Cardinal tells BYU: We must work together for religious liberty

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A Roman Catholic cardinal told a huge audience Tuesday at Brigham Young University that Mormons and Catholics must strive together to proclaim truth even as pressures mount to exclude religion from the public square.

Nearly 12,000 students and faculty gathered at BYU's Marriott Center to hear Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of the Chicago Diocese. Typically, such Tuesday forums draw 3,000 or 4,000.

Besides shepherding 2.5 million Catholics in the Chicago area, George is a member of the College of Cardinals and heads the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was invited to LDS Church-owned BYU, in part, because of his recent book articulating Catholic thinking about the church's role in the public sphere.

George brought laughter with reminiscences of hearing the Tabernacle Choir perform for the first time when he was 13 (his mother was an organist and a fan) and again, in 2007, when then-conductor Craig Jessop invited George to lead the choir during an Illinois performance.

"I thought to myself, 'I'm doing better with the Mormons than the Catholics.' I have a lot harder time getting them to sing together."

George -- with LDS apostles M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook on the dais -- noted the two faiths have worked together to alleviate world poverty, combat pornography, defend the unborn and push for traditional marriage.

"I'm personally grateful," George said, "that, after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have come to see one another as trustworthy partners in the defense of shared moral principles."

Marriage, the union of one man and one woman, must be defended, he added, "against various efforts to redefine in civil law that foundational element of God's natural plan for creation."

George said Mormons and Catholics are called to respect and love all people, including those who are gay, because they are children of God.

"That doesn't mean we must approve of everything everyone does," said George, who later noted that his family, like many others, includes gays.

He decried the "quasi-fascist tactics" and "thuggery" engaged in by some after California voters approved Proposition 8 in 2008, banning gay marriage in the Golden State. Churches, particularly LDS meetinghouses, were vandalized after the election.

Freedom of religion, George said, is a fundamental right that cannot be reduced merely to a freedom to worship or freedom of conscience, as some in this country now advocate.

Such a limited notion of religious freedom is not the American tradition, he said. "It was the tradition of the Soviet Union."

True religious freedom, he said, includes "the right to exercise influence in the public square."

Brandie Balken, executive director for Equality Utah, praised George for emphasizing respect and love and said few people, including in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, endorse vandalism.

She also agreed that no one benefits from restrictions on the free exchange of ideas or the expression of personal beliefs.

"But this should apply equally," Balken said. "We should all be able to speak about our human experiences and to create a community where we are all valued and respected for who we are."

After George's speech, BYU freshman Katie Bates said she felt "kind of like the Catholic Church was hugging the Mormon Church."

Her friend, Coco Mack, also a freshman, especially liked praying the "Our Father" in unison, a Catholic tradition not typically seen at LDS gatherings.

"That was so, so cool," Mack said.

Two returned LDS missionaries, both now BYU students, said it was interesting to hear the Catholic perspective and how it parallels their own church's teachings.

"It seems like [Catholics] want to establish a good foundation with family, so society is strong," Gustavo Velasquez said.

David Parkinson found George's comments refreshing because, in his experience, relationships between Mormons and Catholics are sometimes hostile.

"It was good to learn what we have in common," Parkinson said.

About Cardinal Francis George

» Serves as archbishop of Chicago and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

» Holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology as well as a doctorate in American philosophy, all from various U.S. universities.

» Served his order, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, as a provincial superior in the Midwest and was elected vicar general for the order in Rome from 1974 to '86.

» Became coordinator of the Circle of Fellows for the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture in Cambridge, Mass.

» Appointed bishop of Yakima, Wash., in 1990 and became archbishop of Portland, Ore., before Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Chicago in 1997.

» Elevated to the College of Cardinals in early 1998.

» Wrote the 2009 book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture.

Meeting with top Mormon brass

» Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of the Chicago Diocese, and Bishop John C. Wester, of the Salt Lake City Diocese, also met Tuesday with the LDS Church's First Presidency and other top Mormon leaders in Salt Lake City.

» "It was a pleasure to host Cardinal George at church headquarters and BYU," said LDS apostle M. Russell Ballard in a statement. "He is a man of great faith and capacity, and I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him about our shared values and interests."