes the saints of God” (1 Nephi 13).
Tell your Mormon friends that you agree with them: if Christ’s Church fell into a total apostasy, a restoration like theirs would be needed. You can even agree with them that Protestant Christianity is insufficient in its acceptance of sola scriptura and its denial of the need for a visible Church with a sacred hierarchy. But, if the Great Apostasy never actually took place, Christ’s Church would still reign today, and that Church would be the Catholic Church.
You can press them further by asking, “Why should I believe that Jesus came to Earth to establish a Church, only to have it die right after he left? And then why would he wait 1,800 years to reestablish it? What’s wrong with believing that Jesus got it right the first time and that the Church he founded still exists?”
For more on this topic see Trent's booklet 20 Answers: Mormonism.