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What is the “Doctrine of Discovery”?
First of all, it is not a Christian doctrine – this term is used in its legal sense. This is already confusing for some people. There is no Christian teaching by this name, and anyone familiar with Catholic Social Teaching of the last 125 years knows the value of universal human dignity, religious freedom, opposition to slavery, etc. It comes as no surprise then that most Catholics, most Christians, and even those in positions of authority in the Church, might have no idea what you were talking about if you raised the question.
In full disclosure, I do not recall ever hearing the term “Doctrine of Discovery” before this year. It probably came across my radar in the last couple years but did not catch my attention since I am neither a legal scholar nor an historian of European imperialism per se.
In primary school history classes I remember learning about the Age of Discovery; the European maltreatment, enslavement, and even genocide of indigenous peoples; the Papal Line of Demarcation that assigned points west to Spain and points East to Portugal; and so on. So, the idea is not entirely new, but it did come as some surprise when a Canadian friend asked if Pope Francis was planning to rescind the doctrine.
From the beginning it struck me as a bit fishy – certainly there is, nor was there ever, any Catholic doctrine known by such title. It is rather a reference to U.S. legal doctrine, an 1823 codification of international law and European mores that
…gave to the nation making the discovery, as its inevitable consequence, the sole right of acquiring the soil and of making settlements on it. It was an exclusive principle which shut out the right of competition among those who had agreed to it, not one which could annul the previous rights of those who had not agreed to it. It regulated the right given by discovery among the European discoverers, but could not affect the rights of those already in possession, either as aboriginal occupants or as occupants by virtue of a discovery made before the memory of man. It gave the exclusive right to purchase, but did not found that right on a denial of the right of the possessor to sell. (US Supreme Court, Worcester v. State of Georgia, pg 31, US 544)
What has that to do with the Catholic Church?
More broadly, it has come to be understood to mean, basically, “finders keepers” – and only if the finders were European. Though the term, and the concept, of a “doctrine of discovery” was coined by John Marshall during the legal preceding quoted above, protests today focus on the “Judeo-Christian” and papal origins of the body of decisions and laws that came to be associated with the idea. For example, the opening paragraph of the site www.doctrineofdiscovery.com:
Papal Bulls of the 15th century gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” and lay claim to those lands for their Christian monarchs. Any land that was not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered”, claimed, and exploited. If the “pagan” inhabitants could be converted, they might be spared. If not, they could be enslaved or killed.
The papal bulls that contributed to this line of thinking – and its consequence of unjust and inhumane treatment of indigenous peoples by European explorers – are generally cited to be the following:
Nicholas V, Dum Diversas (1452) – Issued in an effort to gain Portuguese support in defense of Constantinople against the Ottoman Empire, it offered Portugal exclusive land and trading rights in newly-discovered parts of West Africa, granting him permission to seize lands of and enslave any local “Saracens, pagans, and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ”.
Nicholas V, Romanus Pontifex (1455) – Confirmed the Portuguese rule over the African coast, and forbade other nations from engaging in trade with the Saracens (Generally, Muslims. Specifically, it seems, the Seljuk [Turkish] empire, as distinct from “Moors”, Berbers of North Africa and the Fatimid Caliphate).
Alexander VI Borgia, Inter Caetera (1493) – Issued immediately after Christopher Columbus returned from the West Indies, established the Line of Demarcation between Spanish and Portuguese exploration 100 leagues (about 320 miles) west of the Azores. The purpose of the bull was to spread Christianity to the natives there, who were thought to be positively disposed based on reports from Columbus, and its intent seems to be to regulate missionary activity in the Americas, rather than land rights.
The Spanish-Portuguese Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), conducted without any participation from the papacy, moved the line of demarcation west a few hundred miles and was clearly more focused on land claims. This was eventually ratified by Julius II in 1506.
There is no question that Spanish, Portuguese, English, and other explorers invented justifications for the enslavement of indigenous peoples and the conquering of their lands (inasmuch as the land would be said to ‘belong’ to anyone), for example, by claiming that non-Christians could not own land, or could be enslaved, using as justification portions of the above bulls.
Over the next three centuries, European powers expand and develop these conjured excuses to lay claim to the New World and its resources. The American republic takes the ball and runs with it, yelling “Manifest Destiny!” Over these centuries, the loss of human life, of property, and the degradation of humanity is long, it is horrific, and it is utterly unchristian.
Modern interest in the “Doctrine of Discovery”
LexisNexis turns up under 1000 references to the ‘doctrine of discovery’ going back to 1949, and almost all of these are legal cases, law reviews, or legal news outlets. It is only recently that it seems to have become an item for attention in religious circles, and is of particular interest in Canada, who often takes the lead in addressing past or present injustices against First Nations.
Since 1984, there have been petitions to the popes to “rescind the Doctrine of Discovery”. As we will soon see, when there is a cause du jour, memories are short – but first the current context of the cause.
It seems recent interest has been sparked by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, originating in a 1998 Statement of Reconciliation between ‘Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians’, which sought to “put the events of the past behind us so that we can work towards a stronger and healthier future.”
In December 2015, the Commission published its Final Report, and a set of Calls to Action. Articles §48 and §49 call on all religious denominations and faith groups to formally adopt and comply with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and to formally “repudiate concepts such as the Doctrine of Discovery and terra nullius.”
Pre-emptive responses came from a number of groups, such as the Society of Friends (2013), the World Council of Churches (2012), the Unitarian Universalist Association (2012), and the Anglican Church of Canada (2010).
In 2013, several Catholic organizations petitioned the pope to formally revoke the bulls mentioned above, which are claimed to provide the basis for the “doctrine of discovery”. This included Pax Christi International and representatives of more than 40 religious congregations. In May of 2016 there was called a Long March on Rome to ask Pope Francis to revoke the “Papal Bulls of Discovery” [sic].
It was already two months too late, however. The Catholic Church in Canada also complied with the Commission’s request, and issued a formal rejection of the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” and a number of related ideas condemned as “errors and falsehoods perpetuated, often by Christians, during and following the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’”. (CCCB, The Doctrine of Discovery, Terra Nullius, and the Catholic Church: A Catholic Response. 19 March 2016)
But what about the calls on the pope to revoke the papal bulls of 1452 and 1493?
Well, it seems he already has.
Or rather, his predecessors have, several times, over the last 500 years. At least, the ideas have been repudiated, rejected, and expunged from Church teaching.
Already there were objections to and retractions of these claims within the Church at the time they were being made by “Christian” monarchies and their explorers, for example:
Francisco de Vitoria, On the Indians (1532) – who used ‘the law of the nations’ (international law) and Inter Caetera to argue that “the barbarians [sic] possessed true public and private dominion. The law of nations expressly states that goods which belong to no owner pass on to the occupier/discoverer, but since the goods in question here had an owner, they do not fall under this title ‘by right of discovery.’”
In fact, the first petitions to the pope to repeal the teachings of these papal bulls were not in 1984, but 450 years earlier. They received a powerful response.
Paul III, Sublimis Deus (1537) – Begins by declaring unequivocally that God so loved the whole human race that he gave all people the ability to know God and come to faith in God. It then responds directly to the claims – not present in previous papal teaching – that the native peoples were subhuman and that they could be enslaved or their property stolen. In fact, he refers to this idea as a lie perpetuated by Satan! In a clear and authoritative revocation of anything to the contrary previously promulgated:
We define and declare . . . that . . . the said Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty or the possession [dominio] of their property, even though they be outside the faith of Jesus Christ; and that they may and should, freely and legitimately, enjoy their liberty and the possession of their property; nor should they be in any way enslaved; should the contrary happen, it shall be null and have no effect.
That is about as clear as it gets, and those key words “we define and declare” put this at a rather higher level of authority than the so-called ‘bulls of discovery’. The Church had already rejected the core ideas of the doctrine of discovery three hundred years before anyone would even call them that.
Moreover, there are multiple papal and conciliar documents that reject the ideas, in whole or part, of the so-called ‘doctrine’. These include, but are not limited to:
1537 – Paul III, Sublimus Dei
1591 – Gregory XIV, Bulla Cum Sicuti
1639 – Ruling of the Inquisition against slavery
1741 – Benedict XIV, Immensa Pastorum
1839 – Gregory XVI, In Supremo Apostolatus
1890 – Leo XIII, Catholicae Ecclesiae
1963 – John XXIII, Pacem in Terris
1965 – Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes; Dignitatis Humanae
Finally, just in case those were not clear enough, popes have explicitly asked forgiveness of indigenous peoples for the Church’s role in supporting imperialism during the age of discovery, most notably:
1992 – John Paul II in Santo Domingo – on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing there, confessed and begged forgiveness for the sins of the Church and the Spanish conquistadors.
2000 – John Paul II during the Great Jubilee, in Rome – during a mass of reconciliation, asked forgiveness for any Catholics in history who “had violated the rights of ethnic groups and peoples, and for showing contempt for their cultures and religious traditions”.
2015 – Francis in Bolivia – “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against Native peoples during the so-called conquest of the Americas”
To be sure, it never hurts to repeat oneself. Just in case you were not heard the first time. Or the last time. God knows that if the people you agree with do not know they agree with you, the people who disagree might also be in the dark.
From Long March to Rome
Audience with representatives of
Churches and Ecclesial Communities
and of other Religions
(Reposted from Vatican Radio) On Wednesday, March 20 2013, Pope Francis received several dozen representatives of the various Christian Churches and other world religions, who attended the Pope’s inauguration.
Among them were several leaders from the Orthodox Church, Orthodox Oriental Churches, the Anglican Communion, and various Protestant churches, including the Lutheran, Baptist and Methodist churches. Representatives from the Jewish and Muslim faiths were also present.
Please find below Vatican Radio’s translation of the Pope’s discourse:
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
First of all, heartfelt thanks for what my Brother Andrew* told us. Thank you so much! Thank you so much!
It is a source of particular joy to meet you today, delegates of the Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and Ecclesial Communities of the West. Thank you for wanting to take part in the celebration that marked the beginning of my ministry as Bishop of Rome and Successor of Peter.
Yesterday morning, during the Mass, through you , I recognized the communities you represent. In this manifestation of faith, I had the feeling of taking part in an even more urgent fashion the prayer for the unity of all believers in Christ, and together to see somehow prefigured the full realization of full unity which depends on God’s plan and on our own loyal collaboration.
I begin my Apostolic Ministry in this year during which my venerable Predecessor, Benedict XVI, with true inspiration, proclaimed the Year of Faith for the Catholic Church. With this initiative, that I wish to continue and which I hope will be an inspiration for every one’s journey of faith, he wished to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, thus proposing a sort of pilgrimage towards what for every Christian represents the essential: the personal and transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, Son of God, who died and rose for our salvation. This effort to proclaim this eternal treasure of faith to the people of our time, lies at the heart of the Council’s message.
Together with you I cannot forget how much the council has meaning for the ecumenical journey. I like to remember the words that Blessed John XXIII, of whom we will soon mark 50 years since his death, when he gave his memorable inauguration speech: “The Catholic Church therefore considers it her duty to work actively so that there may be fulfilled the great mystery of that unity, which Christ Jesus invoked with fervent prayer from His heavenly Father on the eve of His sacrifice. She rejoices in peace, knowing well that she is intimately associated with that prayer “.
Yes, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all be intimately united to our Saviour’s prayer at the Last Supper, to his invocation: ut unum sint. We call merciful Father to be able to fully live the faith that we have received as a gift on the day of our Baptism, and to be able to it free, joyful and courageous testimony. The more we are faithful to his will, in thoughts, in words and in deeds, the more we will truly and substantially walk towards unity.
For my part, I wish to assure, in the wake of my predecessors, the firm wish to continue on the path of ecumenical dialogue, and I thank you, the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, for the help it continues to offer in my name, for this noble cause. I ask you, dear brothers and sisters, to bring my cordial greetings to the Churches and Christian communities who are represented here. And I ask you for a special prayer for me so that I can be a pastor according to the heart of Christ.
And now I turn to you, distinguished representatives of the Jewish people, to whom we are bound by a very special spiritual bond, from the moment that, as the Second Vatican Council said, “thus the Church of Christ acknowledges that according to God’s saving design, the beginnings of her faith and her election are found already among the Patriarchs, Moses and the prophets”.(Decree Nostra Aetate, 4). I thank you for your presence and trust that with the help of the Almighty, we can continue that fruitful fraternal dialogue that the Council wished for. And that it is actually achieved, bringing many fruits, especially during the last decades .
I greet and thank cordially all of you, dear friends belonging to other religious traditions; firstly the Muslims, who worship the one living and merciful God, and call upon Him in prayer. I really appreciate your presence, and in it I see a tangible sign of the wish to grow in recipricol trust and in cooperation for the common good of humanity.
The Catholic Church is aware of the importance of the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions – this I wish to repeat this: the promotion of friendship and respect between men and women of different religious traditions – this is attested evident also in the valuable work undertaken by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Church is equally aware of the responsibility that each of us bring towards our world, abd to the whole of creation, that we must love and protect. And we can do a lot for the good of the less fortunate, for those who are weak and suffering, to promote justice, to promote reconciliation, to build peace.. But above all, we must keep alive in our world the thirst for the absolute, and must not allow the vision of the human person with a single dimension to prevail, according to which man is reduced to what he produces and to what he consumes: this is one most dangerous threats of our times.
We know how much violence has been provoked in recent history by the attempt to eliminate God and the divine from the horizon of humanity, and we feel the need to witness in our societies the original openness to transcendence that is inherent in the human heart. In this we feel the closeness also of those men and women who, while not belonging to any religious tradition, feel, however the need to search for the truth, the goodness and the beauty of God, and who are our precious allies in efforts to defend the dignity of man, in the building of a peaceful coexistence between peoples and in the careful protection of creation.
Dear friends, thank you for your presence. To all, I offer my cordial and fraternal greetings.
*My Brother Andrew – that is, Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, Successor of Andrew, the brother of Peter.
Every year I find that I had many more ideas for my blog than I actually had time to post. The irony, of course, is that the busier and more interesting life gets, the less time to chronicle it.
Perhaps the biggest ‘distraction’ was a push to finish my License in Sacred Theology. I submitted my thesis in mid-September, at twice its intended length, and passed my oral comprehensive exams in early October, being awarded an S.T.L. in Ecumenism and Dialogue magna cum laude. I am now dedicated to finishing the doctorate – with the dubiously honorific postnominal initials of S.T.D. – in the next 18 months or so. (“Or so” indicating about a half year of flexibility for editing, revising, and Roman beaurocracy).
On paper, the S.T.L. seems to require only 20 lecture courses, 4 seminars, a thesis and oral comprehensive exams, and could be completed normally in two years. In fact, owing to extra requirements of my particular discipline, I completed 31 courses for credit and audited three others (including one with Cardinal Walter Kasper). … and that was with credit for seven courses walking in the door, owing to previous academic and pastoral work.
Translating American and Pontifical degrees is tricky, because each system inherently thinks itself superior to the other. Roughly, the STL is equivalent to being ABD in the U.S. PhD system, though certain elements simply do not translate: There are no teaching assistants or lecture opportunities for anyone without a doctorate in hand, in the Roman system, for example. It is still a good indicator of where I am in my studies.
Certainly the biggest encounter, and one of the nicest surprises of the year, was a little one on one time with His Grace, The Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, now retired Archbishop of Canterbury. On the day of his address to the Synod of Bishops in October, he came to the Caelian hill for a short tour, and I was invited to be his local guide and ecumenical host for the encounter. As we walked through the basilica of Ss. Giovanni e Paolo, the ruins of the Temple of Claudius, and onto the grounds the Lay Centre shares with the Passionists, we were able to talk briefly about the state of the church and the churches, and his upcoming remarks. Seeing his ‘entourage’ it was like a reunion of friends and respected colleagues, people I admire for their dedicated service to the Church and ecumenism from both communions.
The year began on an ecumenical note, as I traveled in January to Norway to celebrate the ordination of a friend and former housemate of mine as a pastor in the (Lutheran) Church of Norway, which took place in Nidaros Cathedral, in Trondheim, just a couple degrees south of the arctic circle.
January of course also sees the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, always a busy time in Rome. This year included, in January and February, a course at the Angelicum taught by Cardinal Walter Kasper on ecclesiological ecumenical themes.
During the spring semester, President Mary McAleese of Ireland, recently retired, moved to Rome to finish a License in Canon Law, and spent the spring semester in residence at the Lay Centre. She brought a wealth of knowledge of the church, experience in politics, and stories told with the kind of skill and humor that made the Irish famous as bards. She has been a great gift to the community.
March witnessed the first of two visits this year by Archbishop Rowan Williams, including a joint vespers service with Pope Benedict, on the occasion of the Camaldoli celebrating their millennial anniversary, at the Church of St. Gregory the Great, our next door neighbors on the Caelian hill, and the installation of an Anglican priest as the Catholic prior of the order’s chapter in Rome. (He was received into Catholic orders after his election as prior.)
In April, I was able to head up to Assisi for a conference sponsored by the Ecclesiological Investigations Network, and included several U.S. graduate students and theologians. Cardinal Koch gave a significant lecture on fifty years of Jewish-Catholic dialogue as this year’s annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding, sponsored by the office I work for, the John Paul Center for Interreligious Dialogue.
In June, I was invited by the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to be a plenary speaker from the Catholic side at a Jewish-Catholic dialogue in New York, with a focus on emerging leadership in this oldest and closest interreligious dialogue.
I spent the summer in Rome, practicing Italian and learning first-hand why anyone who can, leaves. It is impossible to think in that kind of heat and humidity, the universities and libraries close, and there is virtually nowhere in the city with air conditioning. I did get a trip to Germany and the Netherlands at the end of the summer to cool down a little. September included a working visit to Budapest.
October was a busy month, with the synod for bishops, the 50th anniversary of Vatican II opening, visits by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of Constantinople, an international conference at the Lay Centre, the orientation of a new cohort of Russell Berrie Fellows, and of course the comprehensive exams for my license.
November took an eastern focus, with conferences on Eastern Catholicism, and Middle Eastern Christianity. December was about wrapping up the year and getting ready to head home for my first Christmas holiday in the States since 2008.
On Monday, Nov 5, the Social Sciences Faculty of the Angelicum hosted a lecture on Christians in the Middle East, as a kickoff event for their new Al Liqa’ Project.
History Prof. Habib Charles Malik of the Lebanese American university offered his reflections and recommendations on the Christians of the Middle East focused on the events between the Arab Spring, and the release of the Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, which was delivered during Pope Benedict’s Apostolic visit to Lebanon in September.
Prof. Malik began with the state of the question. There are about 12 million Christians in the middle East he estimates, not counting Latin immigrants, which include about 8 million Copts in Egypt, another 3 million in the Levant – Melkites, Maronite, Syriac, Greeks, Armenians, Latins and Protestants – and the Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq, a population that has been decimated since the U.S.-lead invasion of 2003. There remain less than a million.
Emigration out of the region has been going on since the advent of the 21st century, due laregely to attacks on the communities. During the raging civil war in Syria, he describes both sides – the Alawite Shi’a administration and the Salfist Sunni insurgents (and others) – as targeting Christians and attempting to pin the attacks on the opposing forces. They have become the primary targets of opportunity.
Malik was critical of the Arab Spring as a misnomer – the so-called Facebook generation of young democracy-minded types had not held together beyond the revolutions, and instead we have what he suggested to be called a ‘Salafi Spring.’ Tunisia is one of the few places he sees a genuine road to democracy, though throughout the region, the moderate Sunni voices are too often weak and unheard – and often in just as much danger as the Christians of the region, if they speak up against extremism.
Middle Eastern Christians are caught in the middle of several conflicting and potentially destructive polarities in the region:
- Sunni vs. Shiite: With a rough north-south border running through Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the most explosive region of volatility around this divide is in Syria, with a small Alawite (Shi’a) administration and a larger Salafi (Sunni) insurgency.
- Arab vs. Persian: Centered around Saudi Arabia and Qatar on one side and Iran on the other, with corollary polarities between Turkish and Israeli interests.
- Salafi and Jihadist vs. Despotic Regimes – The false sense of security under a ruthless dictator should not be preferred over the uncertain volatility of the powers emerging from the revolutions.
- Sino-Russian vs. Euro-American interests in the region, often complicated by western neglect or ignorance of culture, religion, and society in the area couple with agendas more concerned with petroleum and other natural resources than with human rights and religious freedom.
Given this, many of the region’s Christians have trepidations about the Arab Spring, fearing that it will bring not a transition to greater democracy, but simply create an extended power vacuum that could be manipulated by militant extremists.
But not all of Prof. Malik’s talk painted such a gloomy picture. There was an enthusiastic and grateful welcome of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, which Pope Benedict delivered in Beirut six weeks ago. There is, as always, a desire to be better understood by the west in general, the Latin Church, and by the Holy See. Many see Pope Benedict has grasping many of the complexities and delicacies of Christianity in its birthplace, and see in the exhortation recognition of the historic, current and eschatological dimension of the predicament of indigenous Christians, while outlining their unique responsibilities as Christians in the midst of the world of Islam.
He did suggest a few critiques, or observations for improvement, in the exhortation:
- The frequent use of Lebanon as a role model, he says, seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The potential is there, certainly, but there is still a long way to go.
- The high praise of the Middle East Council of Churches ignores the record of nearly exclusive focus on Palestine and missed opportunities in other areas
- Interreligious dialogue needs to be a dialogue of truth and charitable but honest witness, not of the common platitudes he sees throughout
- Finally, the pleas for a healthy secularity may resonate with a Eurocentric West, but make no sense in Islam where there is no differentiation between the realms of sacred and secular authority. This kind of language might just push Christians out of the area to seek the kind of healthy secularity to be found in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“How can the Christians navigate between the depressing realities of the Arab upheavals and the hope offered to them in the Apostolic Exhortation? How can they internalize and employ the latter to overcome the anticipated negative fallout from the former?” Some thoughts and recommendations presented by Prof. Malik:
- The Church and the world press need to continue to put pressure by shining light on even the smallest abuses. Even dictators don’t like bad press.
- The international community must insist that new states’ constitutions include religious liberty and hold them accountable.
- The litmus test of the Arab Spring is and will be the treatment of religious minorities. Need to consider a ‘federalism’ option.
- People of the region must actively promote rights and ’universal liberal values’
- They need the encouragement and support of the Christian World
- Inspiration from the Year of Faith and the carefully selected opening mass reading of Mark 8-27-35, with its focus on ecumenism as a witness of unity in the face of interreligious dialogue and as a prerequisite for survival and evangelization.
- Let Maronites take a lead, from their relative stability, but open more to the Anglo-Saxon world, as they have been to the Francophone
- Unhindered pilgrimage access to the Holy Places is still not guaranteed for the Christians of the middle east, as it is for those from anywhere else. This ought to change
If you haven’t read this yet, a very helpful and concise review of LDS scripture.
The Bible plus:
The four books of Mormonism
A Latter-day Saint friend of mine once invited an evangelical coworker to church. The coworker found much that was familiar in the LDS service: hymn singing, an informal sermon style, robust fellowshiping and scripture-driven Sunday school. But then came the moment when the Sunday school teacher, after beginning with Genesis, said “Let’s now turn to the Book of Moses” and began reading: “The presence of God withdrew from Moses . . . and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.’” I am told that the visitor reflexively searched through his Bible before he realized that he’d never heard of such a book, though of course the story of the burning bush was familiar. And while he didn’t mind the sentiments expressed in the words he’d heard, he knew that they were not in his Bible.
This mix of the familiar and the strange is a common experience for any who have spent even minimal time with the Latter-day Saints. The greatest contributing factor to this mix is Mormonism’s dependence on and sophisticated redaction of the Bible. All of Mormonism, even its most unfamiliar tenants, rests in some element of the biblical narrative. Academics would explain this in terms of intertextuality, noting that the meanings of Mormonism, even its unique scriptures, are achieved within the larger complex of the Christian canon. You don’t need to be a scholar to recognize this. You need only open and read the first words you see in any one of Mormonism’s unique scriptures.
The Latter-day Saint canon consists of four books: the Bible and three other texts—the Book of Mormon, the Book of Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. Each reads very much like the Bible in type and breadth of thematic concerns and literary forms (history, law, psalm). Even the rhetorical stance of each canon is biblical: God is speaking to prophets faced with temporal crises of spiritual significance. In terms of the authority granted these four texts, all have equal weight, including both Bible testaments, as historical witnesses to God’s promise of salvation, enacted by covenant with the Israelites and fulfilled in the atonement of Jesus Christ as the only begotten of the Father.
The LDS Church’s confidence in the authority and historicity of the Bible is mitigated only by scruples regarding the Bible’s history as a book. The Bible is “the word of God insofar as it is translated correctly.” The other three Latter-day Saint scriptures are also believed to be historical witnesses to God’s promise of salvation. Considered translations by or direct revelation to Joseph Smith, the church’s founding prophet, they are considered correct in their representation of God’s will and word, though they possibly contain flaws resulting from “the mistakes of men.” What follows is a brief description of these three texts and a few examples of how they reshape Christian tradition and influence Latter-day Saint belief and practice.
The Book of Mormon is the narrative of a prophet-led people’s experience with God over a thousand-year period, beginning with the flight of two Israelite families from Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE on the eve of Babylonian captivity. The people of God eventually create a complex civilization in the Western Hemisphere. The story is a cautionary tale of cycles of conversion and backsliding. It concludes in approximately the fourth century CE with an account of wickedness and consequent destruction. The climax of the narrative occurs midway with the appearance of Jesus Christ immediately after his resurrection to a chastened remnant in the Americas who are taught by him to repent, embrace the gospel and establish a church. Thus, the Book of Mormon not only echoes the narrative style and certain contents of the Bible, such as the Beatitudes, but also functions as second witness to the Bible’s testimony that Jesus is the source of salvation for all.
The Book of Mormon clearly deviates from Christian tradition by not limiting Christ’s ministry to a particular people and time. The rejection of such limitations is one of the book’s main points. The claim that “we need no more Bible” is made the object of God’s rebuke: “Know ye not that there are more nations than one? . . . because that I have spoken one word ye need not suppose that I cannot speak another.” Clearly, the Book of Mormon’s purpose is not only to second the biblical witness but also to evidence the ongoing revelation of the gospel. Notwithstanding its orthodox representation of that gospel, the Book of Mormon takes a position on certain historic theological questions. For example, while teaching the reality and catastrophe of the Fall, the prophets of the Book of Mormon reject notions of human creatureliness and depravity. Humans are not utterly foreign to God’s being. They are inherently made capable of acting for good, though only through Christ’s sacrifice is this capacity liberated from the enslaving effect of the Fall on human will. It is “by grace we are saved after all we can do.” Thus in Mormonism God’s economy of salvation is broad, though not universal in its promise of glory. Humans are prone to sin, free to reject grace and may fall from grace. Nevertheless, grace is freely given to those who in faith repent.
The LDS Church’s third canonical text, the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, is composed of revelations received largely by Joseph Smith between 1830 and 1844. Essentially a book of order and doctrine, it is the most discursive of the church’s scriptures. Again, much is familiar to non-Mormons, such as believer’s baptism, confirmation through the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and affirmations such as “justification through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is just and true. “ Less conventional but still acceptable is the book’s emphasis on sanctifying endowments of heavenly power “through the grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ . . . to all those who love and serve God with all their mights, minds and strengths.” For example, the D&C contains a version of the catalogue of the gifts of faith in 1 Corinthians, all of which are embraced within Mormonism.
LDS Church offices, too, are initially familiar: deacon, teacher, priest, elder and bishop. But the church’s charismatic offices, such as high priest, apostle and prophet, are unfamiliar in a modern context. Particularly indicative of the canon’s sanctification of the Christian life is the D&C’s provision for an ordained priesthood of all believers authorized to perform every ordinance as well as all pastoral and preaching duties.
The D&C contains a number of teachings, especially related to temple worship, that are unique to the Latter-day Saints. Space permits discussion of only one: saving ordinances, such as baptism and confirmation, performed not only for the living but also by proxy for the dead. D&C 124 describes this practice and provides a good illustration of the way in which the LDS Church’s canon leverages biblical concepts to create beliefs outside the tradition as if from within it. This text explicitly roots baptism by proxy for the deceased in Matthew 16’s reference to authority that can “bind” heavenly possibilities by earthly acts. It further grounds the doctrine in 1 Corinthians’s rhetorical question: “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?”
D&C 124 claims that the answer to Paul’s question comes as deeply from within the tradition as does the question itself. First, it refers to Malachi’s promise that Elijah would come to “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.” Smith claimed that Elijah had returned in 1836 to restore the heavenly keys to such a turning of hearts, an event recorded in D&C 110. This turning—or, as Smith termed it, binding—of the generations by sanctifying covenants with God animates the church’s genealogy program, as well as its practice of sealing marriages for eternity.
Second, the biblical imperative of Hebrews 11 is cited in D&C 124 to show the necessity of this sacramental work on behalf those who died without the gospel: “For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect.” Though Latter-day Saints believe that the deceased may reject grace and nullify the sacraments performed on their behalf, providing the option is the duty of the faithful to those who were without the gospel in this life.
Innumerable examples can be given of Mormonism’s canonical similarities and dissimilarities with traditional Christianity. By employing both biblical forms and hermeneutic, Latter-day Saint scripture is profoundly adaptive of historic Christianity’s theological traditions. To fully understand this phenomenon, however, one more aspect of Mormonism’s extended canon needs to be considered. Notwithstanding the D&C’s tendency to discourse, the most powerful force at work in Latter-day Saint differentiation is the narrative function of its canon. The Pearl of Great Price is the obvious case in point, though in a more subtle way it is true of the Book of Mormon as well.
The Pearl of Great Price is a compendium of several writings attributed to Joseph Smith’s revelatory powers. The two largest portions are called the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham. Both books include a retelling of the creation story. Most significantly, this retelling includes an event before creation in which God met with his children regarding the next step in their existence. This step required the gift of more expansive powers of agency in order to learn by experience to distinguish good from evil, thus enabling human progress to higher levels of being.
The event is characterized by two contrasting concepts of how earthly existence should be ordered. The contender for one concept insisted on the use of force to ensure that humans made the right choice. The other advocated God’s original plan that offered salvation from wrong choices through sacrificial atonement. This advocate further agreed to be the sacrifice, leaving the glory to God. As you no doubt have guessed, the first contender is Lucifer, who rebelled against God, lost whatever light his name suggests and became the devil. The second petitioner became God’s only begotten son, and by virtue of his redemptive power became in all ways like God the Father.
God’s challenge to Job’s memory and his call to Jeremiah, as well as Isaiah’s lament and Paul’s dictum in Romans, may supply biblical evidence for the premortal existence of humankind. But canonization of a Bible-like narrative that directly counters the theological tradition of creation ex nihilo is one of the most provocative aspects of Mormonism. Some non-Mormons have been so provoked as to accuse the Latter-day Saints of believing the devil is a brother of Jesus in the sense that they share the same nature and power. This could not be further from the church’s canon and teachings regarding the divinity of Christ. Regardless, the belief that sacred history extends to a premortal existence for human life and to events before creation has a definitive affect on Mormons’ self-understanding and their sense of time and eternity. It is fundamental to their answer to the classic existential question, Where did we come from?
The two other questions that preoccupy religious thought are why are we here and where are we going, and the Saints’ extended canon tackles these questions as well. As noted by the Sunday school teacher mentioned earlier, the Pearl of Great Price contains an account of Moses’ theophany on Mount Horeb. The prophet is depicted as having been amazed at his nothingness after being shown the earth and its inhabitants. But he is not so dumbfounded that he fails to ask God why these creations exist, and he receives this answer: “There is no end to my works, neither to my words. For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”
This short verse defines God in terms of his capacity to “bring to pass” or engender in his children the quality of the life he possesses—“immortality and eternal life.” The verse contravenes centuries of Christian theological anthropology that insists there is an unbridgeable ontological gulf between God and humankind. Or, in more technical terms, traditional Christianity teaches that God’s nature is fundamentally unrelated to human nature—the one uncreated, the other created. The Latter-day Saint canon asserts to the contrary that God is best understood by his fundamental relatedness, his fatherhood.
The effect of this view on the Latter-day Saints’ identity is probably immeasurable. They believe that God has known them, as he said to Jeremiah, before they were in the womb and that they are, if faithful, predestined for glory in Pauline terms. When things get tough, as in the case of Job, the Saints are to remember the time when “the morning stars sang together” about what they believe was a loving Father’s plan for their ultimate glory. On the basis of these alternative accounts of creation and Moses’ theophany, Latter-day Saints believe that the truest measure of God’s greatness is his generativity, not his sovereignty or prescient omniscience that predestines outcomes. Thus, when they voice their Christian perfectionism in terms of becoming like God, Latter-day Saints are not aspiring to power over others. As we have seen, the primordial event in their canon’s salvation history uses Lucifer’s fate as a warning against such aspiration. Rather, they understand their divine potential in terms of parenting, even the promise of an endowment of sanctifying grace that enables the faithful to facilitate spiritual, not merely physical, birth. To obtain such generativity is, for Latter-day Saints, why humans exist, and it constitutes the deep doctrinal stratum of what is typically seen as merely a sentimental attachment to family.
As for the third existential dilemma—where we are going—Latter-day Saint scripture elaborates on John 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 to affirm a variety of degrees of glory to which virtually all of God’s children will be raised after judgment. D&C 76 is the most complete discourse on this subject, and it incorporates the Pauline metaphors of sun, moon and stars to describe the varieties of glory in the afterlife. The effect is, in part, to counter the idea of a one-size-fits-all heaven capable of accommodating the varieties of human desire and action. Rather, it is hell that lacks diversity, accommodating only “those sons of perdition who deny the Son after the Father has revealed him . . . crucified him unto themselves and put him to open shame.” The rest of humanity “shall be brought forth . . . through the triumph and the glory of the Lamb, who was slain, who was in the bosom of the Father before the worlds were made. And this is the gospel, the glad tidings.” Thus, in Latter-day Saint eschatology there are many degrees of glory or “mansions” (to use John 14 KJV, since it better conveys the idea of glory than does the NIV’s “rooms”), but hell is an undiversified site with a narrowly defined population. As a consequence of these scriptural differences, Latter-day Saints do not judge religious differences as meriting consignment of people to hell, nor do they threaten nonbelievers with such a fate.
Narrative remains the preferred method of conveying Latter-day Saint teachings, however—even in eschatological matters. D&C 138 contains an account of Christ’s visit to the world of spirits mentioned in 1 Peter. It describes Christ being greeted joyfully by the righteous who had been waiting for the day of his triumph over death. But the focus of the story is on Jesus’ concern for the unjust, who also awaited their fate, and on how he chose “from among the righteous . . . messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to all the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.” This passage clearly relates to the Saints’ sense of duty to prepare for the possibility that some will accept the gospel after death. But more significantly, for believing readers D&C 138’s elaboration on 1 Peter satisfies questions about God’s justice in a world where few have known of Jesus and many are so burdened by temporal cares that they cannot hear his message. Ultimately, these two sections of the D&C, coupled with the expanded canon’s expansive view of the scope of the atonement and the power of Christ’s resurrection, are a source of great personal assurance to the Saints about everyone’s destiny because God’s saving work is ongoing.
Each year in a repeating four-year cycle, one of these canonical texts is the subject of the LDS Church’s Sunday school curriculum for youth and adults. Members are expected to read the designated scripture from beginning to end. Each book of scripture is considered as essential as any other, though the Bible is given two years of this cycle, one for each testament. The Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham are treated seamlessly within the Old Testament curriculum, as was done the day my friend brought his coworker friend to class. There is no canon within a canon—only a single history of God’s efforts to be heard in all places and by every generation.
Mormons are not theologians or even particularly doctrinaire; they are primarily narrativists. They inhabit the world of the book. They read themselves into the salvation history it tells and orient themselves to the horizon created by its promises. In sum, Latter-day Saint scriptures play a definitive role in the lives of believing readers, informing them of who they are in relation to God, why they are here and where it is possible for them and their loved ones to go. In respect to this world and the next, the Saints’ scriptures give them a distinctively positive sense of human potential based on God’s capacity and desire to save them and everyone else, as it says in the Book of Mormon, “through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah.”
In the midst of last week’s events surrounding the Fifth Annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding, delivered at the Angelicum by Cardinal Kurt Koch, i was asked to stay on another year as the graduate assistant at the John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue at the Angelicum. So, another year in Rome, at least!
Coincident with the big event – that being the lecture not my assistantship renewal – the Center rolled out a new website, that will continue to expand its content: http://jp2center.org/
While my academic focus has remained ecumenical, the interreligious piece, especially with the Abrahamic faiths, has grown ever entwined in every aspect of my life. It is hard to believe how much time has passed in Rome already, but there is always more to see and do. Please check out the website, and also the Center’s Facebook page.
The John Paul II Center for Interreligious Dialogue hosted its fifth annual John Paul II Lecture on Interreligious Understanding, featuring Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the pontifical council for promoting Christian Unity and the commission for religious relations with the Jews. His topic was “Building on Nostra Aetate: 50 Years of Christian-Jewish Dialogue.” (full text)
The lecture was the highlight of a busy week for the Center, with a series of meetings and receptions around the Russell Berrie Fellowship and the relationship of the Angelicum University and the Russell Berrie Foundation, which is made manifest in the John Paul II Center. About 150 people attended, including the president emeritus of Ireland, Mary MacAleese, ambassadors to the Holy See from several countries, the U.S. Special Envoy for combating anti-Semitism, the new rector of the Angelicum Fr. Miroslav Adam, and Cardinal Walter Kasper.
His Eminence addressed the topic in seven sections. Nostra Aetate itself, he summed up with “YES to our Jewish roots, NO to anti-Semitism”, and as the ‘magna charta’ of Jewish-Catholic dialogue. That Nostra Aetate took up this question and set an unambiguous position that “in the Catholic Church, [Jews] have a reliable ally in the struggle against anti-Semitism.” It affirms, as Pope John Paul II said during his 1986 visit to the Roman synagogue, that
“The Jewish religion is not something ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. With Judaism we therefore have a relationship we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and in a certain way it could be said, our elder brothers.”
With regard to the reception history of Vatican II, he says that “one can without doubt dare to assert that Nostra Aetate is to be reckoned among those Council texts which have in a convincing manner been able to effect a fundamental reorientation of the Catholic Church following the Council”. This statement, incidentally, points to a hermeneutic that clearly holds that the purpose of the Council was a reorientation of the Catholic Church.
He outlined the historical and theological reasons for including the dialogue with Jews in the Council for Christian Unity rather than the one for Interreligious Dialogue:
“The separation of Church and Synagogue can be considered the first schism in the history of the church, or as the Catholic theologian Erich Przywara has called it, the ‘primal rift’, from which he derives later progressive loss of wholeness in the Catholica.”
This was followed by a survey of post-conciliar documents building on Nostra Aetate, the most recent from the Commission being the 1998 We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, and then a similar treatment of global international dialogues and their development, the result of which is that,
“Confrontation has turned into successful collaboration, the previous conflict potential has become positive conflict management, and the coexistence of the past has been replaced by a load-bearing friendship.”
While he acknowledges that the real papal impetus for dialogue began with Paul VI, he points out that this engagement by the leadership of the universal Catholic Church was only really apprehended by the wider public in the form of Pope John Paul II, who “had a refined sense for grand gestures and strong images” as compared to, for example, Pope Benedict XVI, who “relies above all on the power of the word and humble encounter.”
Of Ratzinger, Koch highlighted the theologian Ratzinger’s understanding of the bible as one single book, with the old testament inseparable from the new. He likewise highlights the German Shepherd’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, in which he clearly reiterates Church teaching that the biblical report of the trial of Jesus cannot serve as the basis for any assertion of collective Jewish guilt: “Jesus’ blood raises no call for retaliation, but calls all to reconciliation. It has become as the letter ot the Hebrews shows, itself the permanent Day of Atonement of God.”
He concludes by engaging open theological questions and prospects. The question of the role of Christ in the salvation of the Jews, given the enduring covenant of God: What is the mission to the Jews, if there is one? How do we reconcile these two truths without offering a parallel path of extra-Christological salvation?
Cardinal Koch sees anti-semitism, anti-Judaism, and Marcionism as still-present challenges which the Catholic Church must and does denounce as a betrayal of Christian faith. An expression of this question is found in the recently revised Good Friday prayers for use in the ‘extraordinary form’ of the Latin liturgy, which itself raises questions about “lex orandi, lex credendi”, when we have seen four versions in forty years. Liturgically, he also critiqued both preachers who omit the old testament readings from their reflections, and presiders who “change the mass” omit the original Hebrew meanings of the prayers.