What The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints needs right now is a Pope Francis.
That’s my conclusion, at least, after my Salt Lake Tribune colleague Peggy Fletcher Stack took a thorough inventory of the challenges and opportunities facing the faith in the coming years — retaining members, incorporating women, welcoming gay and lesbian members, and spreading its message to new parts of the world.
It needs a forward-thinking, public-facing leader who takes the fundamental tenets of Mormonism and applies them to modern times, who can make the teachings relevant for a new generation of followers and converts, and who can appeal to a broad and increasingly diverse audience.
Whether that’s what it will get Tuesday, after Russell M. Nelson was named the church’s 17th leader, remains to be seen. On the surface, there is cause for doubt, due largely to the long-held practice of promoting leaders based solely on seniority.
The optics of the 90-year-old Thomas S. Monson being replaced by the 93-year-old Nelson are problematic and unlikely to change, as the next several leaders in the line of succession are nearly as old and just as stodgy — Dallin H. Oaks, who is currently 85, would be next in line followed by M. Russell Ballard, who is 89.
It seems odd for a church to be led by such a long succession of geriatrics when its followers believe it was restored by God to a 14-year-old boy in New York. And this seniority system keeps capable, charismatic leaders like Mormon rock star Dieter F. Uchtdorf, 77, or younger apostles such as 65-year-old David A. Bednar from ever guiding the faith, at least until they, too, are octogenarians. It is a young church that is invariably led by old men.
Perhaps Nelson will surprise us all. He is, by all accounts, in remarkably good health. Former LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley was a vigorous public advocate for the faith well into his 90s, and Francis is no spring chicken at age 81. But in this media age, the church needs an engaging, vibrant spokesman at the top.
It was striking, sitting in Monson’s funeral service last week, to see how many empty seats there were in the LDS Conference Center — by my estimation about 40 percent were vacant — and to contrast that with the center packed to the rafters for Hinckley’s service. Yes, Monson’s was during the workweek and perhaps that diminished turnout, but it also seems to be a reflection of the different public perceptions of the two church presidents.
On social media, Mormons were apoplectic at the portrayal of Monson in his obituary in The New York Times. But for the Times’ non-Mormon audience, the LDS Church is viewed as a cultural and social force more than a religion. And for all of Monson’s years at the church’s helm, the LDS Church was synonymous with being the tip of the spear on fighting cultural and social change.
The issues of how the LDS Church deals with LGBTQ members and how it approaches an expanded role for women in its ranks are not going away. So Nelson and his new leadership team will have to decide how to approach them — essentially: Do they want to follow Monson’s example and try to hold back the waters, or learn to swim?
How they respond will have consequences. I can’t tell you how many young, otherwise devout Mormons struggle with the treatment of LGBTQ friends. Some have left the church entirely because of what they view as hostility toward a friend or family member, in particular the pronouncement that same-sex Mormon couples be treated as apostates and their children barred from sacred rites. And the role of women is a growing concern for at least half the faith’s flock.
The church’s doctrine is its doctrine and that will take time to change. Remember, it wasn’t until 1978 that LDS leaders lifted the ban on black males getting the priesthood and on black females entering Mormon temples. But how the faith and its new leader publicly address these issues does matter.
Again, Mormons can look to Pope Francis on this issue: Francis has not sold out Catholic opposition to gay marriage, but he has publicly called for Catholics to embrace LGBTQ people, to welcome nontraditional families and to accept civil unions.
One more area in which the LDS Church can draw on Francis’ example is by emphasizing the fundamental teachings of Jesus Christ in the modern landscape. It has done this, from time to time, on issues like immigration and by pushing back against President Donald Trump’s attacks on Muslims. Last year, it publicly rebuked white supremacy as sinful and contrary to church teachings.
That doesn’t mean the church needs to pick fights with a president or engage in political squabbles. But it can make its moral voice heard in the context of our current coarsened debate. It is disappointing, for example, that the church has chosen not to speak up about Trump’s attacks last week on immigrants from “s---hole countries.”
These are dynamic times and the church needs a dynamic leader. If Hinckley was the LDS equivalent of the affable, accessible Pope John Paul II, what the church needs now is its Francis. We’ll have to see if Nelson is equal to the task.