TIME faith

Vatican Strengthens Ties with Evangelicals and Mormons Against Gay Marriage

Pope Francis general audience
Pope Francis during his weekly general audience in St. Peter square, Vatican City, Nov. 19, 2014. Osservatore Romano/EPA

New alliances formed in Rome this week

In a month when papal conversation about marriage has been all the rage, the Vatican is enlisting a new set of allies to support its commitment to marriage between a man and a woman: American evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This week the Vatican hosted a three-day, international, interreligious colloquium called Humanum, “The Complementarity of Man and Woman: An International Colloquium.” Its goal was to “propose anew the beauty of the relationship between the man and the woman.” Speakers came from nearly two dozen countries and a variety of religious traditions, including Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Taoists.

The presence of American evangelicals and the LDS Church was particularly notable. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, and Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, each gave speeches, and representatives from the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council in Washington attended. President Henry Eyring of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ first presidency spoke and Elder Tom Perry of the LDS’s Quorum of the Twelve also joined. In the United States, this trio of faiths has worked together to stand against the government’s Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, but it was the first time they were coming together at the Vatican to talk about marriage.

The colloquium rallied around the theological concept of complementarianism, the belief that men and women have different roles in a marriage and religious leadership—husbands are spiritual leaders, and wives submit to them in love. To be “complementary” is to complete or fill the lack in the other thing. It opposes egalitarianism, the theological belief that men and women are equal in all respects in marriage and in religious leadership positions. Traditional Catholic, evangelical, and LDS belief interprets the Bible to support a complementarian relational structure. That may explain why mainline Protestant traditions that interpret the Bible to an egalitarian end—Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ—were not featured at the event.

Pope Francis did not spearhead the colloquium, as many casual observers might think. It was organized and led by German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, a strong conservative voice at the Pope’s Synod on the Family last month. Müller is the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican group that sponsored the event. Still, Pope Francis gave an opening address to attendees, in which he affirmed the Church’s teaching that children have a right to a mother and a father.

Skepticism about the other’s faith tends to run deep between Catholics, evangelicals and Mormons. In strict economic terms, the three faiths all compete for followers. They are heavily missionizing, and often they evangelize precisely in ways that distinguish themselves apart from the other faiths. But the Protestant work ethic runs deep in both evangelical and Mormon culture, as does deep commitment to faith convictions that the outside world may not understand. The gathering signals that some Vatican leaders recognize that banding together to support marriage as between one man and one woman may be a smart strategy going forward, especially as they have been standing separately against the western world’s changing sexual mores.

On paper, the colloquium concluded with an affirmation of marriage. “For on earth marriage binds us across the ages in the flesh, across families in the flesh, and across the fearful and wonderful divide of man and woman, in the flesh. This is not ours to alter,” it reads. “It is ours, however, to encourage and celebrate….This we affirm.”

But in practice, it ended with something more significant—a strengthening of alliances. The event forged and deepened relationships across faith lines. “This group differs on many points—theological and political—but we agree that marriage matters,” says Moore, who walked around the Vatican with a copy of Luther’s 95 Theses in his coat pocket, a symbol of Protestantism’s break with Rome 500 years ago. “The colloquium started a conversation of groups on virtually every continent and virtually every religious tradition on how we can work together for the common good of marriage.”

For Eyring, of the LDS Church, the event marks a beginning. “They are talking about how are we going to get the word out and what more can we do. They want to do more,” he told the Deseret News. “It’s been amazing how receptive they have been to us,” Perry added, describing relationship he has been developing with Catholic leaders. “I think that we’ve developed a relationship now that they recognized that we have the strength and our structure in our organization that can reach out in a way that other churches do not have.”

American evangelical leaders say they are also leaving hopeful of the journey ahead. “The content of the colloquium was important, but perhaps more so were the connections made between people who share come concerns but who didn’t know each other before,” Moore says. “I am leaving the colloquium much more optimistic than I was when I arrived.”

Adds Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council: “The atmosphere was almost euphoric as the attendees from six of the world’s seven continents broke from the historic gathering to return to their respective nations renewed in their stand for marriage,” he says. “The courts may declare otherwise, and Hollywood may depict its demise, but the union of a man and a woman as the natural and enduring definition of marriage will endure until the end.”

TIME faith

Meet Blase Cupich: Chicago’s New Archbishop

Bishop Blase Cupich, Pope Francis' first major appointment in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church, leaves Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago
Bishop Blase Cupich, Pope Francis' first major appointment in the hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church, leaves Holy Name Cathedral as part of a ritual a day ahead of his installation as the new archbishop in Chicago, Nov. 17, 2014. Jeff Haynes—Reuters

Pope Francis was said to be personally involved in Cupich’s selection

On Tuesday afternoon, Blase Cupich, former bishop of Spokane, Wash., will be installed as the ninth archbishop of Chicago. Pope Francis named Cupich, 65, to the appointment in September to replace Cardinal Francis George, who is the city’s first retiring archbishop and who is fighting cancer. “This was not on my radar screen at all… I honestly thought that I was going to retire in Spokane,” Cupich says. “The Pope thought otherwise.”

The archbishop of Chicago is a key seat in the power structure of American Catholicism. The archdiocese is the country’s third-largest Catholic community with 2.2 million members — nearly half of whom are Hispanic — and a budget that tops $1 billion. Its two previous archbishops have been named cardinals.

Pope Francis was said to be personally involved in Cupich’s selection. So far the two men have had almost no direct communication — Cupich wrote the Pope a personal letter thanking him for the appointment, as is customary, but that’s it. They will likely meet for the first time in June for the presentation of the pallium, a cloak that the Pope places on the shoulders of new archbishops around the world.

Cupich is ready to hit the ground running. Known for his simple lifestyle, he brought just 20 boxes with him to Chicago, mostly of books and clothes. In a lightly edited Q&A with TIME, Cupich admits he is looking ahead to the pastoral challenges his new archdiocese faces, ranging from immigration reform to youth development to contextualizing the Church’s message about marriage and family. “I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church,” Cupich says. “It is probably as exciting as what happened in the Second Vatican Council.”

Many people have commented that in picking you for the Chicago seat, Pope Francis was making a point about the kind of future leaders he wants in American churches. Is that overstated?

I think that the Pope has trust in every bishop that is appointed. I consider that to be the case, plus the fact that I don’t feel very comfortable carrying that burden. If I’m supposed to be at the end of the funnel of everything the Pope wants, that’s an onerous task. I think it is a very exciting time in the life of the church. It really comes down to a deeper appreciation, a more wholesome appreciation of what it means to recognize that the risen Christ is working in the life of the church. That is the basis of everything he is doing. It is not just about Jorge Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires who is now Pope Francis. It is about his being able to be attuned to where the risen Christ is active in the life of the church today, and trying in some way to point the church to that.

A lot of parishes are confused about what Pope Francis’ Extraordinary Synod on the Family means. How will you guide parishes on its takeaways?

I think it is important for people to not come to a conclusion too quickly about what the church is going to do … There is a commitment, as the Holy Father said, not about changing doctrine. This is about two things. First, making sure that we are looking at the full breadth of our doctrine, not just cherry-picking things that are familiar to us, but there is a whole tradition of teaching that goes back 2,000 years. Second is how do we apply that doctrine in pastoral practice. We’ve always had different accommodations for people who are on the journey, who are on the way, to bring them along. I think that those are the kinds of things and nuances that have to be worked out and that we have to speak about, but we have to do it in a way that is unifying. We have to make sure that everybody comes together. That is the role of the Holy Father.

What other themes are you thinking about this year?

You think about immigration, you think about jobs, about the economy — those are experienced in families. They impact marriage. That is the context I’m going to use this year to speak about those issues, to have people reflect on them, how do we approach those various areas and what needs to be done to improve those areas as it impacts families, as it impacts marriages, as it helps children. I think that this year, given the synod, I’m going to contextualize all of those questions that way.

Tell me about your preaching style. Do you like preaching?

I like it more than the people who listen to me! I did my doctoral dissertation on the lectionary readings that we use at mass, and how you have Biblical texts that have been taken out of their original Bible context and put together for mass, and now they form a new text. Out of that new text there is an interplay of new meaning … I try to be sensitive to the power of language, to the power of language that God uses to reveal something about what Christ is doing in our time. That is why I’m always excited about preaching, because there is always something new. Christ uses our imagination, uses the power of language and human speech in order to make present what he is doing … I was really grateful to have a chance to have some really in depth study about the power of language, using a philosopher who taught at the University of Chicago, by the name of Paul Ricoeur. I’m really happy to be in Chicago because a lot of what I do is rooted in his approach to language.

What do you make of the flurry of press coverage over your appointment?

It is tough to get used to. I was a big nobody before all of this, and I still consider myself to be that. One of my family members, having seen all the press coverage and watching the internet videos on me, said, ‘I don’t really get it. You are not that interesting.’ So that keeps me humble. You can always count on family to do that for you.

TIME faith

Pope Francis Confirms U.S. Visit in 2015

The pope will attend the triennial World Meeting of Families

Pope Francis has confirmed he will travel to the U.S. next year to attend a gathering in the city of Brotherly Love, marking his first visit to the U.S. as pontiff.

“I wish to confirm according to the wishes of the Lord, that in September of 2015, I will go to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families,” Pope Francis said Monday, according to Vatican Radio. “Thank you for your prayers with which you accompany my service to the Church. Bless you from my heart.”

The World Meeting of Families is a triennial gathering and claims to be the world’s largest meeting of Catholic families. It will be held Sept. 22-27, with the Pope set to attend the final weekend events. During his visit, the pope will host a mass at the close of the event in Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Details of his visit, however, have not been finalized.

“A hallmark of his papacy has been a keen focus on the many challenges that families face today globally,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. “I believe that the presence of the Holy Father will bring all of us –Catholic and non-Catholic alike – together in tremendously powerful, unifying and healing ways.”

Pope Francis hinted he’d be traveling to the U.S. in 2015 in August, but it had yet to be confirmed.

TIME faith

Joseph Smith’s Many Wives: The Faith at Stake in the News

Mormon Temple Salt Lake City
The historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Oct. 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City. George Frey—Getty Images

An admission of historical facts by the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints will be a test for the Mormon community

Religions at their core do not hinge on historical proofs. They hinge on faith. And that, ultimately, is what is at stake in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ public confirmation that Joseph Smith had dozens of wives.

Peggy Fletcher Stack at the Salt Lake Tribune reported the news three weeks ago when the essay first went live on the Church’s website. The story got national attention this Tuesday when the New York Times put Laurie Goodstein’s story about the development on A1. The shift is provocative: “Mormon leaders have acknowledged for the first time that the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, portrayed in church materials as a loyal partner to his loving spouse Emma, took as many as 40 wives, some already married and one only 14 years old,” she wrote.

Polygamy, or plural marriage as the Church calls it, has long been one of the hottest topics of conversation surrounding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church officially banned polygamy in 1890, and today only 2% of Mormons believe that polygamy is morally acceptable, according to the Pew Research Center. While scholarship about the LDS history has long discussed Smith’s multiple marriages, particularly his involvement with 15-year-old Fanny Alger, the Church itself has largely kept this part of its founder’s life out of the mainstream conversation.

Marriage and family have been central to the Church’s origin and trajectory from the beginning. Smith’s love for his wife Emma Hale has long been touted in Mormon circles. Mormon faith is often primarily nurtured in family structures. Today, half of Mormons say it is essential for their families to hold regular “family home evenings,” a family prayer and activity time, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Church may be talking about Smith’s marriages more openly, but the conversation will lead to topics far more complex than just polygamy. The disclosures raise deeper questions about how faith works. The essay explains that God sanctioned Smith’s polygamy for only a time. That prompts questions about who God is, how God acts, how humanity should respond to the divine, how divine revelation happens, and why it changes. That’s all on top of the particular revelation about polygamy itself. As the essay itself concludes, “The challenge of introducing a principle as controversial as plural marriage is almost impossible to overstate.”

The whole situation is a good reminder of how religions develop over time. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the world’s youngest religions; it has not even celebrated its bicentennial. Christianity did not begin to decide which books would become the Bible until a century after Jesus Christ’s death when Marcion, a Christian leader, wanted the Bible to include just Luke’s gospel and Paul’s letters. The Council of Nicea, which set out orthodox belief about Christ’s relationship to God and formalized the Easter holiday, was 200 years after that. The Council of Chalcedon was another hundred years later in 451, when it standardized theology that that Christ was fully human and fully God. Now that Christian history and orthodoxy has been largely set for centuries, such big shifts can be easy to forget.

An online acknowledgement of Joseph Smith’s many marriages certainly is no Nicea, but it is another sign that the Church is trying to help its followers sort out their own history and theological place in the 21st century. The polygamy essay is one of 11 essays on controversial topics that the LDS Church has written and published online over the last year. Subjects include race and the priesthood—the LDS church did not ordain black men until 1978—and different accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision.

All this means that the LDS reaction may end up being more important than the historical announcement. Religious trajectories are often determined by how communities handle tension. How Mormon families, wards, schools, and young people respond to this official word is what will matter.

TIME Religion

Mormons Acknowledge Church Founder Had Up to 40 Wives

Mormon Temple Salt Lake City
The historic Salt Lake Mormon Temple during the184th Semiannual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints on Oct. 4, 2014 in Salt Lake City. George Frey—Getty Images

Many Mormons believed that Joseph Smith had one wife

The Church of Latter Day Saints has acknowledged in a series of articles that its founder Joseph Smith had as many as 40 wives.

The church issued a series of essays clarifying the history of it founder, the New York Times reports. While the church had been associated with polygamy for most of its existence, it had denied that Smith, who died in 1844, practiced polygamy. In fact, Smith had between 30 to 40 wives and the youngest was 14 years old. The church officially ended the practice in 1890, though it didn’t call for the dissolution of existing marriages until 1904.

“There is so much out there on the Internet that we felt we owed our members a safe place where they could go to get reliable, faith-promoting information that was true about some of these more difficult aspects of our history,” Elder Steven E. Snow, a member of the church leadership, told the Times.

But some reacted with shock to the revelations. “Joseph Smith was presented to me as a practically perfect prophet, and this is true for a lot of people,” said Emily Jensen, a Mormon blogger. “This is not the church I grew up with, this is not the Joseph Smith I love.”

[NYT]

 

TIME Vatican

Pope Francis Demotes Outspoken Conservative Cardinal

Raymond Burke Pope Francis
Archbishop of St. Louis cardinal Raymond Leo Burke attends Palm Sunday Mass celebrated by Pope Francis at St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on April 13, 2014. Franco Origlia—Getty Images

Cardinal Raymond Burke was the Vatican's highest ranking American

Pope Francis has demoted a conservative American cardinal who has criticized his leadership of the Catholic Church.

The pontiff removed Cardinal Raymond Burke as the leader of the Vatican’s highest court and appointed him to a ceremonial position as chaplain of the Knights of Malta, a charity group, according to a press bulletin issued Saturday.

That is a significant demotion, according to the National Catholic Reporter. “The position of Patron of the the Order of Malta is usually given to a retired cardinal, or as a second task to an active cardinal,” Michael Sean Winters writes. “It has almost no responsibilities.”

The move was not a surprise, as Burke, the Vatican’s highest ranking American, had said last month that he was going to have a new post.

The outspoken, conservative bishop — who pushed for the Vatican to revise and water-down its recent, tentative step toward greater acceptance of LGBT people — has butted heads with the pope since the Argentine was elected last year. Last month, he compared Pope Francis’ leadership to “a ship without a rudder” during an interview with a Spanish magazine.

TIME Malaysia

Malaysian Court Legalizes Muslim Cross-Dressing

A judge called the law 'degrading, oppressive and inhumane'

An appeals court in Malaysia Friday struck down a law prohibiting Muslim men from wearing women’s clothing, calling the ban “degrading, oppressive and inhumane.”

“It has the effect of denying the appellants and other sufferers of GID [gender identify disorder] to move freely in public place,” Judge Hishamudin Yunus said of the ban, according to the BBC.

Though Malaysia technically allows for freedom of religion, many Malaysian states mandate Shari’a law for Muslims and maintains a separate court system to enforce it. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights are not readily recognized in the country.

Aston Paiva, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the decision was a significant step forward.

“This will be a precedent. This court binds all other high courts,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse.

[BBC]

TIME Religion

Football and Religion: The Odd Relationship Between God and the Gridiron

Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus'
Notre Dame's 'Touchdown Jesus' Joe Robbins—Getty Images

Mark Edmundson teaches at the University of Virginia and is the author of Why Football Matters: My Education in the Game.

The peace and forgiveness taught in church are not values reflected on the field—but football shows the division of our ethical consciousness

When I played high school football, we knelt down before every contest. The coach asked God and the Lord Jesus Christ to help us play a fair game, not do significant bodily harm to the opposition and not to sustain serious injury ourselves. The coach asked that we might win the game if we were deserving. Then we said a prayer: usually it was the “Our Father.” Football, it seemed, was a Christian game.

Things haven’t changed all that much, at least from what I can tell. Pro and college teams still pray before games; coaches still invoke Jesus and God. When certain players hit the end zone, they hold a finger up in the air: I owe it all to you, Lord. When a man goes down and stays down, players from both squads get on their knees and pray for him. When I visited the University of Virginia football team this fall, matters were little different than they were forty years ago in my high school locker-room: the head coach invoked God’s blessing and led the team in prayer.

We’ve come to take this fusion of football and religion pretty much for granted. So too do we take the fusion of military values and football values as a matter of course. We’re not surprised when representatives from all four service branches bring the colors out before the game or when Navy jets stream over at half time. Nor are we much surprised when coaches talk about God and the Savior and when we see footage of players praying before games. It’s no surprise that Notre Dame, a school dedicated to religion, is also dedicated to football. No one seems perplexed that a mural depicting the savior with his arms raised is visible behind the stadium: Touchdown Jesus, he’s called.

Football is a game beloved by conservatives. Conservatives love football; conservatives love faith. What more is there to say?

Well, maybe there’s something. You don’t have to read the Gospels with exquisite care to see that the values espoused there are not quite football values. Jesus is many things to many people. But it would take a great deal of ingenuity to deny that he is a prophet of forgiveness—forgiveness and non-violence. When someone strikes you, what are you to do? On this Jesus is unequivocal. You must turn the other cheek. When someone sins against you, do you take revenge? No, not at all. Jesus tells us to forgive trespassers time after time. On the cross he looks out at his tormentors and speaks a simple and memorable sentence: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.

Jesus can get angry at times. When he sees the money changers operating in the temple, he picks up a whip and brandishes it at them. He picks up the whip. But he doesn’t hit anyone with it. And when he sees a fig tree that will not bear fruit, he blasts it. Why does he blast it? No one really knows. He blasts it because he does. But the temple whip flourishing and the fig tree blast are about the most violent things we see Jesus do. Mostly he is the advocate or peace, love and forgiveness.

It’s odd then, isn’t it, that football and faith, and the Christian faith in particular, should be so resolutely aligned in American culture? It never occurred to me when I was a young Medford Mustang, on my knees asking Jesus for a clean game and a victory, that Jesus might not have fully approved of the violence that was about to unfold on the field. For football is not about forgiving someone seven times seven; football is not about turning the other cheek. Football is about deploying violence: in football you blast your adversary with all the might you can muster.

And it’s odd then, isn’t it, that in America devout believers go off to church on Sunday to hear the gospel of the mild and forgiving savior, and then go home, turn on their TVs and watch young men try to bust one another’s spleens? What kind of country are we—what kind of culture are we—that can put together the Savior and the bone-crushing power sweep and not notice that there may be some contradictions involved?

But if you think a little more about it, you begin to see that football isn’t just a touch contradictory in itself: it reveals a rift in American faith. Because the majority of Americans are not just Christians per se: they are Judeo-Christians. That is, they belief that the Gospels are the word of God, but they believe that the Hebrew Bible is God’s word as well. And the Hebrew God, God the Father, whatever else you may say about him, is not a pacifist. He does not tell his followers to turn the other cheek. When Sodom and Gomorrah displease him, he destroys the cities nearly to the last. When the Amalekites infuriate him, he demands that Saul destroy them: man, woman and child. (And when Saul doesn’t, the Lord is enraged with him.) When pharaoh won’t let the chosen people go, the Lord kills the first born of every house and then drowns pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea.

The Lord God of hosts can be a loving god as well. He creates man and installs him in paradise. He preserves his people in the desert. He guides them in their times of tribulations. But pacifist, mild, readily forgiving? Yahweh is none of those things.

What football shows us Americans is how dramatically our ethical consciousness is divided. We can go to church and listen to the gospel of peace and forgiveness and then go home and watch the carnage on the field for a simple reason: that’s a tension we live with all the time. The religion that most of us follow allows us to be forgiving (when we wish to be) and retributive (when we wish to be). It really is up to us which way to go at any given moment. For we have sacred sanction for both paths. The Buddhists for instance do not worship any god who deploys violence: they follow the example of Gautama, the Buddha, who claimed to be nothing more than a mortal man. (Or they try.) When a Buddhist behaves violently (and plenty have and will) he has no religious sanction for it. For the Christian—or rather the Judeo-Christian—this is not the case.

There is a great deal to say about the ramifications of living in a country and a culture that allows so much leeway for ethical behavior. But for now, one might simply say that the game of football—which has become our national game, the mirror of our national identities—matters for a lot of reasons. One of them is the way it reveals some of the unspoken and unacknowledged dimensions of our lives to us, in compressed form. Though when that happens, we may of course not much like what it is we see.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Religion

Vatican Official Calls Brittany Maynard’s Assisted Suicide ‘Reprehensible’

"The gesture in and of itself should be condemned"

A Vatican official condemned the planned death of Brittany Maynard on Tuesday, calling her decision to end her life rather than succumb to a terminal form of brain cancer “reprehensible.”

Monsignor Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, one of the Catholic church’s leaders on bioethical issues and head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, called the decision to end one’s life undignified, the Associated Press reports. “Brittany Maynard’s act is in itself reprehensible,” he told the ANSA news agency. “What happened in the consciousness we do not know.”

The official stressed that he did not mean to pass judgement against Maynard herself, but rather took issue with Maynard’s argument that people faced with devastating, terminal medical conditions should have the freedom to end their lives at a time of their choosing. “The gesture in and of itself should be condemned,” Carrasco de Paula said.

[AP]

TIME Religion

Southern Baptists Strike a Different Tone than Catholics in Conference

Pope Francis leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican
Pope Francis looks on as he leads the synod of bishops in Paul VI's hall at the Vatican on Oct. 6, 2014. Claudio Peri—Reuters

As Catholic bishops emphasized welcoming gays, Southern Baptists voiced more concern about mainstream acceptance of gay marriage

Marriage has been in the Christian spotlight this October. The month began with Pope Francis bringing together 250 Catholic leaders to discuss marriage and the family at the Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops in Rome. This week, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is hosting a three-day conference in Nashville. The topic is “The Gospel, Homosexuality, and the Future of Marriage,” and the purpose is “to equip Christians to apply the gospel on these issues with convictional kindness in their communities, their families and their churches.”

At first glance, the two gatherings may seem similar. Both brought together various church leaders to discuss marriage and family. Both groups hold formal positions against gay marriage and seek to affirm and strengthen straight marriages. Both events were framed in prayer and liturgical structures, whether it was a candlelit prayer service at the Vatican or a Christian praise band rocking out on stage in Tennessee. Men were the primary speakers and participants at each gathering, even though both made an effort to include a handful of women’s voices.

But the differences are eye-catching. The Catholic bishops discussed a host of issues families face around the world from war to economics to cohabitation; the Baptists honed in on the growing acceptance of homosexuality in Western contexts. The Synod sessions happened behind closed doors; the ERLC event is live streamed. The Catholic Church is comprised of more than one billion people and has a two millennia history; the Southern Baptist Convention has a smaller network of 50,000 churches and is just 170 years old, though it often signals views in the mainstream evangelical community.

The most noticeable difference was tone. Pope Francis opened the synod on the family by asking the church leaders to speak freely, and saying his goal was to listen. “A general condition is this,” he told them on day one, “Speak clearly. Let no one say ‘this cannot be said.’ … At the same time, you should listen with humility and accept with an open heart what your brothers say.” The bishops took him at his word, and that openness inspired lots of debate on how to welcome gays within the confines of Church teaching.

The ERLC conference, by contrast, is not an open forum—dissenting voices are not included in the presentations. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opened the gathering on Monday in a defensive posture, saying that Western society is experiencing “a moral revolution” happening “at warp speed,” one that now celebrates things that were previously condemned. “We are accustomed to speaking from a position of strength,” Mohler said, explaining how traditional evangelical opposition to homosexuality is no longer mainstream.

Sin is a central topic in Nashville, and one that was noticeably absent from the Synod’s public documents. Mohler suggested in his opening remarks that Christians should approach gays in ways “not about their sin (homosexuality) but about our sin (all shortcomings).” Glen Stanton, director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, continued the theme: “Every one of us is stricken with an eternal disorder called sin,” he said in his talk called, “Love my (LGBT) Neighbor.” “How do we love gay and lesbian people? … The great equalizer is our sin.”

On the whole, the conference makes clear its strong on moral opposition to homosexuality. Many of the prominent speakers champion a pointed opposition to mainstream culture, and nearly all use the phrase “someone who experiences same-sex attraction” or “a homosexual” instead of using preferred, self-identifying terms of LGBTQ persons. Erik Stanley, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, compared the show Modern Family to a gateway drug for accepting gays and described Matthew Shepard’s murder as a gay hate crime hoax. Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington state florist who declined to make a wedding flower arrangement for a gay couple, said, “They can destroy me but they cannot destroy God and his word.” The crowd gave her a standing ovation.

Some speakers have hinted at a more welcoming tone. Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, a former lesbian women’s studies professor who converted to evangelicalism, stopped living as a lesbian and married a male pastor, explained that she learned the hospitality gifts she uses as a pastor’s wife from her years in the lesbian community suffering from AIDS in the 1990s. She shared how she converted because a pastor was her friend who did not invite her to church but made her feel safe by turning off his air-conditioning and offering her vegan food to accommodate her then-progressive lifestyle choices. “I never felt like a project,” she said.

Russell Moore, president of the ERLC, offered a nuanced approach to the practical challenges of changing sexual ethics. Moore said he would not attend a gay friend’s wedding ceremony because that would involve participating in their marriage vows, but he would attend their wedding reception. He also would not cut himself off from relatives “who are lost or in situations you disagree with—Jesus never did that.” Churches should care more about issues like gay and lesbian homelessness, he said, and young couples should be thinking about the long-term commitments of their wedding vows and what they mean if one partner gets Alzheimer’s disease or has an affair. Moore even suggested Christians can learn something from Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign: Christians should not marginalize gays over other sinners. “If there is some particular sin that has to be whispered in our congregation, then we are not truly Christian,” he explained.

What’s happening in Nashville gives the world a peek at the kind of culture different church leaders are cultivating in the midst of changing societal views on sexuality. For the evangelicals and Baptists in Nashville, it is time to double down. And that’s a reminder of just how dramatic the Vatican’s tone shift under Pope Francis—however small that opening may be—actually is.

Read next: What Christianity Without Hell Looks Like

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