Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Eamonn McCann: What if Mormons are right and Catholics and Protestants wrong?

Given Christian teaching, does it make more sense to baptise dead adults rather than live babies?

Why are the Catholic bishops so concerned about Mormons baptising dead parishioners? The Mormons didn’t invent baptism of the dead. The practice has a significant history within mainstream Christianity. The decision to order its abandonment was taken only after heated debate, and was a close-run thing.

What’s the difference, anyway, between baptising the dead and baptising babies? A tiny infant will have as much understanding as a dead person — none at all — of the complex philosophical belief-system it’s being inducted into when baptised, say, a Catholic. Transubstantiation? There’s daily communicants go to their deaths without any clear understanding of the concept. So what chance the mewling tot?

Indeed, given that all Christian Churches believe that the soul lives on after death and retains understanding and consciousness of self, doesn’t it make more sense to baptise dead adults than live babies?

Apart from which, if the Catholic bishops hold that the beliefs of the Mormons are pure baloney (as they must), and their rituals therefore perfectly meaningless, how can it matter to them what mumbo-jumbo Mormons might mutter over Catholic cadavers?

The current controversy has been prompted by Archbishop Dermot Clifford and Bishop Bill Murphy complaining to the National Library in Dublin about records handed over by the Church being made available to all and sundry. The Mormons are believed to have taken advantage of this facility to comb through parish records and baptise the souls enumerated therein, a batch at a time.

The bishops stepped in after the Vatican warned all national churches earlier this year about Mormons misusing diocesan records. I have heard it suggested that the alarm of the Holy See had escalated after reports that Mormon multiple baptisms were regularly breaking the official record set by General Liu Kung Lee who, in one afternoon, baptised seven regiments of Chinese soldiers into Christianity with a fire-hose.

Let’s look at the facts as understood by the early followers of Christ. For more than 300 years after the Crucifixion, baptism of the dead was widely accepted, its biblical basis located in 1 Corinthians 15, 29: “Otherwise, what shall they do who are baptised for the dead if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptised for them.” In other words, a deceased person could be baptised by proxy: otherwise, how could such a person be included in the Resurrection? A good question.

The radical Cerinthians and the Marcionites were especially energetic baptisers of the dead. It was to wrong-foot these sects, seen as competitors with the official Church at a time when it was consolidating its position as the State religion of the Roman Empire, that the Synods of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) voted, after bitter debate, to condemn the practice.

Interestingly, a clear trace of baptism of the dead has lingered in official practice to the present day, in the form of prayers for divine intercession on behalf of the unbaptised souls. Prayers for intervention were encouraged in Catholic schools in the 1950s. For all I know, this remains the case.

Baptising the dead might be seen as analogous, too, to the Jewish prayer of intercession. Which serves as a reminder that US Jews put a halt to galloping post-mortem Mormonism a couple of years ago by arguing that deJudaising those who’d perished in the concentration camps constituted a profound insult to Holocaust victims. Following talks in New York between leaders of the two religions, the Mormons backed off.

The key point is, surely, that all religions believe that the soul, after death, at last knows what’s what — whether Hinduism, Free Presbyterianism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Catholicism or whatever is the true religion. What if it’s Mormonism? What if it’s an everyday occurrence on the other side that Catholics and Protestants are left standing dumbstruck at the Gates, gasping: “Mormons! Who’d have believed it?” And maybe a wife berating her husband: “There! I told you it would be the Mormons! But would you listen?! Now it’s eternal hellfire for the two of us, I hope you’re satisfied.”

In that scenario, shouldn’t all members of all other religions be literally eternally grateful to the Mormons for sharing their saving grace even unto and after death?

If, on the other hand, it isn’t the Mormons at all, those who turn out to have been right can wave a merry farewell to the crestfallen followers of Brigham Young as they trundle downwards to their eternal comeuppance.

What’s the problem?

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