Last October, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver spoke to a gathering of the Denver Rotary Club. The following is the edited text of his address.
In the wake of Enron, Arthur Andersen, WorldCom, Adelphia, Tyco and a national sex abuse scandal, it is fair to say that we have two big problems. The first is one of leadership in all our public institutions, not just business and religion. The second is a much deeper problem in American culture at large, a crisis in personal moral character at the grass-roots level.
What makes a good leader? Two things: character and competence. You need the professional skills necessary to the task; that is competence. And you need the moral conscience to use those skills properly; that is character.
A good leader creates a vision that other people can believe in and build together. And a good leader always acts honestly. Year after year, in almost every professional study, people rank honesty as the single most important quality in a leader. In 32 years, first as a priest and now as a bishop, I have seen again and again that people will accept almost any hardship or bad news if they know you are being straight with them.
Even more importantly, a good leader will put the needs of his people before his own. Being a pastor is very much like being a parent. If a father really loves his children, they will know it, and forgive him almost anything. People followed Jesus of Nazareth because he lived for them, he died for them and he created hope for them. That is what a real leader looks like. And I think we don't see enough of that anywhere today in public life.
The philosopher Hugo Grotius once said that, "A man cannot govern a nation if he cannot govern a city; he cannot govern a city if he cannot govern a family; he cannot govern a family unless he can govern himself; and he cannot govern himself unless his passions are subject to reason." And I would add that a man's reason cannot truly serve himself or anyone else until he roots it in a moral conscience.
I want my elected officials to inform their actions with their religious and moral beliefs, even if I do not agree with them. I want them to do it prudently and in a spirit of reasonable compromise - but on the hard issues, I want them to act on their principles, because then I can respect them. I cannot respect and trust an elected official, or any other leader, who claims that he or she personally believes one thing, but then publicly does something else.
Americans now live in a country where marketing and entertainment run our popular culture. Every hour of every day we are sold the ideas that no matter how much we have, we need more right now; that freedom is the absence of commitments; that nothing lasts - especially relationships with other people; that "choice" is good even if the choices don't mean anything; and that authority is hypocritical.
When Adam Smith praised the rise of commerce two centuries ago, he did it in the context of a moral order that limited and guided the market. That moral order is much, much weaker today, and that is why Christopher Lasch and others have talked so critically about the market invading every aspect of our lives.
Culture of narcissism
We are very close to becoming what Lasch called a "culture of narcissism." We are living in an environment where the traditional ideal of community - a group of people united in mutual concern around shared principles and hopes - is being replaced by a collection of individual appetites that are kept more or less constantly dissatisfied. Our marketing is too effective for our own good. It is teaching our young people to be permanently ungrateful and permanently self-centred. We have a lot of material things, but Americans are not a happy people.
John Adams once wrote, "Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue."
Adams was a founder of our country, and therefore we owe him for much of the freedom we enjoy today. But he also found a way to perfectly combine public service, moral character and religious faith. Adams always argued against slavery, and he did so because he felt that it violated human dignity, ignored the Gospel and was unworthy of a religious people.
But the most revealing fact about Adams was his relationship with his wife Abigail. Adams loved his wife and his children with a tenderness and fidelity that spanned a lifetime. St Augustine once said, "to be faithful in little things is a big thing." Adams never allowed the big demands of his public life to eclipse the seemingly "little" things that were really the important things - a devotion to his wife, his children, his friends and his God.
Devotion to family sounds like a simple thing, and it is. Gratitude, humility, faithfulness - these all are simple things. They are also very difficult. It is easy to talk about fixing the problems of society with big national programs and policies, because we can always blame somebody else when they don't work.
Personal change, personal moral integrity, personal fidelity to people and principles - that is much harder work, because we are stuck with the clay of who we are, and there is nobody to blame but ourselves if we fail. But in persisting in these little things, we accomplish a big thing. We affect others.
A reporter once asked Mother Teresa the secret of her success. She answered that she wasn't called to succeed, but only to try. Success was God's business. Trying was her business. She wasn't called to find big solutions to poverty, but to live the little solution of personal love that would become a good infection in the hearts of other people.
With acknowledgement to Zenit News Service