Guest Post: A Mormon Vatican II: Catholic Perspective

This post comes from Carla, a reader at this blog and a Catholic who participates in the online Mormon community. I asked her for her perspective on Vatican II, which drastically overhauled the Catholic Church and brought it in many ways into the modern world. I wondered what a “Mormon Vatican II” would look like and asked her for her opinion. The line that struck me with its truthfulness and insight was this: “The authoritarian power structure was a breeding ground for institutionalized abuse that went completely unreported, unpunished, and unchecked, because of the idolization of priests and for the sake of the public face of the institutional church.”

Before you can discuss what a Mormon Vatican II would look like, it’s important to understand some of the most significant factors in the changes to the Catholic Church in the United States. Vatican II is only one part of how Catholicism in the United States has changed since the early part of the 20th century. The Charismatic Renewal and the Devotional Revolution are both important movements to discuss so as to understand what a similar movement would look like in Mormonism.

Vatican II

The documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council made significant changes to the liturgy, making the most significant alterations in the Catholic Church’s mode of worship since the Council of Trent in the 16th century. The Mass would from then on be said in the vernacular language, the altar would be moved so that the priest would stand behind it facing the congregation, rather than have the altar against the wall with the priest facing the altar along with the rest of the congregation. Lay people would have significant roles in the Mass, i.e. instead of just priests doing everything, lay people could read the readings — but not the Gospel reading, and lay people could be Eucharistic Ministers, and distribute Holy Communion on the altar. The focus was on increasing lay participation in Mass.

It is difficult to describe how monumental these changes were for a Catholic in those days. One Sunday you had the priest chanting in Latin, facing away from the people, and absolutely nobody but the priest and altar boys were permitted on the altar, and the next Sunday the priest is facing you speaking your native language, and lay people are going up to the altar to read the scripture readings and to distribute Holy Communion, when at the time no lay person ever even touched the Eucharist with anything but their tongue.

Other changes were made after Vatican II, including allowing people to receive Communion in the hand rather than on the tongue (1969/1973), allowing girls to serve on the altar (1994), encouraging more regular reception of Communion (previously “frequent” Communion meant only receiving twice a year, at Easter and Christmas). What they all added up to was that lay people had more power in their parishes. Priests held less and less power and authority in the lives of individuals in their parishes, and lay people felt they had a voice in the Church.

Charismatic Renewal

The Charismatic Renewal began in the late 1960’s and continues today. Its focus is on being touched by the power of the Holy Spirit, being given the gift of speaking in tongues or prophecy, etc. Because in this setting the Holy Spirit is believed to make direct contact with individuals, this again puts the focus on the power of lay people to have a legitimately Catholic religious experience without the need of mediation through the institutional Church’s ministers (priests, bishops) or Sacraments (Holy Communion, Reconciliation). The Charismatic movement gave lay people direct access to God without mediation through official rituals.

Coming Down from the Devotional Revolution

The changes after Vatican II and the Charismatic Renewal both gave power and authority to lay people. It is possible to attribute this (the movement away from having the priest have all the power) to the fact that the Catholic Church in the US was coming down from the Devotional Revolution. Beginning about the 1850’s, Catholicism in the US saw the development of what is today called the Devotional Revolution (similar movements happened in Ireland and other European countries at about the same time). There was a huge increase in vocations to the priesthood and to religious life. Lay confraternities, as well as organizations of doctors and lawyers, blossomed and saw exponential growth. Catholics were exceptionally devoted to the rituals and authority of the institutional church.

The persecution and discrimination against Catholics can be seen as a probable cause of this “circle the wagons” mentality, which persisted well into the 20th century. Catholics would only be friends with other Catholics, because Protestants tended to see Catholics as incapable of being good Americans. The building of Catholic churches was seen as an affront to freedom and democracy. Catholics were discriminated against in employment, housing, and basically every area of life.

Over time however, persecution ebbed and Catholics eventually assimilated almost completely into American society. Vocations to the priesthood fell (apparently precipitously) back to the levels that were seen before the Devotional Revolution took hold. There was and is an apparent critical shortage of priests. Something had to be done. Part of the solution was to give lay people more responsibilities. They could fill certain roles in Mass and in the parish leadership so that they didn’t need as many priests (and so that priests could focus on the main purpose of their vocation: administering the Sacraments). The job of the priest was eventually reduced to only the Sacraments (though it varies from diocese to diocese and parish to parish). Many parishes and dioceses have lay pastoral associates, who are in charge of the administrative work of the parish. Lay people often run the Catechism programs in parishes, and they can hold high offices in Catholic schools and universities (many Catholic colleges only ever had ordained priests as their presidents in the past). With fewer priests, it has become necessary to give lay people responsibilities with power and authority in their parish communities.

Rampant clerical abuse of power has now obviously declined, as one can see in the sex abuse scandals which are finally being brought to light and prosecuted according to the law rather than swept under the rug by an authoritarian power structure. Catholics are much less afraid to speak freely of dissenting opinions and act against the dictates of official church teachings, especially in regards to such issues as feminism, abortion and birth control, LGBTQ equality, and other topics regarding morality and society.

A Mormon Vatican II

So what would this look like in a Mormon context? There are obvious analogous changes that took place in Catholicism which could be instituted in Mormonism in much the same manner. However, where in Catholicism the laity were the ones gaining power, in the Mormonism it would mean women, as nearly all Mormon men are ordained, and the only “lay people” in Mormonism are women (and boys under the age of 12). So this would mean women (teenage girls) could pass the Sacrament, women could hold administrative offices in their ward or branch, where they would be in a position to counsel members and do the sort of administrative things ward clerks, bishops or stake presidents do. However, we could also refer to adult men who are technically “ordained,” but who hold no offices in their ward or branch, as “laity,” because they have no power except over their own household. We could say that anything lower than bishopric/branch presidency is the same in Mormonism as the laity in Catholicism.

Catholicism drastically altered the liturgy in allowing the Mass to be said in the vernacular language. I think the analogous part of Mormon liturgy might be found in something like the hymns. There is one official hymnal that is translated and used across the globe. So rather than members writing music in their own language to express their faith, they are expected to sing songs written (mostly) by a bunch of white Americans in the 19th century. There should be a “vernacularization” of the hymns, giving local authorities power over the liturgy in their own areas. One could also point to the dress code, which reflects a strictly Western value system, as a place where there could be change for the better. Why shouldn’t rules of dress and decorum be determined by local culture?

It would also necessarily mean less dependence on the institutional church and more emphasis on personal, unmediated spiritual experiences. This might be analogous to the prayer circles and Bible studies of the Charismatic Renewal. In Mormonism, I think this would include not leaning so much on official church publications, and more individual creativity for meetings and activities of Young Women and Men, Relief Society, Sunday School, etc. For example, in the Catholic Church in the US, there are independent companies who might create a curriculum for Catechism for children in elementary or high school, and an individual parish can choose whichever curriculum they want to use. This could also mean individual wards/branches/stakes coming up with their own programs that weren’t created to be instituted throughout the entire church, but just for their region. For example, many Catholic churches in the US do retreats for young people, but you won’t find the same retreats all over the country. These are programs that were not created in the Vatican and instituted all over the world, but created in a local parish and spread to other areas where people were interested in doing the same in their area.

With the assimilation into the general population, Catholics stopped practicing the things that made them most peculiar. In addition to the drastic changes in the Mass (the old liturgy, if you were to compare to a Protestant service, would be a very foreign and mysterious melodrama, and made it difficult for Protestants to consider Catholics Christians at all), the rule about not eating meat on Fridays was reduced to only the Fridays during the season of Lent. Women no longer wore veils to Mass. Rosaries and scapulars were not as common. If Mormons were able to appear less peculiar and to assimilate more into American culture, I think they could give up the “us vs. them” mentality that makes it difficult for them to break free from obedience to institutional authority. I am referring here to the odd (and seemingly arbitrary) dietary code, the restriction from R-rated movies, the “modesty” requirements necessitated by temple garment designs, and the strict moral code that engenders a feeling of paranoid scrupulosity (and necessitates that members report on themselves to see if something they’ve done is sinful or not).

Finally, I think the best analogy in Mormonism for the Catholic church’s movement away from “restricted access” toward “freer access” could be found in the requirements for access to the temple. Whereas in Catholicism the Eucharist is that most sacred thing that only the most worthy can experience, in Mormonism it is the temple. In Catholicism, the most access to the Divine is in the Sacraments, especially Holy Communion, which can only be administered by a priest and received by someone who is “in communion with the Church.” In Mormonism, the most access to the Divine is in the temple, which can only be accessed by “worthy” members. In the last century, the importance of complete purity to receive Holy Communion has declined significantly. The appropriate time to receive Communion is no longer only immediately following receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation (where your sins are forgiven after confessing). The problem in Mormonism is that, while Catholics never had to prove that they had gone to Confession to receive Communion, Mormons do have to provide proof that they have “passed the test,” and are worthy, in order to enter the temple. think the most plausible changes to accomplish a sense of more direct access to the Divine would be to lighten up the requirements for what makes a person “worthy” to enter the temple. For one, they should eliminate the required obedience to the Word of Wisdom, which quite clearly was not intended to be a “commandment,” but a “principle with a promise” anyway. Also to be eliminated are the questions regarding affiliation with anti-Mormon groups, and the one regarding tithe-paying. Those are the requirements that make the least sense, that impose arbitrary obedience and service to the institutional church through money and personal conduct. Questions of morality, honesty, and belief in the teachings of the church make a great deal more sense.(Footnote) Also, I would like to see them take a leaf out of the Catholic church’s book and make recommend interviews anonymous, as Reconciliation is in Catholicism. They could find a way to conduct the interview from behind a screen and give approval without knowing who is being interviewed (put the place for signature on the backside of the recommend so the church official doesn’t see the name on the front? They can have someone outside the door verify that you have your recommend and not anybody else’s before you go in for the interview). This eliminates the possibility of bias, as well as making the process a lot less intimidating and abusive. You should be able to go to your bishop for advice and counsel about personal problems without worrying how it’s going to affect your access to God in the temple. If this is the person you’re supposed to depend on for spiritual direction, then they should definitely not have the power to restrict your access to the temple, and subsequently, to heaven.

The Mormon theology of marriage relates to the restricted access to the Divine in the temple as well. Because Mormonism teaches that temple marriage is necessary for exaltation (i.e. salvation), access to the temple is necessary for salvation. Single people depend on the institutional church to give them permission to enter the temple if they want the “right” kind of marriage to gain exaltation. If perhaps there was less emphasis on the importance of marriage (since they already teach that anyone who isn’t married in this life can be married in the next by proxy anyway), then people would not feel the need to have access to the temple for salvation, and so would not even have to (or want to) try to meet the requirements for a temple recommend.

Final Thoughts

Mormonism today reminds me a great deal of what Catholicism was 50 years ago in the United States. There were a lot of problems in Catholicism back then. The authoritarian power structure was a breeding ground for institutionalized abuse that went completely unreported, unpunished, and unchecked, because of the idolization of priests and for the sake of the public face of the institutional church. Scrupulosity, guilt, and fear of eternal punishment were the predominant motivators in the faithful’s participation in Sacraments and obedience to the moral code. People were not encouraged to form their own conscience and think for themselves, but to memorize doctrinal teachings and obey the dictates of the clergy. Women and children were mentally and physically beaten into submitting to the patriarchal, hierarchical power structure. It is perhaps even more frightening that today, when racism and sexism are actively battled in schools and the media, that there still exists a “mainstream” religion that embraces the subjugation of women, the patriarchal 50’s happy family, and the nonsensical designation of stereotyped gender roles. And yet I find there is hope. Because if the Catholic church, which was so very determined to combat such “social evils” as feminism and the idea of a merciful God, can make such drastic changes, why can’t others?

Footnote:I think that more emphasis should also be given to obedience to one’s own conscience rather than institutional authority figures and publications. John Henry Cardinal Newman said that, if one has taken the time to form one’s conscience through personal study and reflection, then to do something in contradiction with one’s conscience, even if the Pope himself tells you to do it, would be a sin. So I personally think that the best thing to do would be to eliminate the interview altogether and give all members access to the temple, while perhaps restricting participation in temple rituals to those who have undergone a process of preparation (similar to how a person who is Catholic cannot receive the Sacrament of Confirmation without going through classes preparing them). But I chose to suggest only the most plausible changes above, because I still think eliminating those two would have a drastic effect on members’ dependence on the institutional church.

7 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Mormon Vatican II: Catholic Perspective

  1. I’m glad you found it interesting!

    I just had a thought too (I think I’ve said this before?): what a lot of this boils down to is the fear of excommunication. Both Catholics 50 years ago and Mormons today probably keep their opinions to themselves and their conduct in line because of the fear of being excommunicated from the institution they feels is their only means of salvation and eternal happiness.

    For Catholics that fear has basically gone away. Hardly anybody ever gets excommunicated anymore. But in the Mormon church, the strict local supervision of every single active member’s beliefs and conduct makes it easy to take disciplinary action, leading to excommunication. Inactive members are either left alone or encouraged to return, but if anybody is vocal about dissenting opinions, they’re more likely to be excommunicated.

    In Catholicism that’s just not true. I am obviously very vocal in my dissent against many doctrines in Catholicism, but there’s obviously been no “reporting” to local parish I belong to, or the diocese, or anybody.

    I think the American clergy just gave up trying to impose their authority over a free-thinking flock. Many priests and bishops didn’t think they should have that authority anyway, and the Catholic church gives enormous license to bishops to determine how Catholicism will be practiced in their diocese. A lot of “orthodox” Catholics believe that the USCCB has stepped way over the line, because of their progressive and liberal stance on a number of issues.

    • It’s so very true; the knowledge that local and higher-level leaders keep secret files on members (yes, that’s true and not paranoia) causes a lot of fear and anxiety. At the simplest level, these files consist of notations made on a member’s record regarding personal situation, misdeeds, how much they contribute, and their current standing with the church (active, inactive, temple-worthy, etc.) At a higher level, members “guilty” of various “transgressions” have extensive files maintained by the ever-secretive Strengthening the Members Committee. These activities are probably meant to appear as simple record-keeping to maintain order of a church with millions of members. But the practical effect is that LDS people know they are under surveillance and that things are being written about them behind closed doors. It’s creepy and has a chilling effect on discourse.

  2. This was an interesting read.

    I left the Catholic church in 1965 at the age of 20 when I was first on my own at college. The first wave of Vatican II reforms such as the vernacular mass were in place but from my perspective it felt as though little that wasn’t cosmetic had changed. More recently I’ve been to Catholic services and found them very much changed by the charismatic behaviors you noted.

    But I can’t agree that apart from high profile ceremonial duties any substantial power has changed hands. If it had I doubt it would have taken 2 generations for the complaints of sexual abuse to have made it this far — this far being national and international awareness rather than any systemic effort to eliminate it or properly apologize and compensate victims. We all know that Bernard Law still sits in a prestigious position within the Vatican while Benedict continues to protect known abusers who remain close to him. Payouts aside, this indicates to me a stubborn refusal to back away from abusive behavior despite the anger, betrayal and embarrassment that ordinary Catholics experience.

    I would also like to add that I have never heard of a Devotional Revolution. I will have to read more about it. It has always been my understanding that the number of vocations that occurred early in the 1900s and continuing into the mid-1900s had to do with 1) the mass immigration of Irish and Italian Catholics who had fewer employment opportunities in a new country turning to the church and 2) the Depression creating general joblessness that made the convent or rectory more attractive. Certainly that explained to me why I encountered so many religious in Catholic school who seemed to lack the selflessness that a vocation implied. My own experience was that the older religious, particularly the nuns, who would have entered into religious service during those times, were rather angry and bitter people who were only too happy to take it out on children. And I’m speaking about in-class activities such as corporal punishments and humiliations that went on well observed rather than whatever circumspect sexual acting out may have been going on elsewhere.

    • Indeed, when it comes to the higher positions of power, the laity have little say in what’s going on. But on the local, personal level, I would say that the individual has a great deal more power and authority in their own faith life than they had before. Whereas before families invited the parish priest to their home for meals, his advice was sought for nearly every decision, and people flocked to the confessional to be certain they were not in a state of mortal sin, today the average Catholic does not feel they need the local clergy’s approval for much of anything. As for the Charismatic Renewal, it wasn’t a universal movement. I know it was a big deal in my community because my parents were thoroughly involved in that kind of activities when I was growing up, but it didn’t take hold everywhere. And in many places its appeal quickly ebbed, though the idea that one could have a personal, unmediated relationship with God did not.

      But I should state that this is not coming from an expert, just the little bit I studied in college in preparation for a trip to Ireland where we studied and compared Irish and American Catholicism. I’m not a sociologist or a scholar of religion.

      Certainly you are correct about the increase in vocations – the Great Famine in Ireland occurred from about 1848-1850, and in that time half the population of Ireland either died or emigrated to the US. I believe the Irish immigration was the impetus for the Devotional Revolution. American Catholicism certainly has a distinctly Irish flavor because of the large population of Irish Catholics who immigrated.

  3. Very interesting post, thanks. I learned something more about the effects of Vatican 2. It’s a nice idea for the Mormon church, but I can’t see it happening. The General Authorities like their power too much and being “a peculiar people” means too much to Mormons for them to really push for change. (I’m a former Mormon.) I suppose that’s how the Catholic Church looked before Vatican 2 but I just can’t imagine it happening within Mormonism. They’re too convinced of their exceptionalism and how they’re really the one, true church — no, really! All of it’s made up mythology, like all religion, as far as I’m concerned. I’m all for freedom to believe whatever one wants, I’m just against any special legal status for one set of beliefs over another.

    • It took the Catholic Church a few hundred years after the Protestant Reformation before they finally instituted the changes they needed. All it took was one man: Pople John XXIII. There are a lot of Mormons who disagree with what’s being taught in services on Sunday (Mormon Expression did a podcast on Chapel vs. Internet Mormons: and if there were some sort of “council” in which those people were given a voice, I can definitely see these changes happening. I just don’t want to give up hope!

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