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Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press
Pope Francis arrives for his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2014.
The way the world is unraveling, all of us need each other to take a stand for religious liberty, which we believe is going to become a real issue. It is now, and we think it will become even more critical in the future. Those who care need to stand together and have their voices heard. People of faith have just simply got to speak out. —Elder M. Russell Ballard

ROME — As heavy rains descended on the Eternal City this weekend, so too did hundreds of religious leaders and scholars who will participate in a historic interfaith conference at the Vatican celebrating traditional male-female marriage.

Pope Francis will open the three-day conference on Monday, but the gathering is significant for at least three other reasons.

It comes as thought leaders around the world increasingly recognize how a retreat from marriage is creating an unprecedented shock to social, cultural and economic institutions.

It highlights the powerful convening role of the Vatican for interfaith dialogue — a role it has cultivated since the Vatican II conference some 50 years ago.

And it marks the first time that leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will participate in a Vatican event with the pope.

President Henry B. Eyring, First Counselor in the LDS First Presidency, will speak to the conference on Tuesday. He is accompanied by Elder L. Tom Perry, a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and Bishop Gérald Caussé of the Presiding Bishopric.

The conference, officially known as Humanum: An International Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman, will bring together presenters from 23 countries and 14 faith traditions, including Judaism, Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Taoism and Sikh, in an effort to strengthen the tradition of male-female marriage for "the good of the spouses themselves and for the good of all who depend upon them."

The presenters include what a blogger called "powerful media personalities," including Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the UK and philosopher; Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church in California and author of the best-seller "The Purpose-Driven Life"; and Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Hundreds of other observers will attend, including two Utahns, acting Sutherland Institute CEO Stanford Swim and BYU family law professor Lynn Wardle, as well as Princeton professor Robert P. George, co-author of "What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense."

Marriage and family

The international, interreligious Vatican conference is an effort to support and reinvigorate marriage and family life in light of the rise of what some scholars call post-familialism. An unprecedented number of people, up to 30 percent in some Asian countries, have declined to have children and often to marry.

The result, scholar Joel Kotkin wrote, is "setting into motion forces destructive to their future workforce, consumer base and long-term prosperity."

Isabel V. Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute, has said gaps in family structure and parenting styles are creating unequal starts for American children.

The long-term concern, she said, is that "a society that is increasingly single and childless is likely to be more concerned with serving current needs than addressing the future oriented requirements of children."

“Unwed childbearing is getting close to being the ‘new normal’ for women under 30— the proportion of all children born outside of marriage is now over 50 percent. So we’re at kind of a tipping point here in our society about whether marriage is going to be the standard way to raise children or whether most of them are going to be raised outside of marriage.”

The conference is part of a wide Catholic effort to examine these issues and support male-female marriage and family formation.

The conference is expected to produce a “Affirmation on Marriage." Then the Catholic Church will look ahead to two additional meetings next year.

The first will be in September in Philadelphia, the eighth World Meeting of Families.

The second is a Catholic bishops synod titled "Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Modern World," scheduled for October 4-25, 2015, at the Vatican.

Interfaith dialogue

"Over the years the Vatican has this capacity to invite people," The Most Rev. John C. Wester, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, told the Deseret News, "and I think there is something that has to do with the person of the pope. I think his own personality, his own presence has a lot to do with it as well."

Bishop Wester is in Rome with a choir of Salt Lake's Cathedral of the Madeleine. The choir performed Saturday night at the Church of the Gesù, mother church of the Jesuits.

"God works through us," he said. "We believe that God is incarnational, therefore God is working in us, and through us, and I think that has a lot to do with a pope’s influence.

"Rome itself has a certain lure. Rome has been the Eternal City, some call it, it keeps recreating itself over the years and centuries, and I think that has a lot to do with it. And I don’t want to be flippant, but they also have very good pasta here, so maybe that contributes," the bishop said.

"But certainly the Holy Spirit is working in (the Humanum conference) — all the different religions that are represented, the different walks of life coming together. I think the Vatican is a great place for this."

The conference is being sponsored in part by two Catholic departments created in the wake of the Vatican II conference in 1962 to create and improve dialogue with other faiths.

Pope John Paul II emphasized ecumenism, the promotion of unity between Christian faiths. This week's conference adds evidence that Pope Francis is re-energizing the movement in Catholicism.

The Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity was created in 1960 preparation for Vatican II by Pope John XXIII. The council promotes ecumenical spirit within the Catholic Church and develops dialogue and collaboration with other churches.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue was formed in 1964. Its role is to promote mutual understanding, respect and collaboration between Catholics and the followers of others religious traditions, encourage the study of religions and promote "the formation of persons dedicated to dialogue."

LDS at Vatican

Latter-day Saints leaders have visited the Vatican before, and have been in meetings with a Pope before, but they have not participated before in an official Vatican event or been involved in a meeting with the Pope at the Vatican.

In April 2008, Elders M. Russell Ballard and Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the first Latter-day Saints to participate in a papal prayer service when Pope Benedict XVI conducted a large one with leaders of Christian faiths at St. Joseph’s Parish in New York.

Their participation was widely seen as an indication of improved relations, begun under the leadership of the late LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley, between the Catholic and LDS faiths and prompted a statement by the LDS Church on respect for diversity of faiths.

In September 2010, Elder Ballard visited the Vatican with Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the Presidency of the Seventy, Bishop Richard C. Edgley, then of the Presiding Bishopric, and Elder Caussé, who then was a member of the Seventy and the Europe Area presidency.

Elder Ballard had separate meetings with two key Cardinals, one of whom was then head of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue.

"We're interested in moral values," Elder Ballard said then of the faiths' shared interests. "We're interested in marriage. We're interested in the family. We're interested in those basic fundamentals that are jointly of interest to, I think, all people of faith."

He also said, "We don't know all the answers … but we know this: The way the world is unraveling, all of us need each other to take a stand for religious liberty, which we believe is going to become a real issue. It is now, and we think it will become even more critical in the future. Those who care need to stand together and have their voices heard. People of faith have just simply got to speak out. They've got to be together. And that's the purpose of our visits."

Elder Ballard also had a "meaningful meeting with the Archbishop who was the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com