What Is Integralism Today?

In the Catholic Church old debates that might seem to have been left behind are constantly returning. Thus, the debate in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries between “liberal” Catholics and their opponents, sometimes called “integralists,” has recently given signs of revival. One such sign is a seminar offered this semester at Harvard Law School entitled “Law and Catholic Thought: Liberalism and Integralism.” The seminar’s co-teachers can be seen as representing liberalism (Princeton University’s Professor Robert P. George) and integralism (Harvard’s own Professor Adrian Vermeule) respectively. George is certainly not a “liberal” Catholic in the sense in which that term is opposed to “conservative”—he is indeed one of the standard bearers of conservatism in the American Catholic Church. But he is a liberal as opposed to an integralist, because he thinks that political authority exists for the sake of the protection of individual rights, that one of the most important of those rights is the right of religious liberty, and that political authority should therefore not officially favor one religious confession more than others. Vermeule, on the other hand, is an integralist in the sense that he sees political authority as ordered to the common good of human life, that rendering God true worship is essential to that common good, and that political authority therefore has the duty of recognizing and promoting the true religion. Indeed, Vermeule has even contributed to thejosias.com, a website that I edit along with Joel Augustine and E. M. Milco, which is devoted to the elaboration and defense of a revived Catholic integralism.

One way of seeing the debate between Catholic liberalism and integralism is as an argument over the proper response of the Church to the secularization of the modern world. One of the most sophisticated accounts of how the modern world was secularized and what exactly is meant by secularization is that developed by the philosopher Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, and so it will be helpful to summarize the main lines of Taylor’s argument. Taylor distinguishes three main meanings that people give to secularization. The first comes out of the secularization theory of nineteenth and early twentieth century sociologists such as Max Weber and Émile Durkheim. They argued that modernization involves a differentiation of various spheres of social life and—more particularly—their separation from religion. Thus, political life was once ordered toward and by God, but now it supposedly follows its “own inherent rationality” without reference to the divine. And a similar point can be made about the economic and artistic spheres—they too are differentiated into autonomous spheres with their own internal rationality, separate from religion. This very process of differentiation of various public spheres was what Weber, Durkheim, and classical sociology primarily meant by “secularization.” On their view, this differentiation led to a banishing of religion into the private realm. And this in turn led inevitably, they argued, to a decline in religious practice and belief. Such decline is the second meaning of “secularization.” To those two meanings, Taylor adds a third, in which he is primarily interested: secularization can also mean that the conditions of belief have changed in the modern world. Whereas in pre-modern Europe it was nearly impossible not to believe in God, in the modern “West” belief in God is one among several options, and perhaps an embattled option.

Taylor disagrees with classical secularization theory on several points. First, following the work of José Casanova in Public Religions in the Modern World, he denies that differentiation of various social spheres necessarily involves a privatization of religion. Rather, he argues, religion can develop into one of several “public” spheres alongside politics, economics, culture, sports etc. But, more importantly, he disagrees that secularization in the sense of differentiation is strongly correlated with secularization in the sense of decline of belief and practice. He points to a number of examples where the differentiation on the contrary occurred simultaneously with an increase in religious practice—such as in the United States during the Second Great Awakening, or Poland in the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, Taylor does agree with his predecessors in seeing some connection between the different kinds of secularization. He argues that in fact differentiation of social spheres in the West allowed the conditions of belief to change, opening up alternatives to religious belief. And that opening up of options was a condition for the decline of religious belief and practice that did take place in some societies. So, there is an indirect connection between the first meaning of secularization (differentiation of social spheres) and second (decline religious faith and practice) mediated by the third (change in the conditions of belief). Still, Taylor thinks that the first and third kinds of secularization are irreversible, but the second (decline of religious belief) need not be. He even thinks that attempts at reversing developments of the first kind are counter-productive and actually facilitate the second.

Taylor sees attempts at reversing the differentiation of social spheres as taking two different forms, depending on how far social differentiation is to be overcome. There are two basic forms, because there are three basic constellations of social spheres. The first is what Taylor (somewhat confusingly) terms the “paleo-Durkheimian” arrangement of “baroque” Catholic states, in which the Catholic faith is supposed to form all of social life. The second constellation is a “neo-Durkheimian” one in which there is no official religion, but the political action of the citizens is informed by a broad religious consensus across various denominations—this was the case in the United States when a broad Protestant consensus informed their politics. Finally, the third constellation is when politics has become fully unhooked from religion. Taylor sees this as already holding in much of the West, and of being its inevitable future. In this final arrangement the differentiation of different social spheres leads to an “unbundling” of different areas of life within individual persons: public religious worship, private devotion, sexual ethics, works of mercy for others, and political action a no-longer linked together, but become separate. Thus, a contemporary Catholic person in Western Europe might attend church for Christmas services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals; for her private meditation she might follow a Westernized form of Buddhist practice; in her sexual ethics she might be a post-Freudian; in her charitable work she might support some secular society for aiding refugees; and in politics she might support a (traditionally anti-clerical) left-liberal party. Taylor admits that something is lost in such unbundling, but he also thinks that certain valuable freedoms are gained. As a soft-Hegelian neo-modernist, Taylor thinks that it is not our task to cry over spilled milk, but rather to make the best of what the development of human consciousness has given us.

But Catholics who wish to adhere without reservation to the teachings of the Church on faith and morals cannot fully accept such an unbundling. And here Taylor’s two forms of reaction to differentiation come in. There are those who wish to return to a neo-Durkheimian settlement of partial differentiation, and there are those who wish instead to restore something more like the paleo-Durkheimian ancien régime. Robert George and Catholic proponents of classical liberalism in general fall into the first group: they desire a restoration of a “moderate” liberal society in which a broad consensus exists among believers of various denominations and religions on the dignity of the human person, and in which political institutions are understood as being for the sake of defending that dignity and the rights that follow from it. On the other hand, Adrian Vermeule, and Catholic integralists more generally, wish to establish something more like the paleo-Durkheimian arrangement of the baroque confessional state. Or, perhaps even more radically, they wish to work towards something like High Medieval Christendom. In that arrangement, as Andrew Willard Jones has shown in his masterful book Before Church and State, it makes no sense to distinguish Church and state as separate spheres at all; rather there was one single kingdom in which spiritual and temporal authorities cooperated. Thinkers who promote such an integration do not necessarily want to emulate the Middle Ages in other respects. Vermeule, for instance, argues for further development of a robust administrative state, of a sort that St. Louis IX could never have imagined. But the crucial point is that integralists want an ordered relation of temporal and spiritual power in the deliberate pursuit of the good for human beings.

Catholic liberals argue that their view of things was accepted by the Church in the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae, which accepted the ideal of religious liberty, arguing that it was entailed by the nature of truth itself which “cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth” (§1). But integralists can counter with the work of the philosopher Thomas Pink, who has argued that the traditional teaching of the Church, requiring temporal powers to recognize and promote the true Faith is irreformable, and that (properly understood) Dignitatis Humanae did not deny that teaching. Moreover, we integralists argue that the nature of human action demands integralism. All political agents, whether they admit it or not, imply some definite conception of the good for man in their action. As Leo Strauss used to tell his students, all political action is concerned with change or preservation. When it is concerned with change it is concerned with change for the better. When it is concerned with preservation it is concerned with preventing change for the worse. But the concepts of better and worse imply a concept of the good. Therefore, all political action is concerned with the good. The Weberian account of separate spheres of social activity, each acting according to its own inherent rationality, conceals more than it reveals of modern social life. There is not and cannot be a neutral “political rationality” that reduces politics to a technique of achieving certain penultimate objectives. For, such penultimate objectives can only become objectives pursued by human beings when they are ordered to an (implicit) ultimate objective. And if the ultimate objective is not the true end of man, the City of God, then it will be a false end, the diabolical city.

Catholic liberals might argue that this stark alternative can be dissolved by recalling the distinction between nature and grace. Human beings are ordered by nature toward the temporal good of a virtuous common life. This natural good can be understood in abstraction from their further order toward supernatural participation in God’s life, which they receive through grace. Through the natural law, written in their hearts, human beings can understand what conduces to the natural good, and what contradicts it. Thus, the Catholic liberal can argue, it is possible to have political institutions which are founded on the natural law, which are respectful of supernatural revelation, as one among many religious confessions, without confessing a religion. But this defense of moderate liberalism neglects a crucial truth. Nature (including human nature) was created good, but it was wounded by the fall and made subject to the devil. Only through Christ can human nature be healed of its wounds, liberated from the devil, and freed to achieve even its natural end. As Tom Pink argues (in a forthcoming essay for The Josias) such liberation takes place through conversion and Baptism. Every part of the world has to be converted and exorcised in order to liberate it from demonic power. This includes political institutions. As long as political institutions attempt to remain “neutral” towards the Church of Christ, they will in fact be under the power of the Prince of this World. As the Second Vatican Council put it in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World:

When the structure of [social] affairs is flawed by the consequences of sin, man, already born with a bent toward evil, finds there new inducements to sin, which cannot be overcome without strenuous efforts and the assistance of grace (§25).

In a way this is the truth confusedly indicated by the classical secularization theory of Weber and Durkheim. Secularization in the sense of the separation of social spheres from religion acts against the practice of the true religion. By doing so it acts not only against supernatural virtue, but against natural virtue as well. If one looks at the world today it is not difficult to see the influence of the Prince of this World: in the unjust distribution of wealth, in the exploitation of the poor, in the dominance of usurers, in the reckless pollution of the natural environment, in the slaughter of millions of innocents in abortion clinics, in unspeakable sexual perversions, in the lying propaganda of progress, and in so much more. To fight the spiritual battle in which we are engaged therefore includes fighting against the separation of social spheres from religion, which hands those spheres over to such influence. Taylor would claim that such a struggle is useless; the historical process is irreversible. But Taylor’s opinion rests on an unreasonable reification of history. Human social life is formed by the ends that we pursue in common. Which ends we pursue are certainly formed by our common habits, traditions, technologies, and experiences, but they are also formed by example, witness, persuasion, and decision. If our social life today is ordered to the wrong ends, it is not too late to correct it. Today, as at any time, the Gospel of Christ has the power to transform every part of human life.

Featured Image: Jean Bourdichon, Louis XII of France Kneeling in Prayer, 1499; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist

Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz and he blogs at Sancrucensis.

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