Ah, the journalistic beauty — and boredom — of Mormon leadership succession

On the religion beat, it doesn’t get any better than a papal election. The international media go bonkers with speculation on who’s up or down in the cardinals’ secret maneuvering to select the next occupant of Peter’s throne, accompanied by sidebars on the arcane process, and culminating in those twice-daily gatherings in Peter’s square to watch for chemically-induced white smoke.

Analysis of the papabile (“pope-able”) personalities often turns out to be amusingly off-base. (You can forgive the Religion Guy for noting that Time magazine was the only major medium to name John Paul II as a prospect in 1978, because total credit goes not to yours truly as the New York religion writer but to crackerjack correspondents back when the weekly operated a Rome Bureau.)  

By contrast, contemplate the journalistic beauty –- and boredom –- in picking a new head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormon”).  If reporters have the time this week, they can already update their prepared  articles on the man who will take charge upon the death of President Thomas S. Monson, who turns 88 on August 21.

(At the church-owned daily Deseret News, Monson was an ad executive and later general manager of its parent publishing and printing firm. The church operates without professional clergy so that, remarkably, its doctrinal authorities have secular careers minus the academic training in theology expected of the average Protestant parson or Catholic parish priest.)  

 As Godbeat veterans will be well aware, the new president is automatically the man (yes, necessarily a male) with the earliest date of admission into the LDS church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It’s as though the longest-serving cardinal would always become the next pope.

On July 3, the Salt Lake City succession was altered for the first time since 2008 by the death of Boyd K. Packer, 90, who spent half his lifetime as an apostle and thus, the Salt Lake Tribune obit noted, was long “within a breath of leading the worldwide faith.” The onetime Mormon education overseer was an elbows-out conservative, so analysts figured he might well have been a notable newsmaker with crackdowns and denunciations. The Trib characterized him as a “theological purist,” “sometimes-stern speaker,” and “tough-talking administrator.”

Until businessman-turned-apostle L. Tom Perry  died on May 30 at age 92, he would have been next in line after Packer. Now Monson’s successor will instead be Russell M. Nelson, M.D., who  formerly directed thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah and chaired that department at LDS Hospital.  If the 90-year-old Nelson were to die, Monson’s successor would be another high performer, Dallin H. Oaks, a relatively youthful and vigorous 82-year-old. He was formerly a University of Chicago law professor, president of Brigham Young University, and Utah Supreme Court justice.

A church press release boasts that due to this automatic system, power passes “in an orderly way that – remarkably in today’s world – avoids any trace of internal lobbying for position or rank.” Put another way, instead of spiritualized lobbying at the time other big religious posts open, with the Mormons it would have occurred many years beforehand when new apostles were first appointed. Monson and his fellows are now engaged in that process as they fill the Perry and Packer vacancies.

In the LDS system it’s almost always the case that the incoming president is aged, and  occasionally infirm, with the possibility  unmentioned in LDS publicity   that the faith’s unique “prophet, seer, and revelator” might have dangerously weak command of his faculties.

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