How Mormons Respond to Theological Dissent

The LDS church recently excommunicated Kate Kelly, a feminist whose organization, Ordain Women, had been aggressively lobbying for women to be admitted to the Mormon priesthood. The aftermath has been interesting, and might offer Catholics some valuable food for thought concerning the logic of heresy and excommunication.

I’m not interested in adjudicating the issues over which Kelly was excommunicated. In the Catholic Church I take the matter to be settled, and personally I was never bothered by an exclusive priesthood. If the ancient Israelites limited their priestly class to the sons of Levi (Why Levi? What did he do?), it must be possible to be special without being a priest. Lobbying for an invitation to a sacrificial calling is highly distasteful for anyone. But anyhow, as a former Mormon, I would feel quite cheeky telling practicing Latter-Day Saints how to order their affairs.

Kelly’s case is more interesting in what it shows us about the difference between “asking probing questions” (which is what Kelly claims she was doing) and veering into formal heresy. It’s also interesting in what it teaches us about the spiritual hazards of throwing off authority, even if (as in this case) the authority in question is a false one.

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Reading the newspapers, you might suppose that former Mormons are all miserable, bitter people who are undergoing years of therapy. Really, that’s just the noisy ones. Growing up Mormon is a wonderful thing, and many of us regard our former church with great affection and respect. I certainly do.

Nevertheless, I understand why some are prone to bitterness, because leaving a religious community is hard. I grew up in the LDS faith, and am descended from generations’-worth of Latter-Day Saints, so Mormonism really is the faith of my fathers. My own departure had nothing to do with women’s issues, but I did spend some agonized years wondering whether my continued desire for Mormon community could be reconciled with my doubts about the legitimacy of Mormon authority. I decided it couldn’t. That decision pre-dated my Catholic conversion by several years.

Leaving the Mormon faith is painful, because if you were an active Mormon in your childhood and youth, that tends to be stamped pretty deeply into your life and identity. Mormons are amazing builders of community. They instill a real sense of belonging in their believers, which helps in navigating the many uncertainties of modern life. Along with that, their attentiveness to the moral and social questions of the day enables them to do an especially good job of providing guidance, instilling meaning and order in the lives of their faithful. It’s great to grow up with the security of a meaningful and prudent moral outlook, which is confirmed and supported by a community of decent and trustworthy people.

You’ll discover the flip side of that clarity and cohesion if you find yourself doubting. It’s a package deal; the beliefs support the community and vice-versa. So if you grew up in a Mormon ward, the faith is far more than just a “belief system” to you. It’s your family and your lineage and your home. But, the beliefs still matter. It’s impossible to live a life of integrity if you’re just pretending.

I saw leaving as a signof self-respect, but also of respect for my former co-religionists. They believed certain things. I didn’t. Religious bodies can’t help anyone unless they have those kinds of rules and understandings. Honest people are up-front about where they stand.

Now, compare that attitude to the one evidenced by newly-excommunicated Kate Kelly. If you Google her name, you find sensational headlines, where she boldly claims that God is on her side and that, in effect, she’ll return to the Mormon faith when they’re willing to come to her. Also some things like this, using her story as fodder for a reflection on how religious people are bigots. All the usual media outlets were delighted to spring on yet another religious-people-are-sexist-and-intolerant story.

Is this how people behave with respect to a religious body they claim to love? More importantly, is this the posture of a true believer, who acknowledges the authority of said religious group? As a former Mormon myself, I couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed on her behalf.

The point becomes still clearer in reading her personal manifesto, put forward by Kelly herself and passed around by her followers.  To me it paints a clear picture of someone who is culturally attached to Mormonism but not prepared to submit to clear instructions from its authorities. She gushes at length about how much she loves being a Mormon (“Go Cougars!”), but ends with a terse statement that “I’m right, and I’m not backing down.” This, to me, is the true test. In Catholicism we refer to a similar sort of open rejection as “formal heresy.” It’s properly seen as a form of self-excommunication.

Though I’m clearly never going back to Mormonism, I admit to feeling some level of envy at the clear way in which the LDS authorities took a stand against Kelly’s open defiance. How might the Catholic Church be stronger if we could be similarly clear? I understand that there are cultural differences that would make that level of clarity difficult or perhaps impossible at the current moment, but there can be no doubt that Catholic culture has been damaged by our refusal to treat formal heresy as the abandonment it really is.

Until that changes, we can look to the Mormons for an interesting template for what heretics can look like, and how we might deal with them.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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