As Mormon Church President Ezra Taft Benson approaches his 94th birthday, the years have stilled his voice, clouded his mind and raised questions about the faith’s rigid order of succession.
Attired in a sweat suit and fed by others, Benson spends his days in supervised seclusion in an apartment overlooking Temple Square. He is an infirm retiree in a church that does not officially retire its “prophet, seer and revelator.”
The incongruity struck one of Benson’s great-grandsons, a 13-year-old, recently as he poured his breakfast cereal: “Dad, why do they call him prophet when he can’t do anything?”
The boy’s father is Steve Benson, a practicing Mormon who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist for the Arizona Republic.
His son’s question is one reason Benson decided to speak openly for the first time about his grandfather’s decline. His role as a journalist is another.
A more compelling motivator, however, is what he believes are misleading efforts by the church’s hierarchy to preserve an image of a more vibrant Ezra Taft Benson, an image that is less problematic for the core Mormon belief in a literal prophet of God.
“I believe the church strives mightily to perpetuate the myth, the fable, the fantasy that President Benson, if not operating on all cylinders, at least is functioning effectively enough, even with just a nod of his head, to be regarded by the saints as a living, functioning prophet,” he said.
That is not the grandfather Benson saw when he visited in March or whom he has seen struggle with encroaching senility during much of his seven-year Administration.
“The last time I saw him he said virtually nothing to me,” said Benson, who was close to the church leader and shared his avid interest in current events. “He looked at me almost quizzically, as if he were examining me.”
In earlier visits, Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of agriculture in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Administration, could manage at least a word or two.
Benson said his grandfather, who will turn 94 on Wednesday, seems to emotionally and physically sense the presence of loved ones, particularly those who see him frequently, and he returns hand squeezes and smiles.
Presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serve for life and are thought within the faith to be chosen by God. They are replaced at death by the senior apostle in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The strict apostolic succession--which church spokesman Don LeFevre said would require a revelation from “the Lord to his prophet” to change--has fostered a gerontocracy.
The four presidents before Benson lived to an average age of 88 and three were in poor health for significant portions of their ministries. As the current senior apostle, Howard W. Hunter, 85, is in line to replace the elder Benson. He spent more than three weeks in the hospital recovering from gall bladder surgery May 10.
Benson, who has not spoken in public for more than three years, was suffering memory loss when he assumed the presidency in 1985 at age 86. His grandson said that facing church audiences became a frightening experience for a man who once had relished the pulpit.
Steve Benson sees the practice as needlessly impractical.
“I don’t think God would expect us to be bound legalistically or structurally to a system that obviously isn’t working,” he said.
Gordon B. Hinckley, 83, and Thomas S. Monson, 65, are Benson’s counselors in the First Presidency and govern in his stead.
Hinckley has taken pains in recent sermons to stress that the church does not face a leadership crisis. He said a divinely structured backup system keeps the burgeoning faith of nearly 9 million members moving ahead in “an orderly and wonderful way.”
According to church doctrine, Benson’s counselors and the apostles all possess priesthood power to be prophets, seers and revelators, but only the president has the authority to receive revelations from God for the church.
Spokesman LeFevre said Hinckley and Monson report to Benson and “review with him major decisions before those decisions become final.” And Hinckley told members in October that there is no danger he or Monson will overstep their authority.
But Steve Benson said it has been some time since his grandfather has been capable of participating in any way in the administration of the church’s affairs, although that is “an image that people deeply, almost desperately want to believe.”
Benson, 39, cites carefully staged photo sessions aimed at depicting an alert church leader, specifically one at his last birthday showing the prophet seated in a suit before a desk piled with well-wishers’ cards.
Mormon researcher D. Michael Quinn believes that the potentially divisive prospect of retiring prophets and apostles is something the leadership will try to avoid.
“The only time they won’t be able to finesse it will be if the heir apparent, the surviving senior apostle, is already (mentally incompetent),” Quinn said. “But I think they’re counting that God would never allow that to happen.”