In the October 2010 General Conference, a semi-annual world-wide meeting for Mormons, Boyd K. Packer gave a talk which generated some controversy. It has been widely reported as a talk on homosexuality, but was in reality a talk on a proclamation on families issued by the Mormons a number of years ago. In this talk, he also addressed pornography, honoring marriage vows, and chastity. He focused on the ability of people to choose repentance and then to succeed in their sincere efforts to repent and their ability to be forgiven for past sins.

In order to understand why the controversy is misguided, one must understand some important principles concerning how the Mormon Church operates. Elder Packer is an apostle. The president of the Church and the prophet are roles both filled by Thomas S. Monson. President Monson is assisted by two counselors. He and the counselors form the First Presidency of the Church. Next is the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, of which Elder Packer is the president. This makes him next in line to be the prophet if he outlives President Monson. Only the current living prophet can declare official doctrine for the entire church and he cannot make doctrine simply because he wishes to. He must petition God for doctrinal changes and doctrinal changes come very seldom.

Mormon leaders, even at the highest levels, are not trained ministers. They don’t attend a traditional seminary (a Mormon seminary is a school-year class for teenagers). They come from other professions. For instance, our current prophet was in the printing industry prior to becoming an apostle.

Prophets and apostles are ordinary people. They are given the same gift of agency as is everyone and they hold personal opinions. Mormon beliefs don’t cover everything and so, where the Church has no official doctrine in place, Church members, including leaders, are entitled to hold whatever opinion they choose and to develop that opinion in any way they choose. The Church has frequently explained that science and history are not doctrine, and therefore, many church leaders, some of whom come from the world of science, are free to hold whatever opinions they would like to have in those areas. Where science and religion might overlap, only the spiritual aspects—those affecting eternal life—are of importance to the Church.

The Mormons have stated that they do not take an official stand on the causes of homosexuality and on whether or not the tendencies can be changed. Nor do they take a stand on whether or not a person should seek treatment to change and they do not recommend programs. This is because it is an issue of science, not religion. God does not judge our temptations—even Jesus was tempted, which makes His perfection meaningful. It is our actions that matter. Jesus taught that we must do the will of the Lord to be accepted into Heaven. While a person may be unable to choose his temptations or tendencies, he is free to choose his actions and this is where the Mormons focus their religious doctrine, because it is the only part of the subject that affects a person’s eternal life. Causation is for science, psychology and personal beliefs until God speaks otherwise. However, there can be no question that the Bible speaks quite firmly about the evils of homosexual behavior. The Bible is clear and consistent on the subject.

Elder Packer’s talk was published with a few changes. However, the eternal truths were not changed. It is standard for a speaker to be allowed to review the talk he gave and decide whether to publish it as is or make some changes. The written talk is considered the official version, the one church members study and learn from. This allows a speaker who inserted personal views, misquoted a scripture or simply misspoke—as any frequent speaker will tell you is common—to make certain the official version accurately reflects official teachings and not just the personal opinions of the aspects not canonized.

Official truth, however, cannot be altered. As Elder Packer said, you cannot put truth to a vote. When we stand before God, He will not evaluate our political correctness or our ability to match the views of the times. He will compare our lives to the eternal truths He taught us.

The bulk of Elder Packer’s talk was on the gift of repentance, a selfless gift made possible by the Savior’s atonement. Because Jesus Christ atoned for our sins, we are able to repent and to be made pure again.

The twin principles of repentance and forgiveness exceed in strength the awesome power of the tempter. If you are bound by a habit or an addiction that is unworthy, you must stop conduct that is harmful. Angels will coach you,and priesthood leaders will guide you through those difficult times.

Nowhere are the generosity and the kindness and mercy of God more manifest than in repentance. Do you understand the consummate cleansing power of the Atonement made by the Son of God, our Savior, our Redeemer? He said, “I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent.” In that supernal act of love, the Savior paid the penalties for our sins so that we might not have to pay.

For those who truly desire it, there is a way back. Repentance is like unto a detergent. Even ground-in stains of sin will come out.

What a powerful promise—that angels will coach you as you struggle to overcome behaviors you know in your heart to be against the teachings of God. Regardless of the initial cause of any sin, angels stand ready to help us get through the process of change. When we think of the millions going through recovery programs for various challenges and struggling to overcome them, it is extraordinarily encouraging—the giving of courage—to picture a personal angelic coach and to know that when the struggle ends, God will forget our sin as if it never happened. This, more than any other teaching, can bring peace to those whose lives are hard. It can help people overcome the bullying of those without compassion and the attempts of others to lead them back into a life of sin. It creates a life of hope.

President Joseph Fielding Smith told me of a repentant woman struggling to find her way out of a very immoral life. She asked him what she should do now.

In turn, he asked her to read to him from the Old Testament the account of Lot’s wife, who was turned to a pillar of salt. Then he asked her, “What lesson do you gain from those verses?”

She answered, “The Lord will destroy the wicked.”

“Not so!” President Smith said that the lesson for this repentant woman and for you is “Don’t look back!”

Strangely enough, it may be that the simplest and most powerful prevention and cure for pornography, or any unclean act, is to ignore and avoid it. Delete from the mind any unworthy thought that tries to take root. Once you have decided to remain clean, you are asserting your God-given agency. And then, as President Smith counseled, “Don’t look back.”

Read Elder Packer’s talk.

Read the official church response to HRC Petition.

Read the call for civility.

Read the official clarification of Elder Packer’s talk.

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