Pope Retires; How about Apostles?

Pope Benedict 16th

Pope Benedict 16th stunned the world last week when he officially stepped down as pope due to “lack of strength of mind and body.”  Geoff over at RationalFaiths modified the pope’s statement, writing if as if President Monson made a similar announcement, and then discussed the history of emeritus status in the LDS Church.  Geoff writes,

In 1968 Hugh B. Brown was the one to propose that ALL general authorities become emeritus at a certain age, and had it been accepted he would have been one of the first to go emeritus. (see An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown)…this idea was implemented ten years later, but did not include the First Presidency or Quorum of the 12. In 1979 the church Patriarch, Eldred Smith, went emeritus and that position in the Church (which Joseph F. Smith placed in higher authority than the Quorum of the 12) has remained vacant ever since.

Presidents Hinckley and Monson have been quite healthy, though Monson is beginning to show signs of age.  Prior to that, Presidents Hunter, Benson, and Kimball were not so healthy.  Geoff quotes Michael Quinn concerning Benson’s incapacitation.

Hugh B. Brown, apostle and former Counselor to Pres McKay

counselors [Hinckley and Monson] felt it necessary to execute legal documents giving them Ezra Taft Benson’s ‘power of attorney [which] shall not be affected by his “disability” or “incompetence.” However, Benson was already affected by that ‘disability’… Despite a notarized statement by the First Presidency’s secretary, President Benson did not sign those documents himself. A signature machine produced Benson’s identical signatures on these legal documents. Without public acknowledgement, this machine-signed document formally ended an official provision for dissolving the First Presidency that had been in print for ninety years… However, this 1989 document specified that the counselors would not dissolve the First Presidency or surrender their powers despite the fact of the church president’s ‘disability’ or ‘incompetence.’

(see D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power” [Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books], pp. 58-59,; fn. 243-245, p. 432)

In reading Spencer W. Kimball’s biography, Length Your Stride: Working Draft, Pres Kimball wondered why God didn’t take him.  His son Ed writes on page 597 (extra info from the longer version of the book is in blue.)

Before his two surgeries in 1979, President Kimball seemed vigorous for his age.  He recovered well from the operations; but over the next two years, the downward trend became more and more pronounced.  In retrospect, the summer of 1981 was a turning point that led slowly and inexorably toward death, despite Spencer’s heroic efforts to get well and his never-failing concern about responsibilities that he feared he was neglecting.  The body that had for so long responded to his will defied him now.  Between the summer of 1981 and November 1985 he experienced increasing pain, discouragement, and disorientation. The whole family, especially Camilla, suffered with him. As his circle of activity steadily shrank, however, it never excluded his family.1

There were a few warning signs in the early summer of 1981.  When he was interviewed for a documentary on the Dallas Temple, the producer decided not to use the footage because “the film of the interview made him look very feeble and absentminded.”2 More and more often he felt discouraged with his growing disabilities and prayed for the Lord to take him.  Though frail, he still shouldered heavy responsibilities he dared not let go.3 Ironically, Spencer’s unremitting zeal for work–undeniably one of his greatest strengths–became a kind of curse to him during his final years as his ability to work was taken from him.

On July 13, Ed noted about his parents.  “[He] is sometimes confused and has difficulty speaking….  He is discouraged and so is she.  I begin to wonder whether he can last–but then I thought that seven years ago.”4 Early the next morning, Spencer implemented one of the most significant decisions of his administration.  On July 14, Spencer called D. Arthur Haycock, his personal secretary, into his office.  As Haycock described it, “the fog lifted….He was clear in his decision.”  He acted in a definite and controlled manner, as if the clock had turned back years.5

Spencer told Arthur that after prayerful consideration he felt impressed to call a third counselor in the First Presidency.  He asked Arthur to locate Gordon B. Hinckley. Haycock spontaneously lifted both hands high and exclaimed:  “I can vote for him with both hands.  I don’t think you could ever make a better selection.”  President Kimball had already discussed this proposed change with his two counselors, N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, and they too supported it.

Considering the poor health afflicting all three members of the First Presidency, this decision had a tremendous effect on subsequent events.  Elder Hinckley, age seventy-one, brought renewed vigor to the First Presidency.

Ed Kimball goes on to discuss the calling of Neal A. Maxwell as an apostle, as well as some public events that his father attended.  From page 599,

On Thursday, September 3, Spencer arrived at his office about 7:15 AM but went home two hours later.  He needed help to get to his car.  While eating lunch he fell asleep in his chair and seemed disoriented.  Friday, after needing help to eat his breakfast, he checked into the hospital for tests.  A brain scan disclosed that the growing weakness resulted from still another subdural hematoma, with pressure on the right frontal lobe of the brain from new bleeding inside the skull.16 To avoid news leaks about his condition, his name appeared on the hospital computers as William W. Spencer.17

Camilla and Spencer’s counselors discussed with the doctor whether to operate again or just let him slip away.  He had often said, plaintively “Why doesn’t the Lord release me?”  But it appeared that he might recover well again, as he had before, and Dr. Bruce Sorensen agreed to operate for the third time on Saturday, September 5.

…[page 600]  Because of this operation’s extensiveness and Spencer’s increased weakness, hospital recovery took longer–six weeks of intense struggle to get well again.19 Ten days passed before his sense of humor reasserted itself.  Every half hour a nurse came to check on his consciousness and coherence by asking questions and getting him to do simple tasks.  When one asked, “Scratch your nose,” he rejoined, “It doesn’t itch.”

“Cough for me.”

“Cough, cough,” he said.

“President Kimball, can you tell me when the Second Coming will be?”

“Why?  Are you ready?”

Despite the improvement, rumors spread.  One friend told Ed that he had been assured that Spencer was “a blob.”  In a nephew’s sacrament meeting, it had been announced that the president was in a coma.

…[page 601]  When October general conference began, President Kimball was absent for the first time since his ordination as an apostle thirty-eight years earlier.24 That day he again had dangerously heavy internal bleeding in his stomach.  He had to be forcibly restrained to undergo an endoscopy to locate and cauterize the bleeding.  Afterward he said, “I never had anything make me so mad!”

His mental acuity was something like a radio signal, fading in and out.  He managed small talk but had trouble calling up names, even of family members.  Then a new blow fell.  On October 12, Kimball required another operation, this time to clear a blocked urethra.25 The pain from a spinal block was so excruciating that Spencer, ordinarily so stoic, screamed when he was moved.26

Edward notes that the Kimballs moved out of their home to Hotel Utah so others could more readily assist him, though Camilla missed her home.  Church leaders decided to limit visitors for fear “that his weakness and difficulties communicating might make some people who saw him infrequently wonder about whether he was still competent.”  From page 603,

During 1982 President Kimball had no choice but to accept a passive role, dealing only with issues brought to him.  He was too weak to appear much in public, attend meetings, or go to his office more than sporadically.  He was frustrated  with his limitations and was unhappy to be unable to give the vigorous effort that had characterized his forty years as a General Authority.

…[page 604]  As early as January 1982 Spencer mustered the courage to ask Eldon Tanner about the possibility of being “relieved” as president, but he got no encouragement.44 [The footnote reads:  Edward L. Kimball, Journal, January 23, 1982.  In one temple meeting President Hinckley asked Spencer whether had had anything he wanted to say.  “I’d like to be released,” was his poignant answer.  James P. Bell, “In the Strength of the Lord:  The Life and Teachings of Jame E. Faust (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1999), 148]

I will stop here, but Ed discusses further public appearances, surgeries, hospitalizations, and health scares for the last 3 years of his life.  My question is why didn’t Kimball just resign like Pope Benedict has done? Emeritus status had been granted for Seventies by then.


5 comments on “Pope Retires; How about Apostles?

  1. […] to compassionately step down once they’re no longer able to say, you know like the Pope.  The Pope stepped down and said I can’t do it.  They are human.  Every Mormon knows that the prophet is not infallible and not a superhero, and […]

  2. […] to compassionately step down once they’re no longer able to say, you know like the Pope.  The Pope stepped down and said I can’t do it.  They are human.  Every Mormon knows that the prophet is not infallible and not a superhero, and […]

  3. […] in the Catholic Church.  Four years ago, Pope Benedict XVI resigned due to health problems.  I wrote about it, wishing it would happen in our church too, but I’m not holding my breath.  Pope Benedict […]

  4. […] in the Catholic Church.  Four years ago, Pope Benedict XVI resigned due to health problems.  I wrote about it, wishing it would happen in our church too, but I’m not holding my breath.  Pope Benedict […]

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