By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY -- For Mormons, or anyone else who might be wondering, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes no stand on drinking Coca-Cola.
The church opposes gambling, guns in churches, euthanasia, Satan worship and hypnotism for entertainment. It also "strongly discourages" surrogacy, sperm donation and vasectomies.
These and other positions are spelled out in what Mormons commonly refer to as "the handbook" -- a newly published two-volume set of instructions for regional leaders, bishops and other local LDS leaders.
Until now, the handbook was available only to these church leaders. That still holds true for the first volume, which is available online to local and regional leaders.
That blue volume includes information about counseling with members. LDS authorities worried that if it were widely read, some members "might decide they don't need to go see their bishop," said LDS spokesman Michael Otterson. "It made much more sense to reserve that volume for leaders."
But the church is putting the second, red volume online for everyone. So, for the first time, members and outsiders can read for themselves the church's position on a panoply of social issues.
"It's extremely convenient to have it on the Internet," Otterson said. "Church members can search it easily and cross reference it with other materials. It absolutely makes sense."
Putting Handbook 2 on the Web "removes the veil of secrecy from a lot of the operation," says Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss of Irvine, Calif. "That's healthy."
Mauss sees the move as part of a "recent trend in the church to become more transparent."
Such transparency also is reflected in "a new appreciation for candor and openness in publishing Mormon history," Mauss said, "and in a public approval for academic Mormon studies not controlled by the church."
All these developments, he added, help to "neutralize the public image of the church as an unduly `secretive' organization in its operations."
Julie M. Smith, a Mormon in Austin, Texas, also applauded the move.
"Some people assumed that there was something sinister that the church was trying to hide," Smith said in an e-mail. "Making the book public shows this wasn't the case."
Smith pointed to the church's position on vasectomies as an example.
"I've known church members who were shocked that the handbook strongly discourages vasectomies. They had no idea that there was any policy concerning it," she says. "If there are such policies, I think it is wise that everyone -- not just those with leadership callings --
knows about them."
Making such positions available is particularly important for women, who generally had less access to the handbook, she said. They can "feel more involved and knowledgeable about church policies."
The move to put Handbook 2 online also may have been prompted by busy Mormon authorities who were tired of answering questions already delineated in the book.
In fact, the book specifically says that members should not contact church authorities about doctrinal or personal issues. (It says not to ask for their autographs, either.) Instead, Mormons are urged to take their questions to local leaders.
For outsiders as well as the faithful, the handbook provides a fascinating peek into the administrative, social and doctrinal positions of the nearly 14 million-member faith.
Many members hail this new openness and find several statements in the handbook to be surprisingly complex, leaving much decision-making to individuals or couples.
Take birth control. The handbook says it is a "privilege" for Mormon couples to nurture and rear children, but the decision of how many to have is "extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord."
The book also says sexual relations in marriage "are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a way of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife."
While the Mormon church discourages the use of in vitro fertilization using semen and eggs from people outside the couple, the decision "ultimately must be left to the judgment of the husband and wife."
As a whole, Mauss says, putting Handbook 2 online should have the effect of helping rank-and-file Mormons feel "inclusion and ownership" where programs and policies are concerned, rather than belonging to the leaders.
The church's rules and policies, Mauss said, will "seem more like `ours' as a church than as `theirs."'