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Vatican Will Not Accept Mormon Baptisms
Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2001
The Roman Catholic Church declared Thursday that Mormon converts must be rebaptized, a setback to the Mormon Church's effort to characterize itself as a Christian denomination.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith declared that baptisms in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are "not the baptism that Christ instituted."
The ruling was a departure from the Catholic Church's usual practice of recognizing the baptisms of converts from most other churches. The Vatican held that the Mormon view of the nature of God was too different from Catholicism's.
It was the second time in as many years that a major Christian church had ruled that Mormon converts must be rebaptized. Last year, the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, took a similar stand.
Despite its distinctive doctrines, the 11-million-member Latter-day Saints church has worked hard to cast itself as part of the American mainstream in this country and as a legitimate Christian church in developing countries where its missionaries are winning converts.
Its emphasis on family values, citizenship and living a virtuous life has been a major factor in its growing acceptance.
Over its history, the church has given up some of its more controversial practices. To gain statehood, Mormon-dominated Utah outlawed polygamy in 1890. In the aftermath of the U.S. civil rights struggle, the church dropped its bar to blacks becoming Mormon priests in 1978. But it has never been accepted as an authentically Christian church by other churches, even as they admire the dedication and good works of its members.
Religious scholar Jan Shipps said the Catholic decision will likely be a letdown for Latter-day Saints.
"In the mainstreaming of themselves, they've talked about themselves as Christians. They have emphasized Christianity in their internal materials. They've got their own people calling themselves Christians as opposed to calling themselves Mormons," she said.
Dan Wotherspoon, editor of Sunstone Magazine, an independent journal of Mormon life and issues published in Salt Lake City, said, "Clearly, the LDS church still has their work cut out for them in this effort to be known as a Christian church."
In Salt Lake City, Latter-day Saints spokesmen sought to minimize the importance of the Catholic decision, or its possible effect on efforts by the church to present itself as a Christian church.
"We are neither concerned nor offended that the Catholic Church has determined not to recognize Latter-day Saint baptisms," church spokesman Michael Otterson said Thursday. He noted that converts to the Mormon faith must be rebaptized.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said from now on all Mormon converts will be baptized as if for the first time. He stressed that the decision "in no way is to be considered any kind of judgment about the relationship between Jesus Christ and members of the Church of Latter-day Saints."
He added that the new baptism rule would have no effect on ecumenical cooperation with Latter-day Saints.
"We continue to share beliefs in the strength and importance of the family and a number of life issues. We'll continue to work in those areas as we do with other faiths that don't share our particular beliefs," Tamberg said.
In Rome, the Vatican congregation indicated that radically different theological views of God and Jesus Christ necessitated the rebaptism of Mormon converts.
The congregation said that the Catholic Church could not accept Mormon belief that "God the father had a wife, the Celestial Mother, with whom he procreated Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit."
Shipps, a member of the United Methodist Church, said the effort in recent years to underscore the church's Christianity is actually a return to its historic claims as the restored church of Jesus Christ.
That underlying Christian faith claim, she said, was eclipsed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Mormon temple rituals and other doctrines were stressed.