Often when I talk to non-Mormons about the organization of the LDS Church, and particularly the role of the “prophet” or President of the Church, they ask whether the President of the Church is “kind of like the Pope.” Too often I have nodded in response to that, usually because I am trying to discuss something else, and explaining the differences between pope and prophet would take too much time. But with the recent election of Pope Francis, I thought it would be worth taking a couple of moments to discuss the similarities and differences between these two positions.
There are some superficial similarities between the two roles. Both are central authorities for their respective churches, with each representing the final word on theological questions or acceptable practices. Each typically is advanced in years when taking his position and generally serves for life (which is why the recent resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was such a surprise).
Beyond such obvious similarities, however, to say that the two are “kind of like” each other is true only in the sense that whales are “kind of like” kangaroos because both are mammals. The differences between the Mormon prophet and the Catholic pope are numerous and significant, and they highlight important differences between the theologies of the two Christian faiths. (There are other differences as well. For example, the LDS prophet neither gets cool red shoes nor a popemobile, both oversights that I really think we Mormons need to address). In my mind, the three most important areas of difference are: (1) The nature of their claims of authority; (2) the manner of their selection; and (3) the role each claims to play with respect to the relationship between God and Man.
Claims of Authority
The papacy bases its authority on the claim of apostolic succession. Distilled to its essence, Catholics believe that Peter was the foremost apostle of Christ and therefore held administrative authority over the Church. The doctrine of apostolic succession holds that Peter passed that authority on to the bishop of Rome, who then took on the role of “papa” or pope. Catholics claim that apostolic authority has been passed down in continuous succession since the time of Peter. There are significant historical and theological problems with this claim, but at least that is the position the Catholics take.
The LDS view of priesthood authority is considerably different. Mormons agree that Peter was the foremost apostle and president of the Church following the death and resurrection of Christ. Peter worked with the assistance and counsel of other divinely appointed apostles who were “special witnesses” of Christ. But Mormons believe that due to the dispersal of the apostles throughout the known world and their subsequent martyrdom, the apostles were unable to pass along their priesthood authority. This ushered in a period of global “apostasy,” during which the priesthood authority was not present on the earth.
Mormons believe that as part of the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the 19th century, the priesthood was restored to earth through heavenly messengers, including Peter, James and John, who ordained Joseph Smith as the first apostle in this dispensation of time. The Church now has a First Presidency, consisting of the President of the Church and two counselors. Equal to them in authority is a Quorum of Twelve Apostles. The President of the Church hold the authority to preside over the Church as a whole.
Manner of Selection
The process of selecting a new pope has been described in no small detail recently in the press. Essentially, there is a conclave of cardinals of the Church that meets, deliberates, and votes on who will become pope. Obviously, they assert that the deliberations and voting are conducted under the influence of the Holy Spirit; however, the process can be long and arduous, with multiple votes being taken before the cardinals reach a consensus.
By contrast, the selection of a new president of the LDS Church is almost uneventful. Mormons believe that each member of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles is selected by the process of revelation rather than deliberation. When there is a vacancy in the Quorum, that vacancy is filled by the President of the Church as directed by the Holy Ghost, and the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve confirm that decision.
When the President of the Church dies, his counselors return to their positions in the Quorum of the Twelve. The most senior (by time of service rather than age) apostle then becomes the new President of the Church, an appointment that is confirmed by the Twelve through prayer and revelation. As a result, there is no surprise, speculation, or debate over whom the Lord has selected as President of the Church. The process also ensures that there is no campaigning for the position, as the only way to get the job is to outlive your peers. That’s a hard process to manipulate, unless you can convince the rest of the apostles to eat lots of trans fats and avoid exercise.
Role of the Prophet
I admit to not having a complete understanding of the role and functions of a Catholic pope; however, from research and discussion with Catholic friends, certain aspects of that role are clear. The Pope administers over and represents the Catholic Church; he teaches and instructs the members of that Church; he appoints lower leaders of the Church; and he offers official interpretations of scripture on matters of doctrine. While the Catholic Church claims that these roles are performed under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, there is no claim that the Pope receives revelation directly from God.
The role of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is quite different. First, Mormons designate him as a “prophet, seer and revelator,” but those titles also apply to all of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Mormons commonly refer to the President of the Church as “the Prophet,” a traditional designation continued from the time of Joseph Smith. More correctly, the President of the Church is the chief apostle. As such, his primary role is to serve as a witness of Jesus Christ. He administers over the temporal and spiritual welfare of the Church and hold the “keys” of the priesthood, or the authority to preside over and direct the Church. Mormons also believe that the President of the Church is entitled to receive direct revelation from God in the performance of his duties. His authority is not derived from interpretation of scripture or scholarly research, but rather is the result of direct, divine inspiration and revelation.
These distinctions between pope and prophet highlight the core difference between the Catholic and Mormon churches. The Catholic Church stakes its claim to authority on a direct succession of apostolic authority beginning with Peter and continuing through the present day. By contrast, Mormons believe that such authority was lost for nearly two thousand years before it was restored to the world by way of Jesus Christ Himself and other divinely appointed heavenly messengers. We claim that the Lord restored both the priesthood authority and the organization of the Church to a form that is consistent with the Church formed by Christ and His apostles in the meridian of time.
Most importantly, Mormons believe in a living Christ and a living prophet. We believe that our Father in Heaven and Jesus Christ still care deeply about our affairs and desire to provide us undiluted doctrine and clear instructions as to how to live our lives. We believe that when God communicates to mankind as a whole, He will do so now in the same manner that He has done throughout the history of the world: Through the mouth of His prophet. The reality of this great restoration is the message we offer to the world.