Oct 2, 2008

Pope vs. Prophet

Now that I've finished reading The Bible For Dummies, I've moved on to Catholicism For Dummies. Last night as I was reading about papal infallibility, I was doing a mental comparison of Catholic Pope vs. Mormon Prophet and on a few points, it was hard to tell them apart.

Many Mormons would answer "no" when asked whether the prophet is infallible like the pope. They will tell you that comparing the pope to the prophet is inaccurate and I thought I agreed, especially after reading this interesting essay by FARMS (Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research) entitled "What Is Official LDS Doctrine?" Regarding infallibility, it says:

{Infallible means “incapable of erring.” While Catholic’s believe that the Pope is infallible in matters of doctrine, and while some Protestants believe that the Bible is “infallible,” Latter-day Saints do not believe that Prophets—neither past nor present—are infallible. President Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency, for example, once wrote: “We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President has claimed infallibility.}

But now I'd like to quote a bit from Catholicism For Dummies, which is written by Rev. John Trigilio Jr., PhD, ThD and the President of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy (in other words, I consider it to be a reliable source). My personal thoughts are in bold:

{Catholicism maintains that the pope is infallible, incapable of error, when he teaches a doctrine on faith or morals to the universal Church in his unique office as supreme head. When the pope asserts his official authority in matters of faith and morals to the whole church, the Holy Spirit guards him from error. Papal infallibility doesn't mean that the pope can't make any mistakes. He's not infallible in scientific, historical, political, philosophical, geographic, or any other matters -- just faith and morals. It boils down to trust. Catholics trust that the Holy Spirit protects them from being taught or being forced to believe erroneous doctrines by preventing a pope from issuing them. Whether it's as subtle as getting him to change his mind to as drastic as striking him dead, in any event, Catholics firmly believe that God loves them and loves the truth so much that he would intervene and prevent a pope from imposing a false teaching upon the whole Church. It doesn't mean that personally and individually the pope is free from all error. He could privately be wrong just so long as he doesn't attempt to impose or teach that error to the universal Church, because the Holy Spirit would somehow stop him from doing so.

Everything the sacred authors wrote in the Bible is inspired, but not everything every pope says or writes is infallible. Infallibility means that if the pope attempts to teach a false doctrine on faith or morals, the Holy Spirit prevents him (even by death) from imposing such an error on the faithful. So, for example, no pope can declare, "As of today, the number of commandments is nine instead of ten." Nor can he declare, "Jesus was not a man" or "Jesus was not the Son of God."

(Doesn't this sound familiar? Mormons believe that the prophet, only when acting as prophet, will never say or do anything that will lead them astray and if he tried to do so, he will be removed, even if it means being struck dead by God.)

Infallibility also doesn't mean perfect. Infallible statements aren't perfect statements, so they can be improved so that subsequent popes can use better or more accurate language. Yet infallible statements can never be contradicted, rejected, or refuted. (In other words, how most orthodox Mormons seem to regard doctrine in the LDS Church.)

So according to Catholicism, an immoral pope (you'll find several in Church history) can sin like any man and will answer to God for his evil deeds. However, as supreme head of the Church, the pope retains his infallibility on matters of faith and morals as long as he remains pope.

(Does not Mormonism make the same allowance for prophets who sin in their personal lives and yet are incapable of leading us astray in matters of Church doctrine?)

No pope in 2000 years has formally and officially taught an error of faith or morals to the universal Church. (Do not most Mormons claim the same of their prophets? Most maintain that the prophet has always taught true and correct doctrine and principles, even the ones that are hard to accept such as polygamy and the priesthood ban.) Individually, some may have been poor or inadequate theologians or philosophers, and some may have had erroneous ideas about science. That has nothing to do with papal infallibility, however because the main objective is to preserve the integrity of Catholic faith for all the members at all times and in all places.}

Once again from the FARMS essay:

{Joseph Smith understood that he was fallible when he wrote:
“A prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” On another occasion he said: “I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times.” He also declared: “I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect..."}

Joseph seemed to recognize his infallibilities as a man. But did he think he was infallible when he was acting as prophet? And do we?

So, call me dense, but what's the difference between the Mormon prophet and the Catholic pope when it comes to leading and guiding their respective churches? If I am to believe what the Mormon majority says, it sounds to me like a prophet who is "acting as such" is pretty darn infallible when it comes to not leading the Church astray. And yet they will tell you that he isn't.

So which one is it?


the narrator said...

I have thought and written much about this subject. In Mormonism there is no 'doctrine' of prophetic infallibility, but there is certainly a culture of prophetic infallibility. By this I mean that there will be few Latter-day Saints that would claim that a prophet is infallible, however if a particular statement by a current President of the Church is brought to question, most Latter-day Saints would quickly espouse some sort of claim of infallibility.

Joseph Smith famously said in reference to a failed revelation, "Some revelations come from God, some from man, and some from the devil." Perhaps a prophet when acting as a prophet of God will never lead the Church astray, but that of course begs the question of when and how we may objectively know that he is speaking as a prophet of God.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"In Mormonism there is no 'doctrine' of prophetic infallibility, but there is certainly a culture of prophetic infallibility."

I think you're right. So much of what is deemed to be "Mormonism" is based on culture rather than theology. And sometimes I think you need to be a rocket scientist to distinguish between the two.

"Perhaps a prophet when acting as a prophet of God will never lead the Church astray, but that of course begs the question of when and how we may objectively know that he is speaking as a prophet of God."

And that's the problem. How do we know? Take the manuals that we use in RS and Priesthood, for example. They may be full of excellent teachings, but I don't believe, for the most part, that they contain official doctrine. But to question anything in those manuals would be viewed as heretical or apostate by most Mormons.

Mormon Heretic said...


I posted on this a while back at http://www.mormonheretic.org/2008/02/12/similarites-between-papal-infallibility-and-mormon-prophetic-infallibility/

Mormons believe that prophets are infallible in regards to revelation/inspiration. I disagree, and can use our little debate about blacks and the priesthood as showing where Brigham Young erred on the priesthood ban. I know my stance makes many uncomfortable, but I just don't believe anyone is infallible, whether they are catholic or mormon

Incognito_one said...

Hello, I am new to the dissident/heretical world of Mormonism. I just recently left the church. I never believed it was true because it made me feel good. It made me feel good when I believed it was true.

The moment that I lost my testimony was when I read the letter from Bruce R. McConkie to Eugene England stating that Brigham Young taught false doctrine.

Over the next year, I sought understanding. I spoke with 3 bishops, 2 Institute instructors (one that was more apostate than I was at the time) and at least 40 friends and family members. I was never given a good answer from any one of them on one seemingly simple question: Once I start disbelieving some of their words, why should I believe any of them? If Brigham will shoot his mouth of about Adam being God and even put it in the temple, why should I believe any of it? A man that is supposed to be the mouthpiece for God doesn't even know who God is? This 'false doctrine' was put in the temple, the holiest place on earth? The whole thing becomes a game of peek-a-boo or duck-duck-goose. "Man....man......man....... PROPHET!...man...man...man." "Hey! I caught you!" "No you didn't. I was a man, not a prophet."

This is not the only reason why I left, but it was the start of a long study of church history and seeing how ridiculous the whole thing was. False Doctrine, Book of Abraham, Changed Revelations to have opposite meanings, Relations with girls before even having the sealing power...the list is extensive. It is all so frustrating! I thought that the history would vindicate the church and the prophets, but it has done the exact opposite. Now my heroes are people like Sarah Pratt, Martha Brotherton and William Law.

Sorry if this was an unwelcome contribution.

Mormon Heretic said...


So I'm just curious if you are atheist, have found another religious tradition, or what your current status is.

I have a question for you. While I believe prophets can err, does that mean it is wise to throw out everything they say? I just did a post on Abraham, and am curious to your reaction to him.

In another conversation I had with Andrew, he was talking about how gravity is a Truth. As you know, gravity was discovered by Newton, who created Newtonian physics. It has always been assumed that Newton's laws of motion were correct all the time. Yet when Einstein came along, Newton's laws didn't apply anymore in the theory of Relativity. Does that mean we throw out all of Newton's laws of motion, because they've now been proven false for some applications?

christa said...

There was a question about distinguishing between prophet and pope. You don't need to be a rocket scientist. Just pray. The difference is that only one of these men were called by God to speaker for Him. It's always been that way. I know the Church is true and God wants me here, because no matter how hard I tried to deny His existence He kept bringing missionaries and great feelings to me. It came a time when I just couldn't deny it anymore. And our books and even the Ensign are doctrine. They are essentially our modern day scriptures. We will always have so many questions, just like children often do, and that's why I'm so happy I found the truth and I will never be lost again. I was so confused before, but now when I feel that way I just ask our Father, and He takes care of me. He's has taken VERY good care of me my whole life, but even more so the last two years I've been a member. He's blessed my family so much too. I'm sorry for people who lose their testimony. Remember why you joined in the first place. And yes there is some really weird things about the Church and teachings. But that's every church, every institution and every science. Just look at the news and documentaries and see the crazy stuff they're shoving in front of our faces. Some true and some not. Some "scientific facts" change but the Lord is the same yesterday,today and always, and of that we can be sure. And I pray for you all that you will ponder these things and pray about them just as I do often. I leave this with you in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Gar-bear said...

The main reason I hesitate when people say "so the prophet is like a Mormon pope" is that we believe it really comes down to authority. The catholic church claims that they have had authority this whole time even during the crusades and while selling both the papacy as well as indulgances for sin. The Latter-Day Saints believe the authority was lost with the death of the Apostles and then restored. I don't like to say the prophet is like the pope only because I do not believe the pope has authority to speak in God's name, but the prophet does. So yes, we do put our faith in the things the prophet says, but as Christa mentioned in her comment, it comes down to prayer. God does answer and he promises "by their fruits ye shall know them".

Anonymous said...

The whole idea that the apostles were killed right after Christ ressurected is hard to swallow. So Jesus gave a commandment to the apostles to spread his word only to have His authority destroyed by man. Man did try to rebell against His church (during the protestant rebellion) but slowly the Church established by him has been able to recover.

Anonymous said...

Sorry if I sounded harsh. I was just doing a bit of investigation on the church. But I should have been more respectful on the beliefs of others