A quarter century after Francis Fukuyama proclaimed liberalism “the end of history,” it is nearly impossible to avoid stumbling across rumors of its demise. With increasing populist dissent from the post-war global order, liberalism—not American left-wing politics but a combination of economic, legal, and social arrangements and their philosophical underpinnings—has received new scrutiny, especially among Catholics. Often attributed to John Locke, this system of free markets, free speech, and freedom of religion seeks to accommodate pluralism and avoid violence by focusing on procedures for getting along, rather than by legislating a vision of the good life. Although strains of liberalism differ, liberalisms typically claim to provide a neutral space for the exercise of freedom, which is construed as the highly individual project of self-creation.
Among the most outspoken of liberalism’s critics are “Catholic integralists.” Although the term “integralist” has a complex history, this essay focuses on the contemporary, predominantly American variety, which alleges that liberalism’s maintenance of neutrality inevitably clashes with Catholic efforts to shape society according to Christian notions of the common good. Submission to the Church’s teaching authority, they say, requires a return to the premodern integration of temporal and spiritual authorities within a Catholic order. Must committed Catholics accept integralism as liberalism’s antidote and, as the price of faithfulness, jettison religious pluralism in favor of premodern forms of coercive religious authority? No, there are grave objections to integralism which are internal to the Catholic faith.
Yet criticizing integralism need not imply a defense of liberalism. Integralism flourishes by posing this false dichotomy, by defining itself as the theologically orthodox antithesis to a heretical liberalism. (Framed this way, is it surprising that many Catholics flock to integralism?) Yet, despite its own claims, integralism is no true alternative to liberalism. It is reactionary—wedded to the liberalism it rejects—and as blind to Christendom’s errors as to the Christian truths liberalism distorts. Moreover, at the very moment when it promises a truly theological politics, integralism turns out not to be theological enough, smuggling in worldly notions of power under the cover of ostensibly theological formulas.
The alternative is a more radical theological politics which is neither liberal nor integralist, a politics which takes the Christological shape of Christian power, the spiritual character of salvation, and the nature of the Church more seriously. This politics must ground its dedication to freedom, its rejection of violence, and its commitment to the marginalized in the logic of the Christian faith rather than formal procedure.
In recent years, this small cadre of Catholics have coalesced around a distinctive interpretation of what, allegedly, “the Church has always taught” about the subordination of temporal power to spiritual power. Proof-texting from the encyclicals of Leo XIII and Pius IX, integralists retrieve ideas relegated to obscurity following Vatican II: the ideal of a confessional polity, the juridical and even coercive authority of the Church as a perfect community (communitas perfecta), and the dangers of liberal notions of freedom. Integralism, according to the integralist website The Josias,
Rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
This definition places the rejection of liberalism front and center. Fearful that enforcing a single vision of the good life will lead to horrors like the Inquisition, liberal politics exalts means divorced from ends. Striving for neutrality, it seeks procedures which allow people who disagree to get along peacefully and relegates debate about ends to the private sphere.
Integralists correctly note that liberalism’s neutrality conceals a bias. The maintenance of a neutral public square forbids the dominance of any thick conception of the good not shared by all. This quickly leads to the privatization of religion and the secularization of society, manifesting liberalism’s hostility to any religion which sees itself as more than a private concern. Liberalism decrees that the good life consists in the freedom of private, self-chosen ends. Since this vision is inscribed in the procedures of political debate itself, it is placed beyond dispute. Rather than a neutral umpire, liberalism is, according to historian and post-liberal theorist Andrew Willard Jones, “the Confessional State par excellence,” dictating terms to all other faiths by stipulating which ends and means are legitimate.
As integralists tell the story, 20th century Catholics, especially in America, welcomed liberalism with open arms, renouncing dreams of a confessional state for the promise of a free market of ideas within which Catholicism could flourish. Having failed to heed the prophetic warnings of the 19th century popes, faithful Catholics are now realizing that their birthright has been sold for a mess of pottage. Liberalism’s neutrality is not only feigned but also conceals the spirit of Antichrist. Integralists argue that if Catholics do not dictate terms, others will dictate to them. They believe Catholics have no other choice but to renounce liberalism and advocate a Catholic regime, a societal order which promotes both temporal and eternal ends, integrating them by subordinating the lesser (temporal) power to the greater (spiritual) power. Some envision a throne and altar monarchy, others a confessional state, and still others the harmonious integrated social order of an era “before Church and state,” exemplified by the 13th century kingdom of Louis IX. Regardless, integralism announces the return of a politics of ends, declaring war on secularism in the name of theological faithfulness.
This critique, though powerful, tells only half of the story. Integralists, by labeling liberalism as the “Antichrist,” pass up an opportunity to capitalize on its key vulnerability: its dependence on Christianity. Liberalism is reluctant to recognize its debts to the religious traditions from which it claims to liberate humanity. Integralists actually play into liberalism’s hands by treating it like an autonomous rival rather than, as Jones writes, a tradition “parasitic on Christian orthodoxy.” If liberalism really is, as integralists are inclined to claim, a heresy, then as with all heresies, its ecclesial origin must be recognized and the distorted Christian truths which lend it its power identified. Its pretensions to independence must be unmasked and its truths purified from admixture of error and reclaimed as parts of the Catholic whole. Rather than undertake this task, integralists prefer to critique liberalism as something satanic or alien. In doing so, they neglect the Christian provenance of liberal ideas and the Christian pathos which fuels liberal critiques of Christendom. In the words of Jones, “Modernity was something that the Church did. It was the work of the baptized.”
As David Bentley Hart has written, modern notions of human dignity and universal personhood are dependent on Christianity. Liberalism’s commitment to freedom is a secularized version of the messianic promise “to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18) and its preoccupation with peace a vestige of the eschatological anticipation of an age when the nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares” (Isa 2:4). Liberals follow medieval precedent in placing conscience and consent at the center of philosophical reflection, just as their emphases on “subjectivity” and “interiority” follow Christian explorations of the soul from Augustine’s Confessions to the Ignatian exercises.
Early liberals did not criticize Christendom without good reason: many proto-integralist regimes abused their power. They executed heretics. They persecuted Jews, expelling them from their territory or massacring entire communities. They waged bloody wars which were exacerbated by confessional differences. Rightly scandalized by the horrific means authorized in the name of Christian ends, early liberals, with consciences still shaped by Christianity, noted the dissonance between these means and the Christian message. Of course, in secularizing Christian ideals, liberalism distorted them, turning freedom for the good into arbitrary liberty (freedom from) and separating subjectivity and conscience from their divine source. Eventually, liberalism ended up erecting a totalizing system which removed God from public life.
Yet salvaging the truth upon which liberalism is parasitic demands that Catholics take these ideals and critiques seriously. Jones recommends that Catholics reframe the liberal “lexicon” in explicitly theological terms and re-narrate the liberal epoch as “a diverting subplot . . . in a larger narrative” which centers on the People of God, history’s true protagonist. The liberal backlash that followed Christendom’s transgressions need not be narrated as the beginning of a liberal salvation history (as liberals would have it) nor as an interruption of Christian history, requiring that we turn back the clock (as integralists see it). Instead, Christians can narrate this backlash as an episode within Christian history, an opportunity to repent of these bloody episodes, recognizing that even “Catholic” power is subject to the distortions of the fallen libido dominandi (desire to dominate), a distortion manifest in the burning of heretics, the possession of slaves, the persecution of Jews, and the conquest of the Americas. At times, the Church has yielded to the temptation Christ faced in the desert, accepting the offer of the kingdoms of this world on the devil’s terms and exchanging the path that leads to the Cross for one that leads to worldly glory.
This theological re-narration is a fundamentally hopeful one. Although the Church may have been unfaithful and the errors of the ensuing liberalism may seem unredeemable, her indefectibility depends not on her merits but on God’s faithfulness. Even at the worst of times, the Spirit preserves what human beings squander, blessing the Church with the charisms of saints who shine amidst even the most profound darkness.
Despite her stumbles, the Church has an opportunity to take up anew the task of redeeming all truth. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explains, “the Catholic Church can see herself as the embodiment of wholeness and totality,” that is, as catholic, “only when she has done all in her power actively to incorporate the riches of all partial points of view.” If she is faithful, she can emerge from her passage through modernity more truly herself, containing, as Jones puts it, modernity’s “strengths and even its pathos, but without its exaggerated errors.” This means detaching modernity’s “achievements from the interpretation given them in liberalism,” in the words of theologian David Schindler. The Church may have to oppose liberalism, but it does not have to oppose modernity. Put another way, she must show the world a different way of being modern, a counter-modernity.
Rather than take this opportunity, integralists, content to play the contrarian who tells modern people that their cherished ideals are a lie, cede to liberalism its desired role as defender of freedom and conscience. Liberalism’s emancipatory politics draw their appeal from saving the world from those, including integralists, it sees as “theocratic fanatics.” Liberals catechize the young by feeding them a steady diet of horror stories about the Inquisition or the Galileo affair. They inculcate veneration for freedom, conscience, and peace by threatening a return of the Dark Ages if secularism and liberal progress are left behind.
Integralists play right into liberalism’s hands. Since they define themselves as liberalism’s enemies, they feel that they cannot concede that Christendom erred or learn from modernity; any concession would be a sign of weakness. Yet, by attacking freedom and autonomy, refusing to condemn the burning of heretics, or defending Pius IX’s handling of the Mortara case (the kidnapping of a Jewish child baptized without his parents’ knowledge) they simply confirm liberalism’s worst fears, living up to the caricature it has sketched for centuries. As Jones suggests, “in the liberal march to freedom,” Christians are meant to be “the ever-retreating but necessary tyrants”:
We are never more recognizable within the [liberal] storyline than when we find ourselves defending the alliance of crown and altar against individual liberty and freedom of conscience . . . the liberals have, of course, suspected us of being secretly integralists all along.
As an apologetic strategy, this is disastrous. Rather than show that liberal caricatures are faulty and the ideals modern people cherish are best served by something other than liberalism, integralists play a role that modern people have been trained to recognize and fear. Having dismissed the ideas of autonomy, freedom, and equality which constitute the moral vocabulary by which modern people make judgments, integralists eliminate any shared values by which they might persuade their opponents. As a result, integralists, if they engage liberalism’s questions at all, tend to give the answer it expects from its “tyrants”: Is the death penalty a legitimate punishment for heresy? Should the Church condemn the way it treated Jews under proto-integralist regimes? Are there any internal constraints preventing the return of these horrors if integralists succeed in replacing the external, formal constraints set by liberal proceduralism?
Thus, modern integralism reveals itself to be fundamentally reactionary, determined by the negation of its opposite. Integralism defends the abuses liberalism expects it to defend and opposes the ideals liberalism expects it to oppose. Liberalism and integralism are not alternatives. They represent opposing characters in a script written in advance by liberalism. Integralism cannot take us beyond liberalism—it can only more deeply entrench itself in its pre-drawn battle lines.
Liberalism cannot be bested by frontal assault. Catholics in search of a post-liberal politics will have to outflank it, choosing battles based on theological criteria rather than adopting a strategy of total opposition. Instead of blindly defending what liberals reject, they must recognize liberalism’s merits as well as its flaws, re-narrating any vigor in liberal critiques as a faint echo of Christianity’s subversion of fallen politics. By repenting of Christendom’s missteps, Catholics do not capitulate. By repenting, they work out the logic of the faith upon which liberal critiques were covertly parasitic. There are reasons internal to the Catholic faith for protecting a type of religious liberty and renouncing the persecution of Jews and heretics. These reasons, drawn from the sacrificial logic of the Cross, the spiritual nature of Christian salvation, and the character of the Church as Christ’s mystical body, are more theologically coherent than those offered by liberalism and provide greater protection than its external, formal constraints.
Catholics cannot be content to just criticize liberal ideals. A more compelling apologetics must demonstrate that longings for freedom, conscience, peace, and human dignity find their true home in the politics of the Body of Christ, provided one is willing to have these ideals purified and given a Christocentric focus. According to Gaudium et Spes, “only in the mystery of the incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.” Liberalism’s articulation of these ideals and its proposed solution are dim, distorted reflections of the Christological light shed by the incarnation and the presence of the Church in history. If this perspective on the human person is the only ultimately valid one, the path toward the clarification and realization of liberal ideals lies in deeper theological commitment. Unfortunately, the liberal’s proceduralist fix, eschewing theology and renouncing thick conceptions of the good, bars this Christological corrective a priori.
Here integralism’s secret complicity with liberalism is revealed: integralists have little interest in a Christological corrective. It is no accident that the regimes integralists idealize stooped to coercive and violent forms of worldly power. This violence is a direct result of the non-Christological treatment of key terms like “power” and “subordination.” Integralism claims to be theologically robust, but it does not allow thick accounts of the Cross of Christ, salvation, or the nature of the Church, to determine the shape of Christian power. Thus it produces a model which, although nominally Christian, reflects the fallen libido dominandi. Integralists believe that “subordination” protects the distinction between nature and supernature. However, the way they construe this “subordination” actually models supernature on (fallen) nature, emptying the supernatural of its content and obscuring the distinction.
The Josias’s definition of integralism is illustrative here. There is no indication that the “eternal end” is participation in the life of the Trinity nor that the “spiritual power” is the Church, let alone any exploration of their meanings in the wider Christian story. Eternal salvation and earthly happiness are lumped together as “ends.” Similarly, the Church and political authority are simply “powers.” As for Christ, he is nowhere to be found. This bracketing of Christology and dramatic abridgment of soteriology and ecclesiology is not simply shorthand confined to this succinct definition. The obsession with final causality divorced from formal causality pervades integralism. Integralism’s pursuit of the final end—the salvation of souls—has lost all connection to the “form” of this salvation and the one who accomplishes it.
Most troubling is the absence of Christ in integralist treatments of “power” and “subordination.” An essential part of the gospel is a Christological subversion of worldly notions of power. After the Fall, human instantiations of power are more likely to reflect the sinful libido dominandi than the created order as God intended it. Since fallen human beings are prideful and envious, they are addicted, like the devil, to the methods of worldly violence and coercion which satisfy this desire to dominate. Human beings mistake these methods for power in its proper sense. In order to free human beings from this perverse fascination, in the words of St. Augustine, “it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game.” God, although supremely powerful, chose not to use overt displays of might to save humanity. This is part of divine pedagogy, which teaches by example in order to free human beings from their obsession with (worldly) power.
Properly speaking, this does not entail the rejection of power, but, instead, its Christological redefinition. Only by looking to “Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:23-24) do we know the shape of true power, modeled on the one who took “the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7), for although “the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them . . . it will not be so among you . . . whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matt 20:25-27). Rather than summon legions of angels, Christ told Peter to put away his sword (Matt 26:52-53), choosing “what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor 1:27) and defeating the devil first by the humility of the Cross and through the centuries by the blood of the martyrs. When we take Christ as our model, true power shows itself in worldly powerlessness, not in glory or hegemony. God is found at the lowest point of humility and self-emptying: in the Virgin’s womb, in Bethlehem’s stable, and in Golgotha.
Integralists, however, continue to defend the methods of Christendom and use terms like “power” and “subordination” without qualification as if this Christological redefinition had never taken place. For in this cruciform perspective, their model would become incomprehensible. The Church is indeed a “power” and the “highest” one of all, but in cruciform logic this implies the most radical form of servanthood. In the words of Lumen Gentium, “Just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and persecution, so the Church is called to follow the same route that it might communicate the fruits of salvation to [humanity].” Nothing could be further from cruciform power than using “higher” status to enforce “subordination” or wielding the temporal sword to “beat the devil at the power game.” Integralists may be eager to crown “Christ the King,” but the crown they forge for him is not the crown of thorns he has chosen.
In the absence of this Christological redefinition, the specific content of Christian salvation is also lost. The abstract reference to an “eternal end” exemplifies integralism’s tendency to treat salvation as if it were just like a “temporal end,” only higher. Without theological specification, “subordination” to the “eternal end”—could, and, for integralists, often does—license the crudest worldly means. What temporal good, including the life of a heretic, cannot be sacrificed for souls? Similarly, will not public support by a confessional regime do wonders in advancing this “eternal end,” just as temporal authority plays an indispensable role in securing temporal ends? Yet taking the content of salvation seriously complicates these straightforward solutions. As David Schindler argues, “truth is not a juridical thing which can be imposed . . . It is first the person of Jesus Christ.” Conversion requires “the path of discipleship.” One enters into the life of the Trinity only through conformity with the one who gave his life so that others might live. A thick description of salvation makes some of Christendom’s methods appear deeply incongruous; executing a person to promote union with a crucified victim involves severe cognitive dissonance. Moreover, the fact that salvation involves discipleship places clear limits on the efficacy of state support of Christianity. The conversion of the emperor may facilitate the functioning of the Church’s external structures or make lives of virtue easier, but it cannot eliminate the scandal of the Cross. Even under the best of conditions, conversion demands choosing to leave everything behind and to take up that Cross. In fact, state support of Christianity can obscure the radicality of the gospel beneath the veneer of civic respectability.
Integralist ecclesiology is similarly theologically thin. During the medieval period, caught up in battles with secular authorities who tried to dominate her, the Church primarily defined herself using juridical terminology borrowed from political theory to articulate this idea of “subordination.” This was an understandable strategy as she attempted to carve out space for herself amidst hostile powers. However, these analogies are barely theological, and, when not used with sufficient care, allow the Christian imagination to fall captive to worldly notions of power. Thus, a theological corrective was necessary lest the Church mistake these external definitions for her true essence. As Francesca Murphy notes, beginning with the German theologian Johann Möhler and culminating with Pius XII’s Mystici Corporis Christi, popes and theologians indebted to the Church Fathers reemphasized the identity of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. Vatican II supplemented this image with an ecclesiology focused on the People of God and theologians have rounded out the portrait by pointing to the Church as the Bride of Christ and the image of Trinitarian communion. In all of them, the Church is an organic and personal reality, not another earthly polity. Of course, the Church is visible, and so thus has visible, even juridical, structures. Yet, even these must be shaped by the identity of the Church they serve. Integralists would have the Church revert to the medieval pattern, ignoring these theological correctives and reducing the Church to a temporal power. As Henri de Lubac argues, positing “a temporal subordination” of temporal power to the Church “under the pretext of exalting spiritual power and giving it the superior position” is “in fact, to ‘temporalize’” the Church. Integralists “expose [the Church] . . . to the loss of sacred authority,” lowering “her . . . to the rank of the powers of the world.” Integralists attempt to exalt the Church, but by modeling her power on worldly patterns, they diminish her and identify her with her external structures alone. Inevitably, coercion creeps into the Christian imagination. According to David Schindler, “If the Church, however unconsciously, is conceived first as a juridical body, and thus in terms of something like political power, any direct influence it has in the world cannot but tend to be coercive.” Whether integralists grant the Church coercive powers directly or delegate punishment to a docile temporal power makes little difference. In neither case does the Church reflect the Christological “form” which animates her and gives even her external structures their proper integrity. Not only do integralists rob the Church of her resemblance to Christ, who renounced worldly weapons, their theology demonstrates a lack of faith, fearing that, in de Lubac’s words, “without certain measures taken in the temporal order, the Church might fail before reaching her destiny.” Integralists “do not notice that they are tempting the Church, just as Satan tempted Christ in the desert.”
Integralism only works if you “squint”—ignoring the Cross of Christ and obscuring the content of salvation and the spiritual character of the Church until they are fuzzy enough that their profound differences from temporal “ends” and the political community disappear and all that is left is a clear-cut subordination of the higher to the lower without the theological “form.” Rather than replacing liberalism’s empty center with theological substance, integralism brackets Christology and abridges soteriology and ecclesiology.
Having failed to specify its terms theologically, integralism always fills in the gaps left by its formal derivation of a vague “subordination” by means of a crude analogy with worldly power, adopting whatever notions of power and subordination are ready at hand. These notions of power are inevitably fallen ones enslaved to the libido dominandi. If heresy threatens souls, the subordination of the temporal power is read to imply that heretics can be burned to advance “salvation,” just as worldly power takes lives to protect the community. If the Church is a “perfect community,” and earthly “perfect communities” possess coercive powers, a fortiori the Church must as well. Integralists demean, even betray, the spiritual realities under consideration with these unbaptized notions of power and subordination
Integralism is not a true alternative to liberalism. Defining itself against its negation, it fails either to see the Christian origin of the ideals liberalism distorts or repent of Christendom’s sins and thus plays the part of “tyrant” in liberalism’s drama. Nor can it provide theological substance to replace liberalism’s empty center: its bracketing of Christology and abridgment of soteriology and ecclesiology enslave it to worldly notions of power.
Integralism claimed to present an ideal, however remote, for which to strive. Like liberalism, it offered, in Patrick Deneen’s words, a vision of “how the Church can be at home in the world.” Without this fixed star, how can Catholics navigate politically?
Perhaps there is something idolatrous about this question, for “here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). Until the eschaton, as Augustine taught, the city of God and the city of Man dwell alongside one another, and none of us are free enough from the libido dominandi to imagine, let alone establish, a regime that is fully and finally just. Rather than usurping the place of God, as Deneen says, our “birthright is to be the pilgrim Church on earth,” resisting “the notion that our project is to make ourselves at home in the world.”
Lest this imply despair or withdrawal from the world, recall the politics the Church herself is: a foretaste of the eschatological New Jerusalem. She needs no blueprint of an ideal regime or dream of “subordination” to be political for her very existence is a politics. She is a sign of the unity of the whole human race and, in her rites and sacraments, invites all of creation to participate in an economy of gift and thanksgiving. This remains the case even when, as in her first centuries, she has no worldly power. Amidst the politics of death, the Church is the light of the nations (lumen gentium). Faithfully being the Church, first and foremost, is Christian politics, and for this there are no predetermined models, only a prudential and imaginative task which faces each generation anew.
Integralism’s failure cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that the liberal state and the capitalist market are hopelessly incompatible with any genuinely political life, let alone faithful Catholic politics. We must begin not with grandiose integralist dreams about a revived Habsburg Empire or schemes for a “long march through the institutions,” but with something far humbler: local communities organized around the works of mercy. Through the Catholic Worker movement, Servant of God Dorothy Day created spaces where the politics that the Church is could be lived, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and proclaiming good news to the poor. As Michael Baxter has noted, the work of these local communities does not obviate the need for what one might call “plain politics.” In fact, carving out room for such endeavors within a hostile order requires savvy negotiation with liberal institutions. Yet, local communities and their practices and virtues furnish the context and material conditions for both the discernment of what sort of “plain politics” follow from the gospel and the “clarification of thought” necessary for tackling larger “structures of sin.” They are workshops for imagining, along with non-Catholics of good will, an end to capitalism and the replacement of liberal democracy with something that preserves its achievements. Nothing could be further from integralism’s nostalgia for coercive authority than Day’s non-violence and commitment to the marginalized—yet nothing better reflects the Christological corrective Christendom so desperately needs.
Integralists are right to recognize that regimes that fail to recognize Jesus Christ as Lord can quickly transform into the apocalyptic beasts of Revelation, making war against the saints. Liberalism is not exempt—it too has its claws, despite its pretensions to peace. However, regimes which appear in sheep’s clothing, confessing Christ’s lordship, can still turn out to be ravenous wolves (Matt 7:15). If integralists aspire to a truly Christian politics, rather than one which takes its cues from the methods of Antichrist, they must remember that the one who has defeated and will defeat these beasts is portrayed in Revelation as a “Lamb, looking as it had been slain” (Rev 5:6). His reign, as Michael Baxter argues, “makes folly of the rulers of this age even while his head is adorned with a crown of thorns.” If Christians hesitate to revive coercive religious authority, perhaps it is not because they are enthralled by liberalism’s empty center. Perhaps it is because their imaginations, like Day’s, have been captured by the One who has redefined forever the shape of true power.
Editorial Note: The author wishes to acknowledge the significant editorial and conceptual contributions made to this essay by Hogan Herritage, who read through this piece numerous times at various stages in its development and suggested crucial lines of development.