Catholic and Mormon: Author Q&A with Professor Stephen H. Webb

Stephen H. Webb is an American Catholic theologian, author, and First Things columnist who teaches at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind. He holds a Ph.D in theology from the University of Chicago and a B.A. in religion from Wabash College, where he taught in the religion department from 1988 to 2012.

Author of more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles, Professor Webb’s research works cover everything from a Biblical basis for Christian vegetarianism to a theology of compassion for animals and a theology of sound for hearing-impaired Christians. He has also written on the Christian conversion of Bob Dylan and on the problem of creation and evolution. He converted to Catholicism in 2007 and currently lives with his wife (a theater professor at Butler University) and children in Brownsburg, Ind.

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Professor Webb’s newest book, “Catholic and Mormon: A Theological Conversation” (co-authored withAlonzo L. Gaskill of Brigham Young University) will be published Aug. 31 by Oxford University Press. It is a follow-up to his earlier “Mormon Christianity: What Non-Mormon Christians Can Learn from the Latter-day Saints” (Oxford, 2013).

On Aug. 11, I interviewed Professor Webb by email about his upcoming book.

Why did you write this book?

There is a great need for dialogue between Mormons and Catholics, especially since Mormonism is growing in areas of the world that are traditionally Catholic. Moreover, the Mormons are opening a Mormon Temple in Rome in a year or two. This is the first book to really look into how much Mormonism and Catholicism share and how much they can learn from each other. I wrote it with a BYU Professor, Alonzo Gaskill. We hope it will be the beginning of a dialogue, the first word but certainly not the last as these two traditions increasingly encounter each other.

Who is your audience?

Our book is very accessible. We get down to the basics of Christianity to create a lively conversation with a lot of theological depth. The book could be read by just about anyone interested in the topic, but it could also be used in a comparative theology class or any discussion of religious diversity. I think it would even work as an introduction to theology, because people often come to see their own faith in fresh ways when they take another tradition seriously. Mormonism and Catholicism are close enough to really engage each other, and different enough to offer new perspectives on old theological issues.

Christian theologians tend to disagree about whether Mormons are Christians, with many arguing “no” because the Book of Mormon is an addition to the New Testament. What do you think and why?

The problem with Mormonism for many Protestants is the Book of Mormon, which is another testament to Jesus, a new testament that does not contradict the Bible in any significant way. Catholics understand that the Bible alone is not a sufficient source of religious authority. Catholics view the Bible through the creeds and other traditional teachings of the Church.

Mormons use the Book of Mormon as a hermeneutical key to understanding the Bible’s many theological perplexities. So Catholics and Mormons agree that there needs to be another teaching tradition in addition to the Bible to make full sense of biblical truth. The Catholic criticism of Mormonism usually focuses on the topic of the Trinity. Mormons emphasize the relative independence of the three divine persons of the Trinity. Many theologians today, whatever their church tradition, are developing what is called a “social Trinity,” which is very similar to Mormonism in seeing the Trinity as a society of persons rather than a single immaterial substance defined by a set of internal relations.

The Book of Mormon is based on a revelation in the woods to 19th century prophet Joseph Smith, who claimed God told him about Jesus Christ’s interactions in ancient America with various indigenous tribes. Unlike the Old and New Testaments, however, there is no archeological evidence that any of these tribes ever existed. What would you say to Catholics who avoid Mormons because their religion lacks historical credibility?

For me, the Book of Mormon is an apparently miraculous text that addresses theological issues in a narrative form. Reading it religiously, rather than according to modern historical standards, suggests how it resolves many of the issues that were dividing Protestants in the nineteenth century and points the way toward a richer and broader Christianity than was then available. Joseph did not know any Catholics, and he lived in a time of sterile theological debate and ecclesial division. He wanted a fully sacramental Christianity with lively rituals and a hierarchical source of authority. He had a deeply Catholic mind. He was, in a way, reinventing Catholicism for a time and a place that did not have access to a truly Catholic presence.

What can Catholics learn from Mormons?

Protestants tend to view Mormons and Catholics (wrongly, I think) as being insufficiently grace oriented. Mormons and Catholics both talk about works and holiness more than Protestants, and they can learn from each other on that score. Moreover, Mormons have a strong belief in the physical reality of heaven. Catholicism used to have a more graphic and detailed approach to heaven, but we have largely lost that, I am afraid. We have much to learn from Mormon confidence in a materially real afterlife.

Mormons also have a very strong sense of the connection between the living and the dead. This is so unlike Protestantism, which rebelled against Catholic prayers to and for the dead, but it is very similar to Catholicism. We Catholics can come to appreciate our own responsibility for the dead in news ways through studying Mormonism.

What can Mormons learn from Catholics?

Mormons believe that Christianity lost its way after the death of the original Apostles, so most Mormons do not read much traditional theology. Don’t get me wrong. I have found Mormons to be more theologically sophisticated and engaged than the members of any other church I know. They are incredibly literate about their own beliefs and, since they are a minority religion, they are very articulate in showing the relevance and coherence of those beliefs.

Mormons are theologically curious and intellectually bold in their faith. But Mormons often do not know how their beliefs fit into the rest of the Christian tradition. I try to show in my work that Mormonism is not an isolated and inaccessible form of Christianity. Mormon beliefs have many interesting parallels and precedents in other parts of Christian history and tradition.

As you understand it, what is the essential message of Mormonism?

Their central message is no different from any other church. Every Mormon I have talked to and every Mormon book I have read promotes the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and our one true Savior.

What is the biggest difference between Catholicism and Mormonism?

Mormons have a disruptive, discontinuous view of Christian history. They find a lot of falling away, a nearly constant temptation of apostasy, which must be countered by nothing less than prophetic authority. Catholics, of course, have a continuous view of the Holy Spirit's guidance of the Church throughout Christian history, and thus are content with grounding religious authority in apostolic succession, which leaves them suspicious of any prophetic claims that undermine that religious continuity.

You’ve engaged in a number of dialogues with Mormon scholars, including the co-author of your newest book. In your opinion, why don’t mainstream U.S. Christian theologians take Mormon theologians seriously?

It is a two way street. For a long time, Mormons kept to themselves theologically. In recent years, they have opened up about their own traditions and beliefs, and this makes it possible for real dialogue to begin. Moreover, the theological landscape has shifted on the issue of divinization, which allows non-Mormons to appreciate Mormon contributions to this difficult idea. Divinization means that we will, in some sense, share in God’s power and glory in heaven. This has always been a part of Catholic theology, but it was not often talked about until the last ten or fifteen years. Now, divinization is becoming a standard topic in theological schools and journals.

Protestants never accepted divinization, so seeing Mormonism through Protestant eyes makes them look a bit exotic. Looking at Mormons through Catholic eyes helps to make better sense of their theology. They have a very interesting and informed view of divinization that deserves careful and serious study.

What are some stereotypes Catholics have about Mormons?

Mormonism has not really been on the Catholic theological map except in terms of its successful effort to grow in areas of the world that have been historically Catholic. That creates some tension. It wasn’t until 2001 that the Catholic Church decided that Mormon baptisms are invalid. The reason for that decision was concern over Mormonism’s lack of a strong doctrine of original sin and its view of the Trinity. Before that time, Mormon baptisms were treated just the same as the baptisms of any Protestant Church. So Catholicism does not give Mormons the same honor as Protestants in being treated as “separated brethren.” I think that is a real shame, especially since Mormons have a much higher view of Jesus Christ than many mainline Protestant churches.

What are some stereotypes Mormons have about Catholics?

Mormons are critical of the way the Catholic Church absorbed so much Greek and Roman philosophy. They think Catholic talk of God being infinite, boundless, unknowable, immaterial, and so on makes God too distant and replaces the biblical view of God with a philosophical one.

What do you want readers to take away from this book?

That there is a new theological world (Mormonism) that is waiting to be discovered, and the trip is exciting if you take it seriously and enter into it with an open mind.

If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Mormons, what would it be?

The time is ripe for Catholics to take Mormons seriously. A good topic to begin with would be a reconsideration of the decision by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to deny the validity of baptisms by the Latter-day Saints. A good place to begin would be Rome, and a good time would be when the Mormons open their new Temple there!

What’s your favorite scripture passage and why?

Ephesians 1:4. That God chose us “in Christ” before the creation of the world is a truly mysterious and marvelous truth. The world was created by, for, and through Jesus Christ. We were chosen to be his friends from the beginning, which is why God created the world in the first place. Everything that happens here is preparation for our being presented to Jesus, holy and blameless.

What are your hopes for the future?

I am continuing on my path of exploring the many riches of Joseph Smith’s own theological journey. He was unmatched in the nineteenth century by his capacity for spiritual wonder and his talent in synthesizing so many aspects of Christianity that had fallen into fragmentation and disuse. I don’t know of any theological tradition that is more interesting to study and more fascinating to contemplate.

Mormons, for example, really honor the idea that Jesus Christ was the creator of the world and that he appeared to the people of the Old Testament. The pre-existence of Christ finds no more vigorous or heartfelt support and explication than in Mormon theology. Studying Mormonism, and being with Mormons, always draws me closer to Christ, and that is all I want and hope for: to be a witness to the glory and divinity of Jesus.

Any final thoughts?

People tend to focus on the question of whether Jesus really appeared to the people of the Americas, which is the teaching of the Book of Mormon. I think the greater question is whether God is real, and if so, what kind of reality that is. Mormons do not separate spirit from matter. Spirit is a higher form of matter. That means that God is material in some way, which is a surprising thought for many Catholics.

But after all, we believe that Jesus exists today in his glorified body and that we will join him after the resurrection of our own bodies. Matter has the potential to become divinized—supernaturalized, we could say. Mormons believe that heaven will be the transformation of time and space, not their obliteration. That, to me, is a wonderful thought, and one which I wholeheartedly, as a Catholic, endorse.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Raymond Swenson
2 years 3 months ago
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called "Mormons" as a shorthand for our belief that the Book of Mormon is an additional scriptural witness of the reality of Jesus Christ as the Creator and Jehovah of the Old Testament, and Savior of the New Testament. It is refreshing to see Professor Webb provide his Catholic insight into our beliefs, after making an honest and careful examination of how we worship and exercise faith in Christ. In a world where government is often suppressing religious freedom and exalting sexual expression as the essential basis of humanity, Catholics and Mormons have a common interest in defending our freedom to live our religious beliefs out in society. it is therefore good for us to come to an understanding of how our beliefs are different, and where they are similar, as neighbors who respect and support each other. His book Mormon Christianity did a wonderful job of describing Mormon beliefs accurately, something that is rare in books about Mormons written by non-Mormons, and I appreciate that greatly. All too often, the criticisms I see voiced towards Mormonism is based on a distorted understanding of what Mormons actually believe and how we live. The interviewer appears to have bought into some of that oversimplified misinformation about Mormons and the Book of Mormon. I wonder if he might be willing to read one or more of the book-length treatises that have been written by Mormon scholars (with PhDs from schools like UC Berkeley and UCLA) that argue cogently for a historical, geographical context for the Book of Mormon narrative. If he is willing to learn, he can check the sources that are listed on FairMormon.org and read the books, which are available for free on maxwellinstitute.byu.edu. There is even a 90 minute video presentation that illustrates the results of much of this scholarly research, a DVD entitled "Journey of Faith", that ties the Book of Mormon narrative to some interesting recent archeological discoveries in the Arabian Peninsula, where that narrative begins. As the Book of Mormon approaches 200 years from its publication, the proposed alternatives to the explanation of its production which were given by Joseph Smith and his friends, eleven of whom swore out affidavits to having seen the original ancient record written on metal plates, have not held water.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 3 months ago
Wonderful interview by Jesuit Scholastic Sean Salai, offering Professor and Catholic Mormon scholar Mr. Stephen H. Webb's enlightenment on Mormonism. I now understand their teachings better and appreciate their firm belief in Jesus, the Savior. May the new Mormon Temple soon to open in Rome be a source of blessings seen and unseen. Will Pope Francis make a personal visit to the Temple? I hope he does. One point in particular by Professor Webb, explaining Mormon theology on the nature of heaven caught my special attention because it was so absolutely Catholic, in that heaven is not just a “state” but also a “place,” a physical reality. And that matter has power to become “supernaturalized,” or in the words of St. Paul, “become partakers of the Divine Nature” or “divinized” as Mormons believe. Scripture does say and Jesus mentions it we (humanity) are “little gods!” I guess through Grace. However, allow me to use this “podium” to ask a question about heaven as a physical place. If heaven is a place you can touch, lean against, as against a tree, a wall, how do we explain the presence of only two known individuals physically present there – the Lord Jesus and his holy Mother Mary. Why just two people, if heaven can support right now materiality, granted spiritual, resurrected materiality, a ‘new creation” but human and physical nonetheless? I wonder if that “new creation, that “resurrection of the dead” for which we all await, might actually happen immediately after death, leaving the “old man/woman” behind, populating physical heaven with incalucuable numbers of physically present “partakers of the Divine Nature.” St. Paul did say that eye and ear have not seen, or heard, the wonders that await the Blessed! I wonder if one of the “wonders” predicted by Paul might include what I’ve suggested. Also interesting other words of Paul (I’m at a loss to name the exact place in his Writings) where he seemed to say that “that which is, and that which is to come” are one and the same. We see this at the Last Supper, or what I like to call the “First Eucharist” in that before it happen a day later, the Sacrifice of the Cross (Eucharist) was confected, making “that which is in the Upper Room and that which is to come” on Calvary one and the same, one happening before the other. That's a God-thing! Thanks Mr. Salai and Mr. Webb f for your very useful conversation on Mormonism. It has been most helpful. Perhaps I wandered too far off the territory you presented, embodying questions that float around my mind. If so, I apologize.
John Campbell
2 years 3 months ago
We Catholics seem to be getting better at the kinds of dialog that reflect Vatican II. Bridgefolk, of Catholics and Mennonites, is another good example of active collaboration, and I understand that much affirmative is working with Lutherans and Episcopalians. 2001 is just another sore toe and should heal soon. Two of our grandchildren were just baptised Catholic deep in Mormon country. Their parents were counseled that godparents do not have to be Catholics, but must have been baptised in a Trinitarian christian church. News to me.
Sean Salai, S.J.
2 years 3 months ago

Thanks everyone for reading. I'm glad the interview is sparking some dialogue and reflection.

norman ravitch
2 years 3 months ago
Catholics and Mormons can certainly get along. Mormons do good work in their communities. But any mutual understanding on theological grounds is surely impossible. At the very best Catholics can learn this one lesson. I try to but it is hard! Mormonism when looked at logically and historically by non-Mormons can only seem crazy. Catholics need to understand that to non-Catholics and non-Christians the claims of Catholicism and indeed of Christianity in general can also seem pretty crazy. Toleration is the only solution. A toleration based on humility about what we think we believe and why we believe it, for both Catholics and Mormons, despite very good reasons for regarding these beliefs as without merit or proof or rationality. There is no place for triumphalism among Mormons or Catholics. One wishes Catholic Integrists would learn this. They are ever ready to PROVE what they believe, without any ability to do so.
David Vandagriff
2 years 2 months ago
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I very much enjoyed this article and Dr. Webb's insights. Of course, Catholics and Mormons don't believe exactly the same things. If they did, they would be members of the same church. However, Dr. Webb points out interesting ways in which we believe the same or nearly the same things, which similarities I find enjoyable. The Holy Spirit, sometimes called the Holy Ghost or the Light of Christ by Mormons, influences, inspires and enlightens all of God's children, regardless of their religious affiliation. Among other things, the Holy Ghost testifies of the truthfulness of doctrines, whether they are of God or of man, and I certainly felt the truthfulness of many of the Catholic doctrines discussed in this article. Another similarity between the two religions is that, at various time, their adherents have suffered severe persecution for their beliefs. Many of the persecutions of the Catholics are well known. Less known is that the Mormons were forcibly driven out of two places where they tried to settle, Independence, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois. In both cases Mormons were killed, their houses burned and their property stolen. They fled for their lives, often with little more than the clothing on their backs. One of the reasons that the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in Utah is that, in the mid-nineteenth century, this arid and inhospitable place was completely unsettled by Americans of European descent. Indeed, contemporary experts on the American West thought the land incapable of supporting any sort of permanent settlements. The only notable benefit of living in Utah was that no other white settlers were interested in it. Only the Saints could see it as a promised land. They sacrificed and suffered greatly before the land began to blossom. One of the most severe tests of religious devotion is whether followers of Jesus Christ are willing to die for their religion. Catholics and Mormons have both been faced with this test and laid down their lives for their beliefs. In both cases, they have made a covenant with God by an ultimate sacrifice. (Psalms 50:5) I think we have much to learn from each other and am happy that Doctors Webb and Gaskill are contributing to our education.
Weston Rudd
2 years 2 months ago
This article paints a fairly rosy picture of Mormon theology. I do not agree that Mormon theology is all that rosy. Full disclosure: I am a former Mormon (35 years) now studying to become Catholic (God willing). Consider the following: (1) Mormons believe that God was once a man - a highly evolved and holy man, but a man nonetheless. (2) Mormons believe that if a man lives a good Mormon life, he can become a God with his wife, and he can be the God of his own planet populated with his own spirit children. (3) Mormons believe that God lives in space (not outside time and space) on a star called Kolob. (4) Mormons believe that black men and women were souls who, during the war in heaven, couldn't decide between following God or Satan. This is just a smattering of the "not-so-rosy" side of Mormon theology. And I haven't even delved into recent controversies like the ex-communication of Kate Kelly for arguing the Mormon women should be given the priesthood, or some of the ugly truths about Joseph Smith and the early Church leaders. Far brighter people than I have done in-depth analyses of Mormon theology from a Catholic perspective. Consider: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=1330 God Bless.
Gary Lawlor
2 years 2 months ago
Thank you very much for your contribution to mutual appreciation between two great faiths -- in a time when the world desperately needs us to stand together for the goals we share, in defense of the family and the teachings of the Savior. Very fair-minded and well done -- with the minor exception of the interviewer's depiction of the origin of the Book of Mormon. I fancied I felt a slight tremor as that book's anciently-engraved plates turned over in their grave!
Mick Collins
2 years ago
As of June 2015, the jury is in on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon BOM. The LDS Church has lied since inception concerning the origins of the Book of Mormon. Recent DNA studies coupled with proven DNA facts prove that the no group of persons migrated from Jerusalem to the New World as depicted in the Book of Mormon. While Dr. Webb's scholarship is excellent and we must all respect the right of members of the LDS Church to worship on their own terms, I can't stand mute because BOM is a fraud. Mormonism may introduce new ideas into modern Christianity, as Dr. Webb seems to think, but I will remain cautious when these new ideas contradict 2 millennia of creedal thought.
Charles Laird
1 year 1 month ago
I'm not entirely sure where to start. So many assertions in this comparisons between Catholicism and Mormonism are wrong. Also, the understanding as to to central message of Mormonism is also ALL wrong. I question, whether you have ever even spoken with a Mormon or even one of their missionaries. You say you have, but... If you had, you would know that they believe Jesus is a created god, who is literally the brother of Satan and that you TOO can one day be a God in the afterlife after you do some specific tasks. You disagree with the decision of the church (Roman Catholicism) to accept Mormon baptisms while on the other side state that Protestants don't have as high of a view of Jesus Christ as Mormons or Catholics. That statement - all by itself - is enough to write you off. But, Christians are called to love everyone, whether they are Mormons, who teach another gospel and whether they are Catholics, also teaching another gospel, just for a much longer time. Quick story... Just last month, I spent many days in Köln and Berlin, Germany - speaking with the locals to see what they believed and why they believed what they do. Half of the people I spoke with were Muslim. Luck of the draw perhaps??? Then the other half were a mix between former Catholics, children of Catholics, spiritualists, agnostics and some others. You want to hear a central message??? Will it change your mind??? Because the people of Germany were emphatic and I will tell you, my heart hurt after speaking with so many of them - saying the same thing. The central message they told me is that they don't understand the gospel message in the Roman Catholic church. They also say that within the walls of the Roman Catholic church - "there is just no life in there" or "it just seems dead in there." I went into a church in Köln and listened to what was said over the intercom. There was some talk of Jesus, but I kept hearing - Mary this.... Mary that.... Mary said.... The people of German are so confused. The people who have left the Catholic church are mad.. They have no hope and no future. They have left, because the Roman Catholic church focuses on Mary... They focus on the Pope... They focus on the rosary... The focus on the priests and fathers being their only mediator... if you push ALL OF THAT ASIDE, what is left??? Jesus!!! Jesus is left. Jesus wants us to have a relationship directly with Himself. Trust in Jesus alone. Trust in His works, not your own. You and I will NEVER know the mind of God. But, if you bow a knee and trust in Jesus He will lead you into the truth. That's His desire. There is no other name higher than the name of Jesus. The Mormon message is that Heavenly Father is the highest name. You have missed the mark, Dr. Sean. You have a PHD. That's great. A lot of work went into that and it is a great achievement. But - you are missing the message of the Bible in it's entirety. I'm not saying you have to leave Catholicism to be a Christian, but you definitely have to quit relying on your own works to be forgiven. You can however be a Christian and be outside of the Roman Catholic church. And if someone professes to be a Mormon and believes the doctrine of their false prophet - Joseph Smith, then the Bible would clearly show that they are lost and will not be a part of God's kingdom. So - I pray for them to accept the true and living Christ. Just as I would pray for you as well. And mind you - you may already know Jesus... I don't know your heart. But every fruit you have shown in this article does not align up with the word of God. I pray for your soul - today.. Because TODAY is when it matters.. The dead know nothing and the dead hear nothing... The biggest advice I have for myself. Do not lean on my own understanding... It's not bad advice Dr. Sean. May the Lord show Himself to you in an amazing way sir...

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