Question: You wrote a column some time ago stating that for baptism to be valid it must be by immersion, pouring or sprinkling and the use of the Trinitarian formula. The Mormon church uses immersion and the Trinitarian formula, yet I know that the Catholic Church does not recognize the validity of Mormon baptism. Why is this? I have many relatives who are Mormon, and this bothers me.
— Evelyn Taylor Delta, Utah
Answer: The Church has a generous view of what constitutes valid baptism, and it generally recognizes the baptism of all kinds of Christian communities. Indeed, it even recognizes the baptism of someone by a non-Christian if the baptizer intended to do what orthodox Christians mean by baptism.
The problem with Mormon baptism is not with its use of immersion and the Trinitarian formula — which it follows — but with the Mormon understanding of God. On the face of it, the Mormon formula for baptism sounds quite orthodox, but when examined carefully it differs radically from what Christians have traditionally meant by God and the Trinity.
For Mormons, God is an exalted man, an inhabitant of a physical world like our own. He has a wife, many children and relatives. In fact, four gods are directly responsible for the universe. Three of them established a covenant and thus formed the divinity. But this divinity is not at all Trinitarian. Most Mormon theologians deny the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. The titles of Father, Son and Holy Spirit have, for Mormons, an entirely different meaning from the orthodox Christian understanding.
The Catholic denial of the validity of Mormon baptism does not in any way deny the truth that Mormons (and members of other religions) may be saved. Nor is it meant to demonstrate disrespect. (Mormon church leadership has no problem with the fact that the Catholic Church does not recognize its baptism; they, in turn, do not recognize traditional Christian baptism and readily recognize that two very different concepts of God and baptism are at play here.)
Cardinal Avery Dulles
Question: Do you have a favorite modern theologian, and what would you recommend that I should read that he has written?
— G.H., Charleston, N.C.
Answer: My all-time favorite theologian is Cardinal John Henry Newman, about whom I have written in this column before. For a “modern” theologian my highest recommendation goes to Avery Dulles, the distinguished American Jesuit theologian, whom Pope John Paul II made a cardinal in 2001. I am happy to say that I had then-Father Dulles as my teacher at The Catholic University of America from 1979 to 1984 and that he was a wise and astute guide for some of my theological research.
Cardinal Dulles wrote more than 800 articles and 23 books, the best known of which is probably “Models of the Church” (Image, $14.95). For someone who wants a broad selection from his writings, I recommend “Church and Society” (Fordham University Press, $40), a collection of lectures on a very broad range of topics. In this work, Cardinal Dulles demonstrates his enormous respect for Catholic theological tradition, his learned grasp of theology in the 20th century and, not least, his readable style of writing.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.