Professor Presents at Notre Dame Conference on Mormon, Catholic Dialogue

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Dr. Jeremiah John

Dr. Jeremiah John, assistant professor of politics at Southern Virginia University, joined with a number of prominent religious scholars to participate in a conference titled “Catholics and Mormons: A New Dialogue” last week at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

The purpose of the conference was to spark a conversation between the Mormon and Catholic communities, highlighting shared beliefs and purposes. The presenters discussed topics at the conference including “Contemporary Mormonism and Catholicism,” “Catholicism and Mormonism in Historical Context,” “Scriptures, Traditions, and Authoritative Teachings,” and “Theologies of Encounter, Unity, and Diversity.”

John received his doctorate in political theory and comparative politics from Notre Dame in 2008. Since then, he has been engaged in studying Mormon political thought; the conference was an opportunity to join the conversation among some of the most influential Mormon scholars at a school with a rich Catholic history. John says that studying at Notre Dame gave him a unique insight on the two faiths.

Other notable presenters include keynote speaker Terryl Givens, who addressed Southern Virginia at a forum earlier this semester, and Richard Bushman, author of the Joseph Smith biography, “Rough Stone Rolling.” David Campbell, a renowned political scientist who studies religion and politics and currently teaches at Notre Dame, also presented, as well as Patrick Mason, the Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University. Campbell and Mason have also visited Southern Virginia in the last few years to share their works on the intersection of religion and politics. Kathleen Flake, the newly appointed Chair of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, spoke on the Mormon view of marriage.

“Patrick Mason and I both gave talks on the idea of social teaching in Mormonism and Catholicism,” John said. “We both asked the same question — ‘Why doesn’t Mormonism have a tradition of social teaching as Catholicism does?’ But I think we asked that question in two different ways. Patrick asked it more as a rhetorical question, implying that we should. I was asking it as an explanatory question — what is it about our faith that makes it difficult to engage in social teaching like Catholics? I think that our millennialism and our emphasis on continuing revelation make it difficult for us to work out an elaborate system of universal teachings about the nature of society and politics.”

John said the conference raised the issue of two imperatives in Catholic teaching, the call to ecumenical dialogue, which attempts to reunite the various traditions within Christianity, and the call to interfaith dialogue, in which Catholics engage with non-Christian faiths.

“It’s not so easy to categorize a Mormon-Catholic dialogue as either ecumenical or interfaith,” he said. “While Mormons obviously consider themselves Christian, and some traditional Christians may accept them as such, they do not aim to reunite themselves with other Christian faiths, as ecumenical conversations presume. Ecumenical dialogue is supposed to reunite the Christian traditions, but for Mormons the main or only way this happens is through individuals accepting the Restoration. We want to have dialogue with fellow Christians, without the typical goals of ecumenical dialogue.”

John said he gained new perspectives on important doctrinal ideas like the Restoration, and that Catholics and Mormons can come together to understand one of their biggest theological differences.

“Terryl Givens gave a great talk about the Mormon understanding of apostasy,” he said. “Mormons have sometimes viewed the restoration as discovering something that was lost by the Catholic church — but that’s not how most Christians in the 1800s, or even Joseph Smith, used the concept of restoration. Joseph often spoke of himself as retrieving and synthesizing the truths in the tradition, through inspiration, rather than bringing back the gospel whole-cloth. His inspired translation of Revelation also suggests that the true gospel had been in obscurity during the Apostasy, not wholly lost. This is a very important point for the way Mormons view Catholicism.”

Overall, John said, the conference was a positive reflection of the growing respect the two faiths share with one another. David Campbell’s presentation explored data which showed that in the United States, “the more Catholics know about Mormons, the more they like Mormons.”

John joined the Southern Virginia faculty in 2007. He graduated summa cum laude from Hampden-Sydney College in 2000. He earned both his master’s and doctoral degrees from Notre Dame. He wrote his dissertation on law and morality in Hegel’s political philosophy. He has studied religious political thought, and recently finished a chapter on Mormonism and politics for the book “The Mormon World,” which will be published by Routledge next year. He lives in Buena Vista, Va., with his wife and five children.