On the Meaning and Importance of Integrity

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2008
Reproduced with Permission

The very word "integrity" is derived from the Latin integritas, which means wholeness. A person of integrity is whole, that is, entirely integrated. This means that every perfectible power of his nature, that is, his intellect, his will, and his appetites, occupies its proper place. In other words, theentire network of the human emotions is disposed by virtue to readily submit to a will that is entirely subject to the demands of reason. Moreover, the choices and acts of an integrated person not only are one with his already established character, his choices also accord with the dictates of the moral law; and so it goes without saying that a person of integrity has good character.

Integrity, however, has interpersonal implications. The very words that a person of integrity speaks will honestly and accurately express his character as well as what he knows to be true. In other words, there is perfect integration between what is in his mind and what is in his words. And so a person of integrity is completely one within himself, and this unity is very tight. As a result of that unity within himself, were a group of people to sit around and discuss him, everyone would recognize the one that each person is talking about. In other words, no one will ever say: "I don't know who you are referring to, but we are not talking about the same person."

For the person who lacks integrity comes across to a variety of people in a variety of ways, because he is not one within himself; he is not integrated. To some people he's a religious man, to others he's a liar; to some he's generous and kind, to others he might be vindictive and ruthless; in front of liberals he talks like a liberal, thus lending the impression that he's entirely in agreement with them, but in the presence of conservatives, he talks like a conservative; to that man he's a friend, but in the presence of certain others, he's indifferent to that man, or possibly even adverse.

The reason for this difference is that the man of integrity has subjected himself to one end outside of himself, namely God, who is supremely and essentially one, true, good, and beautiful. But the person who lacks integrity does not submit himself to a single end outside of himself, namely God -- although he may appear to. His end is in fact himself, his own well-being, his own comfort and security, and so every situation involving different persons of different character will demand a different behavioural structure. If my end is that others like me, approve of me, affirm and accept me, so that they remain useful to me in some way, then I must become, in appearance at least, the kind of person of whom they would approve and whom they would affirm and accept. And so I become multi-characteristic and shifty.

But God is one and unchanging: "At the beginning, O Lord, you established the earth, and the heavens are the woks of your hands. They will perish, but you remain; and they will all grow old like a garment...But you are the same, and your years will have no end" (Heb 1, 10-12). And He is the same in and for every generation: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13, 8). God is the absolutely First Being, the source of all being, and so His nature is 'to be'. God is "I Am who Am" (Ex 3, 14). It follows that the properties of being (one, true, beautiful, and good) will exist preeminently, supereminently, and essentially in God. Hence, God is perfectly One, the True and perfect measure of all truth, Infinite Beauty, and Goodness Itself. To grow in holiness is to grow closer to God, and thus it is to grow in integrity, and in the knowledge and love of Truth Itself, who is God, as well as in moral nobility and beautiful character.

As a person drifts away from the worship of God into the spirit of idolatry or self-centeredness, he becomes more fragmented, and he begins to make what he loves (himself) and wants (whatever choices are conducive to his ends) the measure of what is true and good, and so his character becomes deficient and thus more unsightly to himself, at least in the very depths of his self-consciousness. And so to convince himself of his acceptability, he fabricates an array of personalities that various others find acceptable and appealing so that they will praise and admire him. Their praise and admiration become his food and drink.

The price of such a way of life, however, is far too high to be worth it in the end, for it involves a gradual loss of self-possession until that loss is complete and irretrievable: "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?" (Mt 16, 26). Better to place our confidence in God whose power and knoweldge is unlimited and whose plans for us cannot be frustrated by anyone or anything other than our own lack of trust in Him: "Better to take refuge in the Lord than to put one's trust in mortals. Better to take refuge in the Lord than to put one's trust in princes" (Ps 118, 8-9).