Just because the nation may change its laws to "tolerate legalized acts of immorality" does not make those acts any less spiritually damaging, senior apostle Boyd K. Packer said Saturday morning at the LDS Church's 183rd Annual General Conference.
"The permissiveness afforded by the weakening of the laws of the land to tolerate legalized acts of immorality," Packer said, "does not reduce the serious spiritual consequences that result from the violation of God's law of chastity."
Packer, president of the Utah-based faith's Quorum of Twelve Apostles and next in line to take over the church's reins, didn't specifically mention gay marriage, but his comments came amid much controversy on the issue nationwide and a significant swing in public and political opinion toward favoring such same-sex unions.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering two cases on the matter, one concerning whether to uphold California's LDS Church-backed Proposition 8, which limits marriage to unions between men and women, and the other on the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which also defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
In addition, the Boy Scouts of America recently announced it is weighing whether to lift a long-standing ban on allowing openly gay members and leaders in the organization. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the nation's largest sponsor of Scouting.
"Tolerance is a virtue, but, like all virtues, when exaggerated it transforms itself into a vice," said the 88-year-old Packer, speaking from his chair rather than from the pulpit. "We need to be careful of the 'tolerance trap' so that we are not swallowed up in it."
His sermon also came amid a softening tone from LDS leaders toward the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. In December, the church unveiled a new website mormonsandgays.org that calls for compassion and understanding toward LGBT people.
Same-sex attraction is not a sin," the website emphasizes, "but acting on it is." At the same time, Mormon teachings decree that sex should be between only a husband and a wife something apostle David A. Bednar further highlighted during his speech Saturday afternoon.
"The commandment to multiply and replenish the Earth remains in force today," Bednar said. "Thus, marriage between a man and a woman is the authorized channel through which premortal spirits enter mortality. Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage protect the sanctity of this sacred channel."
He promised that obedience to the law of chastity would lead to greater happiness in life and make possible progress in eternity.
"The doctrine I have described will seem to be archaic and outdated to many people in a world that increasingly mocks the sanctity of procreation and minimizes the worth of human life," Bednar said. "But the Lord's truth is not altered by fads, popularity or public opinion polls."
Several LDS leaders also spoke Saturday about the important but separate roles of women within the faith. For the first time in Mormon history, a woman offered a public prayer at General Conference. Jean A. Stevens, first counselor in the church's Primary general presidency, which oversees religious instruction of children under age 12, gave the benediction at the opening session.
LDS leaders' comments about women also followed news of the first organized push by devout grass-roots members to open up the church's all-male lay priesthood to women an initiative that has drawn criticism from Mormon traditionalists.
On Friday, the LDS Church posted a video interview on its newsroom website with the faith's top three women leaders. They talked about how most Mormon women want not ordination but rather the "blessings and power" that come from the priesthood they share with their husbands.
"Men and women have different but equally valued roles," apostle M. Russell Ballard said Saturday. "Just as a woman cannot conceive a child without a man, so a man cannot fully exercise the power of the priesthood to establish an eternal family without a woman. In other words, in the eternal perspective, both the procreative power and the priesthood power are shared by a husband and wife."
Ballard discussed a new church-produced video called "Strengthening the Family and the Church through the Priesthood" that "shows us all men, women, children, married, widowed or single, no matter what our circumstances how we can be partakers of the blessings of the priesthood."
He said the church's governing First Presidency has asked local LDS leaders to dedicate at least one council meeting to viewing the video.
Elaine S. Dalton, who was released Saturday afternoon as Young Women's general president, shared a similar message. Sherepeated the faith's "Family Proclamation" that: "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."
She emphasized that women should "exemplify virtuous womanhood" for their daughters, showing by example how to love and honor their husbands and their husbands' priesthood.
"As daughters of God, we are each unique and different in our circumstances and experiences," Dalton said. "And yet our part matters because we matter. Our daily contributions of nurturing, teaching and caring for others may seem mundane, diminished, difficult and demeaning at times, and yet as we remember that first line in the Young Women theme, 'We are daughters of our Heavenly Father, who loves us,' it will make all the difference in our relationships and our responses."
She told of how, when the LDS Conference Center was being built in downtown Salt Lake City, she spent days vacuuming voluminous amounts of dust from the carpet her husband was helping to install there. As her husband prepared to put down the last patch under what would be the center's pulpit, he asked his wife what scripture he should write on the back of the carpet. She responded with a verse from the Book of Mormon: "Mosiah 18:9: 'Stand as [a] witness of God at all times and in all things, and in all places.' "
She lauded young Mormon men and women for doing just that, acting their parts as influences for good.
"Years ago," Dalton said, "when I was vacuuming this carpet trying to act well my small part, I didn't realize that I would one day stand with my feet on the carpet under this pulpit."
Apostle Richard G. Scott noted that all people can focus their lives on Jesus Christ, regardless of their families' makeup.
"Some homes have a father who is a worthy priesthood holder joined by a faithful, devoted mother who together lead in righteousness," Scott said. "Many homes have a different configuration. Regardless of your circumstances, you can center your home and your life on the Lord."
Apostle Quentin L. Cook also spoke about peace, drawing a distinction between personal peace and world peace. He said it's clear that universal peace did not exist in the time of Christ and does not exist now. Though people pray for universal peace, he said, "it is as individuals and families that we achieve the kind of peace that is the promised reward of righteousness."
He pointed to the parents of Emilie Parker, one of 20 children killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut last year. Cook, who spoke at Emilie's funeral in Ogden, said he found "strength and faith" in Emilie's parents, Utah natives Robert and Alissa Parker.
"In my meetings with Emilie Parker's parents, the Savior's peace has eased their suffering and is helping to bind up their broken hearts," Cook said. "It is notable that immediately after the shooting, Brother Parker expressed forgiveness to the perpetrator. As [LDS Church] President [Heber J.] Grant said, the Savior's peace can 'blot out our hates.' "
LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson kicked off the two-day conference by trumpeting the faith's ballooning missionary program. Six months after lowering the minimum mission ages for young men and women to 18 and 19, respectively, Mormon missionary numbers have skyrocketed.
The church now has 65,634 full-time missionaries, with 20,000-plus more who have received their assignments and 6,000 in the interview process, Monson said.
"The response of our young people has been remarkable and inspiring," the 85-year-old Mormon leader said.
Apostle Russell M. Nelson even offered guidance to the church's new, younger missionaries. He urged young people with aspirations of higher education to apply to college before they leave for their missions so they don't have to worry about it during their service.
Monson also announced temples will be built in Cedar City (Utah's 17th) and Rio de Janeiro, site of next year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
LDS Churchin 2012
14,782,473 • Total membership
272,330 • Converts in 2012
29,014 • Congregations
3,005 • Stakes (clusters of congregations)
Source: LDS Church