When Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, addressed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including two of its top officials, at Utah's Brigham Young University on February 23, he became the first cardinal to address that student body. But that wasn't the only cutting edge aspect of the event. His call for more cooperation between Catholics and Latter-day Saints was not a dialogue in the traditional sense of relationships between Catholics and other religious bodies. It relied heavily on culture.
Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, breakthroughs in ecumenical and interreligious relationships came as a result of extensive dialogue and self-examination by the parties participating in the dialogue.
For instance, when centuries of cultural anti-Semitism boiled over in the horrors of the Holocaust, the Catholic Church did some self-examination as to how Christian anti-Judaism may have helped create the conditions that allowed the Holocaust to occur. Exploring our relationship with Judaism more closely ultimately led to the groundbreaking Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, which rejected the idea that the Jewish people are somehow responsible for the death of Jesus and that God has rejected them. Today, when the Catholic Church engages the Jewish people, it does so from a paradigm that recognizes them as "our older brother in faith" and "the first people to hear the Word of God."
Another example is dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans, which saw over 40 years of work come to fruition in 1999, when the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The document, in effect, cleared up over four centuries of division on the issue of how people are justified before God. Cardinal George himself does a fine job of explaining this ecumenical breakthrough here:
But the content of Cardinal George's address to Brigham Young University didn't reflect a theological dialogue or other internal matters. It instead focused on two issues in U.S. culture -- abortion and same-sex marriage. Cardinal George made the case that Catholics and Latter-day Saints can stand united on these issues because, whether through funding of abortion through health care reform or mandates to recognize same-sex marriage, both issues threaten religious liberty.
Cardinal George isn't the first high-ranking Catholic to take this approach -- Pope Benedict XVI has been a pioneer, reaching out to the Russian Orthodox Church (whose relations with the Vatican have tended toward the frosty at times) and insisting that Catholics and Orthodox should work together to combat secularism in Europe. Russian Orthodox Church leaders have been receptive.
In another instance, when Pope Benedict visited Jordan, a predominantly Muslim country, in 2009, he condemned religious extremism and violence in the name of religion. With radical Islam threatening the lives of countless people, Christian, Muslim or otherwise, around the world, this was a particularly powerful topic to bring to the table.
It's probably no accident that Pope Benedict has taken this approach. Going back to his days as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he expressed skepticism that a purely interreligious dialogue was even possible, that an element of intercultural dialogue would always be present in the mix. Fittingly then, his major dialogue endeavors as pope have had a cultural emphasis.
It also works on a practical level. The conventional wisdom is that the best way to unify people is to give them a common challenge, some injustice to correct. Whether its secularism, violence or threats to religious liberty, the same principle applies.
Even before Pope Benedict was showing the way, the U.S. Church took this approach on certain issues. For instance, great strides in Catholic-Evangelical relations have come through collaboration within the Pro-Life movement. Now Cardinal George is acknowledging that such collaboration should extend to Latter-day Saints and go beyond abortion to all issues that might hinder the free expression of religion in the U.S.
As recent developments with Catholic Charities of Washington DC have shown, this approach of standing with other people of faith to address the culture with a unified voice may prove timely indeed.