The Roman Catholic Church declared Thursday that Mormon converts must be rebaptized, a setback to the Mormon Church's effort to characterize itself as a Christian denomination.
The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith declared that baptisms in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are "not the baptism that Christ instituted."
The ruling was a departure from the Catholic Church's usual practice of recognizing the baptisms of converts from most other churches. The Vatican held that the Mormon view of the nature of God was too different from Catholicism's.
It was the second time in as many years that a major Christian church had ruled that Mormon converts must be rebaptized. Last year, the United Methodist Church, the nation's second-largest Protestant denomination, took a similar stand.
Despite its distinctive doctrines, the 11-million-member Latter-day Saints church has worked hard to cast itself as part of the American mainstream in this country and as a legitimate Christian church in developing countries where its missionaries are winning converts.
Its emphasis on family values, citizenship and living a virtuous life has been a major factor in its growing acceptance.
Over its history, the church has given up some of its more controversial practices. To gain statehood, Mormon-dominated Utah outlawed polygamy in 1890. In the aftermath of the U.S. civil rights struggle, the church dropped its bar to blacks becoming Mormon priests in 1978. But it has never been accepted as an authentically Christian church by other churches, even as they admire the dedication and good works of its members.
Several years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention produced a film that dismissed the Latter-day Saints church as "counterfeit Christianity."
'Mormon' Downplayed in Church References
Last February, the church announced it was dropping the terms "LDS Church" and "LDS" as shorthand names. Although it retained its full name, church authorities said they preferred shorthand or second references to simply be "the church" or "the Church of Jesus Christ," rather than "Mormon."
In 1995, the church changed its logo to place the words "Jesus Christ" in larger letters than the rest of its full name.
Religious scholar Jan Shipps said the Catholic decision will likely be a letdown for Latter-day Saints.
"I'm sure it will be a disappointment," she said in a telephone interview from Bloomington, Ill.
"In the mainstreaming of themselves, they've talked about themselves as Christians. They have emphasized Christianity in their internal materials. They've got their own people calling themselves Christians as opposed to calling themselves Mormons," she said.
Dan Wotherspoon, editor of Sunstone Magazine, an independent journal of Mormon life and issues published in Salt Lake City, said, "Clearly, the LDS church still has their work cut out for them in this effort to be known as a Christian church."
In Salt Lake City, Latter-day Saints spokesmen sought to minimize the importance of the Catholic decision, or its possible effect on efforts by the church to present itself as a Christian church.
"We are neither concerned nor offended that the Catholic Church has determined not to recognize Latter-day Saint baptisms," church spokesman Michael Otterson said Thursday. He noted that converts to the Mormon faith must be rebaptized.
Until now, the Catholic Church has "conditionally" baptized Mormon converts because of Catholic uncertainty as to the validity of Mormon baptism. In conditionally administering the sacrament of baptism to a Mormon convert, a Catholic priest would preface the rite by saying, "If you are not baptized, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese, said from now on all Mormon converts will be baptized as if for the first time. He stressed that the decision "in no way is to be considered any kind of judgment about the relationship between Jesus Christ and members of the Church of Latter-day Saints."
He added that the new baptism rule would have no effect on ecumenical cooperation with Latter-day Saints.
"We continue to share beliefs in the strength and importance of the family and a number of life issues. We'll continue to work in those areas as we do with other faiths that don't share our particular beliefs," Tamberg said.
In Rome, the Vatican congregation indicated that radically different theological views of God and Jesus Christ necessitated the rebaptism of Mormon converts.
The congregation said that the Catholic Church could not accept Mormon belief that "God the father had a wife, the Celestial Mother, with whom he procreated Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit."
Different Beliefs on Essence of God
Traditional Christian churches, among them Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, believe in a Trinitarian formula, God in three persons--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--and that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
Latter-day Saints teach that God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are three separate entities. They believe that all humans were created by God in a preexisting time as spirits who came to the Earth to receive physical bodies. They hold that Jesus was literally sired by God and that he had a mother in heaven, Shipps said.
Shipps, a member of the United Methodist Church, said the effort in recent years to underscore the church's Christianity is actually a return to its historic claims as the restored church of Jesus Christ.
That underlying Christian faith claim, she said, was eclipsed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Mormon temple rituals and other doctrines were stressed.