Integrity needed more than ‘authenticity’

| Father Michael Schmitz | August 9, 2017 | 2 Comments

Q: I value authenticity and loathe hypocrisy, and I want to simply be true to myself. How can I do that if I constantly am told what to believe and how to behave by the Church?

A: This is a very good question. The fact that you are asking it already puts you ahead of most people in our culture. For many, the very worst thing they could be accused of is “being fake.” But I would like to make a distinction between being authentic and having integrity.

Why is this distinction important? It could seem like I am just splitting hairs or ax-grinding by focusing on what might seem like an insignificant definition. But I maintain that a great deal depends on understanding the difference between being authentic and having integrity.

It wasn’t always this way. The original use of the term “authenticity” was more complete. It referred to something that did not deviate from the original. Because of this, one could speak of a dollar bill as “authentic” (versus a counterfeit) when it matched up with a standard outside of itself. But the term has suffered a certain corruption in our day. Now, when someone claims that they just “need to be authentic,” this often implies a reference to nothing more than an interior and subjective assessment of self.

If a person tried to live like this, then their actions would be informed or guided by nothing greater than the terrible advice given to Laertes by his father, Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” If being an excellent human merely means that I am someone who is “true to myself,” then the self has become the reference point and the measure of what is or is not true. That is a recipe for disaster, not greatness.

Please don’t get me wrong. There is something amiss when our actions do not match up with our convictions or beliefs. This is rightly called hypocrisy (or “being fake”). But there is nothing inherently wrong when our actions do not always match up with our feelings or desires.

This is a critical distinction. Until relatively recently (somewhere around the rise of Romanticism), desires and emotions were given their proper place, at least by those we consider to be great men and women. The people who have attained an incredible level of excellence and wisdom in life all have this in common: They are not compelled to be “authentic” to their feelings or desires. Personal greatness (as well as human flourishing and the common good) can only be attained by individuals and cultures that advocate something more than mere authenticity.

We need integrity. Authenticity is not bad! It is simply not enough. While there is great benefit from being “true to self” at times, the self is not and cannot be the measure of all things. There must also be an external standard that guides a person and which judges a person.

The term “integrity” refers to a certain wholeness. Authenticity can refer to this as well, but integrity includes an additional element: an external and objective standard. One could consider it in this way: There is a difference between being candid and being rude. Both candor and rudeness can be oriented around honesty. But there are different ways to express honesty or to live honestly.

Both the candid person and the rude person could claim, “But I’m only being honest!” And they might both be right. But candor is not about simply saying whatever thought comes to mind or expressing whatever emotion one might be experiencing. The candid person is completely honest with others based on a high regard for truth. Dr. Montague Brown notes, “Where truth is expected and at issue, we should always give our frank opinion.” Rudeness, on the other hand, “may or may not be an expression of what is true, but it always offends others unnecessarily.”

Dr. Brown further clarifies the distinction by noting, “[Candor] is an open exchange for the good of both parties; rudeness is bluntness designed to satisfy one party by offending the other.” I find this distinction to be profoundly helpful when thinking about authenticity and integrity as well. Rudeness is only concerned with the self and involves no consideration for something or someone outside the self. Authenticity, as it is currently understood, is also primarily concerned with self-expression and self-fulfillment with no reference to a higher standard than the self.

While no one wants to be “fake,” there is an ever greater call for each human person: for one’s life to conform to the true, the good and the beautiful found outside oneself.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at fathermikeschmitz@gmail.com.

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Category: Seeking Answers

  • DebraBrunsberg

    I have to say that the question was an interesting one. How can one be authentic if they are being told what to do, how to behave and what to believe?
    I think as we grow up, our parents tell us what to do and they aren’t really all that interested in us being “true to ourselves.” That may include telling us what to believe. (because they said so)
    My employer definitely tells me what to do and many times, I find it hypocritical and at odds with my authenticity and yet, I find myself doing what they require me to do.
    When I drive down the highway, I like to go fast, I always have. Sadly, I cannot be my true self, (wanna be pro race car driver) because the danged State keeps telling me what I can do behind the wheel of my car. They want me to believe that 80 mph is not appropriate.
    So, I can see having a problem with the Church telling one what they should believe and how they should behave. Where do they get their authority anyway? Jesus Christ, you say? So, one should listen to the Lord God? Why on earth for? I can’t be authentic and true to myself if I am supposed to believe that all those things I like to indulge in are sinful? I would be totally lost if I had to believe abortion was wrong and there is no such thing as same sex marriage. How can I possibly manage in this world with the cross of being Catholic laid upon me?
    This might all sound sarcastic and rude and it probably is, because I am just being authentic here. No one has to be Catholic. No one has to Christian. No one has to believe or behave in any specific way…………unless………..they are proclaiming to the world that they are Catholic or they are Christian. Then, they need to be behaving in the manner that fits that title. If that isn’t possible one can walk away or one can realize that anything worth keeping is worth suffering for and that is what eternity with God is. Worth.Suffering For.

    • Charles C.

      A doctor told a patient, “You’ve got to get the fat out of your system. You’re arteries are clogging up dreadfully. Eat nothing but fruits and vegetables for three months and walk five miles every day, then come back to see me.”

      The patient replied, “But doctor, that’s not the real me! I’d be dishonest, inauthentic, if I didn’t spend my life in the basement playing Nintendo and eating bacon cheeseburgers.”

      The doctor closed the folder, showed the patient to the door and asked if he could be invited to the patient’s authentic funeral six months from now.

      Jesus told us that everyone of us, from Mother Theresa, to the Pope, to St. Thomas and St. John Vianney, would be doomed to the Worm that dieth not, if we didn’t follow His instructions. He is the Doctor to whom we can choose to listen or ignore.

      Besides, what in the world is “Authentic?” I’ll bet you a dime that it only means “Doing what I really want to do.” That changes many times during a lifetime. “What we really want to do” has led many people into terrible messes, because it doesn’t allow a friend or mentor to say
      That idea is barking mad. What’s wrong with you.”