By Dana Haight Cattani
I confess that I never warmed to Pope Benedict XVI. I had admired his predecessor, John Paul II, for his charisma, ecumenism, and pivotal role in undermining Communism in his native Poland and elsewhere. Pope Benedict suffered by comparison. He always seemed stern and aloof, more Grand Inquisitor than Father Brown. In an era defined by sexual abuse scandals, Benedict became known as a pope of aesthetics for his commitment to sacred art, traditional papal attire, and the use of Latin. In my ongoing hopes for a world with more wise and humane religious leaders, I was looking for someone bolder.
Then 85-year-old Pope Benedict surprised me. In February 2013, he announced—in Latin—his resignation, citing “advanced age.” For the first time in 500 years, a pope would step down from office rather than hold the position for life. Quite suddenly, I viewed Pope Benedict differently: as a reformer, a man inspired or selfless (or tired) enough to put the needs of his church ahead of his own tenure. And I felt jealous.
In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have no College of Cardinals, no white smoke, and certainly no mystery about succession. In a well-established pattern, after the death of a prophet, the longest-serving member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles becomes the next prophet and then serves until his own death. Longevity of service functions as the irrefutable sign of the Lord’s anointing. While in theory, it is possible for a middle-aged man to become the prophet, a quick scan of the prophets since Brigham Young shows a group of men who are, without exception, elderly. The undeniable qualification—outliving one’s peers—effectively guarantees any prophet a decades-long apprenticeship in the Church’s highest council. It also guarantees that the Church will be led by a group of true elders.
As a people, we honor these elders. We respect the wisdom and perspective they have refined over many years. And sometimes, as with aging loved ones who can no longer take care of themselves, we breathe a sigh of relief when they pass on because they have become—we hate to even whisper it—burdensome.
Herein lies the problem. Our church’s history and traditions have painted us into an organizational corner when it comes to succession. As a child, I was taught that there can be only one prophet on the earth at a time and that God will guide and sustain him. I was never taught that there could be situations where a prophet might not be able to dress or feed himself or talk to the press without supervision, much less fathom the concerns of women who want to be ordained or gays who want to marry. The calling of prophet is physically demanding with a full schedule of high-level meetings, public appearances, and rigorous international travel. It also requires the making of countless policy decisions, some of which, over time, will take on the imprimatur of doctrine. These roles call for a leader with energy and imagination and foresight—and even a willingness to trouble the Lord and the Quorum with issues that may at first appear to be frivolous nonsense. What, then, happens when a prophet becomes physically, mentally, or temperamentally unable to do the work for which he is called? What provision do we have for active, vital leadership under such circumstances?
At various times, I have heard the following answers:
–The First Presidency is in complete agreement on every issue, so the counselors know and can implement the prophet’s directions.
–Although there is only one prophet on the earth at a time, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are each called as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” so we have fourteen prophets in the wings if the president of the Church becomes incapacitated.
–The Lord won’t let the prophet lead the Church astray.
I am troubled, at best, by these kinds of explanations, particularly by their bias for inertia and by the implication that a leadership void is evidence that all is well in Zion. If a prophet is unable to lead, then yes, his counselors can stay the course, assuming that they actually do agree on what it is. However, “staying the course” and “leading” are not necessarily the same thing. Staying the course implies passive maintenance of the current direction, while leading implies the possibility of introducing new initiatives or at least substantive revisions. Without a strong, functioning head, organizational leadership can be little more than tepid.
We cannot remove ourselves, as the early Saints did, from a hostile or at least confounding world, nor can we look back longingly to a previous era and rationally expect to recreate it. Time only moves in one direction. We need forward-looking leaders, spry and perceptive enough to mend what is old and evaluate what is new. If we hope to have a role in shaping public policy, culture, and values, we must have credible leaders who are able not only to inspire the faithful but also to engage in meaningful dialogue with the world’s religious and political leaders. We need a fully functional Church organization—one that runs on all cylinders as often as possible—to hold any reasonable prospect of respectable participation in our world’s affairs, much less any real influence upon them.
However, our own internal structure undermines our chances. The organizational culture of the Church is based on deference according to rank and seniority. Good children defer to their parents, good women to priesthood-bearing men (and often to men in general), and good junior apostles to senior apostles. This culture of deference manifests profound respect for tradition, precedent, and hierarchy and is predicated on the idea that direction emanates down from the top rather than burbling up from below. The assumption is that if change is necessary, God will surely let the prophet know, and the prophet will then tell the rest of us.
This system of leadership by seniority is orderly, but it is also problematic, especially in the matter of succession. What happens when a change in prophets seems advisable, if not necessary, for the good of the Church? Who, aside from the current prophet, might initiate a conversation about such a proposal? Coming from any other source, the mere suggestion might seem disrespectful, opportunistic, or heretical.
The prophet is probably the person most able to effect a change in the plan of succession, but he is perhaps among the least likely to see its necessity. Like an elderly driver with deteriorating judgment and reflexes, he may believe that his good intentions and excellent record are sufficient grounds for renewal of his license. Even if a Church president acknowledged that, hypothetically, at some point the Church will need a different succession plan, he would likely find it difficult to locate that Pope Benedict moment in his own lifetime.
Who could blame him? A life in the highest levels of Church administration requires sacrifice, to be sure. Privacy and autonomy—the freedom to slip out to the grocery store with a three-days’ beard or skip a session of General Conference to attend a granddaughter’s soccer game—evaporate. In spite of these inconveniences, the life of a General Authority also includes some enviable fringe benefits. Unlike some older people who may feel increasingly ignored and irrelevant with each passing year, apostles remain Church celebrities. They are invited to innumerable social engagements and fawned over when they appear in public. People want to shake their hands or seek out their advice and opinions. Apostles have access to a driver if they need one and a secretary to handle the flummoxing details and paperwork of life. They have reason to get up, get dressed, and go to the office every day. For some, this extended work life might be a curse, but for those who would languish without a professional role, it is undoubtedly a great blessing. The kind of work that apostles and prophets do doubtless gives their lives great purpose and meaning. In exchange for decades of unbounded service, even these noteworthy perquisites are small compensation indeed.
Nevertheless, like the family of a terminally ill patriarch, well-run organizations must plan for succession. Unlike families, large organizations often rely on policies to make the transitions more uniform and less personal. If policy dictates that everyone retires at a certain age, there should be no affront when that policy is implemented. Undoubtedly there will be people who are moved out of leadership positions years or even decades earlier than necessary. But it is also true that there will be others who, for a variety of reasons, are overdue to step down.
Any retirement policy will somehow be suboptimal. However, even a merely functional retirement policy is preferable to a disastrous one. Allowing longevity to dictate leadership transitions has obvious drawbacks. What does it mean when a “true and living”1 church directed by revelation is led by an obviously incapacitated prophet? What benefits does the Church as a whole forgo because its top leadership does not have the energy or functionality to interact with the world lucidly? Further, what is the spiritual and organizational cost when we attempt to hide the situation? A clear retirement policy can make leadership transitions a planned and orderly affair. It can protect the Church when some individuals leading it, through no fault of their own, experience reduced physical or mental ability. Exceptionally talented or capable individuals who come to the end of their term can be invited to stay on in another capacity or renewable special assignment. The organization can continue to tap the expertise and experience of some of its senior leaders while still benefitting from fresh eyes and new energy. A retirement protocol makes appropriate and necessary change possible.
Our church leaders incorporated such a policy 35 years ago when emeritus status, the Church’s operative retirement policy, was announced during the 30 September 1978 General Conference. Then-President N. Eldon Tanner noted:
The very rapid growth of the Church across the world, with the attendant increase in travel and responsibility, has made it necessary to consider a change in the status for some of the Brethren of the General Authorities. Some of our associates have served for many years with complete and unselfish dedication, and they deserve every honor and recognition for such devoted service. It is felt advisable at this time to reduce somewhat the load of responsibility that they carry.
After a long period of prayerful consideration and counsel, extending, indeed, over several years, we announce a new and specific status to be given from time to time to Brethren of our associates in the General Authorities. We announce that some Brethren have been designated as emeritus members of the First Quorum of the Seventy. These Brethren are not being released but will be excused from active service. It is out of consideration for the personal well-being of the individuals, and with deep appreciation for their devoted service, that this designation will be given from time to time to designated members of the General Authorities. 2
As President Tanner acknowledged, it is entirely feasible to honor a lifetime of service and still believe that it is appropriate for a leader to assume emeritus status. Creating a process for this kind of transition need not be disrespectful or unappreciative. It is a time-honored way of protecting the dignity of individuals and of safeguarding the institution from awkward or overdue leadership changes.
Although President Tanner indicated that emeritus status would be applied “from time to time to designated members of the General Authorities,” the policy has evolved to encompass entire categories of Church leaders. Currently, according to the official Church website,
Members of the First Quorum of the Seventy are called to serve until the age of 70, at which time they are given emeritus status (similar to being released). Members of the Second Quorum of the Seventy typically serve for three to five years; after this time, they are released.” 3
An interview with Elder Bruce C. Hafen, who was given emeritus status in 2010, offers some perspective:
“Having a designated age for retirement is a good way to bring new blood and fresh perspective into the quorums of the Seventies,” he said from his home in St. George, where he is currently serving as president of the St. George Temple.
“It allows the brethren to experience the natural retirement years that happen to everyone eventually. And it is consistent with our experience elsewhere in the church, where you can be a bishop one week and Scoutmaster the next. That is the natural ebb and flow of church service that is familiar and comfortable to all Latter-day Saints.”4
I believe the Church would be fortified if this “natural ebb and flow of church service” with its attendant emeritus status were to be extended to include members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. At age 70—or some other pre-determined milestone—they would be heartily thanked for their service, featured in profiles in Church publications, and excused from active duty as apostles and prophets. Health permitting, they might then be called to be family history consultants or gospel doctrine teachers or ward clerks or—heaven help them—Primary workers. Some, like Elder Hafen, could be called to bishoprics or temple or mission presidencies. They could continue to serve and counsel and teach as the Church organization renews and reinvigorates itself.
There is no clear scriptural precedent of emeritus status for a prophet. However, our generation seems not quite of the physical caliber of the people of Genesis, where 90-year-old Sarah conceived, and where 120-year-old Moses, whose “eye was not dim, not his natural force abated” (Deut. 34:7), climbed Mount Nebo to see the Promised Land before he died. We have shorter life spans and more evident human frailties. It seems only fair to have commensurate adaptations in our expectations for our prophets.
1 Henry B. Eyring, “The True and Living Church,” http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2008/04/the-true-and-living-church?lang=eng, (accessed 25 November 2013).
2 N. Eldon Tanner, “Revelation on Priesthood Accepted, Church Officers Sustained,” http://www.lds.org/general-conference/1978/10/revelation-on-priesthood-accepted-church-officers-sustained?lang=eng, (accessed 25 November 2013).
3 Quorums of the Seventy, LDS.org, http://www.lds.org/church/leaders/quorums-of-the-seventy?lang=eng, (accessed 25 November 2013).
4 Joseph Walker, “Emeritus General Authorities Welcome the Chance to Practice What They’ve Preached,” http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865563554/Emeritus-general-authorities-welcome-the-chance-to-practice-what-theyve-preached.html?pg=all, (accessed 25 November 2013).
5. http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865563554/Emeritus-general-authorities-welcome-the-chance-to-practice-what-theyve-preached.html?pg=all, (accessed 20 August 2013).