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Leader of Mormons Reaffirms Primacy of Church Teachings : Interview: After being chosen president and prophet in June, Howard W. Hunter reached out to disaffected members. But he still upholds authority of the hierarchy.

October 22, 1994

If one thing has characterized the tenure of Howard W. Hunter as the new president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has been his call to disaffected Mormons to return to the church.

"To those who have transgressed or offended, we say come back! To those who are hurt and struggling and afraid, we say let us stand with you and dry your tears," Hunter said in June after he was elected to the top post of the 8.8-million-member church.

Hunter, 86, is believed by Mormons to be God's living prophet on Earth, just as Moses was during biblical times.

For this reason, those who seek reforms within the church--including the admission of women to the Mormon priesthood and greater freedom to question the doctrines of the church--were cautiously optimistic when Hunter struck a chord of reconciliation. In the last several years leading up to Hunter's election, at least seven Mormons were excommunicated for publicly challenging church teaching.

in his first major interview since his election, Hunter, mild-mannered and gentle, was nonetheless unbending in reaffirming the primacy of the church's teachings over individual conscience, the authority of the hierarchy and the appropriateness of ecclesiastical sanctions against those who cross the line.

Hunter spoke to Times Religion Writer Larry B. Stammer this week during a trip to Pasadena to meet with area Mormons. Following are excerpts from that interview:

Question: You beckoned those who have set themselves apart from the church to return home. How do you think this theme of reconciliation is being received by your flock?

Hunter: My observation is it's been received wholeheartedly.

Q: Are you concerned, as some other church people are, about an erosion of moral purpose and of hierarchical authority? A lot of Catholics, for example, say they do not agree with this or that policy that comes from the Vatican.

Hunter: We have concern, yes. We have concern . . . that morals are being eroded among young people, particularly. We teach the principle that these things are wrong. Now when it comes to the matter of taking them up in the church, we do not have a split of opinion among the membership. We're united. The membership of the church . . . sustains and follows the teachings of those in authority.

Q: Is there any concern that you need to very clearly draw a line now to avoid the controversy and disagreement that you might see in the Roman Catholic Church? Is it important to nip it in the bud?

Hunter: Yes. We follow it (dissent) carefully in the church. We attempt to set aside (differences) and be united entirely on matters which have been considered by the authorities of the church.

Q: As you know, some Catholic theologians have been barred from teaching in Catholic universities by the Pope because they departed from Catholic orthodoxy. (Mormons have imposed similar restrictions on Mormon theologians.) Where does academic freedom and freedom of inquiry cross the line into apostasy and how difficult is it to draw that line?

Hunter: That's a concern that's talked about within the leadership of the church. Now there are many who think they don't have academic freedom. In some sense that requires a definition of academic freedom. But where there is an outspoken opposition to that which has been announced by the church's policy, we take action on it. We think that is a matter which should be handled by a council . . . that handles judicial matters, that they (theologians or others) be in conformity with the teachings of the church. If they're not they'll be subject to disciplinary action--and usually are.

Q: There have been occasions in the past when some churches have recanted certain teachings. Galileo comes to mind--when the Roman Catholic Church hundreds of years later said it was wrong in punishing Galileo for saying the earth revolved around the sun. Is it possible in light of continuing revelation that the Mormon Church may change its opposition to women in the priesthood?

Hunter: At the present time there isn't an avenue of ever changing. It's too well defined by revelation, by Scripture. And we follow strictly the scriptural passageway in matters of that kind. I see nothing that will lead to a change of direction at the present time--or in the future.

Q: As prophet and seer of the church, do you see yourself as speaking infallibly? And how would you define infallible?

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