May 30, 2012

Catholic and Mormon Baptisms - God or gods?

A recent pastoral situation came up that I discussed with someone and they wondered if I may have blogged about this matter.  The matter had to do with baptism and whether we as Christians (Catholics) recognize a baptism in the Church of the Latter Day Saints as a valid baptism. For example, in the case of marriage or as one enters the Catholic Church during the Easter Vigil.  
While the quick answer is “no,” it is more important to say “why not?” So, we do not recognize a baptism in the Church of the Latter Day Saints as a valid Christian baptism. If one is baptized LDS and seeks to enter full membership in the Catholic Church they would need to be baptized according to the Catholic rite of baptism. That is not true with most mainline Christian faiths in which we share a common belief in God as three in one (Trinity): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In that case, one does not need to be re-baptized, which leads to the “why not?” question.
Why would a Mormon baptism not be valid? After all, they baptize with water and in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit just as we do. It certainly sounds and looks like a Christian baptism although it would be baptism by submersion (the entire body is submerged under water) but we could certainly do the same if we wanted to.  Normally, the closest we come to that practice is baptism by immersion – water poured over the entire body while the person kneels in waste high water, for example. Yet, the key is not what something looks like or sounds like.  The reason is rooted far more in what that particular faith believes about the very nature of God - In their theology.

What do our Mormon friends believe about the nature of God?  There is a fairly well known maxim that sums up Mormon theology:  As man is now, God once was. As God is now, man will become.”  According to Mormon teaching, God (and his wife) at one time first existed as mortal human beings on some distant planet. They were overseen by their Heavenly Father and Mother.  (As man is now, God once was).
That mortal couple died and received resurrected bodies, then eventually achieved godhood.  Millions of spirit children were procreated, sent to earth, and they too have the potential to achieve godhood to carry on this same cycle of man-made-god. (As God is now, man will become). In that sense God the Father is literally our Father. 
In the matter of Jesus.  If God is our literal Father, then Jesus is actually our elder brother, though exalted above us.  In regards to Jesus coming into this world, it is not especially clear.  However, the role of Mary was as an embodied spirit (tabernacle).  As it states in Brigham Young’s, Journal of Discourses: The Savior was begotten by the Father of His spirit, by the same Being who is the Father of our spirit, and that is all the organic difference between Jesus Christ and you and me. When the time came that His first-born, the Savior, should come into the world . . . the Father came Himself and favored that spirit (Mary) with a tabernacle (human body). 
In a work entitled The Promised Messiah by Bruce McConkie we read: The Father is a Father is a Father; he is not a spirit essence . . . to which the name Father is applied.  And the Son is a Son is a Son; he is not some transient emanation from a divine essence, but a literal, living offspring of an actual Father . . . He is the Son of God in the same sense and way that we are the sons of mortal fathers . . .
All of this theology may sound indeed strange to our Catholic/Christian ears for it is clearly not the Christian concept of God.  In short, rather than see man created in the image of God, we here see God created in the image of man.  And that is obviously a critical and fundamental difference in our ancient doctrine of a Trinitarian God.
And so to return to the pastoral question of why we would not view baptism in the Latter Day Saints to be a valid baptism, the concept of God lies at the basis.
In the matter of baptism, we do so: In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Our life comes from God in a spiritual sense.  By his divine action we are made clean of original sin but Mormon theology does not accept original sin so baptism is delayed until later in life, around 8 yrs old.  In our Christian belief our relationship with God through baptism is then as his children, but not in the natural sense. It is ancient tradition to baptize children and infants since we believe that t "born again" moment provides the grace of God given throughout one's life - a grace to fight off the temptation of sin and to grow in holiness.    
God remains in our understanding first and foremost a mysterium tremendum - A great mystery.  As we proclaim in the Nicene Creed, our understanding of the nature of God is as One – not three individual gods (LDS theology) who are of one mind yet stand in a kind of subsidiary to one another. As a kind of Godhead.
As the Creed states:  I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth . . . I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only begotten (not born as a human is born) Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God . . . consubstantial (of the same divine substance) with the Father . . . he came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate (took on a human nature which he never had before) of the Virgin Mary . . .
God in the Christian sense was never a mortal nor at any point became divine.  God’s existence always was and always will be.  Out of divine love, God chose to enter his own creation, in time and space, and took on a human nature, yet remained fully divine and fully human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. 
The validity of Christian baptism, then, depends on the faith of the community – on the concept of God which they hold.  To baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit for our LDS brethren implies the embrace of a theology that we as Catholics might label heretical in the sense that it is not in line with any traditional Christian understanding of God, which has been passed down to us and held fast since the time of the Apostles.
As we always hear during our celebration of the Eucharist:  Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you (the Father) in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Every Catholic has the right know what our Church teaches and more importantly, never fail to ask “Why?”