When directly asked by Mormon friends and family members (yep, I’ve got LDS folks in my family), I have been privately critical of the LDS church’s support of the Utah legislature’s “compromise” on “discrimination” and religious freedom last spring. I think the church, from a position of strength, conceded far too much by supporting the legislature’s use of dubious psychological concepts such as “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” in state anti-discrimination law. Perhaps church leaders thought the legislation adequately shielded all the LDS church’s functions and ministries from the purview of the new law. That remains to be seen. But in any event, the church gave its support to a dubious new law that will undoubtedly have an adverse and unjust impact on some private employers whom it counts among the faithful.
I was also mildly disappointed with LDS Elder Dallin Oaks’s recent statement that was widely understood to be critical of the Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis. Oaks, a distinguished jurist and scholar of religious freedom whom I have had the pleasure of meeting, is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and so it garnered a lot of attention when he said that “officials [who] take an oath to support the constitution and laws of their jurisdiction” are not “free to use their official position to further their personal beliefs—religious or otherwise—to override the law.” I agree with him—if in fact the official in question is directly subject to the law’s strictures by order of a court. As I understand the situation, however, Kim Davis was not attempting to “override the law” in Kentucky. She never sought nor intended to deny marriage licenses to anyone legally entitled to them. She sought only to avoid, on grounds of Christian conscience, being personally implicated in the granting to same-sex couples of marriage licenses that had her own name affixed to them. The last I heard, that situation has more or less resolved itself for now, but Kentucky’s legislature and its new governor (a vocal supporter of Ms. Davis’s cause) should address the problem more systematically.
The Utah compromise, and the conference address by Elder Oaks, have led some to think that Latter-Day Saints teaching was about to undergo some kind of evolution on the question of same-sex marriage. But the latest out of Salt Lake City has surely disabused them of this. The church announced a few days ago that its Handbook used by the lay clergy of the church, called bishops and stake presidents, was now revised to say that married or cohabiting same-sex couples are to be understood as apostates. Hence any children in their custody are not to be blessed, baptized, confirmed, or ordained at the customary ages during childhood and adolescence when these religious milestones are usually marked. They may only enter into full communion with the LDS church as adults, no longer in the custody of their apostate parents, and only by virtue of affirming their faith in the principles their parents reject.
The reaction to this announcement has been about what you’d expect—loud and unhinged, perhaps most of all from people who might be called the “Kasperites” of the LDS church. This requires children to betray their parents! It treats the children themselves as tainted! No and no, as an LDS blogger patiently explains. The Mormon church has always treated homosexual relations as wrongful conduct, and already classed them with fornication and adultery as offenses calling for discipline. But now that same-sex marriage is considered legal, the church’s leaders wanted to clarify that a marriage license cures nothing about the relationship. To the contrary, it evinces an obstinate devotion to sinning against the church’s teaching—to knowingly rejecting that teaching, hence meeting the definition of apostasy. (The strictures will extend to the cohabiting as well as the legally married, a fact one hopeful liberal commentator seems to have missed. This is not a merely formal legalism at work here.)
Thinking this through with considerable sympathy for the LDS leadership, it occurred to me that we Catholics might reflect more seriously on what is really required of us with respect to baptism, especially of infants. The sacrament of baptism, the Catechism (1213) tells us, “is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments.” The default position of the Church, as it were, is to baptize, not to refuse baptism.
And yet. The Catechism does say (1254) that an infant’s godparents—and surely by implication his or her parents too—“must be firm believers, able and ready to help the newly baptized . . . on the road of Christian life.” Would a pastor knowingly offer baptism in a case where a child’s parents and godparents were known to reject the beliefs of the Catholic faith? According to the Code of Canon Law, it seems he should not: “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.”
It seems that on this score, Catholics and Mormons are not so far apart. The common idea is to defend the teachings of the faith, by demanding that adults responsible for the upbringing of children actually believe in those teachings if they wish to bring the children within the church’s embrace. Otherwise, the children will have to solicit that embrace themselves, when they are able and willing to do so as adults. The souls of both generations are at stake, which suggests the appropriate gravity of both churches’ determinations.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, professor emeritus of political science at Radford University, and visiting lecturer in politics at Princeton University.