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by Joseph S. O’Leary, The Furrow, August 1985. Re-published with permission of the publisher and author.

Integrity is not an easy topic to bring into focus, because, unlike courage, patience, or graciousness, it is not confined to a specific dimension of behaviour, but functions as a general formal principle of morality, a Categorical Imperative, a supreme judgmental instance which cannot itself be judged. It has sometimes been defined as the perfection of justice, the unfailing vigilance and conscientiousness which guards justice against any inroad of corruption. Is this just a matter of being scrupulously honest in speech and in dealings with money, and reasonably consistent in matters of principle? Can one ensure one’s integrity simply by complying with elementary prescriptions of morality, civil uprightness, or ecclesiastical orthodoxy? Or is the perfection of justice more a creative art than a habit acquired by following a rulebook, more a grace than a work, a matter of conscience rather than law? If so, it can no more be ensured by following rules, than obedience to the laws of harmony could produce the St. Matthew Passion or logical expertise the Critique of Pure Reason - to name two rare monuments and touchstones of integrity. The imperative of integrity demands initiative and active engagement and the courage to make uninsured and unorthodox decisions. It seems designed to put our conscience in a pickle, for no stand we take will be free from recurrent antinomies, so that we can never be sure we have attained a position of integrity, despite the most athletic efforts. These antinomies can only be resolved, sometimes in posthumous retrospect, in the emergence of integrity as grace, the grace of freedom whereby the human spirit is able to enter untrammelled into its birthright.


Integrity is attained through choices and engagements carried out amid the complexities of an adult life. Thus if one avoids decision and commitment, curtails awareness of complexity, or approaches life in a less than fully adult way, one will attain only a simulacrum of integrity. One may become a defender of morality, orthodoxy, or correct procedure, boasting an integrity which is unimpeachable only because it is not the integrity of a human being at all, but of an institution which has usurped one’s conscience. If one thus makes a socially guaranteed identity the bastion of one’s uprightness, has one not side-stepped a more searching demand, which forbids the absolutization of any role or allegiance, and judges one’s beliefs, stances, and acts not by external codes or expectations, but by one’s most intimate certitudes and misgivings? To stamp out these misgivings might show a zeal for integrity, but it would be the misguided zeal which produces totalitarian statehood and sectarian churchhood, Eichmanns and Torquemadas. Or one may become a permanent critic of the established order, a hurler on the ditch, noting all that’s wrong with the world, but not dirtying one’s hands in the task of changing it. Intellectuals, including theologians, risk being trapped in this sterile posture, especially in a society or a Church which does not invite or value their critical interventions. Or one may become a ‘beautiful soul’ living among pure ideals, so that one’s integrity consists in the battle to keep these ideals inviolate. Both reactionaries and revolutionary purists follow this formula.

The exercise of integrity begins within, for integrity, like truth, cannot be attained without a constant passionate desire for it. This desire is certain to put one at odds with the world, for even the most honourable professions rarely take their own rhetoric of integrity entirely literally, and though persons of integrity sometimes rise in the ranks, their career is rarely a smooth one. Conformism is the principal temptation one must overcome in order to be a person of integrity, and one has the handicap of having been trained in conformism very thoroughly, whereas all one has been taught about integrity consists in vague and idealistic reports, tinged with ideological bias. It is true that society provides one with the basic framework of values within which to work, but it discourages that extra critical twist by which one makes these values effective in practice. Throughout life one is choosing between the two sides of this double bind, and one must neither simplify the choices, nor use their complexity as an excuse for inaction. Also, one must make one’s choices real through action. Every profession is full of people who imagine themselves to be free, who call themselves liberals or even radicals, but whose actions define them as pawns in a system, fearful for their own security. Integrity without works is dead. Praxis conditions vision, reacts critically on it, sharpens and radicalizes it. Nor does this imperative of praxis lapse after one has proved one’s integrity by some bold stand or courageous engagement We are always being shuttled off into some comfortable social or clerical, or academic niche in which we can settle down complacently and take calmly the great issues of peace, justice, human rights, and their correlates in our own sphere of activity. The scope of our concern is always tending to shrink to the level of our petty ambitions. We should welcome anything that can lever us out of this inertia.

One of the essential ways of practising integrity is speaking out There are occasions when the daemon of Socrates whispers his ‘No!’very distinctly in the ear of conscience. To silence this voice, or to play along with some accepted conventional lie despite this inner revolt of conscience, is to sin against the Holy Spirit. Many have braved death rather than say ‘Yes!’ with everyone else, when that inner voice said ‘No!’ We admire these examples from a distance, happy that we did not live in those times and places and unaware that our own time and place may offer just as much material for prophetic protest. For example it seems that the Roman Catholic church today could benefit from much more outspokenness. If ‘it is winter in the Church’ (Karl Rahner, 1982), the reason may be that so many people have not had the courage to speak out loudly and often against what seems to be an ongoing betrayal of the vision of Vatican II. Among the many chains in which free speech is bound, one of the heaviest is the lack of confidence people have in the deliveries of their own consciences. On this point I think the Dutch laity set a good example in their dialogues with the Pope. If we do not show the same spirit, it is not because we are less aware of the issues, but because we do not adequately realize the primacy of conscience and its responsibility, and the duty, in certain circumstances, of openly stating doubt or dissent. (One’s duty to the integrity of a tradition raises many further dilemmas here.) People have always longed for integrity in their leaders and public servants, a longing which underlies Israel’s Messianic hope in ‘the Lord our Integrity’. People also long for integrity from the Church, and we betray this longing when we relinquish critical discernment, or calmly tolerate what we feel to be a source of moral servitude. Our silence is the cement of a repressive ethos whose horrendous aspects continue to surface embarrassingly in our courts.

There is no integrity without difficult and costly choices, whose correctness cannot be assured in advance. These choices have to be constantly purified of their mixed motives, the element of cranky self-assertion, of publicityseeking, of opportunism, of self-righteous insistence, until they proceed as much as possible from unarguable moral necessity. These are not otiose scruples, for without them the noblest cause will degenerate into cynical propaganda, and the boasted integrity of its representatives will be a charade. The charade of integrity is a shadow that follows the real thing everywhere, a charade which even people of considerable integrity often enact despite themselves. It is so easy to make the right noises; whereas real integrity is also, and perhaps essentially, a matter of making the wrong ones. The longing for trustworthy leaders and a just society often leads people to acclaim as ‘a person of integrity’ the one who makes the noises suitable to the times Catholic Germany acclaimed ‘the good Hitler’. We do well not to celebrate the triumph of integrity prematurely. A person of integrity will always be the first to suspect him or herself, and to squirm if acclaimed as a person of integrity. a People who acquire a reputation for integrity often become hollow caricatures of themselves making the noises expected of them, and even falling in love with themselves as media stars. Just as one who seeks the living God may say, with Meister Eckhart, ‘I pray God to deliver me from God’, so people with a reputation for integrity have been saddled with a convenient simulacrum which may make the real thing doubly difficult to attain, and if they really prize it more than their image, they will make sure to disappoint their admirers’ expectations regularly.

But these dangers should not discourage us from the task of representing the ideals of our society and making its rhetoric of integrity our own when called to do so, either as citizens or a public figures. It may seem only a Machiavellian fiction that politicians and spokespeople for movements should speak and act as if they were the very incarnation of the ideals they represent, yet to represent an ideal honestly need not require that one has already fulfilled the ideal perfectly. To present oneself in public as a model of integrity is indeed a dangerous stunt, and when one stands for the ideals to which a society subscribes, but never fully puts into practice, one cannot avoid the risk of hypocrisy. It is humbling to be condemned by the ideals one trumpets. However, real hypocrisy sets in only when the ideals have become so remote that they no longer exercise a critical and shaping role on our practice. The moral issue here, it seems, is not one of eliminating every gap between ideal and practice, but of ensuring that the ideal functions constructively as a leaven in the practice of the individual and of society. If we already lived the ideal, it could hardly be called an ideal, and would lack all ethical and reformative force. But there is a critical threshold beyond which an ideal is so remote from practical attainment that its profession is hollow, and becomes morally corrosive. One may wonder, for instance, if the neo-Tridentine ideals of Catholic ethos and practice, currently invoked to counter the supposed errores et abusus of post-Vatican II years, are not having this counter-productive effect, or again, if Irish society is not suffering from its subscription to an ideal self-image which disorients it in its quest for a mature response to its moral and political ills. Of course in this mediacratic age idealistic rhetoric has become increasingly a question of cosmetics, making it hard to distinguish between the politician or preacher who is making a real effort to present and implement the ideals of his or her community, in full awareness of the tensions, and the one who is merely doing a superb public relations job. We need new models of integrity here. Perhaps the American bishops, when they openly publicized their struggles with the issues of nuclear morality, provided the antidote to the sinister potential of mediacracy, which can reduce the critical force of the gospel to media fantasy.


We imagine the great models of integrity, the people who said ‘No!’ as sanctimonious sticklers for principle, but in fact there seems to have been more than a touch of mischief about them, a sign that they took great pleasure in speaking the truth in opposition to a stifling and oppressive societal lie, revelling in an inner freedom that exploded the roles they were expected to play. There is a twinkle in the eye of Socrates, Cicero, Epictetus, Athanasius, Becket, Luther, More, Bonhoeffer, to give the stodgiest examples. Integrity is more than a matter of principle, more than justice; it is the capacity to be free. The life of Jesus, as reflected in the gospels, does not focus on principle, or even on saying ‘No!’to falsehood and injustice. Instead the focus is on radical freedom from the world and for the kingdom. We freeze integrity in moral and logical categories, forgetting this inner core. The person of integrity may act as judge or bishop, moral preacher or exigent thinker, activist or artist. But the core of his or her personality will correspond to the Rinzai Zen ideal of the ‘true person of no rank’. Every role corrupts if we lose touch with the inner freedom of our nature. To meet a person of great integrity is to be put back in contact with this inner freedom.

To speak of integrity as a grace of inner freedom may seem to be a pseudospiritual sidetrack. But I think it is important to note the essential note of merriment that characterizes integrity at its ripest. We suffer, perhaps, from an excess of negative integrity. Our western sense of principle and logic becomes our shield and our crusading banner, generating a rhetoric of denunciation. This moral backbone of our culture is also a source of its violence. We think of integrity as something one can cultivate like one’s reputation or one’s bank account. Consider two figures of tremendous integrity, Rousseau and Nietzsche, whose adventures may reveal a narrow one-sidedness in the western approach to integrity. Rousseau’s Calvinist conscience is fixated on the ideal of total transparency; he wants his life to be an open book to all the world; hence he pours out the most embarrassing revelations, purifying himself by his total candour, and the paranoid motivation of the exercise becomes increasingly obvious. Nietzsche’s Lutheran conscience is fixated on radical, critical unmasking of lies and idolatries; the bonfire of illusions calls despotically for more and more fuel, and the arch-sceptic finds himself caught in the impossible spiral wherein un pur trouve toujours un plus pur qui /épure (Robespierre). Integrity as work is a matter of lifting oneself by one’s own bootstraps. In Ireland our fixations seem to be sexual, at the expense of overall moral responsibility, and at the expense too of adult sexual integrity - a phrase which might well replace the word ‘chastity’. The Jewish Torah can be seen as correcting all such one-sidedness, providing a general discipline of life which keeps alive the individual and communal longing for integrity and facilitates its attainment. Our moralities suffer from abstraction, and their effect is to inhibit the striving for integrity, even to consign it to the dustbin of the dreams of youth. At Vatican II the Church, mother and teacher of all who seek the grace of integrity, embarked on a path of dialogue with all persons of good will in the search for truth and solidarity with them in the work of peace and justice, thus sketching a practicable Torah for contemporary Catholics. Our integrity depends on not losing sight of this vision, on not falling back into the sectarian definitions of identity and integrity so powerful in the past. The Catholic church could thrive as a mediacratic sect like the Unification Church. That is perhaps its greatest temptation today. ‘Begone Satan!’ was Jesus’ answer to that temptation.

If integrity is a grace, not a work, no individual, and not even the most exemplary Torah community, can ever be confident that their integrity has not been compromised. There are a lot of confessors and martyrs around today, to make the rest of us feel uneasy, but do even they escape the rule that as long as one walks amid the ambiguities of human history one’s integrity is always in question? How vigilant our Church was against the evils of onanism and the errors of polygenism during the thirties and forties, but how hopeless in dealing with the real errors and evils of the times? Simple lack of awareness of the economic and political evils of our world can make all our virtues a mere tilting at windmills. Political awareness is as difficult to cultivate and maintain as spiritual awareness. We can never so control all the factors involved as to be assured of our individual or communal integrity. It is not unreasonable for anyone who has reached ‘the middle of life’s journey’to fear that’the straight way has been lost’, that he or she may have developed into a shifty character, one in whom the inner core - to use a somewhat mythological and misleading expression - is no longer intact. It takes some courage to examine the ledger in which one’s professions are balanced against the record of one’s performance. To take a look at oneself in mid-life can be a shattering experience. But it may be that true integrity, integrity as grace, is what is reconstituted out of such a shattering.

Even the best causes can serve as a shield against self-criticism and a simplification of life’s equation, producing an obnoxious melange of righteous noises and opportunistic gestures. A cause can lift one beyond self, but to enter deeply into any cause is to meet again the ambiguities and complexities which mature integrity can never shun. It is never possible to enlist on the side of the angels in such a way as to erase all doubts about one’s own righteousness, and every effort to do so already puts one in a false position. For a civilization as informed and as reflective as ours, the quest for integrity must be a complex process. I doubt if the pre-reflective integrity of older societies is available to contemporary western people. D.H.Lawrence’s struggle for instinctual integrity was convoluted and dialectical enough to show the impossibility of our stepping out of our reflective skins. The path to the simple is not a simple one. This holds also of faith, for authority can uplift and strengthen our minds only as reconciled with the autonomy of thought and conscience and the freedom of expression which define contemporary adulthood. Faith has often been cemented by sectarian instinct, a jealous sense of cultural identity, and the diffuse and unexamined emotions of piety. Gradually we are outgrowing this, but we are still not suffficiently involved in the dialogical process in which we are put in question and opened to truth in a more radical and open-ended way. ‘Doctrinal dialogue requires perceptiveness, both in honestly setting out one’s own opinion and in recognizing the truth everywhere, even if the truth demolishes one so that one is forced to reconsider one’s own position, in theory and in practice, at least in part’ (Secretariate for non-believers, Humanae personae dignitatem). Our love of truth must include the willingness to be demolished by the truth. Any cause or creed which shuts off this ultimate danger of reflection has already said goodbye to integrity. Here self-assertion is of no avail, for truth and uprightness will never allow themselves to be forced.

Ireland today is ablaze with many, conflicting causes. Perhaps this shows that we have not lost a burning zeal for integrity. But we would do well to reflect all the more on the dangers I have been attempting to focus. To find the grace of integrity, we must undo any excessive certainty of the righteousness of our own cause. It is an invaluable spiritual exercise to consider and admire the core of integrity in the supporters of the causes with which we most passionately disagree. Such dialogical openness may seem a betrayal of principle, but if we refuse it, are we not already embarked on the path of violence? May more and more Irish people speak the truth as they see it loudly and without prudent trimmings, but may they speak it in love, building a culture of unity in pluralism rather than one of sterile polarization.

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