Prophet v. Pope

My Mormon mother-in-law is staying with us for a week to help with newborn care. My wife, mother-in-law, and I decided to watch Angels and Demons last night while the baby slept. After it was over, my wife said, “I don’t understand why Catholics revere the Pope so much.”

I responded, perhaps stupidly, with, “Well, it’s not all that different from how Mormons view the prophet.” (I, of course, was thinking like a sociologist and had “institutionalized charisma” on the tip of my tongue…)

My Mormon mother-in-law then chimed in, “I don’t think about the prophet the way Catholics think about the Pope.”

My inner sociologist then took over, “Really? How do you think he is seen as different by Mormons?”

Her first response was to say that people weep when they meet the Pope but not when they meet the prophet; she had met a prophet and didn’t weep. (I didn’t note that she was generalizing from a sample of one…) I asked her if she would like to meet the prophet and/or shake his hand. She said, “No. That wouldn’t really matter to me.”

(An aside is appropriate here… During one visit to Utah my wife and I found ourselves in downtown SLC walking through one of the big shopping centers right next to Temple Square with her parents. Russell Nelson walked by and they stopped and stared as though they had just seen an angel. So, I’m not inclined to believe that she wouldn’t be thrilled to shake the prophet’s hand.)

I probably should have left this conversation alone as I don’t generally talk religion with my in-laws (not because I don’t want to but because they so readily take offense to anything and everything I say and family comes first). I pointed out that Gordon Hinckley had visited my mission in Costa Rica in the 1990s and the missionaries clamored over him like he was a supernatural being himself. We bragged about getting to shake his hand (I shook his hand and was quite proud of that fact). We were giddy about the fact that he was visiting at all. So, perhaps my mother-in-law is unique in this regard.

She did admit during this very brief discussion that she probably couldn’t do a very good job distinguishing between the two because she doesn’t know much about the Pope. She said she’d need to know more about the Pope to distinguish the two.

She didn’t respond to my description of events in Costa Rica, but I kept at it trying to see how Mormons consider the prophet different from the Pope. Her next difference: Mormons don’t cheer for the prophet. I again recounted my experience in Costa Rica. After speaking with the missionaries he spoke to a large gathering of Mormons in Costa Rica in a stadium and they cheered for him. The members were also told to bring white handkerchiefs to wave to him as he left (it seemed artificial to me even back then). She responded by saying that people watching the 24th of July parade in SLC don’t cheer when the prophet drives by, they just wave and he waves back. I’ve only been to that parade one time, and that was when I was in it when I was like 6, so I don’t remember it at all. So, I can’t refute this claim, but NOT CHEERING at a parade? Really? Who just waves at a parade? Maybe I’m used to the bacchanalian Gasparilla festival here in Tampa where people are cheering like lunatics, but it seems like people cheer at parades. (Maybe if the prophet threw out beads to women who flashed him he’d get cheers? Sorry, that’s probably inappropriate, but a funny image in my mind…).

When she reiterated that she didn’t know much about the Pope, I gave a brief description then said, “Well why not just tell me how you think about the prophet.”

Her response, “He’s a man of God.”

I asked, “What does that mean?”

It was at this point that she said, “I don’t think I should have this conversation with you.”

So much for an academic discussion of religion with family (I should know better by now)…

So, I figured I’d ask on here: How do Mormons contrast the prophet with the pope?


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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12 Responses

  1. I’m in your mother-in-law’s position: I’m not that familiar with the culture surrounding the Pope. From what I have seen, Catholics seem more readily cynical about the Pope. They openly acknowledge the politics in the College of Cardinals that leads to choosing the next Pope. LDS members seem more naive about politics at the top of their church, though that has nothing to do with who is the next President (unless there have been assassinations that we don’t know about).

    Most Catholics (in good standing) that I know are consequently willing to dismiss the Pope’s ideas if they don’t agree with them. Not so with Mormons in good standing.

    Other than that, I can’t point to any contrasting points. I think your MIL knew that she was bullshitting you about the fawning crowds that surround the Prophet. I had a similar experience on my mission. The leadership built us up for weeks prior to Hinckley’s visit. “Make yourself worthy to shake the Prophet’s hand.” When he arrived, he was in poor health and understandably demurred from shaking everyone’s hand. Instead they did a lame joke where everyone shook the hand above their head. “Now you’ve shaken hands with the Prophet.” Our mission was full of disappointed and disgruntled people after that.

  2. Jake says:

    I get the exact same “I don’t think I should have this conversation with you” reaction when I talk to my family about mormony things. They will openly talk about their beliefs and engage each other in affirming conversations but as soon as I add my own question or comment they shut down. I think they only like to talk religion when they know there’s no chance of conflict or disagreement. Which is understandable since conflict and disagreement aren’t staples of the mormon religion anyway.

  3. @Jake, of course because God has said “he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil,…” (3 Nephi 11:29). We should never disagree with each other or subject our beliefs to argumentation. </sarcasm>

  4. chanson says:

    I’m with Jonathan. If anything, Catholics are more willing to dismiss the Pope’s pronouncements as wrong (and still consider themselves good Catholics) than Mormons are with the prophet. Similarly, Catholics are more likely to accept that human politics are involved in choosing a Pope, while Mormons tend to see the Prophet as being truly chosen directly by God.

    It almost seems like she was shocked by institutionalized charisma when viewing it as an outsider, and didn’t make the connection to her own cherished institutions. Then, when you made the connection, you put her on the defensive — forcing her to find some way to back up her position.

    It’s good that the conversation was cut short — pursuing it would probably have motivated her to further solidify her defensive position on this issue, whereas just opening the question a bit might get her to think about it. What’s that quote? “When you understand why you reject all other gods, you’ll understand why I reject yours…”

  5. profxm says:

    That’s a good point about Catholics being willing to reject something the Pope says. Of course, there is a little evidence that some Mormons did that with Proposition 8 and the position on same-sex marriage. Maybe this is a new trend in Mormonism?

  6. Hellmut says:

    The Pope is a superstar among Catholics. So is the Mormon Prophet among Mormons.

    Catholicism, however, officially allows for a vibrant civil society. As a Catholic, you can start your own group any time. You can even start an order. If you prove yourself over time, chances are that the Vatican will recognize your organization.

    Catholicism allows for a lot more orthodox liberty than Mormonism ever has.

    Having said that, it’s important to keep in mind that Catholicism is an authoritarian creed. The fact that even Catholicism allows for more liberty than Mormonism should give us pause.

  7. Parker says:

    I remember someone saying that the difference between the Pope and the Prophet is that Catholics say the Pope is infallible but act as though he isn’t. Mormons say the Prophet is fallible but act as though he is infallible.

  8. profxm says:

    Parker, that’s a pretty good take on it.

  9. Kenny says:

    It seems to me that the major difference is about potential. If the Prophet announces that God has commanded a change in the current cannon (plural marriage, for example–not to start a discussion about that topic), the orthodox Mormons will accept it as the word of God and adjust their lifestyle as soon as they can. The Catholic membership, as far as I know, doesn’t believe the Pope has the potential to announce any such drastic changes to God’s law. So, I think it changes your outlook on someone if you think they might tell you to totally change your life at any moment, even if you are doing everything they’ve already asked.

    (I’m a practicing orthodox Mormon.)

  10. profxm says:

    Hi Kenny,

    I think this is similar to what the other commenters have said – people don’t necessarily do what the Pope says, despite revering him. With the prophet, most Mormons in good standing will readily do whatever he says. I’m guessing there is a lot of gray here, too – there are likely Catholics (a smaller percentage than among Mormons) who would do whatever the Pope says and there are likely Mormons (a smaller percentage than among Catholics) who won’t necessarily do what the prophet says. However, I think the distinction is a good one.

    As for how they would act around them – I don’t know that there is much of a difference. Both Mormons and Catholics revere their leader and imbue him with charisma, regardless of his actual charisma. As a result, Mormons and Catholics fawn over their respective leaders as though they have special powers. Does that seem like a fair comparison?

  11. chanson says:

    I think Kenny has hit on an interesting point of comparison: even if the Catholics see the Pope as infallible, he’s just supposed to be infallible at interpreting and pronouncing on doctrine that already exists. He’s not supposed to be originating new doctrines. Whereas Mormons have the idea that God might come up with new commands or doctrines (eg. “now it’s time for all of us to move to Missouri”).

  12. Madam Curie says:

    I’m gonna chime in here as a cultural Catholic post-Mormon…

    Catholic’s revere the Pope as a “good man of God” the same way folks of other faiths see good men and women that it is obvious God is working through, like a Mother Theresa. They seem the Pope as a man who has the mantle of God upon him, although he might not always be infallible in the interpretation of things. Generally speaking, even if the Pope’s counsel is rejected by a practicing Catholic, it is usually still respected. Its similar to if your dad gave you some advice that you decided wouldn’t work for you and your life. You may not accept the counsel and apply it to your life, but you still your dad for giving the counsel and you give it merited consideration.

    I see the LDS memberships’ response to the Prophet as similar and different. Good Mormons are expected to follow the Prophet’s words with exactness and preciseness. If the Prophet says don’t drink coffee or tea, a good Mormon may also abstain from coke and pepsi. If the Prophet says “only one pair of earrings” for women, a good Mormon may take them out entirely. The words of the counsel are not seen so much as counsel as word-for-word from God dews of doctrinal perfection. There is no easy room for “respectfully rejecting” the Prophet’s counsel.

    I have seen the Prophet getting as much attention as the Pope does in Rome; people weeping at temple dedications and the like. Early church history indicates that Joseph Smith’s contemporaries thought the wood from JS’s cane or coffin or his handkerchief had healing powers that could aid in priesthood blessings. I don’t see how those relics are much different from the relics that Catholics keep of their patron Saints. The difference I see between the Prophet and the Pope is that the Catholic Church’s geographical distribution is very wide; a Catholic in America will likely go his or her entire life without seeing the Pope in person. Additionally, when the Pope does make appearances, he is usually obviously protected, because of numerous historical attempts on his life. In contrast, although the Mormon Prophet likely has bodyguards, they aren’t as obvious to the lay public. He drives in a seemingly normal car (rather than a bulletproof “Pope-mobile”). And the Prophet’s appearances are frequent and without undue separation between him and his church membership.

    So, the Pope’s worldwide appearances are fewer and the relative number of Catholics who interact with him is smaller than that of the Prophet.

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