While much recent attention has focused on the fresh attitudes and media savvy of Pope Francis, now in his eighth month as bishop of Rome, another major denomination, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is also seeing its top leaders express a refreshing level of candor. Established 183 years ago, the Mormons reached a total of more than 15 million members worldwide two weeks ago, LDS President Thomas S. Monson said last week at the semi-annual General Conference meetings in Salt Lake City.
Remarks from two other high-ranking Mormon officials sparked a flurry of attention from members and the religious media.
First, Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who holds the position of second counselor in the LDS church’s governing First Presidency, offered an olive branch by suggesting that those who leave their membership in the organization aren’t always “backsliders” suffering from a moral failing.
“One might ask, ‘If the Gospel is so wonderful, why would anyone leave?’” Mr. Uchtdorf told listeners gathered in the church’s 21,000-seat Conference Center, along with a worldwide audience via a global satellite and Internet broadcast. “Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.”
Then came an admission: “We openly acknowledge that in nearly 200 years of [Mormon] history — along with an uninterrupted line of inspired, honorable and divine events — there have been some things said and done that could cause people to question,” Mr. Uchtdorf said. “There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles or doctrine.”
Mr. Uchtdorf suggested such errors might well come with human involvement in a divine mission: “I suppose the church would only be perfect if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and his doctrine is pure. But he works through us — his imperfect children — and imperfect people make mistakes,” he said.
For a movement which has made mighty efforts to put on as fresh and appealing a public face as possible, such candor likely will strike many as welcome. The Mormon leader then appealed to those who had left the movement or were in a struggle about their membership: “If you have left the faith you once embraced, come back again. Join with us,” he said. “If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.”
Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, its second-highest presiding body, then urged members to seek help if they are struggling with mental illness. While spiritual means are good and useful and should be sought after, Mr. Holland said, competent counseling and professional care should be used when necessary.
The LDS church leader admitted his own struggle with depression: “At one point in our married life when financial fears collided with staggering fatigue, I took a psychic blow that was as unanticipated as it was real. With the grace of God and the love of my family, I kept functioning and kept working, but even after all these years I continue to feel a deep sympathy for others more chronically or more deeply afflicted with such gloom than I was.”
Noted writer Jana Riess, an LDS church member, wrote on her “Flunking Sainthood” blog (janariess.religionnews.com), which is hosted by D.C.-based Religion News Service, that Mr. Holland “risked a great deal to portray himself as a fellow sufferer, someone who has walked the often bewildering and always lonely path of depression.”
Again, it was a flash of candor that, as Ms. Riess noted, was a bit unconventional. It’s too early to say what the reaction of members worldwide will be, but it’s probably a good guess that most will welcome more open discussions about sensitive subjects.
• Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.