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