As Mormons we follow the prophet, we proclaim, lifting our right hand at many Church occasions, for ‘he shall not lead us astray’. Quite a few General Conference talks urge us to heed the words of the Lord’s anointed, to follow his counsel as the true Iron Rod for our ecclesiastical lives. ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over’ First Counselor N. Eldon Tanner wrote in the Church’s Ensign magazine August 1975, echoing an Improvement Era’s message of June 1945, and this message comes to us over and over again.The October 2010 General Conference listened with approval to Elder Claudio R.M. Costa, a Seventy, who repeated an injunction of Ezra Benson, an earlier Apostle, from a BYU devotional in 1980. These 14 ‘fundamentals’ highlighted the special position of the prophet, as the only one who could speak for the Lord in everything; the living prophet is considered more vital to the members than the standard works, and more important than a dead prophet”, and, most important of all, “will never lead the Church astray”. The points were later at the same conference repeated verbatim. So far, the prophet is clearly ascribed infallibility inside his mandate of faith and morals, but then the ‘fundamentals’ move to other fields as well, extending the truth claim, according to Costa: ‘The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning’; ‘The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time’. Are our prophets ‘infallible? In principle, the ‘fundamentals’ would mean that President Monson could do authoritative statements in any field, in business administration or publishing – his own fields – but also in physics, astronomy or anthropology – my own field. That would be pretty ridiculous, and of course he is much too wise to attempt to do so, as knowing everything about everything ‘under inspiration’ is blatantly impossible. The only solution to such a quandary would be to say nothing at all, or limit oneself to doctrine and morals. In effect, that is exactly what is happening: the prophet as well as the other Fifteen, limit themselves to moral matters.
Yet we are taught that Mormon prophets are not infallible. In fact we do not even like the word as the Catholic flavor is not appreciated, though ‘fallible’ is definitely a word Mormon leaders use, also when describing themselves. We know the stories how Joseph Smith liked to shock visitors, by welcoming them when he emerged from a jocular bout of wrestling. Sweaty and covered with dirt he would introduce himself as: ‘Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet’. Joseph Smith took great pains to deny any kind of infallibility. Throughout he made it clear that he could make mistakes, and that a prophet was only a prophet when he was acting as such. That notion has been upheld as well; Bruce McConkie wrote in a publicized letter to Eugene England:
‘Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine. This is one of the reasons the Lord has given us the Standard Works. They become the standards and the rules that govern where doctrine and philosophy are concerned. If this were not so, we would believe one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors.’
I am not an admirer of McConkie’s rigid scriptural interpretation, but I concur with this notion, and admire his loyalty when he wrote, after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, that we had to forget everything he, Bruce, had written about the priesthood ban for blacks. I hope people do forget the quite vapid reasoning that has been developed.
One aspect stands out: the infallible individual is always the ‘other’, the ‘prophet’. It is the Twelve or the Seventies who speak out about the prophetic infallibility, not Monson himself. The discourse is on ‘follow the prophet’, not ‘follow me’. Gordon Hinckley was especially modest and honest, defining his prophethood as a form of gentle inspiration, while denying all insider knowledge concerning the future (the popular interpretation of prophethood). In his administration a gentle shift was discernible, away from the personal ‘infallibility’ to the collective inerrancy of the First presidency plus the Twelve Apostles. Both Hinckley and the apostles stressed the collective nature of inerrancy at several occasions.
November 6 1994 Apostle Russell Ballard told 25,000 students at BYU, that general authorities ‘…will not lead you astray. We cannot.’ This claim was officially published, and was repeated at another BYU devotional meeting in March 1996.
‘We cannot’ indicates an inherent infallibility which is not personal, but purely institutional. Whether this shift will last is not clear, but it does fit in an increased focus on collective leadership in the Church as a whole.
I slipped into using the term ‘infallibility’ because the Roman Catholic Church does use it and I want to make a comparison. For some LDS that Roman church might be far away, but in many ways it is our ‘relevant other’; especially in truth claims the claim for apostolic succession stands as the only logical alternative to restoration. The claims, structure and ambition of the LDS Church is modeled after the Roman Catholic Church — a centrally-led world church with a recognized claim of uniqueness and of divine mandate, sharing also the notion of salvation through works and priesthood as a crucial intermediary. Thus, the position of the pope in the Roman Church and our prophet in the LDS one are highly comparable. In Salt Lake the discussion should be over once the prophet had spoken, the parallel Roman Catholic expression runs: ‘Roma locuta, causa finita, when Rome has spoken, the issue is finished. Or, in a well-known LDS quip: ‘Catholics are taught that their pope is infallible, and they do not believe it. Mormons are taught that their prophet is not infallible, and they do not believe that either’. My point is, that this is quite the same.
But what does Catholic infallibility mean? Exposés about the Roman Catholic dogma (= official doctrine) of infallibility usually start with much needed disclaimers. Papal infallibility does not mean that the ‘pope is always right’, nor that ‘the pope commits no sins’, or ‘makes no mistakes’, just as it does not mean that anything the pope says is scripture even if he speaks as a pope. Actually the dogma is not about the pope, but about a specific kind of statements the pope is in a position to make. The dogma has been formulated by the First Vatican Council of Vatican in 1870 but very restrictively and concerns only very specific kinds of statements. The accepted conditions for an infallible declaration are, since 1870, that: 1. The pope has to utter it; 2. He has to speak ex cathedra (i.e. ‘in discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority’); 3. He has to use the word ‘define’; 4. The doctrine has to regard faith or morals; 5. He has to state that the belief must be held by the whole Church. The text must indicate that the teaching is definitive and binding, in any type of wording, usually expressed by: ‘We declare, decree and define … ‘ (the teaching as definitive); as final indication the text usually has a so-called anathema (warning) attached, stating that anyone who deliberately voices dissent is outside the Catholic Church and no longer belongs to the flock.
If the wording is different, then the statement has (considerable) authority as coming from the pope, but is not considered infallible. In actual fact, there have been very few infallible papal statements formulated in the history of the RC Church. In the 1870 Council the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was formulated by pope Boniface VIII as an infallible dogma, i.e. the belief that Mary, the mother of Christ, had been conceived beyond the influence of the original sin. In 1950 pope Pius IX gave the Church the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the belief that Mary went to heaven without experiencing death, i.e. was ‘assumed body and soul in heaven’. The next Council, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council 1961-3, did reaffirm the principle of infallibility, speaking of the ‘sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium’, but did not state any new dogma, and the following popes have not used the prerogative. They sometimes come close to it but skirt the exact wording, avoiding the heavy backlog of infallibility proper. This tendency is called, by critical scholars, ‘creeping infallibility’.
In practice Roma locuta is not exactly causa finita. The doctrine of papal infallibility – in contrast with church indefectibility – was not without its critics, and still is the subject of fierce debate, also within the Catholic Church. One leading Catholic theologian, professor Hans Küng, lost his teaching rights as professor of theology at Tübingen University, over his critical book on infallibility. After a host of other critical commentaries he wrote, it was his critique on this issue that brought him into open conflict with the bishops’ synod. And he is by no means alone. The heavy claim of infallibility is more a stimulus for critique than anything else. Well, with us LDS it is more or less the same: when the prophet speaks, the debate starts.
So both churches, ours and the Roman Catholics, struggle with the same problem: the authority of the leader. The combination of a strict hierarchy and a divine mandate – to use the Catholic term, but it holds well – somehow produces the notion of infallible leadership and statements. And that is always a problem, both for the followers and the leaders themselves. Who is infallible cannot be seen to make mistakes, so has a huge problem apologizing for past mistakes. One result is that protecting the institution becomes more important than protecting or comforting victims, which is exactly the risk any institution runs based upon a discourse of – creeping – infallibility. Who has the monopoly on atonement, has no means to atone himself. On 7 June 2010, Time Magazine ran a major article ‘Why being pope means never having to say you’re sorry’, and indeed, as infallible head of an indefectible church, one’s hands are severely bound. Just as the Catholic Church we have problems in acknowledging our own past errors as serious mistakes, and consequently in apologizing to the victims or their heirs. It took the LDS Church over a century to come clean about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as the ultimate judgment hinged on the measure in which the prophet, Brigham Young was implicated. Past detours in theology, like the Adam-God theology or blood-atonement, are still difficult to acknowledge as mistakes, and sometimes their existence is denied. When the ban on priesthood for the negro was abolished, there was no refutation of any of the preceding ‘explanations’, nor was an apology extended.
So religious authority has an inbuilt problem, but how do we as individuals deal with it? Most Catholics I know take the dogma with a huge grain of salt indeed in fact do not believe it, but yet see the pope as an important and inspirational figure. The Roman Catholic Church as such has caught the notion of infallibility in a huge and complicated network of theological reasoning, limiting it severely but keeping it intact as the ultimate authority to which one can sneak up: it works as long as one does not use it. That will not be the way of the LDS, as this kind of systematic internal discussion is neither developed, nor wished for. We can be helped by the deep practicality that pervades much of LDS church practice, which feeds into the way we as individual Mormons can solve this conundrum. One of the most important commentaries I ever heard as a member, was when I served as a stake president. My Regional Representative (it was in the ‘80s), said, after hearing a General Authority talk on inspired guidance: ‘But we are still human’. I do not know whether he consciously referred to the Triumph marches of old imperial Rome, but the parallel is striking. During the entire glorious Triumph, a slave stood behind the proud, victorious general, whispering in his ear: ‘You are still mortal’. We all need such a whispering voice, and the higher up, the more we need it.
Infallibility is a trap that is hard to escape, but has to be avoided or softened as much as possible. The idea that ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over’ in the long run is counterproductive, and should give way to empathic debate, in which the spirit is allowed to run free, undomesticated, in order for truth to emerge, errors to be avowed and conflicts to be mended. History then becomes a series of inspiring mistakes, just like our own lives.