Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Joseph Ratzinger, Joseph Smith and where the buck stops

This whole blow-up in the Roman Catholic church gets uglier and stranger every day. Not a lot of people are blogging about this because it is such a horrifying situation. What do you say about a decades long string of abuses involving children? Words really fail to capture the grotesque horror of the situation and we over use words like “tragedy” and “atrocity” to the point that they don’t do justice to what has and is happening.

So what does the scandal over pedophilia cover-up in the Roman Catholic church have to do with mormonism? Not much in the scandal itself but plenty in the reactions by the faithful. We are seeing a full court press to deflect blame away from Joseph Ratzinger all over Catholicism. From angry sermons to editorials, Roman apologists are out in full force to blame anyone or everyone except Joseph Ratzinger. To hear some of the defenders, Ratzinger is the victim here and the accusations are part of some sort of plot to fell Rome. Already several underlings have fallen on their swords but the media is on this like a pit bull. For Roman Catholics, the “pope” is the successor of Peter and the false notion of an “unbroken line of succession” from Peter to whoever is riding in the Popemobile today is vital for maintaining the illusion of absolute authority. They have little choice but to defend him.

The same thing occurs in mormonism on a smaller scale. As a mormon you simply must defend at all costs the character of Joseph Smith and the other “prophets”. Smith claimed a pretty exalted position for himself and his place in the “church” he founded is of paramount importance. If you can’t believe Smith, mormonism falls apart. If you recognize that Joseph Smith is a man who made mistakes, it makes it hard to trust everything he said on face value. When you start to look into his myriad character flaws and outright sinful behavior, his whole story becomes suspect. Smith’s wanton abuse of his position as “prophet” provided him with the means to gather a harem of “wives” who were willing to suffer the ignominy of being a polygamous consort because Smith was the prophet. People accepted and still accept what was clear infidelity on his part because they believed him to be a prophet and like the men who declare themselves the pope with the keys to the only true priesthood, they have the power to forgive or condemn. To oppose the Roman pope or the mormon prophet is to put your soul in jeopardy, so you just swallow hard and look the other way.

So I see a lot of similarities between the two organizations (strict hierarchy, emphasis on sole authority to interpret Scripture, a claim to a unique priesthood, powerful leadership centralized in one man) and I also see a lot of similarities between the manner that the leader of each organization is treated. Granted, Smith’s sinful behavior was more direct but Ratzinger oversees a far bigger and older institution.

Whether you declare yourself to be the “Pope”, take on titles like “Holy Father” and “Vicar of Christ”, claim infallibility over all matters of faith and practice and allow men to kiss your ring or whether you declare that you have seen God face to face, name yourself the “Prophet of the Restoration” and in one fell swoop declare that you are rewriting the Bible and remaking God in your image, you are setting yourself up as the place the buck stops. You don’t get to hide behind surrogates.

The Bible paints a very different picture from the hierarchical, man-centered and authoritarian churches we see in Salt Lake City and Rome. Roman Catholicism and mormonism are means by which men can control other men. The Church as described in the Bible is a means for Christians to submit to and serve one another. When a Christian leader stumbles into error and sin, the church can enact restorative discipline because the Christian church is not based on one fallible man for leadership. There can be no discipline for a pope or a prophet because he is the church.

The differences couldn’t be more stark.