I recently attended a theological conference in Missouri. As I drove down a residential street near my childhood home I passed a house with a Notre Dame flag in the front yard. I was immediately seized by an almost overwhelming desire to stop the car, walk up to the house and introduce myself. It was as though I had found a long-lost cousin who I knew would be happy to see me. Most Notre Dame alumni will relate to what I was feeling. Once you’ve attended Notre Dame you forever feel a connection with and love for fellow alumni and for this great institution.
My experience is a bit different than that of most who have attended the University of Our Lady of the Lake. I’m a Mormon—a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Actually, I was reared Greek Orthodox, converted to Mormonism, then studied theology at a Catholic university and a Protestant seminary. It’s probably no surprise that I ended up teaching world religions for a living. I suppose Clement of Alexandria would refer to me as a _stromateis_—a patchwork of sorts. I’ve been influenced by many traditions and many approaches to God and religion.
When I enrolled at Notre Dame in 1993 I fully expected to have my head filled with new and unfamiliar ideas—most of which I would probably disagree with. Oh sure, I knew the Mormons and the Catholics had some common ground. Both believe in the Bible; both have a single leader over the worldwide church, a pope at the head of one and a prophet at the head of the other; both have been labeled as “non-Christian” by some mean-spirited, non-mainstream evangelical groups. These were broad similarities, however. When it came to specifics, I was certain that there would be little, if any, common ground. That’s not at all what happened.
The first sense I had that my perceptions of post-Vatican II Catholic theology were skewed was when I began to read the textbooks for my first semester courses. Over and over I kept running across references to the early Christian doctrine of theosis or deification. While Mormons have always resonated with this teaching—hence our nickname, “The Godmakers”—I had never heard of a Catholic touting theosis as sound theology. Yet there it was in my required texts (Rahner, von Balthasar, LaCugna, Kung, etc.)—and there we were talking about it in class as though it was as orthodox as belief in the sacrament of baptism. No, I didn’t find Catholics advocating that they were all going to become gods (with a small “g"). But there was clearly a sense that Catholic scholars acknowledged the existence of the doctrine of theosis in the Bible and patristic writings. Whether or not most contemporary Roman Catholics thought about such things, I was sensing that there was something there; some connection to LDS soteriology—the study of salvation—that caught me totally off guard.
A second surprise came when the doctrine of baptism of desire was introduced in one of my courses. I’ll forever remember a Sunday-school lesson I had as a 12-year-old Greek Orthodox boy, in which I was told that infants who died without baptism would go to hell—not limbo, hell! We were actually taught that morning how to perform an “emergency baptism”—just in case an Orthodox priest was not available to administer to an infant whose life was in jeopardy. The Greek Orthodox traditionally baptize by immersion, but our teacher told us “sprinkling will due in an emergency such as this.” Then she added, as a passing thought, “If you can’t find any water, spit on the dying child three times—once in the name of the Father, once in the name of the Son, and once in the name of the Holy Spirit.” I can’t tell you how many times I secretly hoped I would have reason to use this new-found “emergency” authority.
The memory of that discussion has always stuck with me. I thought it curious that a just God would damn an infant for not getting baptized when he had not the power to make the choice. Because I had heard so much about limbo—a teaching today most American Catholics reject—I was surprised when I learned that, from the Council of Trent (A.D. 1545–63) onward, the Catholic Church has taught that individuals who don’t receive the sacrament of baptism can still be saved by the “desire” or votum of baptism. I resonated with this, not only because I see God as loving and fair but also because this seemed to parallel an idea in Latter-day Saint soteriology: “All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom” (Doctrine and Covenants, 137:7-8). Again, contemporary Catholic theology was not quite as I had expected.
The Holy Trinity
One of the biggest shocks to my theological equilibrium had to do with the contemporary scholarly Catholic approach to the Holy Trinity. Most of us would have to admit—whether we’re Catholic, Protestant, LDS or some other denomination—that the Trinity throws many Christians for a loop. As an undergrad I remember running across this statement by R.J Joynt: “Consciousness is like the Trinity; if it is explained so that you understand it, it hasn’t been explained correctly.” Who doesn’t resonate with this? Frankly, efforts of the laity to explain the Trinity are frequently misrepresentative of official church teachings. However, what surprised me as a theology student was not how the Trinity was defined but how frequently and openly its development was discussed.
Mormons have traditionally held that the nature of God, as given in the Bible, has been reinterpreted over time into what most Christians would today refer to as the Holy Trinity. I always assumed that Catholic scholars held that the Trinity was biblically based—something Jesus taught and believed. Although I had believed Trinitarian definitions of the nature of God were of post-biblical origins, I nearly fell out of my chair when my assigned readings and my professors indicated that this doctrine was a post-Christian development that would have been foreign to those of New Testament times. I’m not implying that contemporary Catholics and Mormons would see eye-to-eye on the nature of God or which formulaic explanations would best (or most accurately) describe His nature. But I think both Catholic and LDS scholars would agree on the evolution that has taken place—and we would basically agree on how early Christianity saw God as opposed to how modern Christians see Him today.
I could go on regarding doctrinal epiphanies I had and theological similarities I was taught during my time at Notre Dame. Suffice it to say, Catholics and Mormons are not as far apart on major theological issues as I once thought—and I would venture to guess that most Mormons and most Catholics would be surprised to learn of the similarities we share.
So something happened to me at Notre Dame. I was changed by it—as all who attend are. But I was changed in a different way; perhaps in a way only a non-Catholic could be. And in a way a Mormon would never expect to be. Among other things, during my time in South Bend I developed a deep and abiding love for Catholicism and its people. It was under the Golden Dome and while walking the halls; it was during discussions in the classrooms and amid research conducted in the library that I found the beginnings of the spirit of ecumenism which exists within me today.
A conversation I had with another graduate student—a nun—is indelibly engraved on my memory and soul. Speaking of a lecture given the previous evening she began to heavily criticize John Paul II—not for some specific position he held but because she loathed the man. Suddenly I found myself coming to his defense—not only supportive of many of his positions but of who he was as a human being. Partway through the conversation I was struck with the irony of the situation—a Mormon, at Notre Dame, defending the pope against a Catholic nun. I now see that odd exchange as evidence of the love I developed for the Catholic tradition.
Today I teach world religions at Brigham Young University. Along with about 12 other religions, I spend time each semester discussing Roman Catholicism. Again, probably because of my time at Notre Dame, Catholicism has become one of my favorite subjects to teach. To borrow a phrase from Krister Stendahl (former dean of Harvard Divinity School and former Lutheran Archbishop of Stockholm), I’ve developed a bit of “holy envy” for the Catholic church, its rites and its history. My time at Notre Dame strengthened my love for, and faith in, my own tradition. It also instilled in me a great love for Catholicism—and a desire for ecumenical connections and dialogue between Catholics and Latter-day Saints, because we are more similar that most of us know.
One of my colleagues at BYU is wont to quote Saint Augustine: “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Because of my time in South Bend I’ve come to really believe this principle. I’ll forever be grateful for my days at Notre Dame.
Alonzo L. Gaskill can be reached at email@example.com.