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Utah Catholics find unity in being a minority faith

Saturday, February 2, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- When people talk about "The Church" in Utah, they're not talking about the Roman Catholic Church.

Catholicism is America's largest denomination, but its No. 2 in Utah and represents only about 9 percent of the state's residents, or roughly 200,000 people. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints claims 70 percent of Utah's residents -- around 1.5 million people.

The sheer dominance of Mormonism in Utah -- where it's not just a religion, but a culture -- pushes Catholics together and has created a tightly knit minority.

"I'm amazed at the distances that people travel to attend Mass in rural areas," said Dee Rowland, the Salt Lake diocese's government liaison. "I'm overwhelmed by the sacrifices parents make financially and in transportation complications to send their children to Catholic schools."

Salt Lake Bishop George Niederauer, the Church's top official in Utah, says that being immersed in the Mormon culture causes people to look closely at their own faith.

"I think the atmosphere here encourages people to take religion seriously," he said. "When people ask you what ward you belong to, that gets you thinking."

The Mormon influence in Utah, where the Winter Olympics will be held next week, runs deep. The state was founded by the faith's pioneers in 1847, who had fled from persecution in the East. Today, it is the home of the Mormon church's world headquarters.

Great religious divide

Salt Lake City is a place where a resident can come home, switch on the Mormon church-owned NBC affiliate and see commercials for the Mormon church-owned Deseret Books, which has a branch conveniently located downtown in the Mormon church-owned ZCMI mall across the street from the Mormon church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News.

This also is a place where drinking a cup of coffee in the morning or having a beer after work makes a clear statement about religious affiliation. The Mormon church prohibits members in good standing from smoking or drinking alcohol and hot caffeinated beverages.

A poll conducted last fall for The Salt Lake Tribune, the state's largest newspaper, found that more than two-thirds of Utah's residents perceive a social, cultural or political divide between those who are Mormon and those who are not.

In short: The rift can be obvious and divisive, even as leaders of different faiths push for tolerance.

"There's a tremendous challenge to being in the majority or the minority graciously," Niederauer said. "We have to be careful about Mormon bashing. It can become a blood sport."

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