Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise announcement that he will retire at the end of this month because his diminishing strength makes it ever more difficult for him to discharge his responsibilities is bound to spark discussion in Mormon circles. Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have, not infrequently, faced similar challenges.
Many of us remember the painful last years of David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, and Ezra Taft Benson. The pope certainly remembers the long decline of his friend and immediate predecessor, the great John Paul II, and he can surely be pardoned if he doesn’t care to reprise that experience in public. (I myself saw John Paul II at a distance of perhaps ten or fifteen feet not long before his death, and my heart went out to him. Officiating in his public role with such evident difficulty was nothing short of heroic.)
Church presidents have always served until death, as popes traditionally have. (The most recent pope to resign, Gregory XII, did so 598 years ago. And the last voluntary resignation was that of Celestine V in 1294 — well over seven centuries back.)
The situation is a bit different today than it has historically been, because we live much longer. The relatively minor health issues that typically took us away relatively quickly can now often be surmounted, so that we survive to endure, in many cases but by no means all, not only physical deterioration but mental decline.
Can this practice of service until death be changed within the LDS Church? Of course it can. And members of the Seventy and the Presiding Bishopric are already regularly granted emeritus status.
But the Twelve and the First Presidency are different. The fifteen apostles who, together, make up the two quorums are organized, to a large degree, on a seniority system. The president of the Church has always been, since the days of Joseph Smith, the senior apostle. (Orson Pratt proposed a different system at one point, but, nonetheless, succession has always occurred according to seniority.) That system would have to be modified or abandoned.
And it partly depends, I suppose on whether one views the president of the Church primarily as the administrative head of an organization or as a prophet. In the former case, it would be relatively easy to conceive of a change. Bishops and stake presidents and mission presidents come and go as their assignments are changed, just as corporate CEOs, baseball managers, and generals do. Just as popes do. On the other hand, prophets don’t seem the kind of people who can just “retire.” When the Lord calls, does a retired prophet just explain that, sorry, he’s gone fishing?
Lorenzo Snow was worried about his own advanced age, and, in his concern when the news arrived that Wilford Woodruff had died, spent considerable time in the Salt Lake Temple praying for guidance. According to his own account, the Savior appeared to him there, and, rather than permitting him to retire, instructed him to reorganize the First Presidency immediately and told him who his counselors were to be.
Counselors. That brings up another distinction: The pope functions alone, in solitary majesty, as a kind of monarch. Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, function within a system of councils. The Quorum of the First Presidency includes not only the president himself, but at least two counselors. And they all work in conjunction with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. And each and every one of these men, in both quorums, is sustained by the membership of the Church — and, we believe, by the Lord — as a “prophet, seer, and revelator.”
Which brings up the last matter that I want to mention here: As the then-third-ranking cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church once told me and two or three others while we were in his office in Vatican City, “no pope has ever received a revelation.” But we believe that the leaders of our church both have and do. If there is ever a change — and I don’t know that there ever will be, nor that there ever should be — it will have to come by revelation.