• Ian Sutton

The Leadership Debate

Updated: Mar 21

Lenin once said, “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” For those of us living in the United States, it feels as if decades have happened just this week. I would like to think through the implications of just two of those events.

The first was the “debate” that took place between the two presidential candidates. Of course, it was not a debate in which the two men put forward their programs for the nation’s future, described why they proposed those programs, and then defended them from rational criticism from the other candidate. Instead, the “debate” turned into a verbal brawl, which provided no useful insights.

The second event of this week's events was the hospitalization of President Trump, following his diagnosis of COVID-19. Many people in the nation had been in some form of denial regarding this disease. Some people denied its existence or seriousness; others accepted its existence intellectually, but did not adjust their lifestyles to match. Now there can be no denial.

A theme of this site, is that the church is in a position to provide leadership in a world that seems to be adrift. But first, we have to acknowledge and understand the truths of the situations in which we find ourselves, which is the basis of my first theological discussion point, Understand and Tell the Truth.

In the “debate” neither candidate came anywhere close to sharing thoughts about the predicaments that our society faces. We can reasonably disagree as to the details of climate change, for example, but future world leaders should at least talk about the existential threat that it poses. There was not a hint of leadership to do with long-term issues — issues that demand thought, education and true debate.

The hospitalization of the President is also a matter of being truthful. He, as an individual, did not tell the truth about the pandemic, and now he and many others are paying a price. But a deeper truth is that we are all part of nature, and nature includes deadly viruses, as discussed in the third of the theological discussion points — Live Within the Biosphere.

Both examples illustrate a deeper truth: our secular institutions are not equipped to provide leadership in a time of wrenching and scary change. For example, if we accept the realities of climate change and of the findings of the IPCC 1.5 °C report, then will have radically change our current way of living. If we accept that we are part of the biosphere, not above our outside it, then, once more, we will need to adjust our way of living so as to accommodate other species — all the way from insects to polar bears.

The fact that our secular institutions are not in a place to provide leadership provides an opportunity for the church. The idea of sacrifice is built in to the church’s way of thinking. For example, both Jesus and John spent time in the wilderness. Later, as the church grew, monastic ideals became part of the fabric, as we see in the discussion to do with Benedict of Nursia.

Once sensible leadership is in place, then we can have sensible debates.

Finally, the reason I included a picture of Francis I at the head of this post is that he has provided the type of leadership just discussed, as we can see in the publication Laudato Sí.

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