This week’s Religion and Ethics program on PBS featured an analysis of Pope Francis’s stirring speeches in Brazil. Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ was asked if the Pope’s focus on concern for the poor might be a result of the large number of Catholics in Latin America converting to Evangelical faiths. He answered affirmatively: “We[’ve tended] to teach people the catechism instead of teaching about Jesus and the gospel message of compassion, love, and justice.”
Like their Catholic cousins, Mormon leaders tend to emphasize a catechism of Mormon doctrine rather than the gospel of Jesus. A glance at the 2012 manual of 24 lessons for Priesthood/Relief Society classes shows three lessons focused on Jesus’s teachings: “Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself,” “The Power of Kindness,” and “Of You It Is Required to Forgive.” Four lessons are devoted to sharing the Mormon gospel. The remaining lessons are about doctrines such as priesthood and living Mormon teachings such as sustaining leaders and doing temple work. The 2013 manual has as few lessons on Jesus’s teachings, less emphasis on missionary work, and more emphasis on the next life.
Conference addresses show a similar pattern. Of the 58 topics listed for the April 2013 General Conference, only 17 dealt with basic teachings of Jesus: Peace, faith, forgiveness, gratitude, hope, humility, discipleship, and love. I hoped to find integrity and honesty in the three addresses listed under morality, but all three were basically about chastity.
A few years ago, the threefold mission of the Church, Proclaim the Gospel, Perfect the Saints, and Redeem the Dead, was expanded to include a fourth mandate, Care for the Poor. Nobody listening to General Conference or attending Church meetings in 2013 would be aware of that. The April General Conference had six addresses about missionary work, one about genealogy and four about temples. Perfecting the Saints appears to be mostly about urging members to be active Mormons. Clearly, proclaiming the gospel and redeeming the dead are more important than caring for the poor, a topic missing from the lists.
Mormon leaders concerned about the significant dropout rate of Mormon members might do well to listen to the Pope. Activation will not be resolved by fellowshipping alone—and certainly not for members who dropped out to seek basic Christian values elsewhere.