02/20/2013 05:22 pm ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Differing Christian Responses to the Challenges of Lifetime Tenure

The enormous increase in life expectancy that medical science has achieved in the past century has been a mixed blessing, for advancing age is usually accompanied by declining physical and mental function. Indeed, fear of Alzheimer's disease, which afflicts one in every two people reaching the age of 85 years, has generally overcome fear of cancer among the aged.

Declining function has been a particular concern for three Christian churches whose top leaders had traditionally served until death: Roman Catholic, Mormon and Community of Christ. Each has responded differently.

The world was taken by surprise at the recent announcement by Pope Benedict XVI that he would resign the papacy, the first pontiff to do so within the Roman Catholic Church in six centuries. The decision was made by Pope Benedict himself, for the stated reason that his failing health was no longer adequate for performing his full duties. His statement was carefully worded so as to allow but not obligate future popes to follow his precedent.

The Community of Christ (known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints until 2001) was governed, since its founding, by lineal male descendants of Joseph Smith, Jr. (1830-1844), each of whom served until death until 1978, when W. Wallace Smith stepped down and became President Emeritus, handing the presidency to his son, Wallace B. Smith. All subsequent presidents of the Community of Christ have followed the precedent of resigning at a time of their own choosing, although in each instance while physical and mental health have still been good.

The Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is the only one of the three that has never deviated from service-until-death of its top leadership. Although the penultimate president, Gordon B. Hinckley, showed remarkable physical and mental acuity until days before his death at age 97, other recent presidents have had periods as long as four years during which they were totally incapacitated.

The Church's response to this recurring dilemma began with the death of David O. McKay in 1970, when responsibilities formerly reserved to the president gradually were shifted to the Quorum of Twelve Apostles. In essence, the Church shifted from a "monarchy," wherein the president served both as head of state and head of government, to a "constitutional monarchy," wherein the president serves primarily as head of state and the Quorum members collectively serve as head of government. Upon the death of the sitting president, the senior-tenured apostle becomes the new president. Both the pattern of succession and service until death are traditional but not canonical.

In the 1970s one senior apostle, a nonagenarian at the time, offered his resignation in an apparent attempt to challenge the status quo of gerontocracy, but his offer was rejected. A colleague in the Church's highest governing council, the First Presidency, responded to him, "When the mantle of President falls upon a man, a change takes place in him to enable him to fulfill the calling." Thus, an almost mystical attitude prevails, invoking God's will even in times of prolonged incapacity of a sitting president.

The constantly increasing demands of governing churches in a rapidly changing world have resulted in adaptations by all three of these churches. Time alone will tell whether their adaptations represent destinations or ongoing journeys.