LDS Institutional Integrity and the Lesson of the Great and Abominable Church

On the day President Russell M. Nelson was given audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, I encountered a Latter-day Saint pointing at the Catholic Church and accusing it of being “the great and abominable church” condemned by the Book of Mormon. This she called doctrine.

This coupling of the Catholic religion with the great and abominable church has rankled me throughout my forty years of adult membership. As a convert from Catholicism, I maintain respect for the good people and positive aspects of my former faith. But that’s not why. The claim is the ideological equivalent of a sickly inbred descendant. The amorous ancestors aren’t cousins, but Institutional Integrity and Sleight of Hand.  That’s harsh, I know, but I think fair. To demonstrate, it’s important to identify how wrong ideas have taken root in our religious culture. For this example, Step 1 must be a brief recap of the history of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine.

Bookcraft published Mormon Doctrine in 1958. The first edition maintained the infamously harsh tone that McConkie, unchecked, was known for, but it also classed many of his opinions as doctrine, not the least of which was the claim that Catholicism is the great and abominable church. Though he wasn’t the first church leader to make the claim, his inclusion of it in an encyclopedia titled “Mormon Doctrine” cast the die for modern generations.

Most members aren’t aware that, in January 1960, after a review of Mormon Doctrine was completed, then-president of the church, David O. McKay, requested McConkie not republish it because it contained over 1,000 errors. (You read that right.) In 1961, Mormon Doctrine was republished, but with hundreds of changes (some only weak compromises). Eventually, Deseret Book acquired the title and it remained a top seller for decades. Unfortunately, the damage had been done, and the false notion that the Catholic Church is, according to doctrine, the great and abominable church had rooted in the minds of many modern LDS.

In the decades since the first edition’s appearance, the Brethren have worked tirelessly to develop a positive relationship with the Vatican, and this week, they reap a temple in Rome.

There are important lessons here, like you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. But I see another crucial lesson: apostles do sometimes wrongly elevate their opinion to the level of doctrine. McKay rebuked McConkie privately, but neither he nor McConkie informed the general membership that much of what they read in the first edition of Mormon Doctrine wasn’t canonical.

As a result, this week, there are parents telling their children that the Lord is scoring a victory over the great and abominable Catholic Church by dedicating a temple so near the Vatican. A public statement in 1961 would’ve eliminated this error and likely helped Mormon-Catholic relations across the past several decades. It might’ve brought us a Rome temple much sooner.

But President McKay desired to save face for Elder McConkie. He is quoted as saying to Joseph Fielding Smith, “Now, Brother Smith, [Elder McConkie] is a General Authority, and we do not want to give him a public rebuke that would be embarrassing to him and lessen his influence with the members of the Church…”

Many LDS will see a kind intent here and appreciate it. We’re nice people. But “when we undertake to cover our sins [or mistakes, or missteps], or to gratify our pride [or the pride of our fellow leaders], our vain ambition [to be thought well of], or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion [or their enabler, misdirection] upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved…” (D&C 121: 37).

The only way I see to suggest harmony between President McKay’s choice and this verse in the D&C is to suggest that President McKay’s decision had zero degree of unrighteousness. But if it had been faultless, the fruit it produced would’ve been sweet. Instead, his choice reaped confusion and wrong-headedness that has hurt members of two churches.

President McKay succumbed to the temptation of dishonesty by omission, and then he justified his decision as a way to promote the cause of Christ. Humans will do this. You’ve probably done this. I’ve probably done this. But it’s wrong. And saying it’s wrong shouldn’t be wrongfully classed as an act against either the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or God. Recognition is part of repentance.

And our religious culture, comprised of individual members and leaders, is guilty of putting the image of the Church ahead of humility and its requisite transparency. In practice, Mormon culture has skewed the meaning of integrity.

Integrity rightly means an existence free of division, or with wholeness, so someone with personal integrity doesn’t compartmentalize aspects of his life but lives so that all sides of him harmonize. For a man to have integrity, he must develop the humility to admit error and the fortitude to correct himself. Only in this way can he be free of those hidden compartments.

When a man ascends to high leadership in the Church, he dedicates his life to institutional integrity. It’s debatable whether or not an institution is capable of integrity, considering it isn’t a conscious being but a thing. Regardless, Mormon institutional integrity wears the ill-fitted idea that leaders must show one face on everything—from theology to policy—in order to affect the unity of Father and Son and, thereby, maintain the trust of members.

But conformity is the counterfeit of unity. There can be no institutional integrity when an institution’s governing body is comprised of men who voluntarily forfeit their personal integrity to maintain it, or to illusorily win the confidence of members.

I think about all the years Russell M. Nelson tolerated Presidents Hinckley’s and Monson’s casual use of the word “Mormon” and stifled his own moral compass, pretending agreement for the public. It must have been difficult for him.

It’s difficult for all of us when personal integrity perishes on the alter of institutional integrity. Decades later, we are still battling certain ill-conceived ideas of an apostle because those who lead—and those who follow—have accepted the sleight of hand which substitutes conformity for unity.

Every lovely portrait—be it of man or God—is painted with many colors, sometimes with hues from opposite sides of the color wheel. True unity—the kind blessed by the Divine—isn’t the absence of opposite opinion, but the presence of them, integrated with complementary respect and grace.

~ ~ ~

For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. (Luke 12: 2, 3)

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12 thoughts on “LDS Institutional Integrity and the Lesson of the Great and Abominable Church

  1. Eric

    This sounds like all the members who insist that members have an obligation to oppose “socialism” and liberalism because Ezra Taft Benson insisted it. In fact, when I tried to point out all the times that other (often more senior) apostles objected to Elder Benson teaching his political positions as doctrine, a more right wing member insisted that we still needed to take his political positions as doctrine because he wasn’t _publicly_ rebuked for them. :-/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh my! Then there is the topic of conformity among members being mistaken for “in tuneness”.

      Just this week, a fellow ward member, from the pulpit, reminded the congregants that, for ward unity to flourish, we ought remember that the good people in our congregation are both Republicans and Democrats (among other points). Move into the second hour meetings and another ward member condemned socialists as not understanding the word of God.

      I might’ve chuckled. The humaning is strong.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Eric

        Oh gosh, reminds me of some article on LDS Living I commented on, and it got political, and then someone responded to my comment by accusing me of being a socialist and a Democrat, implying that they were the same thing. I replied that I might, in fact, be a socialist, and I have no problem if I am, but I am most certainly _not_ a Democrat – I was registered Green at the time and I indicated as such. This person then replied that the Green Party were merely enablers for the Democrats (even though both the Democrats and the Greens would certainly disagree – and that may be the only thing they agree on), and that therefore, I was out of harmony with the gospel and the church.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Eric LaRue

      Funny enough, I just recently read a post on a Facebook thread that seemed to suggest that Elder Benson _was_ publicly rebuked in several General Conference talks – just not by name.

      Like

  2. Thank you for this! You treat two big angles of the problem that really need to be addressed. Cover-ups are *not* godly, and they perpetuate bad behavior. And the “great and abominable church” idea has been around for so, SO long… its most recent iteration I’m aware of is, “well, they had to walk it back because PR, but *wink, wink, nudge, nudge*.” Time to be DONE with that enmity, for literally God’s sake.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Wally

    Yes, conformity and unity are not the same. But we should also be aware that unity is not always right or good. A group of fallible men can be united over an incorrect principle or an untruth.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Why do I suspect you’d like to mention the unity of the pharisees? Yes, there’s *that problem.

      What I notice is that its much more likely that conformity will breed toxic devotion (or toxic unity) to wrong ideas than will transparency. Conformity allows us to hide. Transparency disallows it, including the tendency to hide from ourselves. I think of this post as advocating transparency as a requisite part of positive unity. Conformity isn’t unity. Its a betrayal of the soul.

      And, I’d argue, a betrayal of a God who gives us minds that think and process differently, according to our interests and abilities. If we aren’t willing to accept that someone who thinks differently from us can be tapping into something divine, we become the definition of proud.

      This isn’t to say there isn’t right and wrong. But there aren’t a whole lot of humans with flawless perception. (That’s my dry humor rising.) Its healthiest–dare I say more righteous?–to remember that and behave accordingly.

      In so many ways, I’ve abandoned the sense that I can be Keeper of Truth. I aim to be more a Discoverer of Truth. And what truth is…? That’s a whole ‘nother rabbit hole. For most in religious circles, truth is whatever we think/believe in this moment of our life. I’m not an adherent to the popular notion that I have “my truth” and you have “your truth.” There’s one truth and, in mortality, we’d do best to remember we are just hens scratching at the dirt, trying to feed ourselves the seed of it. We aren’t so different from one another and its fear that drives us to think in categories. Like worthy and unworthy. Saint and sinner.

      Anyway, thanks for responding, Wally!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a side note, there’s an apologetic response to the 1000s of errors in Mormon Doctrine that argues that they were mostly grammatical and similarly inconsequential errors. I think it’s laughable to think that the President of the Church asked two apostles (IIRC) to scan Mormon Doctrine for *grammatical* errors or that they took his instructions as such.

    Like

    1. I think there is *likely validity to the claim a hunk of the errors were due to tone. McConkie wasn’t exactly one to worry about his tone. He seemed to intend to offend. That the 1K+ errors were grammatical? That would require us to accept that the editors at Bookcraft were inept, and that’s simply not the case. This kind of apologetic response is a prime example of a type of misdirection used to prop up “institutional integrity,” but its cost is personal integrity. And so foolish. Vapid. Speak forthrightly and without guile (as opposed to speaking to obfuscate and compartmentalize) and then get on with the business of promoting good.

      Thanks for the insight.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ELIZABETH ELLIS

    It doesn’t help when a book called “The Great and Abominable Church of the Devil” by H. Verlan Andersen is one of the texts we were required to read in a religion class at BYU in the early 70’s.
    I’m trying to remember who the instructor was, but I clearly remember him asserting that it was the Catholic Church. I remember, even as the very obedient Mormon that I was, wondering how that could be true.
    I’m sure that the fact that Bruce R. McConkie was Joseph Fielding Smith’s son-in-law made it difficult for Pres. McKay to do much to censure him.

    Like

    1. My apologies for being so late to approve this. I missed the notification I guess.

      Regardless, yes, it was commonly taught. And I think remains so, though this old lady observes that, on most issues, Mormons are attempting to be less offensive about other religions. So hopefully it’ll fade out like other arrogant ideas bred among the LDS.

      Thanks for reading.

      Like

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