Churches obligated to defend principles, Bishop Wester says

Published: Thursday, Nov. 21 2013 7:15 a.m. MST

The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of Salt Lake City, speaks to reporters about the election of the new pope on Friday, March 15, 2013. Argentine Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope Wednesday and chose the papal name Francis, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Proclaiming that “every person must be respected as a child of God,” the Most Rev. John C. Wester, Catholic bishop of Salt Lake City, told a gathering of Salt Lake-area attorneys Wednesday that not only do churches have a right to their place in the public square, but they are obligated to speak out when their core principles are under attack.

“Jesus calls us to be a leaven in the world, to be in the world but not of it,” Bishop Wester said during the lunch meeting of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society, an independent LDS-oriented organization of practicing attorneys designed to “promote fairness and virtue founded upon the rule of law.”

“But Jesus wants us to be in it, to be a participant in it, to proclaim the gospel through our actions and with our voices,” he continued. “For us, the kingdom of God begins now.”

For the Catholic Church, Bishop Wester said, “our positions in the public square are grounded on scripture.”

“They center on the core belief that we are one family created by a loving God,” he said. “We are responsible for one another as brothers and sisters, and we are all deserving of a life of dignity.

“For us, Jesus Christ is the epitome of this message,” he continued. “He lived it himself. ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s.’ There is mutuality there — a boundary, but mutuality.

"Jesus calls us to build relationships of love, solidarity and dignity, which will affect the solidarity of all people and nations.”

Speaking to an audience that included primarily members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — he was introduced by Elder L. Whitney Clayton of the church’s Presidency of the Seventy — Bishop Wester identified and explained what he called the “core principles” the Catholic Church uses to guide its decisions of when to enter discussions in the public square and when to communicate its positions to the world:

The right to life and the dignity of the human person (“Human life is sacred,” Bishop Wester explained, which is why the church takes public stands against such practices as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, torture and the death penalty.)

The paramount importance of the family, including the view that marriage between one man and one woman is “sacred” and “the fundamental unit of society.”

Human rights and responsibilities (“The human rights that evolve from the sanctity of life must be protected,” he said. “We didn’t just make this up. We believe this is from God himself, and it is an integral part of our faith. We don’t expect others to subscribe to what we believe in, but we should be able to follow our conscience.”)

Options for the poor and vulnerable (“Those who are weak, vulnerable and in profound need deserve preferential concern,” the Catholic bishop said. “We see this in the life of Jesus himself — we are only following him in our ministry to those who are marginalized, to unborn children, to victims of injustice and oppression.”)

The dignity of work and the rights of workers (“The economy must serve people and not the other way around,” he said. “The church would seek that just moral order in which people can engage in productive work and contribute to the common good through their work.”)

Solidarity (“We are one human family,” Bishop Wester said. “Whatever our national, racial, economic or ideological differences, we are each other’s neighbors, and we are our brother’s keepers.”)

Caring for God’s creation (“Pope Francis is setting an example for us to live more simply,” he said. “We have to take responsibility so future generations have something to inherit.”)

“These are the guiding principles that color what we say or do as a church,” Bishop Wester said. “Sometimes we see issues arise in the public square about which we would like to speak, but we cannot if it doesn’t have any bearing on these principles.

“But when these principles become involved,” he added, “then the church is obligated to speak out.”

This is especially true today, when Pope Francis is challenging the Catholic Church to be a church for the poor.

“The pope is calling for structural reform, trying to find a way to close the gap between the haves and the have-nots,” Bishop Wester said. “Millions of children die each year from disease and malnutrition. With the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the Holy Father is urging a transformation in the political conversation to enhance awareness of these concerns.”

And that, the bishop said, is the essence of the church’s role in public discourse.

“The church sees herself with other churches working with the body politic to promote responsibility for the common good,” he said. “Our church is compelled to speak in the public square to further the cause of a just society.

“And we are blessed,” Bishop Wester concluded, “to live in a free society that allows this to happen.”

Email: jwalker@deseretnews.com

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