I am often asked how it is that a Catholic Priest knows so much about Mormonism (I was ordained in 1998, at the age of twenty-seven, about a month before I wrote the bulk of what you now hold in your hands). Of course, sometimes the question is expressed a bit more bluntly: Why? Why do I continue to read and reflect upon LDS literature? When will I finally outgrow my interest in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? While my answer to this last question is I hope not anytime soon, I do recognize the need to explain, at least to some extent, why an "outsider" continues to interact with the doctrines of a church to which he does not belong—to explain something of my motivations.
To put it most simply: upon reading The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ for the first time, and after having been taught the restored gospel of Jesus Christ by a pair of sister missionaries—now some eighteen years ago—I began to see patterns and make connections between my own (Catholic) faith and that of the Latter-day Saints; and I have never ceased to benefit from the insights gained as a result.
More to the point though, as regards the underlying motive for this thesis, was my eventual perception that one connection between the Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lay in the fact that those who sought to deny the label "Christian" to the LDS Church were, more often than not, the very same people who would then turn around and attempt to deny this label to the Catholic Church—with the same reasons often being used in both instances to justify the conclusion. And since it was easy enough for me to see through the many half-truths, misunderstandings, and even outright errors alleged against the Catholic Church, I suspected that similar critiques leveled against the LDS Church—as to its "non-Christian" status—were equally flawed.
At some point I became especially interested in the LDS doctrine of salvation after becoming aware of its status as a favorite target for critique—and even attack—as will be noted in chapter 1. I wanted to reach beyond the rhetoric and discover for myself what the LDS Church actually taught, and how that compared with the teachings of ancient Christian leaders—specifically, the Greek Fathers of the Church—as currently received or understood by those who, to this day, trace their religious heritage back to these same Greek Fathers. In other words, I was not engaging in a strictly historical project (e.g., asking what St. Athanasius and his contemporaries thought about salvation in the fourth century and then comparing this to current LDS beliefs); instead, my focus was more theological (i.e., I wanted to know how a teaching of the Greek Fathers, in its modern articulation, most notably by Eastern Orthodox theologians, compare to the LDS doctrine of salvation.)
I also hoped, through this thesis, to further a climate of dialogue where religious difference does not stand in the way of religious understanding. It is my conviction that, despite differences in faith or testimony, people of good will have much to learn from one another; and as regards the specific issue discussed in this thesis, I firmly maintain that the Latter-day Saints are owed a debt of gratitude by other Christians because the Saints remind us all of our divine potential. The historic Christian doctrine of salvation—theosis, i.e., human divinization—for too long has been forgotten by too many Christians, despite the fact that this teaching is a part of that common inheritance—first millennium Christianity—that unites Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians. If this thesis contributes to an ongoing dialogue between "Restoration Christians" (i.e., the Latter-day Saints) and "Historic Christians" (i.e., Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox), then I will consider it to be a success.
Given the nature of the project undertaken in this thesis, it is worth noting that religious dialogue between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Catholic Church was explicitly encouraged in the 1 August 2001 (English) issue of the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. In a commentary explaining the decision of the Catholic Church to not recognize as valid the baptism of the Latter-day Saints, Fr. Luis Ladaria, S.J. concludes by stating ". . . Catholics and Mormons often find themselves working together in a range of problems regarding the common good of the human race. It can be hoped therefore that through further studies, dialogue and good will, there can be progress in reciprocal understanding and mutual respect." Of course, the content of the article itself, an explanation of the invalidity—from a Catholic perspective—of LDS baptism, could be interpreted as hindering, not helping, a new quest for religious dialogue and understanding.
My intuition, however, which I hope to more fully develop into an article in the near future, tells me that the decision of the Catholic Church to not recognize the validity of LDS baptism actually parallels something that the Latter-day Saints have understood since their beginning in 1830. To be specific: in April 1830, within days of the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Prophet Joseph Smith was taught by means of divine revelation that the baptismal ordinances performed by all other Christians—the current-day adherents of that era or dispensation of salvation history, which was established by Christ during his earthly ministry (and which, from an LDS perspective, has gone into apostasy)—are essentially different and invalid as compared to those performed in the LDS Church, which has ushered in the new "dispensation of the fulness of times" (Doctrine and Covenants 128:18). This divine instruction would subsequently appear in the first authorized collection of the Prophet Joseph's revelations, The Book of Commandments (1833), and can now be found as section 22 of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the four volumes of LDS scripture (along with the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and the Pearl of Great Price).
The Catholic Church, albeit a bit inarticulately, has now recognized that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints represents not just another development of Protestantism, but is truly a "new religious tradition" (as also noted by Professor Jan Shipps in her landmark study Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition). Thus, the Catholic Church has recognized that the baptism of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the baptism of a different gospel dispensation; and if a person wants to "cross-over" from one gospel dispensation to another, the baptism of the other dispensation will not and cannot be regarded as valid.
To summarize: from an LDS perspective, LDS baptism is given to a "previously baptized" convert precisely because the previous (invalid) baptism lacked priesthood authority: it was administered by those who still cling to the apostate institutions that survive from the (previous) dispensation of the meridian of time; but, from a Catholic perspective, an LDS convert to Catholicism will be given a Catholic baptism precisely because the LDS baptism is an ordinance of a gospel dispensation different from that in which the Catholic Church locates itself (and also locates Protestants and Orthodox Christians)—which dispensation the Catholic Church regards as permanently valid—and thus, the different LDS gospel dispensation, along with its ordinances, the Catholic Church does not regard as true or valid. (Thus, both Latter-day Saints and Catholics consider each others' baptism to be invalid, but for different reasons.)
I am grateful to The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) for publishing my thesis and making it available to a wider audience. A special word of thanks goes to Professor William Hamblin for initiating the contact that led to the publication of this latest volume of the Occasional Papers. This thesis is being published as it was approved by my thesis committee in August 1998; however, on the occasion of its publication, I have added this preface.
Finally, I would like to note the passing of D. Brent Collette (†2000), who served as the third reader on my thesis committee. His support and enthusiasm were indispensable to me as I undertook the writing of this thesis. Following in the footsteps of the Savior whom he loved and served so well, Brother Collette was truly a "Master Teacher."
Jordan Vajda, OP
13 February 2002