By Mark A. Taylor
Peggy Noonan wrote in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal about “the general decline of America’s faith in its institutions,” and you can guess the institutions she listed: “the professions, the presidency, the Supreme Court,” and the one she mentioned first, the church.
I’m assuming Noonan, a Catholic, thinks first of the church she knows best, and statistics suggest the Catholic Church in America is in trouble. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), a national nonprofit research center affiliated with Georgetown University, attendance at Mass in the U.S. declined from 55 percent of the Catholic population in 1965 to 24 percent in 2014. In the same period, the number of priests in America declined from 58,632 to 38,275. Meanwhile, the number of former Catholic adults in the U.S. has increased, from 7.5 million in 1975 to 28.9 million in 2014.
According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church spent almost $3 billion settling claims of child abuse by priests between 2004 and 2013.
Noonan reported the U.S. military is the only national institution with high public respect, “72 percent according to Gallup.” When she had the chance to speak at a West Point class several years ago, she reminded the cadets of that fact. “You are entering the only U.S. institution left standing,” she told them. “Your prime responsibility throughout your careers will be to keep it respected. . . . Your personal integrity is of the utmost importance . . . as day by day that integrity creates the integrity of the military.”
Given the low reputation of the church among many today, Noonan’s lecture suggests an idea. Why not offer a slightly altered version of her words at every seminary in America, Protestant as well as Catholic, Evangelical as well as mainline? And then we could quote it on a plaque in every church office, read it at the beginning of every church staff meeting, and include it in the handbook of every parachurch ministry and mission we know.
“Your personal integrity is of the utmost importance, as day by day that integrity creates the integrity of the church.”
In fact, I’d do well to print this sentence on a card to keep in my billfold. Maybe you would too.
We never know when someone is watching. We may not see how our attitudes influence a skeptic. We can’t calculate the impact of decisions about the church made by non-Christians who see how the church pays its bills or treats its staff members or deals with internal conflict.
Peter encouraged a persecuted church: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
Our good deeds—the right decisions and wholesome words and holy choices of each individual Christian—can change the opinion of “church” among those in the watching world. But even more, our integrity can show those who don’t know God how to discover he’s real. And who can think of any goal more important than that?