A Catholic-to-LDS Dictionary

Pope Francis recently dismissed a US bishop from his post. This is a pretty big deal in the Catholic world, but in the Latter-day Saint chatter I’ve been privy to there is some confusion about why this should be newsworthy. After all, if an area authority 70 was openly snarking about President Nelson to the press, nobody would or should be surprised if he was released. 

However, in my experience there is a tendency among members to draw simple one-to-one analogies between us and Catholics. After all, we are both hierarchical, centralized faiths that believe in an ordained priesthood. However, such one-to-one equivalences have a tendency to gloss over fairly significant distinctions. 

Therefore, here I am providing a Catholic-LDS institutional dictionary of sorts; providing the closest equivalent terms but then describing the ways in which one doesn’t exactly mean the other.


In Catholicism the head of a congregation is a priest, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the head of a congregation is a bishop. Of course, the former is professional clergy and the latter is lay clergy. 

Bishop= Apostle or Stake President

Diocese= Stake or Area

During the Romney campaign the media loved to compare a stake to a diocese. If you were forced into a 1-to-1 equivalency I guess this is true in the sense that both are the next higher level of organization after a congregation, but again that papers over a lot of differences. Dioceses can have 100+ congregations, stakes have about 5-10. Dioceses are financially autonomous, stakes are most certainly not. Managerially dioceses are like little fiefdoms run by the Catholic bishop. 

To give a sense of this, when I teach at Catholic U I park my car by the headquarters of the entire Catholic Church in America, but it only has about as much office space as the NuSkin building in Provo. By far most administration and management happens at the diocesan level. 

Finally, theologically a Catholic bishop is considered a successor to the apostles, so while technically he serves at the pleasure of the Pope he has far more autonomy than an area 70 or stake president. It’s like if there was President Nelson and no Quorum of the 12, but every stake president was ordained an apostle. 

Cardinals=General Authority 70s or Area Authority 70s

Curia=General Authorities

Obviously with such a setup you need some intermediaries, the Pope can’t just manage each of the thousands of bishops in the world, so there’s another layer of leaders called cardinals, but those are kind of an after-the-fact organizational innovation. They’re kind of like area authority 70s. AA 70s are nowhere in the D&C, but they’re organizationally necessary to run the Church. In much the same way the three tiers of clergy in Catholicism that are considered core and doctrinal are: priest, bishop, and pope. That’s why when they want to make pretty major changes they call a council of bishops, with the last one being Vatican II. The cardinals and other clergy at the Vatican that run the whole Church, and are not just assigned to a specific geographic area, are called the Curia, which is the pretty direct equivalent of a general authority. 

Pope Francis= President Nelson

The titles are different (Vicar of Christ vs. leader who has all the priesthood keys), but we do both essentially believe that there is one person who is the mortal head of Christ’s Church. 

However, Pope Francis has much less top-down authority than President Nelson does. Some of this is just organizational; it is harder to directly manage a flock of one billion people than a flock of 17 million, so the papacy has much less direct control over day-to-day management of the Catholic world. If I were to draw a business world analogy (with all due respect), if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a directly owned restaurant business, the Catholic Church is a franchise restaurant business. 

Theologically there are also differences, President Nelson has the authority to reveal new doctrine, the Pope is supposed to be guardian of the same doctrine, as such it’s much more kosher in conservative Catholic circles to not agree with the Pope on major issues than it is in conservative Latter-day Saint circles to not agree with the President of the Church. If you’re a Latter-day Saint that thinks that President Nelson is leading us into liberal apostasy you’re a little off your rocker, but that is not the case in the Catholic world. 

The Catholics have a very specific set of legal guidelines for when the Pope is considered infallible, whereas for us the revelation/policy/opinion/scripture distinction is a little fuzzy (I think that’s a feature more than a bug, but honorable people disagree), so outside of those narrow parameters there is a lot of room for not agreeing with the Pope. 

Canon Law= Church Handbook

Because of the Catholic Church’s legacy as a major player in western civilization, it has developed a rather sophisticated parallel legal framework to run and manage things. You can even get a degree in canon law and find work as a canon lawyer. The relatively short  Church handbook is much more flexible, changing, and less developed (which again I think is fine for our purposes but honorable people can disagree). 


In Catholicism confession is an ordinance, and the priest has explicit authority to grant absolution. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints confession is something we do, but the bishop is seen more as the guardian or referee of the repentance process between the penitent and God more than having any actual authority in and of himself to grant absolution (although I understand this distinction is a little more arguable, complicated, and nuanced). 

Also, the confidentiality of confession is a much bigger deal in Catholicism than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Of course bishops are expected to keep things in confidence, but in Catholicism priests who divulge material heard during a confession are literally automatically excommunicated. There is no disciplinary hearing or anything, the Holy Spirit just simply considers them excommunicated. 


Both faiths have versions of disciplinary councils and different levels of discipline. However, the Catholic Church is very hardcore about the whole “let no man put asunder what God has joined” thing, and in the same way that they do not believe in divorce they too believe that once a priest always a priest, even if they have had their right to act as a priest removed, whereas for us excommunication leads to one’s priesthood essentially being removed. This leads to some interesting situations where apostate priests can be performing sacraments they are not supposed to be performing (“illicit”), but once they are performed they are considered “valid.” 

Incidentally, there’s an argument to be made that we have a version of this. I’m familiar with a Latter-day Saint case where a person requested a second baptism later in life because the person who performed the first baptism was very, very clearly not worthy and in fact had victimized the person he had baptized. The ecclesiastical authority made a case to his authority that this should be allowed, if for pastoral reasons if nothing else, citing the precedent of second baptisms being done in Brigham Young’s day, but received the message back that the baptism was still considered valid and therefore did not need to be repeated, even if the person performing it should not have done so.

Also, I had a seminary teacher that, in way of explanation for where Alma the Elder received the authority to baptize in the Waters of Mormon, hypothesized that as a priest of King Noah he had actually been given the priesthood, even if everybody holding it had been corrupted. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it’s an intriguing theory. 


Of course, both groups believe in a linear chain of authority going back to Jesus. 

However, Catholics are more flexible about requiring the priesthood for certain ordinances. For example, I believe that, while it’s preferable if a priest baptizes somebody, it’s strictly not required to be done by a priest. In fact, until recently there was some question as to whether even Latter-day Saint baptisms counted (the Vatican has since ruled that they don’t, see here, if your eyes can stand the Vatican’s website aesthetic), whereas of course in our case there is no question since D&C 22 that only Latter-day Saint baptisms duly performed by priesthood authority are considered valid by the Church.

Fun fact, while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is new enough that we have the benefit of having clear priesthood line records back to Joseph Smith, the Catholic situation is obviously much more difficult because it’s older and records weren’t always well kept. Most Catholic bishops trace their consecrations back to one bishop, Scipione Rebiba. Unfortunately, it is unknown who consecrated Rebiba, so he’s become that pesky ancestor in the family tree who changed his last name in America and whose parents you can’t find for the life of you. 

2 comments for “A Catholic-to-LDS Dictionary

Comments are closed.