Bishop John Wester

Searching for common ground is vital not only within the Catholic Church itself but within society at large, and both individuals and organizations must cultivate several selfless characteristics in order to achieve it, Utah's Catholic bishop said.

Bishop John Wester told members of the Salt Lake Rotary Club on Tuesday that since his inauguration as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City in March 2007, he's been impressed with Utahns who seek to dialogue with those they differ with religiously or politically. He noted specifically the Alliance for Unity, created by business and political leaders in Utah a few years ago during the public battle over the LDS Church's Main Street Plaza downtown.

The bishop said he would be careful not to speak to any specific issue but to share ideas for what it takes to find common ground.

In order to do so effectively, people must first know their own truth and what items are "non-negotiables. I need to know what I believe in and what I really hold dear," he said. Honesty is a prerequisite, and those who seek the common good have to be genuine about who they are, no matter the venue or the audience.

Deep listening to the views and feelings of others is also required, he said, looking to see another "as he or she really is and not as we assume them to be or as we think they are." Driving on I-15, the bishop said he has often found himself judging the motives of people who cut him off in traffic, only to observe that others are doing the same.

One man who passed him, ready to give an obscene gesture, changed his demeanor once he noticed the bishop's collar, and instead, he sheepishly smiled and waved. "We have to be who we are and treat people honestly and genuinely."

Taking risks and being willing to trust those with whom one disagrees enough to find a common solution is necessary, as is an element of hope, he said, quoting a favored maxim: "Two men lived behind bars. One saw mud, and the other saw stars."

Spending the time it takes to understand what common ground can be found and admitting that "no one group or person has a monopoly on the truth" may be the most difficult steps for those who are seeking to find workable solutions, he said. "We have to be willing to see the truth as it exists in other places," rather than simply relying on tradition or past intransigence.

A presumption that others seeking dialogue are acting in good faith unless proven otherwise means "not ascribing motives to people" that are not born out in fact. That includes putting the best possible construction on another's point of view, rather than seeking for a weakness to exploit. "What is persuasive about what is being said. I need to allow myself to hear that and then respond."

Finally, those looking for common ground must not make the assumption that those who disagree with them are diametrically opposed. There may be small points or nuances that allow for some agreement that can be overlooked if each viewpoint isn't examined carefully, he said.

Despite a common belief in Jesus Christ, factions within the Catholic Church create polarity between those on the far left and the far right, he said, noting an initiative to find common ground among them begun in 1996 by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago met with resistance in some circles. Still, the initiative goes forward.

"We need God's grace, and we have to ask for God's help," he said. "We can't do it alone." He noted the examples set by Pope John Paul II and by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, with whom he had lunch a few months after arriving in Utah. "He truly sought to work together with others for the common good."

He lauded Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, whose staff contacted him upon learning that Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., had cancer. "They called me and asked me to say a Mass for Ted Kennedy," which he did in a gathering that included several local business people and politicians.

The bishop said he was shocked when Hatch called him later that day to thank him, noting he was impressed by "the friendship and support between the two of them, though they are political rivals."

"There are certain things we can't compromise on, but some that we can," he said.


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