PROVO — The fight to defend moral principles is linking Mormons and Catholics like never before.
"In recent years, Catholics and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have stood more frequently side by side in the public square to defend human life and dignity," Cardinal Francis George told nearly 12,000 students, faculty and community members gathered Tuesday at BYU.
"I'm personally grateful that after 180 years of living mostly apart from one another, Catholics and Latter-day Saints have begun to see each other as trustworthy partners in defense of shared moral principles."
Believed to be the highest-ranking Catholic official to ever visit BYU, Cardinal George spoke about the need for both religions to stand together to protect religious freedom — not simply as a set of private beliefs, but the ability of individuals and groups to practice their religion in the public square.
"Any attempt to reduce that fuller sense of religious freedom, which has been part of our history in this country for more than two centuries, to a private reality of worship and individual conscience so long as you don't make anyone else unhappy, is not in our tradition," said Cardinal George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop of Chicago. "It was the tradition of the Soviet Union."
His message was echoed by Elder Dallin H. Oaks, who spoke recently at BYU-Idaho.
"Religious values and political realities are so interlinked in the origin and perpetuation of this nation that we cannot lose the influence of Christianity in the public square without seriously jeopardizing our freedoms," said Elder Oaks, a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve.
Protecting those freedoms, despite theological differences, is so crucial that both Catholics and Latter-day Saints are seeing themselves as "spiritually united," said Robert George, a devout Catholic and professor at Princeton University who spoke at BYU in October 2008.
"It goes beyond having a common set of moral or political convictions," he said. "More than that, it's an appreciation of each other, an appreciation for the profundity of the faith … and feeling that they're working together on something that God himself wills."
There's plenty to work on.
Cardinal George praised the LDS Church for its efforts alongside the Catholic Church to alleviate suffering of the poor, combat pornography, define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, and protect the rights of the unborn.
"It was a pleasure to host Cardinal George at (LDS) Church headquarters and BYU today," said Elder M. Russell Ballard, who attended Tuesday's forum with Elder Quentin L. Cook, as well as Bishop John C. Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.
Cardinal George also visited with the LDS Church's First Presidency, toured the Family History Library and met other senior church leaders.
"He is a man of great faith and capacity, and I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with him about our shared values and interests," Elder Ballard said.
Regarding gay marriage, Cardinal George stressed that Catholics believe, as do Latter-day Saints, that every person is made in the image of God and, as such, should be loved, regardless of sexual orientation.
"That doesn't mean we approve of everything anybody does," he said.
After Cardinal George's speech, others interviewed echoed his view of Catholic/Mormon unity.
"There is nothing like being in the trenches together to make common cause," said Maggie Gallagher, a Catholic and president of the National Organization for Marriage. "I think we all need the courage to stand up for our core beliefs — especially the belief that our marriage tradition is good. I'm very grateful for the LDS faith community's leadership, but even more for the ordinary member's ordinary courage. We all admire it and seek to emulate it."
For Robert George, he said he keeps coming back to the Bible scripture: "By their fruits ye shall know them."
"A lot of Catholics are looking at the fruit born by the LDS," he said, "not only in the way they conduct their daily affairs, (but in) the witness they gave on the marriage question, especially when they were so brutally attacked for it."
Those sacrifices haven't gone unnoticed, he said.
"I didn't want there to be any question about whether Catholics like me would forget about them after we'd won the war," he said.
And he won't.
Through the Proposition 8 battle banning same-sex marriage in California, Robert George said he not only developed a deeper appreciation of the LDS faith, but was strengthened in his own faith as well.
Such appreciation must be mutual, said Paul Kerry, BYU professor and friend of Robert George.
"As someone who teaches history, I'm stunned at the lack of appreciation for the role the Catholic Church has played as this worldwide organization, and the great leadership it has displayed on family issues in places where the LDS Church might not be very prominent," Kerry said.
Thanks to its global presence, the Catholic Church always has stood for family issues, whether it was opposing Nazi policies of euthanasia or speaking against abortion, he said.
The opportunity to hear from someone like Cardinal George reminds Latter-day Saints of the challenges facing religious freedom and of the many people working to defend it, Kerry said.
"If we do not fight it together, … the difference is between winning and losing," Robert George said. "If we try to fight it separately, we will lose. The enemy is too strong, and our adversaries are too powerful."
Fighting together does not mean abandoning core doctrines or changing theology, only coming to the realization that both religions have "a lot in common in terms of things that they're trying to defend — certain moral values that they believe are not just central to their faith, but central to the well-being of civilization, of society," said Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland, another friend of Robert George.
Such staunch advocacy doesn't come without cost, and fighting for religious freedom often will make such warriors targets for retaliation and hatred, Cardinal George said.
"But despite that, if we stay together and go forward, … if we simply continue to talk together, (it) will in the end bear much fruit," he said. "When government fails to protect the consciences of its citizens, it falls to religious bodies, especially those formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, to become the defenders of human freedoms."
To view Cardinal George's entire speech, visit www.byu.tv/.