The Question of Catholic Integralism: An Internet Genealogy

This piece, a genealogy of integralism, first appeared on John Brungardt’s blog here.  It provides an excellent overview of the intellectual development and history of integralism as well as the current state of play between integralists and their critics.

–The Editors

By John G. Brungardt

The purpose of this post is to recall the contours of the debate about Catholic integralism that have taken place in the “Internet Republic of Letters” over the past several years. The post is part genealogy, part introductory survey, and part reflection on the warp and woof of a discussion that is now intertwined with others in the public square. I do not aim to break new ground, but I do hope to provide a reflective tour for newcomers or recollection to familiars of the debate’s high and low points. Learn or take from it what you will.

Why consider “Catholic integralism” at all? One reason is to clarify the difference between understanding the principles of political philosophy and Catholic social teaching versus a discussion of practical statecraft and “soulcraft,” the realm of particular actions and practical decisions. The question of integralism framed solely on the terms of the latter’s demands easily results in conclusions such as Rod Dreher’s, that “integralism is a dead end,” or George Weigel’s, that integralism is a “game intellectuals play,” or, worse, the verdict that it is “an internet aesthetic of mostly young men alienated from the public life and consumed with the libido dominandi.” Integralism’s proponents have also been accused of the opposite mistake, namely, of speculative errors concerning the difference between power and authority, or of lacking a speculative vision altogether, or, some wonder, misrepresenting Catholic social doctrine. Consequently, achieving some measure of clarity about the proper register of the question—is it speculative, practical, pragmatic, rhetorical?—and the corresponding answer is desirable.

Another, deeper reason is that, since the question of Catholic integralism concerns properly understanding first principles (nature and grace, faith and reason, the hierarchy of common goods) and acting with regard to those principles in concrete affairs that must take into account not just days or years but decades and centuries, it makes no little difference what the true answer is, even if that answer must come with many parts and qualifications. For human life must be ordered by that eternal truth in which the vicissitudes of human history participate. The task of the examined life is that each one in each generation know the measure of that standard, insofar as he or she can know it. To do so, we must begin dialectically, by seeing the questions and the arguments clearly.

So, what ought we to think of the question of Catholic integralism? Does it propose a deep truth or a dangerous falsehood?

Some Basics

First, what is integralism? The now most-referenced definition is the “Three Sentences” definition from The Josias, which one finds referred to numerous times in the essays listed below:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that 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.

The key to understanding “the two powers” in this definition is to understand what “spiritual” means in the definition. In “A clarification on integralism,” the philosopher Edward Feser notes that the question ought not to be whether one is for or against integralism, but for or against what sort of integralism. The natural law mean standard, Feser argues (and it is bound to sound like an extreme to many), is that “a generic theism should be affirmed by the state and that government policy should be consistent with the principles of natural law.” However,

the debate over Catholic integralism has to do with whether specifically Catholic doctrines, which concern our supernatural end and are matters of revealed theology, should have an influence on public policy. The state should favor theism, but must it favor the Church?

Immediately, one sees why the integralism question is, by the vast majority of people, taken to be too irrelevant, if not too dangerous, a topic to take seriously. Haven’t the issues of “Church and State” been decided by the modern political synthesis of the post-Enlightenment? Didn’t Vatican II decisively condemn 19th-century notions of religious liberty?

To explain the “sort” of integralism one is asking about, Feser proposes three options: soft, moderate, or hard integralism. Hard integralism maintains that “it is always best for the Church to try to implement integralism as far as she can,” while soft integralism holds that “though in theory the state may and ideally should favor the Church, in practice this is extremely unlikely ever to work out very well.” Naturally, moderate integralism

falls in between these extremes. Whereas the soft integralist thinks it is never or almost never a good idea to try practically to implement integralism, and the hard integralist thinks it is always or almost always a good idea to do so, the moderate integralist thinks that there is no “one size fits all” solution and that we have to go case by case. In some historical and cultural contexts, getting the state to favor the Church might be the best policy, in others it might be a very bad policy, and in yet others it might not be clear what the best approach is. We shouldn’t assume a priori that any of these answers is the right one, but should treat the question as prudential and highly contingent on circumstances.

Nor does one have far to look to find an example of a moderate integralist of no small stature. In The State in Catholic Thought (1945; reviewed here by Leo Strauss), Heinrich Rommen writes:

A union between Church and state, or better a cooperation in concord and unity of both, would mean mutual respect for the independence of each in suo ordine. … It needs no proof that such a union is possible as a practical policy only where the people of the state are in great majority Catholics. Yet under this condition the union is actually no problem at all, but simply a truism. Therefore it would be wrong to say that such a union between state and Church is a necessity or should always take place. The condemned thesis 55 of the Syllabus of 1864 (the Church should be separated from the state, and the state from the Church) does not imply this. The true thesis would demand that the circumstances be considered. St. Robert Bellarmine expressly states that state and Church may live in union or in separation, because fundamentally each can exist without the other. (pp. 595–96)

Still, for the contemporary reader, this simply reinforces the previous concerns about theoretical and political relics. It also clearly raises profound metaphysical questions about assumptions Rommen is making. Isn’t it long past the time when such ideas, or such discussion, were practical, let alone thought to be true or relevant? Don’t proposals like Rommen’s involve, somewhere in the footnotes, writs of Inquisition and coercion of religious belief?

Kevin Vallier says that the knee-jerk reaction argument against integralism usually goes something like that:

If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
But religious coercion is wrong.
Therefore, integralism is false.

However, Vallier adds:

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

And indeed, many non-integralists defend the current model of the now centuries-old, minimalist, secular, and in principle non-confessional status of liberal political order. In the academic jargon, “the public good” is a “thin” one, not a “thick” one. Thus, the question becomes manifold: one of the good, the political good, and the ideal political regime simply speaking versus the best one achievable practically speaking (Politics, 1288b37). So Vallier concludes, “What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralists need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality.”

Some Origins

To gain only some of the historical sensibility required to appreciate how far back into the formation of modernity and the disintegration of Catholic Europe this question takes one, read this essay at First Things on the 1782 Decree on the Dissolution of Religious Orders in Austria. That is, the deep background to the question of Catholic integralism in the face of modern nation-state democracies began with earnest during the long 19th century, when the issue of the compatibility of the Catholic faith and (then) modern liberalism was raised.

For instance, a positive answer to the compatibility question was put forward in L’Avenir by Montalembert, Lamennais, and Lacordaire. This led to a wide-ranging and controverted debate and even outright conflict that—when combined with many other strains of 19th-century secular thought—culminated in Pope Pius IX’s Quanta Cura (1864) and its appended Syllabus of Errors, mentioned above by Rommen. This 19th- and early 20th-century backdrop also has many other parts, some now long-forgotten by most (e.g., Ralliement and Action française, among others).

Why, then, is Catholic integralism a topic of discussion now? That answer also has many parts. A first part is the work of Fr. Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., among the founders of The Josias, the “online manual” of Catholic integralism. Rod Dreher once called Fr. Waldstein “perhaps the foremost advocate of [integralism] today.” For the roots of Catholic integralism stretching back even further than 19th-century Catholic politics, one must read Waldstein’s essay “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” which he described as his “fullest account to date of what I call ‘integralism’.” In the (perhaps) near future, that account will be surpassed by a book-length treatment.

But there is another, non-integralist side to this origin-story that must be noticed, what Deneen in a 2014 American Conservative article called “A Catholic Showdown Worth Watching.” Deneen outlined two Catholic responses to political liberalism in the 20th century. The first is an older tradition of Catholic compatibilism—also of late called Catholic fusionism—which proposes that “there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism” or (from the fusionist angle) that “the principles of American conservatism and those of Catholic social teaching might be seamlessly and unproblematically combined.”

The second is a newer “radical” camp (in which Deneen included himself):

The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefiting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism.

Deneen pointed out that this group included (and still includes) prominent thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre and David L. Schindler. As for his own questioning of Catholic-liberal compatibilism—of course, this was before his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed—Deneen pointed to his essay written two years earlier in First Things, “Unsustainable Liberalism.” That essay also sparked a series of debates, including a lengthy one at Public Discourse.

These radical, “illiberal Catholics” (a charge mentioned in Deneen’s 2012 American Conservative piece, and answered, among many others, by Waldstein here) now tends to go by the name “post-liberal Catholicism,” a moniker that became popular after the so-called “Franco-Persian Wars,” the debates between David French and Sohrab Ahmari over the possibility, plausibility, and desirability of “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”

The debate over the compatibility of Catholicism and liberalism, then, is a broad question raised both back in the 19th century (about the old liberalism) and now again in the 21st (about a new liberalism, where “liberalism” often signifies a confusing mélange of Locke, Rousseau, post-progressive era thinking, and soixante-huitard leftism). And all this despite its being given an apparently conclusive answer during the 20th century. But the broader, renewed question of compatibility and the new Catholic integralism’s proposed solution did not remain separate.

The Debates, A Brief History

One should know that neither is the question of the coherence or “sustainability” of liberalism new to contemporary debate. Take Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, for instance:

The liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself. This is the great adventure it has undertaken for freedom’s sake. As a liberal state it can only endure if the freedom it bestows on its citizens takes some regulation from the interior, both from a moral substance of the individuals and a certain homogeneity of society at large. On the other hand, it cannot by itself procure these interior forces of regulation, that is not with its own means such as legal compulsion and authoritative decree. Doing so, it would surrender its liberal character and fall back, in a secular manner, into the claim of totality it once led the way out of, back then in the confessional civil wars.

That is, Böckenförde’s dilemma or paradox is that liberalism, if it were to attempt to guarantee its institutional, cultural, educational, and moral prerequisites, would have to be illiberal, give up its claims of substantive neutrality concerning the good life for human beings, and “fall back … into the claim of totality.” Besides Böckenförde’s paradox of liberalism, one could consider the debate between perfectionist liberalism and political liberalism. The question of the totalizing claims of the complete human end, then, is inescapably the foundational question of political order—liberalism of any sort cannot claim to be anything more than an answer.

The question of Catholic integralism and the broader, more recent debate about sustainability of liberalism did finally meet. For instance, the Closing Colloquy of the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 2018 Fall Conference at Notre Dame featured a discussion between Patrick Deneen, Phillip Muñoz, Gladden Pappin, and Adrian Vermeule (discussed by Rod Dreher here and here). “Liberalism vs. Integralism” was also the theme of a conference held earlier in 2018 at Harvard, hosted by the Thomistic Institute.

As one can easily see by perusing the conferences and their reports, the substance of the discussions were animated not merely by the debates mentioned above. Some of the new discussion material was from the post-liberalism element—especially Deneen’s recently published Why Liberalism Failed—other was provided by Adrian Vermeule’s integralist critique of Deneen’s solution.

Now, these debates on prominent university campuses over the nexus between the question of liberalism generally and the question of Catholic integralism specifically had already cropped up before these 2018 conferences in various loca of the “Internet Republic of Letters.”

First Things

First Things during 2017 published reviews of Legutko’s The Demon in Democracy (by Vermeule, titled “Liturgy of Liberalism”) and Willard Jones’s Before Church and State (by Waldstein, under the title “An Integralist Manifesto”). It published essays on a strategy for Christians living in liberal nations (again by Vermeule), as well as an interview about “The Possibility of a Catholic Social Order” and a call for a “humane integralism.” The tension continued to be that between the concern for discerning the truth of Catholic principles and the practicality of how to apply them in the concrete historical order, between nostalgia for the achievements of past cultures and strategizing in the now with little-to-no societal room to maneuver.

The question of principle and policy provides the occasion to note Thomas Pink’s earlier, 2012 First Things essay, “Conscience and Coercion.” In it, Pink argues that Vatican II’s Dignitatis Humanae changed the Church’s policy, not her principles or doctrine, in regard to the religious liberty of individuals, an essay that generated not a few reader responses (wherein one also finds letters about Deneen’s “Unsustainable Liberalism,” published in the same issue as Pink’s essay). The issue of the coercion of believers—that compelle intrare (Luke 14:23) so heatedly debated in the early modern era—is a subset of Pink’s debate with Fr. Martin Rhonheimer in issues of Nova et Vetera, a debate carried on at the 2015 Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture Fall Conference.

The broader issue yet, then, is the same question of Catholic integralism. Pink’s position is decidedly in the minority. The majority view is clear from the vehement and profuse reaction to First Thing’s early 2018 article by Fr. Romanus Cessario, O.P., “Non Possumus,” a review of the 2017 publication of the memoirs of Edgardo Mortara.

As an aside, the “new” Mortara affair was impactful enough to be able to function as the opening framework of Schwartzman and Wilson’s 2019 law review article “The Unreasonableness of Catholic Integralism” (which also has a useful bibliography in its footnotes, apart from citing most of the above sources). However, as Kevin Vallier pointed out about the article’s judgment of Catholic integralism generally, its definitional approach is Rawlsian, and thus conceptually incommensurable with integralism’s premises about the human person and what it means to be reasonable. At issue is not a technical debate, but a deeper metaphysical discussion that answers first-principle level questions about what it means for individuals to act and how they ought to act.

After early 2018, integralism did not make much of an appearance in First Things, at least until the return of talk of “the common good and the Highest Good,” the start of the debate turned speaking tour between Sohrab Ahmari and David French. Ahmari’s essay, “the article that launched a 1,000 think pieces,” did not touch upon integralism or the coercion of the baptized per se. Nonetheless, that debate over the true nature and coherence of liberalism and the America’s political and providential constitution had the long-range effect of continuing to join the two debates. More to come below.

Public Discourse

Nor did the debate over integralism escape the editorial eyes or professorial pens at Public Discourse. In May 2018, citing as occasions the essays from First Things and the Harvard conference noted above, as well as various discussions of Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, Joseph Trabbic defended the continued, doctrinally normative character of a Catholic confessional state as the ideal political arrangement. (Later in 2019 Trabbic wrote a three-part series for Catholic World Report, “Thomism and Political Liberalism,” to illustrate how “there are some pretty stark and irreconcilable differences between Thomas’s political theory and liberal political theory”; see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Trabbic’s essay received a fierce response from Robert Miller, who called Trabbic’s thesis “almost the exact opposite of the truth,” and argued that “integralism is contrary to Catholic doctrine.” Miller’s essay prompted responses, among others, by John P. Joy (at another venue) and by Thomas Pink at Public Discourse in August 2018. Miller, along with Lawrence King, responded to Pink and Joy in early 2019. As one might expect, these debates hinge heavily on how to properly understand Vatican II’s declaration Dignitatis Humanae. A December 2019 article by Matthew Shadle continued the response to Pink, presenting further nuances of the debate over evolution, rupture, or development of religious freedom doctrine in Dignitatis.

But Public Discourse did not merely present debates over fine points of Catholic doctrine; the scope was broadened. The May 2019 essay by Korey D. Maas, “The Coming Anti-Catholicism,” after reviewing and citing nearly all of the above genealogy, concluded that “insofar as prominent and influential Catholics insist that Catholicism is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal tradition, liberals will feel increasingly justified in reaching the same conclusion.” That is, apart from the proper grasp of theological principles, a certain “Realtheologie” looms large in integralism’s and Catholic post-liberalism’s cultural scene. We could, argued Gerard Bradley, learn certain lessons from integralists’s “thought experiments” by taking them as accurate diagnoses of current problems, but that is all. Yet as recently as this May, in “Integralism, Political Philosophy, and the State,” Thomas Pink has replied to both Bradley and Shadle that integralism’s political philosophy is more realistic in its understanding of how states—confessional or secular—actually function.

Church Life Journal

Caleb Bernacchio’s “The Anti-Integralist Alasdair MacIntyre,” published by Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal in early 2018, argued to separate MacIntyre’s critique of liberalism from the integralist position, saying that given MacIntyre’s critique of modernity “there is no need to pursue the impossible and nostalgic goal of returning to an integralist state.” A positive exposition by Waldstein, “What Is Integralism Today?”, was published later in 2018 (coinciding with the above-mentioned Center for Ethics and Culture colloquy at Notre Dame).

Waldstein’s answer to the quid sit question led to a brief debate at CLJ, between Waldstein and Timothy Troutner, over the true nature of integralism. In his “The Integralist Mirroring of Liberal Ideals,” Troutner argued that “criticizing integralism need not imply a defense of liberalism,” and that “integralism flourishes by posing this false dichotomy, by defining itself as the theologically orthodox antithesis to a heretical liberalism.” Waldstein’s response, “Integralism and the Logic of the Cross,” argued that

Troutner’s conclusion that integralism must be rejected by Catholics is, however, false. The arguments that he uses to support it are based on exaggerations and misunderstandings. He tries to distinguish his own understanding of freedom and equality from the liberal understanding. But he does not distinguish them enough. For Troutner, as for liberals, freedom and equality are opposed to hierarchy and obedience. Whereas, in reality, true freedom and true equality depend on hierarchy and on obedience.

Other Criticisms and Defenses

Apart from the above journals, various other criticisms, defenses, and interweaving themes could be mentioned, bringing this review from 2019 to the present. Recent debates over “common good constitutionalism” and the continued rethinking of American conservatism or European populism and nationalism also bear upon this question, to varying degrees of remove. Some of these are listed below, and I’ll not discuss them in detail.

I will, however, note two of the most substantive in passing: Park MacDougald’s thorough review of the recent history of issue, “A Catholic Debate over Liberalism,” published in City Journal, and Michael Hanby’s “For and Against Integralism,” published in First Things in March. MacDougald’s history also illustrates what I’ve sketched here, namely, the joining of general discussions about the sustainability of modern political liberalism. Hanby’s essay and the reader replies show that the debate about Catholic integralism is, ultimately, about the metaphysical foundations of politics and their relevance for political practicalities and deep moral and cultural conversion.

Perennial Questions about the Highest Good

It is patent from reviewing the topics, reasons, and interlocutors in the above debates that the question of Catholic integralism today does not turn upon irrelevant or insubstantial issues, but rather concerns perennial and foundational principles of political order. It is rash to think otherwise when the question is being discussed at the highest levels and in the profoundest terms. If one presses beyond the internet-based essays and into the recent books cited or past thinkers relied upon, it is impossible not to see that the stakes for getting the answer to the question of Catholic integralism right are immense.

This is because the debate has made compelling and even pressing the reconsideration of questions that many had long considered culturally settled. What is the proper understanding—if a rational defense of its existence is to be had—of a common good beyond the political order? What vision of human perfection ultimately sets us free in the profoundest sense? What is the proper relationship between the Church and the modern nation-state? Is there a clear meaning of “liberalism” that proposes the true account of that relationship, or must liberalism cede to the “new Catholic integralist” account? If so, what is the true nature of religious liberty?

And it is not as if clear—albeit controversial and in some cases unconvincing—answers to such questions have failed to be given in the various essays cited throughout this review. And achieving such sound speculative vision is a sine qua non to advance, for, as Fr. Thomas Joseph White said in his closing “exhortation” at the Harvard conference mentioned previously: “Practical truths are grounded more fundamentally in speculative or theoretical visions. And vision always wins out in the end.”

Concluding Thought

I’d like to end by quoting a passage from the introduction to Rommen’s The State in Catholic Thought. There, Rommen defends the idea that a perennial political philosophy exists, and that, in the providential contingencies of history, it has been taken up into the Catholic Church. It is a “Catholic political philosophy” in a contextual and not an essential sense, that is, “the adjective ‘Catholic’ here means, so to speak, the place where this philosophy grew and found its home. It does not imply that this political philosophy is based on theology or revelation. It is based on natural reason and on rational principles” (p. v).

As a consequence, the unfolding application of its principles, like the apparent fluctuations of the content of natural law through history, can be traced to a similar matrix of causes. The “ebb and flow” of human affairs and the human limitations of circumstance and character to the realizing of higher goods in political community causes an apparent but not real variation of the truth:

Some critics forget that this is an everlasting process which is repeated again and again in all fields of intellectual life. Thus the new democratic and social ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries could be fully received only after a process of toilsome clearance in embittered discussions, as, for instance, in the controversies between Lacordaire, Montalembert, and the Catholic liberals in France, and the adherents of monarchy. These internal disputes do not destroy the unity of polar tension. No new philosophy is founded; only new problems are put before the philosophia perennis, that is by no means a static and brittle system. To be sure, Catholic political philosophy as a part of this philosophia perennis may be called conservative. It does not easily give up what has proved its value in long experience for alluring but unproved new ideas. But, on the other hand, it is not compelled to mummify theories and opinions in a stubborn conservatism that is closed to the perpetually changing life of God’s creation. What may be called linear thinking goes straight out from one pole or from one idea of the cosmos of ideas, which every true philosophy is. This idea, cut off from its interrelations and interdependencies with the cosmos, it then fanatically thinks to a finish. Thus it becomes radical individualism or socialism or totalitarianism or anarchism. This linear thinking, so characteristic of the modem mind and its countless isms, is a stranger to Catholic political philosophy. For Catholic political philosophy is ‘spheric’ thinking. Of the interdependencies and the mutual relations between ideas as united in a spheric cosmos and the concordance of these, spheric thinking must be always aware. This explains the unity in diversity, the conservative perseverance in principles and the flexible progressiveness, promoted by the disputes of the schools, in the application of the identical principles in a ceaselessly changing life. (pp. 22–23)

Recall that the same author, some 500 pages later, defends the possibility and ideal of a Catholic confessional state. Perhaps there are unresolved tensions in Rommen’s presentation of the “spheric thinking” of perennial political philosophy. Clearly they still exist unresolved in the discussion at large today.

* * *

Select Bibliography (Listed in Approximate Order of Appearance/Reference)

Basics and Origins of Integralism


First Things

Public Discourse

Church Life Journal

Scattered Notices, the Latest

American Affairs

Vermeule & Common Good Constitutionalism

Discussions in the Academy

Some Academic Publications

Crean, O.P., Thomas, and Alan Fimister. Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy. Neunkirchen-Seelscheid: Editiones Scholasticae, 2020.

Schwartzman, Micah, and Jocelyn Wilson. “The Unreasonableness of Catholic Integralism.” San Diego Law Review 56, no. 4 (2019): 1039–67.