Catholics and Mormons haven’t always clung to each other as partners in faith. In the early 20th century, for example, Mormon tradition held that “the great and abominable church” spoken of in The Book of Mormon represented the Catholic Church. On the other hand, Catholic Church members have published tracts and now websites promoting the falsity of Mormonism since the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. Historically, neither organization has worked to bridge doctrinal differences. But the speech delivered at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, on Tuesday by His Eminence Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I., president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of Chicago, not only opened the door to a new friendship but also communicated the necessity and urgency of a partnership.
“I’m personally grateful that after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles and in the promotion of the common good of our beloved country,” Cardinal George said to 12,000 university students and faculty.
Both religious organizations have much to gain in linking arms on the causes Cardinal George highlighted in his address: providing aid to the needy, supporting families and combating pornography. Cardinal George told the group that in defending religious freedoms, “sometimes our common advocacy will make one of us the target of retribution by intolerant elements,” but emphasized that people of both faiths need to make their voices heard.
In an era when the definition of marriage held by both faith traditions is being challenged, the Cardinal’s extended hand of partnership is gratefully welcomed by the Latter-day Saints, who felt particularly battered in the 2008 campaign for Proposition 8 in California, where LDS churches and temples were vandalized and church members were accosted while entering their worship services. Cardinal George expressed dismay at the “quasi-fascist tactics” and “thuggery” aimed at supporters of the proposition in both religions, and called on both religions to continue standing “against various efforts to redefine in civil law that foundational element of God’s natural plan for creation.” Although allying over opposition to same-sex marriage wasn’t the officially stated purpose of the cardinal’s visit to BYU, it is clearly beneficial to the leadership of the churches to be seeking each other out at a time when they are at the center of a heated national debate.
As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I am familiar with the “retribution” of which Cardinal George warns. It has come in the form of rude personal remarks, exclusion from friendships and social groups, and misinformed and sensationalist media reports about the faith I love dearly. But, as Cardinal George encouraged, I am trying to make my voice heard on behalf of Mormons and also on behalf of people of faith in general. As the founder of The Mormon Women Project, my goal is to let the stories of faithful women speak for themselves so that we might take comfort in each other as “trustworthy partners.”
Letting the stories of faithful women speak for themselves
The Mormon Women Project is a continuously expanding digital library of interviews with Latter-day Saint women from around the world who honor the demands of their church but still make thoughtful, considered choices about who they want to be and what kinds of lives they want to live. According to LDS doctrine, our free agency, or our ability to make choices, is the most precious of our God-given rights. However, through my anecdotal research from a life lived in New York City, San Francisco and Boston, I have discovered that people in these urban centers see Mormon women as exercising very little agency. Because of doctrinal misunderstandings, media portrayals, and our own cultural habits, Mormon women are considered stifled, funneled into a life of motherly servitude and wifely subservience with little opportunity to pursue their own dreams or contribute to the larger world community.
Mormons excel in many of the same areas as Catholics — family, service, community and professional work — and these interviews accentuate the similarities between religious women of these two faiths. For example, Sally Read, a Mormon woman from Connecticut, bandages the sores of leprosy patients in India, often working in tandem with Catholic relief agencies. Jessica Marschall, a Mormon woman from Wisconsin, credits the works of the early Christian Fathers with helping her walk away from eight years of alcoholism. The Latter-day Saint growth in Africa embraces women like Ghanaian Mormon Faustina Otoo whose job at the LDS temple in Accra has allowed her to put her daughter through college.
Catholics, too, face outdated or misinformed stereotypes, and as with Mormons, there are perhaps millions of personal stories that debunk those stereotypes. But stories like these are mostly drowned out by much more scintillating tales of people who have abandoned their faith or chosen more colorful paths. With the rebellious exceptions drawing much more attention that the quieter stories of faith, family and service, the existence of an orthodox majority becomes almost an impossibility in the public perception.
I see the Mormon Women Project as a counterbalance to the “intolerant elements” that attack the true identity and purpose of Mormon women and claim we are forced to obey irrational rules set by power-hungry leaders. Mormons, like Catholics, first choose to sustain a moral paradigm, and it is within this paradigm we make our other choices. I’m just one voice, but I believe that if I can redeem the public perception of Mormon women by showing our strength, our individuality and our good works, then I have done some good for women of faith in general and, by extension, people of every faith.
Despite differing points of doctrine, there seems to be no reason why Mormons and Catholics should not consider each other allies in the social and cultural arenas. Cardinal George has offered his hand to Mormons in partnership, and I, for one, am eagerly extending mine in return.