People have been talking about integralism recently. What is it, and what should we know about it?
In a short discussion I can only give my own interpretation, but will start with a definition by a proponent, Fr. Edmund Waldstein. According to him, integralism is the view that
“Political rule must order man to his final goal.”
“There are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power.”
“The temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.”
All of which makes general sense. Politics and religion both affect the whole man, so they ought to work together, and ultimate concerns ought to take precedence over lesser considerations. Also, public institutions should be guided by what seems true in matters that are practically important. These include religion no less than engineering, medicine, and economics.
Even so, most Catholics with an opinion on the matter reject integralism—some vehemently. A few clarifications may soften opposition somewhat.
“Political rule must order man to his final goal” might seem too strong a statement. We must cooperate voluntarily in our own salvation, so a ruler can’t directly order us to God. But temporal government can promote favorable conditions, and it seems that it should.
It would do that by tending to temporal matters with spiritual ones in mind. That would make a difference in education, family law, public ceremonial, and other settings. Just where and how much it would matter would depend on judgment and circumstances. As always, government is difficult and people disagree about what it should do, but some resolution or accommodation is eventually reached.
To some people “the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual” suggests the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That provision gave the federal government the power to decide the scope of its own authority and ultimately turned the small and limited government of 1789 into today’s Leviathan. So they’re concerned that a similar development might eventually turn an integralist state into an absolute theocracy.
That seems unlikely. The federal government could back its claims with physical force, while the Church has to rely on moral suasion in its dealings with secular rulers. That severely limits the dangers of ecclesiastical overreach. The Church hierarchy can’t force a ruler to do something if he thinks it is wrong or none of their business.
A common objection to integralism is that it has no relevance to the current situation, so it’s silly to talk about it.
It does seem practically irrelevant. The superiority of the state to any church has been basic to Western public order since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the principle that princes determine the religion of their territories—cuius regio eius religio.
Since then the secularizing tendency has only gotten stronger, so much so that today our political leaders neither know nor care about man’s final goal. Nor do they recognize a spiritual power, although they expect spiritual leaders to support them, for example by blessing the troops in wartime and talking about “welcoming the stranger” when they want to import cheap labor.
The holders of spiritual authority are largely content with that situation. They feel unable to contend against the current order of things, and collaboration gives them a comfortable and outwardly respected life as caretakers of a declining institution.
Under such circumstances, giving the Church an official position and monthly check from the government would only allow her leaders, secure in well-paid positions, to let her teachings slide. Present-day Germany provides an example. And making the spiritual authorities officially superior to the political authorities would only put the former in a position like that of the Queen of England, who in theory heads both Church and State but in fact is a figurehead who does and says what she is told. The result would be further suppression of religion as an independent force.
These arguments show convincingly that integralism would make no sense in practice without a radical transformation of the political and social situation. You can’t have Catholic integralism unless the people who run things are Catholic enough to accept it as a principle of cooperation, just as today they accept “science” and “human rights.” That doesn’t seem likely any time soon.
But does that mean we shouldn’t hold it in principle? Current practicalities cannot be our ultimate guide. And integralism is of great interest as a matter of principle. Denial that Christianity should be socially authoritative suggests that it isn’t really true, or isn’t basic in human life, or is less rationally supportable than the technocratic hedonism now dominant. These ideas are deeply wrong. If accepted they’re likely to lead us astray in a variety of ways.
Many Catholics argue that experience shows integralism is bad in principle. We see, they say, that the Church does better where she’s been separate from the state, as in the United States, rather than where she’s been united with it, as in Spain and Quebec. They conclude that integralism is self-defeating.
Such arguments are weaker than people think. It’s true that recently the Church has mostly prospered in America compared with places where her connection to society had historically been much more pervasive, but today she’s falling apart here as well, and it remains to be seen how things end.
Many people, including critics of integralism, complain that American prosperity has lacked spiritual depth. Viewing religion as a particular department of activity within a secular order seems at odds with devotion to transcendent goods, and it remains to be seen where the Faith will have the resources that enable it to revive in better times.
Critics also point to bad things that happened during the Christian centuries. They burned heretics at the stake. Crusaders massacred innocents. The clergy became corrupt and dissolute.
They say these examples show that joining religion to government encourages government to abandon good sense and justice in its pursuit of an absolute. They note that Fr. Waldstein himself has put in a good word for the right of the Church to call on state assistance in compelling heretics to return to the Faith—and even, in some cases, burning heretics at the stake.
Most people find such opinions outrageous. Even so, we should remember that every government has a highest principle that serves as an absolute and sometimes leads to excesses. The Soviets had the Revolution and killed millions in its name. And the liberal West has democracy and individual autonomy. These have meant a 20-year war to reform Pashtun gender relations, the incineration of Hiroshima to force the unconditional surrender of an illiberal adversary, compulsory thought reform in the form of sensitivity training, prosecuting blasphemy against sacralized figures like George Floyd, and sexually mutilating confused young people in the name of human autonomy.
Pluralism and Tolerance, it turns out, are neither plural nor tolerant. The means by which liberal states enforce official views are usually milder than those used in the past, but that is because of the greater power of the modern state. Pre-modern states tried to make up for their weakness by making punishment terrifying, but that is no longer necessary. If an integralist state prosecuted heresy today, it would likely proceed the way modern European states proceed against Holocaust revisionism.
So there’s no reason to think integralism leads to more abuses than other principles. To the contrary: if we want state power to recognize a limit, then we want to organize politics in a way that subordinates it to something that transcends it. That means integralism or something similar. And historically the tension between Pope and Emperor, which existed only because the Emperor recognized the spiritual authority of the Pope, was favorable to freedom and reason in the West.
The relation between power and the Good, Beautiful, and True is always a mess, but we have to do our best. Power isn’t intrinsically evil, and Catholics shouldn’t try to maintain purity by avoiding its difficulties. If the Faith is relevant to the whole of life then wanting government to accept its guidance is not—as critics of integralism claim—a matter of choosing power over love. It is an aspect of our responsibility to love God, neighbor, and justice. Why arbitrarily carve out and deny part of that responsibility?
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