I am writing to ask a question you might answer on Coffee Talk or you might decline all together. Obviously, the choice is yours. Let me come forward from the start and admit that yes my question is politically motivated.
What can you tell me about Mormons? Are they a cult?
I did research a little on the web at http://mormon.org/faq/
Of course this information was from the Mormon perspective.
If you choose not to answer, I won't be offended.
Thanks for sharing your question! First, let me say this -- I like all of the Mormons who I know personally. And I'm a fan of some of the things of 'Mormon culture' -- big families, supportive churches, Mo-Tab (a.k.a., the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and a commitment to stylish but modest clothing (check out these cute dresses, ladies!) just to name a few.
However, I am far from an expert in Mormonism. I know a lot about Catholicism, and a little teeny bit about Mormonism. But I do have a couple good Mormon friends who've helped me to understand a few important differences between Mormonism and Catholicism (and other mainline Protestant Christian denominations), so I can share a few of those things with you here. I looked briefly at the website you mentioned and I think that the main challenge that I find with both the website and with some of the Mormon missionaries I've spoken with in the past is that they are presenting their faith in entirely Mormon terms (natural enough). However, they use many of the same terms as Catholics and mainline Protestant Christians, but the words mean something entirely different. I'll try to break down a few key points as best I can, and translate everything into Catholic terms, since that's the perspective you (and I) are coming from. Again, keep in mind that I'll be speaking here primarily from a theological perspective now, and not from a more superficial perspective of "Do we think Mormons are nice or respectable or moral people?"
The most important thing for us, as Catholics, that leads us to not accept the Mormon religion as even a mainline Protestant denomination is that the Mormon religion was entirely founded on private revelation. In other words, Mormons believe in a special revelation and knowledge given to Joseph Smith that told him to start a new religion and that led him to have published another book in addition to the Bible. The Angel Moroni gave him the Book of Mormon which he assured him contained the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's a big problem right there -- we believe that the original deposit of faith ended with the death of the last Apostle, and that any 'private' revelations given to people after that are only authentic to the extent that they do not change or add anything entirely new to that original deposit of faith. (Example -- the Divine Mercy devotion given to St. Faustina in 20th century Poland reminds people of God's mercy, a message significant for people in modern times, but does not add anything new to the original deposit of faith). So to the extent that the Book of Mormon adds to, deletes from, and entirely changes the original deposit of faith (which it does, even in ways that majorly affect their understanding of the Most Holy Trinity), we cannot accept their theology or even the basis of their religion. This does not mean that we cannot find certain points of moral and ethical agreement with Mormons, of course, but it's the main thing about Mormonism that I suspect most people don't understand.
The next MAJOR tenet of Mormon theology that we Catholics and other mainline Christians would disagree upon is our understanding of God as Trinity, and thus our understanding of baptism and of Jesus. This is a really complicated point, so I'm only going to give a brief and overly simplified explanation of the differences, but hopefully this will give some insight into the ways our belief systems differ.
Catholic Christians understand God as a single God with 3 'persons' -- God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all ONE GOD. This is very important. It is from this understanding of God as Trinity that we derive our beliefs on Christology (or who Jesus is). Jesus is the second person of the Trinity. He is only one person, but at the same time Jesus is fully God and fully man. Jesus can only save us because he is God. When we profess in the Creed that Jesus was 'begotten, not made,' we are professing our belief that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was not a created being but that he existed in the single Godhead from all eternity. Even though he became incarnate at a certain point in human history, he was not created.
Mormons see this all very differently. I'll be honest -- I have a hard time explaining it because it doesn't quite make sense to me. But I do understand this: this is definitely a case where Mormon terminology sounds very similar to Catholic-Christian belief, but has a totally different meaning. A Mormon friend of mine gave this explanation:
"We believe in God the Eternal Father, in his Son, Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost." -Joseph Smith. (First Article of Faith.) So, we believe God, Jesus and the Holy Ghost to be one in purpose, but we do not believe them to be physically the same being/personage [emphasis mine]. We believe them to be separate and distinct, but one in purpose or unified in their work, which we believe is bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. We believe Jesus Christ is the first born son of our Father in Heaven. That Christ was born of Mary, that He atoned for us and suffered death for us on the cross. That He is the one and only redeemer of all mankind. We believe the God the Father is our spiritual father, that He sent His son to die for us, and that He knows and cares deeply for each of us. We believe that Jesus and the Father both have physical bodies as tangible as man's, but that the Holy Ghost is a personage of spirit. (http://lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/130.22?lang=eng)
So, with that understanding, when Joseph Smith recounted "The First Vision" (http://lds.org/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1?lang=eng) he explained that the Father and the Soon stood before him and ministered to him and instructed him. (Verse 17) "...I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!"
That's how it's generally portrayed in artwork in the church, and that's our belief.[Special thanks to my friend who explained this so clearly!]
Woah! Different theology ALERT! Did y'all catch that? Even though Mormons give a very similar formulation of Trinitarian belief in words, once that belief is explained, it turns out to be radically different from the traditional Christian understanding of the Trinity. That is why many people do not accept Mormons as Christians and why the Catholic Church (who accepts Trinitarian baptisms from any Christian denomination) does not accept Mormon baptisms as valid -- not because we are a bunch of narrow-minded meanies, but because Mormons do not believe in a God who is one in being, but a Trinity of persons.
The other thing that I think it's important for Catholics to understand about Mormons is that, while they do have a lot of specific teachings that restrict or direct them in particular ways (most of these seem to come from the Book of Mormon), they leave some of the issues we would consider non-negotiables up to conscience. I was surprised to learn this, but while the Catholic Church always takes a stance against the use of artifical birth control and abortion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) allow these things on some occasions. However, it seems that perhaps more Mormons follow the Catholic teachings on these subjects than Catholics do (in the US, anyway), so that's something to consider.
To answer your question, "Are they a cult?", I'd say this: the Mormons are following a religion founded by a particular person and based on his alleged vision, but the ones I know are certainly not up to anything freaky like the Branch Davidians, if that's your concern. From my limited perspective, Mormons are generally very good people with bad theology. Still, I value all of my Mormon friends, and am particularly grateful for their witness to family life and care of neighbor.
I hope this has been helpful. As always, thanks for stopping by, and be assured of my prayers!
Peace and all good,