How are Mormon “Prophets” Different from Catholic “Popes?”

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.



12 Responses to “How are Mormon “Prophets” Different from Catholic “Popes?””

  1. 1 A Gripping Life March 16, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    Wonderful. Very succinct. This is easy to understand. Well done. 🙂

  2. 2 Tony Brigmon March 16, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    That’s as clear an explanation as I’ve ever read and by far the shortest – which is perfect for my ADD world. Thank you.

  3. 3 unfetteredbs March 17, 2013 at 5:40 am

    I love your writing and I love the way you explain things as simply as possible.But I must admit I am scratching my head a little on this one in regards to the apostles and the ‘communication” of or through God. Good enlightening reading either way. You really don’t want a popemoblie though 🙂 red shoes maybe

  4. 4 1of10boyz March 18, 2013 at 8:16 am

    Reblogged this on middlekingdom1of10boyz and commented:
    This is something that is worth a read. Understanding the difference is an important part of what is called the apostasy.

  5. 5 rowlingb813 February 5, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Popemobile? Fancy red shoes? Nice..

  6. 6 Fred Bledsoe February 18, 2016 at 9:25 pm

    I happened to stumble upon this thread, which is now at least two years old. Nevertheless I was hoping you could clarify a couple of points. You contend that there are…”significant historical and theological problems with [the Catholic] claim” ‘that Peter was prophesied to hold a primacy of office, and thus authority, over the other apostles, and that this authority was transferred to a successor.’ Could you identify those historical and theological problems? Thank you, and may God Bless you.

    • 7 R.S. "Rob" Ghio February 23, 2016 at 10:36 am

      Sure. Glad you came across this. The first has to do with Christ’s comment, “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock shall I establish my church.” There is some evidence that this was a wordplay used by Christ, using a Greek word meaning “little rock,” for Peter’s name and another word meaning “big rock” for the rock that the Church would be built on. Mormons believe that the “big rock” was revelation, which is referred to in the previous verse. (And does anyone else think it ironic that Jesus gave Peter a name meaning “rock,” and then act surprised when Peter sank in water?). Also, there is little if any evidence that the Bishop of Rome (which allegedly was Peter’s position) held any position of primacy over any other Bishopric until several hundred years after the Resurrection. In other words, that position wasn’t considered “Papal.” Only in retrospect were the early bishops of Rome referred to as Popes.

      • 8 Fred Bledsoe February 23, 2016 at 3:35 pm

        Thanks for your response, Rob. Sorry for the lengthy response. Well, perhaps it will not surprise you that as a Catholic, I disagree with your assessment; just as it would likely not surprise too many people that being LDS, your response would take a different position. So, while we have different opinions, let us use logic and scripture to try to get a better grip on what Christ’s true intention might have been, and let other readers of this thread decide for themselves, which of our two positions (or even yet another such position) is more logical.

        I’ll address your last point first. You say, “there is little if any evidence that the Bishop of Rome (which allegedly was Peter’s position) held any position of primacy over any other Bishopric until several hundred years after the Resurrection. In other words, that position wasn’t considered “Papal.” Only in retrospect were the early bishops of Rome referred to as Popes.”

        The term “pope”, meaning papa (or father) is an informal one, referring as you suggest, to the man formally occupying the office of the “Bishop of Rome”. When Catholics refer to the pope, as a “father”, they do not imply that he is our father in the same sense of our ‘heavenly father’ (God the father). Nevertheless, does the term “father” as meant by the term “pope” give too much authority to the Pope? After all, scripture says to ‘call no man father; but your father in heaven’ (Mt 23:9), right? Well, we must understand that the term “father” has both an earthly meaning, and a heavenly meaning. No one would deny a child an earthly father, nor to call their hereditary or adoptive male parent their father in an earthly sense; nor do we deny that our U.S. Constitution was written by our founding “fathers”. The biblical meaning of this passage is that people should not attribute to earthly men the same reverence, nor especially worship, that is to be given to our heavenly father. The term “father” does in fact find legitimate use for earthly men, in the Bible (Acts 7:2; Rom 9:10; 1 Cor. 4:14–15; 1 Jn 2:1, 13-14).

        As for your assertion that “there is little if any evidence that the Bishop of Rome… held any position of primacy over any other Bishopric until “several hundred years” after the Resurrection”…

        Christ told us that his Church would start small, like a mustard seed; but that it would mature into spiritual productivity (Mt 13:31-32).

        While there are alternate beliefs about the authority of the successor to St. Peter, in early Christianity, owing in part, I believe, to insubordinate pride on the part of some bishops, there are also many early writings by Church members supporting the primacy of the successor to Peter’s office. I don’t wish to elongate my response to you beyond what is reasonable (it’s already long enough) unless you request me to provide the complete quotes, which I would be happy to do, if need be. But the following early church figures wrote in support of the primacy of Peter’s successor (i.e. “the pope”) much earlier than the “several hundred years after the resurrection” which you claim (dates provided infra, are when the writings were authored):

        St. Clement of Alexandria (c. AD 200), Tertullian of Carthage (c. AD 211), Origen of Alexandria (c. AD 249), St. Cyprian of Carthage (AD 251), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (AD 350), St. Ephraim (AD 353), St. Ambrose of Milan (AD 379), St. Jerome (AD 393), St. Augustine (c. AD 411), and others.

        Now, let’s take a look at your disagreement with the Catholic position of primacy for the successor to the chair of Peter; namely, Christ’s words “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock shall I establish my church.”

        You argue that there was a “wordplay employed by Christ, using a Greek word meaning “little rock”, for Peter’s name and another word meaning “big rock” for the rock that the Church would be built on.” From this, your understanding, you posit that the meaning intended by Christ was that the ‘big rock’ was intended to mean ‘revelation’.

        We are essentially discussing Jesus’ famous dialogue with Peter, at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13-19). I believe this dialogue shows Jesus bestowed ultimate authority upon Peter, and his successors (now informally referred to as “popes”), to lead Jesus’ Church, in His earthly absence. Here are the relevant verses (King James version):

        Matthew 16:13-19 13 ”When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? 14 And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. 15 He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, SIMON BARJONA: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. 18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it 19 And I will give unto thee the KEYS of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt BIND on earth shall be BOUND in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt LOOSE on earth shall be LOOSED in heaven.”*

        Some claim that the word re-naming Peter (in Mt 16) as “rock”; “Petros” (gr), is used to describe a pebble, while the word used to describe the rock upon which Jesus would build His Church; “Petra” (gr), is a large boulder; therefore, Christ, is the real “rock”, on whom the Church would be built. Others tell us that Peter’s profession of faith, is the rock upon which Jesus would build His Church. Still others emphasize their belief that although it is Jesus’ (not Peter’s) Church, Jesus still chose to make Peter the “rock” upon which to build His Church. Jesus may have had parts of all of these interpretations in mind. However, I believe it can be shown that Peter’s primacy in infallibly representing Christ, in His absence, was a very real intention of Jesus in Mt 16:13-19, for the following reasons:

        First, Jesus and his apostles spoke Aramaic, not Greek, as their primary language. In Aramaic, the word for “rock” that Jesus used to describe Peter is “Kepha”. Kepha is also the word Jesus would have used to describe that rock upon which He would build His Church. So what Jesus really said to Peter was… “you are Kepha, and upon this Kepha I will build my Church”. That Jesus called Peter, “Kepha” is also apparent from several bible verses (i.e. Jn 1:42; 1 Cor 15:5; Gal 2:9; etc), in which Peter is referred to as “Cephas”, which is the Hebrew transliteration of the Aramaic “Kepha”. So you might ask; if Jesus used the same word (Kepha) for both Peter, and the rock upon which He would build His Church, why then does the Greek New Testament use a different word “Petros”, for Peter, to distinguish it from the other Greek word for “rock”; “Petra”, upon which Christ said He would build His Church? Most of the gentile world spoke Greek; and the oral transmission of the gospel to gentiles was in Greek; the term “Petra” is a feminine word in Greek, while “Petros” is a masculine word in Greek. So, it would have been a major insult to Peter, as a man, to have used the feminine form of the word ‘rock’ (“Petra”) for his name.

        Second, although Jesus is our rock, He re-named Simon, as Peter, “Rock”, so that it would be known to all, that Peter would represent our rock of Jesus, on earth. Whenever God changes someone’s name, He gives them both a mission and a legacy. For example, when God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Abraham was promised he would become the father of nations; and when God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, he (Israel) would (through his twelve sons) become the father of the nation of Israel. Jesus, in changing Simon’s name to Peter, gave Peter a mission and a legacy; to guide the Church without the possibility of the introduction of any false teaching. Peter had nothing less than Christ’s own promise that apostasy would not creep into this Church, as Jesus prophesied that the gates of Hades would NEVER prevail against it (Mt 16:18). This is further reinforced when Jesus said that He would be with us until the end of time (Mt 28:20).

        Third, Christ handed the keys (an ancient symbol of authority) of the kingdom of heaven SINGULARLY to Peter. This is apparent because the form of the word “you” which Jesus used is a singular “you”. So, Jesus told Peter, “I will give you (Peter) the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you (Peter) bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you (Peter) loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven.” This means that Peter’s office, has authority from Christ to proclaim infallible dogma (i.e. binding doctrine); proclaiming the forgiveness of Christ (i.e. loosing of sin); and to govern (i.e. Church discipline). Christ gives a lesser authority to the other apostles and their successors in Mt 18:18, where He uses a plural “you” when speaking with them; and they do not receive the keys of absolute authority, as does Peter.

        Fourth, I have CAPITALIZED certain words from both Mt 16:13-19 (paragraph above, ending with an asterisk (*)) and Isaiah 22:20-22 (below this paragraph), which suggests that Jesus meant to draw the attention of His apostles, to Isaiah 22:20-22. In comparing Mt 16:13-19, with Isaiah 22:20-22, it is apparent that Christ, gave authority to Peter (“Rock”), to represent Jesus (the real “Rock”) as the Prime Minister of the Church, in the earthly absence of the king (Jesus); in the same way that in Is 22:22-24, authority was given to Eliakim to become the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of David, in representing the Davidic king, in that king’s absence from his kingdom. Please compare the below verses to Mt 16:13-19 (above):

        Is 22:20-22 20 (KJV) “20 And it shall come to pass in that day, that I will call my servant ELIAKIM THE SON OF HILKIAH: 21 And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. 22 And the KEY of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall OPEN, and none shall SHUT; and he shall SHUT, and none shall OPEN. 23 And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father’s house.”

        Here are the strikingly similar words from the two sets of verses:
        “SIMON – BAR (SON OF) – JONAH” (Matthew 16:17) / “ELIAKIM SON OF HILKIAH” (Isaiah 22:20)
        “KEYS” (Matthew 16:19) / “KEY” (Isaiah 22:22)
        “BIND” – “LOOSE” (Matthew 16:19) / “OPEN” – “SHUT” (Isaiah 22:22)

        So, if Christ did give such awesome authority to one man; Peter, what evidence is there that this authority was to be passed onto others, after Peter? In the book of Acts (1:26), the other apostles came together to select a successor to Judas’ office, following his death, and Matthias was chosen. So, the Bible tells us that each apostle holds an office that is transferrable to successors. So, what does all of this have to do with the Church, you might wonder? Well, the pope, bishops, and priests, of the Catholic Church are all organically derived in direct unbroken succession of their office, back to one of the original apostles; and, in the case of the “pope”, directly back to Peter, just as Matthias’ office derived from that of Judas. This is what Catholics mean when they refer to ‘apostolic succession’. So, in the example of the current pope, Francis; he is the 267th successor to Peter’s office. A list of this unbroken succession (missing only the latest two popes, Benedict XVI and Francis) can be viewed here:

        Some might rightly say that there have been sinful figures in the history of the Catholic Church. True, but this is not an argument about impeccability; no faith is without sinners. Our Lord said that His Church would be composed of both wheat and tares (Mt 13:24-30). Jesus’ only promise was that His Church would teach infallibly (‘the gates of Hell would not prevail against it’); lead by Peter, and his successors; and it is not coincidental that He spoke these words immediately after the very first infallible proclamation spoken by a pope; “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16).”

  7. 9 R.S. "Rob" Ghio February 23, 2016 at 4:26 pm

    I appreciate the detail of your response. I was giving kind of a quick answer this morning because I was (and still am) working. At some point I have to pretend to myself that I am gainfully employed.
    Actually, we aren’t all that different in terms of what we believe with respect to Peter’s authority. LDS doctrine teaches that Peter was the chief apostle throughout his ministry in the New Testament and that he held the “keys” to preside and minister in the Church. The “rock” reference never made that much difference to me because of that. It’s an interesting argument, since we kind of have to guess what everyone was saying, since nothing was written in Aramaic, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t decide anything. Where we differ is with respect to apostolic succession. We do know that it was a requirement, because replacing Judas in the Twelve was the first order of business following the Ascension. What we don’t know is whether there was a body of apostles who were able to continue that process as they became separated through their various missions and being killed in faraway places. The Catholic Church believes that Peter was able to pass down his authority, although I haven’t come across anything that I think demonstrates that conclusively. The Mormons believe that he did not, and therefore there had to be a “restoration” of that authority. Which explains why Joseph Smith claimed that Peter, James and John returned as resurrected beings to confer the priesthood authority, and the priesthood keys, upon him and Oliver Cowdery. We believe that Peter needed to be there to do it.
    And, really, those are the only two positions that make any sense. If you care about authority, then either the Catholics or the Mormons have to be right, as Protestants claim no line of authority back to Peter and Christ. Either Peter gave that authority to a direct successor, or he didn’t.
    Thanks for the pleasant and polite conversation. I get so few of those…

    • 10 Fred Bledsoe February 24, 2016 at 4:04 pm

      Hi Rob,
      I have a reply to your last response to me, and I am interested in knowing your thoughts. I was wondering however, if you mind if I could send it to you via email, rather than on your blog? I would just need for you to send me a short email message which I could then reply to. I believe you have my email address.

  8. 11 Robby (another R. S., last Silva) March 12, 2016 at 3:34 am

    The biggest difference to me is that
    popes are not mentioned in the bible ever. Just like the “trinity” version of God till the 4th century. A dispute that should have been settled in the middle of the first century of the church long ago. Anyways, catholics would argue well pope means father and so pope is in the bible. Okay. No where in the bible is anyone, including Peter, refeted to as father and the bible even says call no i e father but the one in heaven. Of course those that father us, who a commandment says to honor along with our mother, dont count and we can have “father” figures like our founding fathers or forefathers. Prophets are however mentioned in the bible since that is what the leaders of the faith always have bern called ever since our first great grandfather Adam. Scripture clearly says surely God will reveal His secrets to the Prophets and that the church’s foundation is the Prophets and Apostles. Not popes and the other unbiblical positions called cardinals. No offense catholics. But, even “catholic” is not in the bible. Correct me if I am wrong. Peace.

  9. 12 Braydon February 26, 2017 at 2:09 am

    Amen! Very true what you said. I find it hard to understand Catholicism from other people because no one can seem to answer the basic questions of whether the pope communicates with God directly or about church organization. Only Catholics and mormons believe in true succession of authority from Christ so only these two churches could be true cause how could a church function without Gods authority? It’s not mans church it has to be christs church.

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