There has been an uproar over President Packer’s Sunday morning address in General Conference. Thousands of comments have been devoted to it on the Salt Lake Tribune’s website (bet the Deseret News wishes it had covered it just for the ad views) but I am wondering how many of the people upset about it have listened to it carefully.

The official transcript will be up tomorrow (Thursday) {edited to include link to LDS.org transcript, see comments below on key differences} but you can listen to the audio now at LDS.org. I suggest that those who wish to comment on the talk listen to it carefully and read it when they have the opportunity to do so.

I spent some time with the talk last night in order to better understand it. Much of the talk is uncontroversial in my mind, particularly the aspects that deal with pornography. Other aspects of the talk have the potential to cause hurt and confusion. I think some of this is due to poor or ambiguous wording. Here are some of my thoughts about what is novel and controversial in the talk. I’ve transcribed as best I can some longer quotes that I think are worth examining.

He opens by saying that we live in a time of confusion and danger for young people. He then says that The Family, A Proclamation to the World was issued, “15 years with the world in turmoil…” President Packer sees the world as a dangerous place for young people, and perhaps a place that is getting worse. The Proclamation was issued to address this in some way. I was interested to hear him say that it is the fifth proclamation issued by the Church. This serves to both emphasize it as rare and minimize it as I can only remember one of the other proclamations being quoted in conference, and never with any regularity. I am completely unaware of two of them. So is this most recent proclamation also destined for obscurity?

Perhaps not. President Packer states, “It qualifies, according to the definition, as a revelation.” I have never heard it classified as a revelation before. I have heard speculation that it might be canonized given the frequency with which it is cited in General Conference, but calling it a revelation gives the document more even authority. I think the wording is a bit odd, as I am not sure that he is in fact calling it a revelation as opposed to simply saying that it qualifies as one based on technical criteria.

President Packer then delves into issues of sex and pro-creation:

To be entrusted with the power to create life carries with it the greatest of joys and dangerous temptations. The gift of mortal life and the capacity to kindle other lives is a supernal blessing. Through the righteous exercise of the power as in nothing else we may come close to our Father in Heaven and experience a fullness of joy.

The power is not an incidental part of the plan of happiness, it is the key, the very key. Whether we use this power as the eternal laws require or reject this (possibly “its”) divine purpose will forever determine what we will become.

In my mind he is placing the issue of our sexuality and how we express it as the central focus of our time on earth and the plan of salvation. This is an unusual focus, but not shocking.

He then begins a discussion of marriage.

Pure love pre-supposes that only after a pledge of eternal fidelity, a legal and lawful ceremony, and ideally after a sealing ordinance in the temple, are those life giving powers released to the full expression of love.

I found this very interesting. I had thought that the Church would begin to emphasize sealings as the form of marriage that God requires for marriage to be valid through the eternities. President Packer seems to be heading in the opposite direction. Emphasis seems to be placed on a “pledge of eternal fidelity” and legal marriage. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard legal marriage and pledges given such treatment. I am used to the language of sealing and covenants.

Perhaps we do need to place more emphasis on legal marriage in order to underline its importance and make it an issue worth fighting over? I can certainly see how some would take my own view that we should emphasize temple sealings as a retreat.

We are free to ignore the commandments but when the revelations speak in such blunt terms as “thou shalt not” we’d better pay attention.

I would have liked more clarity here. I assume that he means, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But the content of the talk has nearly nothing to do with adultery. Perhaps he is alluding to the Abinadi and the “or anything like unto it” addition. It is hard to know because specifics aren’t given.

There is then a discussion of Satan and pro-creation culminating in:

Satan cannot beget life. He is impotent.

I think this is dangerous territory. Denouncing Satan as infertile and even impotent might be true, but for couples dealing with issues of infertility and impotence, being having these traits associated with the Devil himself is deeply hurtful. I do not think that President Packer meant for any such association to be drawn, but for people who are living with these problems such issues are possibly at the forefront of their minds and they are making these associations whether intended or not.

He then begins a discussion of pornography that I thought was entirely appropriate. Some key quotes:

In our day, the dreadful influence of pornography is like unto a plague, sweeping across the world.

The effect of this this plague can be and often is spiritually fatal.

If one is obedient, the priesthood can show you how to break a habit, even erase an addiction.

I think all of this is a needed warning and critical advice. I hope that those needing to hear this message can do so through the noise of the rest of the discussion of this talk.

He then seems to leave the topic of pornography for a while in order to address other concerns:

We teach the standard of moral conduct that will protect us from Satan’s many substitutes and counterfeits for marriage. We must understand that any persuasion to enter into any relationship that is not in harmony with the principles of the gospel must be wrong. From The Book of Mormon we learn that wickedness never was happiness. Some suppose that they were pre-set, and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so. Why would our Heavenly Father do that to anyone? Remember, he is our Father.

Paul promised, “God will not suffer you to be tempted above what ye are able, but will, with the temptation, also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (paraphrased I Cor 10:13)

You can if you will, break the habits, and conquer the addiction, and come away from that which is not worthy of any member of the Church. As Alma cautioned, we must watch and pray continually. Isaiah warned of them that call evil good and good evil. That put darkness for light and light for darkness. That put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

I think that this is the section of the talk that is causing much of the controversy. People are claiming that President Packer is claiming that people are not born gay or that they can be “cured.”

I suppose that you can interpret it that way if you want to, but I don’t see it. I think that this section of the talk is unfortunately worded and unclear. Let’s examine the key sentences. “Some suppose that they were pre-set, and cannot overcome what they feel are inborn tendencies toward the impure and unnatural. Not so.” Is he denying that sexuality is an in-born trait? No. Technically he is denying the combined claim that it is in-born and therefore those impulses cannot be overcome. This is probably still an offensive claim to many people, but it is not a denial of a biological basis for homosexuality and it is not a claim that anyone can be “cured.” It is a claim that people do not have to act on particular sexual urges, which is a pretty standard claim within the LDS Church.

I think that people can be forgiven for taking this a different way when listening to the talk, but reading it and considering it, I think if we want to be critical of this we need to be critical of what was actually said rather than some extrapolation or misunderstanding. I think the headline of the Salt Lake Tribune article linked to above is especially irresponsible.

President Packer then told a very funny story about a class of school children determining the sex of a kitten. One boy claims to know how to do it. The teacher cautiously asks what his method is, and he replies, “We can vote on it!”

The story got a good laugh which you can hear on the recording. It leads into my final big quote:

You may laugh at the story, but if we are not alert, there are those today who not only tolerate but advocate voting to change laws that would legalize immorality. As if a vote would somehow alter the designs of God’s laws and nature. A law against nature would be impossible to enforce. For instance, what would a law against the law of gravity do? There are both moral and physical laws, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of the world that cannot be changed.

History demonstrates over and over again that moral standards cannot be changed by battle and cannot be changed by ballot. To legalize that which is basically wrong or evil will not prevent the pain and penalties that follow as surely as night follows day.

Regardless of the obviation, we are determined to stay on course. We will hold to the principles and laws and ordinances of the gospel. If they are misunderstood, either innocently or willfully, so be it. We cannot change. We will not change the moral standard. We quickly lose our way when we disobey the laws of God. If we do not protect and foster the family, civilization and our liberties must needs perish. I the Lord am bound when ye do what I say, but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise.

Every soul can find the prison of sin, or guilt, or perversion, and a key to the gate. The key is labeled repentance. If you use this key the Adversary cannot hold you. The twin principles of repentance and forgiveness exceed in strength the awful power of the Tempter. If you are bound by a habit or an addiction that is unworthy you must stop that conduct that is harmful. Angels will coach you and priesthood leaders will guide you through difficult times. Nowhere are the generosity and the kindness and the 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 and our Redeemer? He said, “I God, suffer these things for all that they might not suffer if they would repent.

I think that this section contradicts itself. If moral standards cannot be changed by ballot then why are we so concerned with ballots? The statement, “We cannot change.” is simply inaccurate as it precludes the possibility of revelation on the subject. We’ve certainly changed before regarding marriage. I also think that comparing moral laws and physical laws is problematic for a number of reasons.

If you look carefully at the Ten Commandments, how many of them can be legislated in the USA? I come up with two for sure: murder and stealing. Bearing false witness is only a crime in certain circumstances. In the past you could add adultery and some others. Yet people are able to live moral lives without being compelled to do so by the government.

Read the final quoted paragraph carefully. I think this is the core message of his sermon, or perhaps was intended to be. Unfortunately it has been lost in the storm of controversy surrounding other aspects of the talk.

I summary, I think that President Packer’s talk was problematic, but perhaps not as bad as some have claimed. Many of the problems stem from imprecise wording which allows listeners to hear what they want to. Had he stuck to the topic of pornography the talk would not have been given much attention as what he said on that topic was well worded and non-controversial. I urge everyone to listen to it or read it carefully and come to your own conclusions.