“The Roman Catholic Church and the Latter-day Saints (LDS) are working together as never before,” was the message from Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square and at Brigham Young University, where I recently delivered an address. Because it places the LDS church within mainstream American religious ecumenism, this cooperation might be a bigger deal for the Mormons than for Catholics. The skeptic suspects this might be only a tactical alliance by bishops anxious to campaign against same-sex marriage with the efficiency of the LDS Church that spent millions for California’s Proposition 8. Such motives aside, Mormons have a lot to teach Catholics about emphasizing marriage as a God-given vocation.
Such was not always the case. Catholics are not going to believe that Joseph Smith in the early 19th Century was given a new scriptural revelation in the Book of Mormon. Moreover, the LDS doesn’t talk about polygamy in its past anymore than Catholics today talk about clerical pedophilia. But the promise of a successful marriage is central to the Mormon message. It was a key in the 19th Century — despite the shadows cast by polygamy — and it remains a basis for LDS success today. It is as if 150 years of aging has produced a fine wine.
Temple Square is a prominent piece of the city dominated by the church’s key buildings. It does not have the feel of St. Peter’s in Rome, and is more like a mall in an fashionable suburb. At every turn, a core of volunteers dressed in suit and tie for men and “Sunday best” for women offer cheerful service for information or touring. And patrolling every corridor in pairs are willowy twenty-something-old women whose beaming smiles and unalloyed sincerity seem taken from a Disney movie. Wearing dresses that cover their calves and flat shoes, in Brooklyn these women might be taken for Orthodox Jews. In Temple Square they are walking advertisements for wholesomeness, constancy and old-fashioned virtue. A person my age gets to thinking, “That’s the kind of woman I’d like as a daughter-in-law!”
(Read more about Mormon beliefs at Patheos.com)
In Catholic America, I fear, we don’t advertise often enough that the Sacrament of Marriage is a vocation. While the LDS and a host of Protestant churches function as places to meet “good wives” and “reliable husbands” for believers seeking worthy marriage partners, Catholic churches pray more often for celibate vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Certainly, celibacy is an essential gift to the church and should be maintained, but there are far more Catholics who are married than those who are celibate. If we need priests to function as Christ’s Church, we also need married people to fill the pews and take on lay ministries. (We could also restore married priests, but that is another issue).
The USCCB is paying attention and in 2009 issued the pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”. The document states that marriage is “the union of one man and one woman” a curious, but apparently conscious repetition of the current phraseology used by public Mormon figures like Mitt Romney. While the letter has been criticized as overly focused on the negatives about marriage today, few can argue with the framing of the issue by Archbishop Dolan of New York “We have a vocation crisis to lifelong, life-giving, loving, faithful marriage. If we take care of that one, we’ll have all the priests and nuns we need for the Church.”
How to “take care” of marriage is the real challenge. Church weddings are diminishing today. Sometimes people living together for years seek the altar more for the photos than for doctrine. Push too much and you drive them to marriage venues like beach fronts and sky-diving. A theology-heavy document comes up short, especially when “it reads as if it was written by someone who has never once engaged in a marriage preparation program, let alone actually ever been married.” The creation of media-savvy videos might help but as the LDS Church demonstrates, there is no substitute for personal example. Catholic America just completed a Year of the Priest: isn’t it time for a Year of the Married Catholic?