Over the last several years, a passionate and exciting debate has appeared in American Catholic intellectual circles—the debate about integralism. Viewed from Europe, the debate seems in some ways strange.
For us, America is the land of liberty and even the land of liberalism; to European ears, it is not surprising that one form of liberalism was condemned by Pope Leo XIII as “Americanism.” In a sense, one can hardly imagine more opposed intellectual viewpoints than that of integralism and Americanism. Yet the debate has emerged in the United States, where I have had the privilege, over the last several years, to visit Notre Dame with some regularity and there to hear some of these debates.
As a French citizen, I can hardly comment on movement within American political and intellectual life. But the word integralism itself stems from intégrisme, and many of the debates about integralism were first held here—in France. And with increasing frequency American discussions of integralism have begun to make reference to debates in France.
Integral Nationalism vs. Integral Catholicism: Correcting a Misunderstanding
One historical misunderstanding must be firmly set aside. Contrary to the arguments of James Patterson, from an historical point of view integralism—in the sense defined by Pater Edmund Waldstein, among others—has nothing to do with fascism, at least not with the actual ideology of fascism that emerged in the 1930s. During that time, fascism was an ideology that mixed socialism and nationalism. Before World War I, Mussolini was a leader of the socialist party, and even the publisher of the daily socialist newspaper, Avanti! Of course, Hitler himself created a “National Socialist Party.” At the time, fascism was not a far-right ideology, and integralism—opposed as it was to both socialism and nationalism, two “modern” ideologies—was very far from fascism.
Fascism’s transformation into a “far-right” ideology first came about due to Communist propaganda. Communist leaders saw themselves as far-left revolutionaries, and they needed an enemy—counterrevolutionary, on the far right. At the time, though, neither socialism nor nationalism were obviously far-right ideologies. Nationalism began its course on the far left, as the core of Jacobin ideology in the 1780s. The revolutionaries in France tried to expel from the people their love of the king, and they offered in its place a new “goddess”—the Nation, with a capital n.
As the great Catholic historian Jean de Viguerie once put it, traditional patriotism is very different from the modern one which triumphed after World War I. In fact Charles Maurras, the main thinker of Action française, nudged the French people from the traditional patriotism to its more modern form, insofar as he was both traditional (being a monarchist) and modern (as a positivist).
What about the links between integralism and Action française? As Nathan Pinkoski put it, “Patterson singles out Action française and its leader Charles Maurras to make the link between integralism and fascism. But Maurras was plainly not an integralist. His doctrine was integral nationalism. Patterson mistranslates Maurras’s slogan nationalisme intégral as ‘National integralism,’ and so gets Maurras backwards.”
There are several reasons why integralism can be mistakenly confused with Maurras’s integral nationalism. The first, as Pinkoski pointed out, lies in the word integral itself. Maurras articulated what he called an “integral nationalism,” but that is very far from what the integralists called “integral Catholicism.” Another reason can be found in the fact that some Latin American political movements called themselves “integralist” partly in admiration of Maurras’s integral nationalism.
It is not surprising, in this context, to find that James Patterson illustrates his article with pictures from the so-called Brazilian Integralist Action. Indeed, it is possible that no Latin American “integralists” were “integralists” in the sense articulated by Pater Edmund. The main Brazilian “integralist” leader, Plinio Salgado, was certainly not integralist in the contemporary Catholic sense. His “Integralista Manifesto” of October 7, 1932, made no mention of the Catholic Church or the Catholic faith.
Likewise Maurras certainly was not a Catholic. He lost the faith while young and became a positivist, following a philosophy closer to modernism than to integralism. As one can see, the term integralism has a complicated history. It also includes, in one forgotten area, a French school of philosophy (lead by Jean Granier) from the end of the twentieth century that was close to Nietzsche’s thought—without any links at all to integral Catholicism.
When Pius XI condemned Maurras’s Action française, he condemned not its ecclesiastical integralism but its “social modernism.” Whatever one may think of its political or religious motivations, or about the relationship between church and state, it was clear that Pius XI held Action française to be not integralist enough. This was not, or not only, a propagandistic way of promoting and justifying the condemnation. Cardinal Louis Billot, who was so close to Maurras to have quoted him in his ecclesiological works and to forfeit his red hat during the condemnations of 1926, once sternly rebuked Maurras: “The principles of your book [sc. L’Etang de Berre],” Billot wrote, “are the very principles of the impious, anti-Christian, Jacobin, materialistic, atheistic Revolution, which has led us to the mess we are in.”
The integral nationalism of Maurras was not an integral Catholicism. For Pius XI, attached as he was to the project of restoring Christendom through Catholic Action, it was a disaster to see the young Catholic faithful learning politics from a non-Catholic teacher. In a way, Pius XI made himself out to be more “integralist” than Maurras. Here as elsewhere, the question lay in what one was integrating.
The history of political concepts makes for a kind of strange combat sport. Not only do we find Maurras condemned by Pius XI for being insufficiently integralist, but we also find Jacques Maritain—for more than a decade a close associate of Maurras, yet who later inspired Vatican II’s declaration on religious liberty—pretending to be more integralist than his former associate. Maritain’s famous Integral Humanism was, after all, supposed to lay the foundations for a new Christendom—the core of the integralist project. He made his intention an explicitly integralist one, while making it anti-Maurras at the same time.
In any case, if you read carefully the four books that Maritain wrote between 1926 and 1928 (the period of Action française’s condemnation), what Maritain clearly had in mind was what historians call (derisively) the “pontifical theocracy”—the political-theological views of the medieval popes. Maritain states very clearly that the pope has, on the basis of his spiritual sovereignty, a direct power over temporal matters and temporal leaders. That claim is, in fact, the main polemical statement of integralism and the core teaching of the Syllabus as well as of Quas primas. Although many intellectuals nowadays claim that the thirties were years of fear and dictatorship, they were in fact years of passionate intellectual debate. One need only consult the wonderful book of Jean-Louis Loubet del Bayle, Les non-conformistes des années 30 to see that our times are considerably less free and less intellectually stimulating.
Further Misunderstandings: Integralism and Spanish Traditionalism
In the historical debate about integralism there are not only French but Spanish issues, as well. If I understand correctly, one of the “proofs” of the “fascist” roots of the new American integralism, according to its opponents, lies in the alliance between Carlists and Falangists—movements of Spanish traditionalism to restore the rightful (Carlist) claimant to the throne or to bring about a strong anti-Communist Spanish state (Falangist). On its face, the critique does not seem to be a serious one—allies do not have to share a common doctrine, unless we expect that Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, de Gaulle and Tito all shared a common doctrine.
It is true that Carlists and Falangists were allied against Communists and anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. (Whether Falangism was really a form of fascism may be the subject of a separate discussion. In any case, the ideology did not survive the death in 1936 of José Antonio Primo da Rivera, its main leader.) A lot of diverse ideologies and parties joined to fight a common enemy—and the same was true of the Left, as well. Stalinists hated Trotskyists and anarchists more than Carlists, but they fought together on the “Republican” side. (Likewise, Carlists were not exactly enthusiastic to enter Falangism when Franco coerced them into doing so.) One of the main Carlist leaders, Manuel Fal Conde, was exiled because he refused to obey Franco on this point.
Carlism is not integralism, however. Some Carlists were not integralists and some Spanish integralists were not Carlists. The same is true in France: Louis Veuillot, one of the main integralist writers, was not a Legitimist, even though he sympathized with the ideas of the count of Chambord (the Legitimist claimant to the throne of France from 1844 to 1883). But even if we assume that Carlism is the same thing as integralism, the alliance between Carlists and Falangists during the civil war proves only that both were anti-Communist.
Integralism as a Rejection of Modern Political Thought
In fact, what is true is that integralism rejects some major statements of modern political thought. Like every counterrevolutionary ideology, integralism rejects individualism, subjectivism, and Rousseau’s social contract. Moreover, it rejects the separation between the spiritual and temporal powers. This is a major difference in European, especially French and Spanish, political philosophy between conservatism and “reaction” or counterrevolution.
Although the point may be difficult to grasp in America, in Europe conservatism is not a right-wing ideology but rather a centrist one. During the nineteenth century, French conservatives did not want radical revolution (or, say, socialist ideology), but neither did they want to come back to the principles of a traditional society (such as the divine right of kings, corporatism, pride of place given to the Church, etc.). Many of these conservatives were royalist, but they were not counterrevolutionary in the manner of the count of Chambord (the legitimist “king,” grandson of Charles X). By contrast, some integralists did not care what form the regime took (such was the case with Louis Veuillot, for example).
How Integral Catholicism and Integral Nationalism Became Linked
One question remains: if it is so obvious that Maurras is not an integralist and that integralism has nothing to do with fascism, how can we understand the frequently made link between these ideologies? The first answer, of course, is polemics: it’s easier to fight an ideology close to fascism (the perfect enemy in all modern debate) than a stranger one like integralism. But there is also a historical reason.
After the condemnation of Action française, a Christian Democrat named Louis Canet, working for the French Foreign Office and writing under the pseudonym Nicolas Fontaine, wrote a book entitled Saint-Siège: Action française et “catholiques intégraux”. This book was the first to link integral nationalism and integral Catholicism. As the man responsible for religious issues in the Foreign Office, Louis Canet worked on the condemnation of Action française (which was a great obstacle to the peace with Germany that his minister, Aristide Briand, was trying to negotiate). And he probably decided to use the condemnation to silence—with pontifical authority!—all his right-wing Catholic opponents, including integralists who had nothing to do with Maurras.
After this book, and especially after the end of the Second World War, it became very common in French political and above all religious debate to link integralism to Action française. This strange historical “argument” became yet more important after the Second Vatican Council. Integralists opposed Dignitatis humanae, hence many intellectuals tried to silence them as the disciples of an ideology condemned by the pope.
Of course, it was true that some French “traditionalists” were Maurrassian—for example Jean Madiran, editor of the main traditionalist review in France (Itinéraires) who wrote a very interesting book on the history of integralism (L’intégrisme: Histoire d’une histoire). But it was not generally the case. In particular, a lot of priests who rejected some elements of the conciliar or postconciliar magisterium had nothing to do with Action française. More importantly, the opposition to liberalism has never been limited to Maurrassian circles.
I hope these few historical comments can help to specify what integralism is—and more importantly, what integralism is not. But at least I hope it will be clear, after reading these remarks, that critics of integralism can hardly criticize integralists for their lack of historical perspective, when it is they themselves who mix together ideologies as different as “integral Catholicism” and “integral nationalism”—or, even worse and less seriously, integralism and fascism.
Why Integralism?: A Political Debate
But the integralism debate is not mainly a historical debate. It is first and foremost a political and a theological debate. So, as above, I will try to offer some comments about political questions and their answers—as an old-fashioned French “social Catholic” might understand them.
We can say that the main battle in political philosophy between “ancients” and “moderns” touches the end of society. Modern science forgot the question of finality (and indeed is proud not to deal with such controversial issues), but for ourselves, we cannot avoid it. Usually “moderns” do not even want to deal with the question of final cause or purpose—but if they do, they generally answer that society is “made” (not received from God, nature or history) to leave individuals happy and beaming. For moderns the political issues are only material, in the broadest sense of the word. Modern society includes the possibility of a cultural or a spiritual life, as the human being is not merely animal, but the temporal power claims that it does not want to have any cultural or spiritual “opinions.” Philosophical and religious pluralism allows it to avoid dealing with these issues.
The first response one can offer to this view (as others have suggested) is that refusing to have cultural or spiritual ideas is, by itself, a cultural or a spiritual idea. This sort of disinterest in religious questions can be very shocking and dispiriting for citizens who seek religious truth. Worse, this relativism can itself become a genuine new state religion. Leo Strauss once suggested that if everything is equal, then cannibalism is merely a matter of taste. While one can laugh at the point, a relativistic society is clearly an awful one. Pope Benedict XVI likewise spoke very profoundly about “the dictatorship of relativism.” Forbidding anyone from claiming anything to be true, even in the most peaceful way, and prohibiting the claim of truth as “intolerance” for other citizens destroys, on a long-term scale, all social cohesion because it destroys the very possibility of a common language.
The second answer one can offer to this supposed refusal of cultural or spiritual choice is that it is pure hypocrisy. It is not true that liberal societies leave their citizens able to choose or to refuse whatever doctrine they want to choose or refuse.
But the third answer is probably the most powerful one: you simply cannot build a society without anything in common. If every cultural or spiritual choice is a matter of individual choices which do not concern society, we cannot share a common place to live—which is commonly called “society.” Take a radical example: if I am a radical individualist who estimates that all my personal options only concern me and I decide to call a “table” what ordinary people call a “chair,” how will ordinary people be able to communicate with me? A radical example to be sure, but some French postmodern philosophers claimed exactly this radicalism. Roland Barthes famously declares that language itself is fascist—and he is not wrong if you admit that every rule you have notfreely chosen is the first step to fascism.
On the other hand, traditional thinkers thought that the common good had something to do with our intellectual and spiritual life. Aristotle says that the common good includes not only the quest for general interest—which is already much more “common” than the goals of radical individualism—but also the quest for a virtuous life. And of course, if one seeks a virtuous life for all members of society, one needs a shared vision of what virtue is.
Aquinas goes even further. Four Thomistic ideas about the common good stand out in particular: first, every particular good is ordained to the common good; second, there is a difference of nature (and not only of degree) between the common good and the particular good; third, the temporal common good is the ultimate end for political society, but an intermediate end for human beings (ordained to God and eternal life); fourth, the common good of society includes the virtuous life and salvation of its members.
It is easy to see that the link between the political life of society and the spiritual end of the citizens is not some crazy dream of Pater Edmund Waldstein. Of course, one can challenge the truth of Catholic social teaching, but it is harder to pretend that Catholic tradition supports the separation of Church and state or spiritual and temporal power. Likewise, if you accept the idea of a necessary interest of political communities in the everlasting life of their members, you have to accept the two subsequent statements in Pater Edmund’s definition: two powers should run our lives, and the spiritual one (in charge of the highest end) is above the temporal one. It does not mean that, to be a good Catholic, you have to favor the restoration of the Papal States, divine right monarchies, or Inquisition trials, but it means that the modern claim of a “purely” temporal end for society cannot be fully received by an “integral” Catholic.
We do have to notice that some statements of the new integralism appear to be received not from Catholic social teaching, but from modern sociology and political philosophy, especially from the famous German jurist Carl Schmitt. (The influence of Schmitt is possibly another reason that integralism has been called “fascist,” since Schmitt was badly compromised with Nazism even though his most influential books were written before the election of Hitler and some of them against Nazism.) The important question, though, is not whether Schmitt said something but whether what Schmitt said was true.
Carl Schmitt is one of the main antiliberal jurists, and that is the reason why he is so carefully read by people of diverse backgrounds on the far left and far right (to say nothing of integralists). He reminds us that a society is not only the sum of individual human beings, but a real body—a sort of new being (a new moralis persona as the canonists might say). This idea is a classical one in political philosophy, but quite opposed to political modernity and especially to social contractualism. From Schmitt the new integralism also receives the idea of a distinction between friend and enemy, and the importance of borders for every living being and particularly for a country. It is very important, because the political consensus after World War II supposed that borders were the archaic remains of barbarian times, condemned to slowly disappear. The internationalist Left promoted this idea through the end of nations, anti-militarism and pacifism. A peculiar conservatism also promoted this idea through trade agreements and its support for the free movement of people, goods, and funds.
One issue that could be a bridge between the traditional conservative platform and the new integralism is their common view of the dignity of human beings, the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, and finally the concept of natural law. It is well known that many American Catholics joined the Republican platform under Reagan due to social conservatism. Integralism agrees with “mainstream” Catholicism and conservatism on these issues. But integralism adds an interesting contribution in the new cultural war we are now facing. Being profoundly anti-individualist, integralism has an important doctrinal corpus to oppose the dictatorship of factionalism.
Here I have to mention the very interesting work of American Affairs on family policy. Although it is not an explicitly integralist work, it is not by chance that Gladden Pappin, one of the main integralist thinkers, is also one of the main writers on this subject. Human society entails not only the political common good, but also history and even human nature itself. History can bind a society together in opposition to those from outside who would reject its culture, and human nature itself must be defended against those who would impose a Culture of Death on the culture as a whole. A positive view of the common good, and of a shared virtuous life, could be a more powerful answer to today’s challenges than mere defense of freedom.
Finally, there is the question of “corporatism.” During the nineteenth century, almost every right-wing Catholic in France was in favor of corporatism. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, it became a common doctrine of the magisterium’s social teaching, but after World War II it fully disappeared from the Church’s discourse and from public debate. Opposed to individualism on the one hand and socialism on the other, corporatism is a doctrine that sees the professions as social bodies shared by workers and employers. Of course, the reason why the new integralism is rediscovering corporatism is that, as during French social Catholicism of the nineteenth century, there is a need to oppose individualism as well as to deal with issues like the rights of workers, the rights of families, and social justice.
Why Integralism?: The Theological Debate
Finally and most importantly, the integralism debate is also a theological debate about the political understanding of the Catholic faith. For decades, and even during the last two centuries, one of the main political-theological debates within the Catholic Church has been that between liberalism and integralism—the debate about how to receive the principles of the Revolution of 1789. We must be careful not to see theological differences as merely political ones, even though the Church is, according to Catholic teaching, a societas perfecta like the state itself.
For the Church, the question is not about the victory of the Right or the Left, the integralists or the modernists. It is about truth and the correct understanding of the moral and political consequences of the faith. We should try not to see modern Church history as a history of political alternations—the Syllabus a win for the integralists, the pontificate of Leo XIII a win for the liberals, that of St. Pius X a return of integralism, etc. Of course, there is always some politics in Church governance, but that is never the main issue, especially for the Church’s teaching. When one carefully reads the magisterium’s texts, the most striking point is the continuity: although Leo XIII is probably more diplomatic than Pius IX or Pius X, his encyclical Libertas is not more liberal than the Syllabus errorum or Pius X’s Pascendi.
From a theological point of view, the main issue for integralism is that of the relationship between church and state. A huge number of books have been written on this issue ever since the conversion of Constantine the Great. As in Christology so in ecclesiology: like the two natures of Christ, Church and state should be, in a Christian context, “distinguished without separation and united without confusion.” But the application of these principles is much less clear. From Gelasius to Dignitatis humanae, from St. Louis to Boniface VIII, from Bossuet to Bellarmine and from Aquinas to John Courtney Murray, a large number of political and theological battles have occurred around the application of these principles.
For Vatican II, Dignitatis humanae—the Declaration on Religious Liberty—is one of the most controversial texts of the council; its proper understanding has been a major battlefield between liberal and “integral” Catholics ever since. This essay is not the place to discuss the question of doctrinal continuity around Dignitatis humanae, in part because it is not certain that the “political theological” teaching around it is infallible. (After all, St. Robert Bellarmine himself, centuries before Vatican II, opposed the medieval theory of “direct” papal power.)
To be sure, the “obvious” reading of Dignitatis humanae is the liberal or Americanist one. In this case, Americanist is not a polemical word but comes from Pope Leo XIII’s Testem benevolentiae (1899), condemning Americanism and especially the exaltation of the U.S. Constitution by Father Isaac Hecker. Leo XIII was certainly not against the U.S. Constitution, but he could not accept the idea at the heart of Americanism that the U.S. Constitution should be everywhere the model of all states. Although Vatican II did not offer “Americanism” as a new Church doctrine, it is not surprising that this “Americanist” revival has stirred up an integralist revival, as well.
Learning from the New Integralism
Leaving aside the question of Dignitatis humanae, what can we retain from the new integralism from a theological point of view? First, the new integralism has emphasized the promotion of the libertas ecclesiae—the right of the Church to pursue its own end. This means that the Church has the right to teach its subjects—and it includes, for example, the right to create Catholic schools, the right to investigate the teaching of theologians, the right to prohibit false doctrines, etc. Ecclesiastical integralism also means that the Church, by its own nature, can command the Christian faithful to refuse to obey laws that oppose the natural or divine law—and ultimately (as it did happen under Christendom) can depose bad princes.
Generally speaking, integralism takes a serious account of the cultural, legal, political consequences of the Christian faith. Baptism is not merely a personal decision, but introduces us into a “political body” called the Church. Hence our personal faith has social consequences. This public form of Christianity tends naturally to improve our civilization—changing the laws, building hospitals or universities, promoting a specific form of art, defending a certain vision of political power—just as our human nature is improved by baptismal grace. This is what we mean by “Christendom,” and this is what integralism wants to restore for new centuries.
Finally, let us consider the relationship between freedom and truth. The modern view of religious freedom, which is in fact rejected by Dignitatis humanae, holds that human freedom is only limited by the freedoms of other human beings, and is only ordained to our own personal development. But Church teaching, including the teaching of Vatican II, sees freedom as ordained to the truth and to the duty of worshiping the true God. For Dignitatis humanae, the main question is: what does it mean for a political body to be mostly composed of Catholics? Should it be a Catholic state in the traditional sense of the word or should it refuse the public claim of Catholicism in order to respect the religious liberty of non-Catholics? Integralism views the religious truth as part of the common good. In effect, it fills up the silences that were left in the conciliar declaration.
Two other emphases in the Church’s traditional theological-political thinking find a home in a renewed integralism. First, the social kingship of Christ—a traditional emphasis especially in, for example, the vast number of icons showing Christ reigning as a Byzantine emperor. But it was explained by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical letter Quas primas (1925) against secularism. The Mexican Cristeros who resisted their aggressively secular government a few years later were referring to the pope’s teaching when they shouted Viva Cristo Rey! This teaching is what Pater Edmund Waldstein had in mind in referring to the subordination of the temporal power to the Church.
The second traditional emphasis of the new integralism is that of the essence of the Church. Modern thinkers see the Catholic Church as one association among others, but the popes always rejected this view. According to the magisterium, the Church is a perfect society or societas perfecta, which means that it has in itself the means to pursue its own end. The end of the Church is the salvation of its members and the Church has the means of this salvation, especially the sacraments. The state is the only other perfect, that is, complete society. The family’s end—the generation and rearing of children—eventually requires the assistance of other families and the political community as a whole. The religious freedom of the true religion, then, is not only a question of freedom of speech or freedom of thought. It is also a question of “sovereignty.” The Church is, in a way, a “political” body—a society ruled by its own laws. If not, it cannot fulfill its mission of salvation. Just as the state has the right to be free and sovereign to fulfill its missions, so too the Church cannot be subordinated to temporal power and still fulfill its mission. On the contrary, the temporal power should be oriented toward the spiritual one: a Christian prince—or, more broadly, a Christian politician—has to be obedient to the spiritual power in order to find his own salvation and facilitate that of his fellow citizens.
Finally, integralists have good reasons to be scared by or reluctant to embrace a political society where the Church has no form of political power at all. For where the true religion is rejected, another one takes its place—as with nature itself, political human nature abhors a vacuum. It is all too easy to see today that a secular religion has replaced the Christian one. Of course, it is not a “secular religion” like Communism or Nazism (in Eric Voegelin’s sense of the word)—it is not as hostile to human nature, to human freedom and to human dignity. But it is a sort of religion, above political laws—and this religion is not only different from Christianity, but also very often hostile to it, because its unwritten principles are relativistic.
Rediscovering the Political Dimension of Human Life
While I do not know whether the “integralism debate” will progress in the United States, or whether integralists will be able to propose concrete new ways to do politics, nevertheless I am certain that we have to hear their arguments carefully. Integralism asks us to rediscover the political dimension of human beings. Modern people see only individuals and groups of individuals, but societies are not merely groups of individuals. They are morales personae, social bodies that have their own lives dependent on, but distinct from the lives of their members. A political society based on individualism can surely be very efficient from an economic point of view, but it will certainly miss an important dimension of human nature.
Here in France, President Macron’s sketch of a “start-up nation” may be a propaganda motto, but it cannot be a real political city. The libertarian dream of a city ruled by managers is as utopian and materialistic as the old Marxist view of society. Human beings have much more than economic desires and motivations. We have to come back to a concept of the common good and to Catholic social teaching. And we have to take serious account of the spiritual dimension of the common good. Of course, the temporal city is not in charge of our salvation, but is in charge of the good of citizens who are, at the same time, “citizens” of the mystical body of Christ, and it cannot be neutral toward truth (including religious truth).
The historical misunderstanding of integralism is probably a mere attempt to escape the difficult but decisive questions integralism is raising. And it is certainly not a way to solve them or offer to our human cities the salvation they need. For that effort, the approach suggested by integralism will remain essential.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Our special thanks go out to Gladden Pappin for all his help with this piece.