Catholic Integralism: The Only Viable Post-Liberal Political Theology

The Crowning of Charlemagne

“Integralism” is a word that has, slowly but surely, been crawling to the surface of political discourse on media platforms recently, as conservatives have begun to engage in heated debate about the merits of adherence to the axioms of classical liberalism. Conservatism in America has long been characterized — even before the fusionism of the Reagan era — by a firm appreciation of the principles of Enlightenment liberalism, especially as they are enshrined in the glorious founding documents of the United States of America. Among these principles is the sovereignty of the individual human being and his rights, which are his by nature, simply on account of who he is — and they are inalienable. The role of government, claims the old liberal — and claims the Constitution — is nothing other than to protect these inalienable rights from the interference of others, and to abstain from interfering in them itself, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so in order to maintain a maximal degree of pluralistic equality among men. This is liberalism — and it is also well-known as American conservatism.

In a recent article, which as attracted much controversy, socially conservative Catholic author, Sohrab Ahmari, has attacked what he calls “David Frenchism” — essentially the above form of liberalism — for failing to be a formiddable oponent of left-wing progressivism, which threatens to undermine socially conservative, and especially Christian, ethical and religious values. A classical liberal by all accounts, David French believes:

that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter — that is, the libertine and the pagan — predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.

With remarkable clarity and brevity, Ahmari demonstrates why the logic of this political pluralism, justifiable only on the basis of adherence to the classical liberal principles expressed in the American founding documents, inevitably leads away from the socially conservative ethical values which French, and many other conservative-liberals like him, hold dear. To adhere to political liberalism while maintaining one’s social conservatism is to fight an uphill battle.

In stark contrast, Ahmari himself envisions no other way to engage in political discourse than “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” This is a political vision that honestly and openly takes a stance, and makes a point of implementing it politically. No pretenses about the “priority of culture” can ever hope to lead a society to virtue, as conceived by social conservatives. On the contrary, this can only be done by a combative engagement with the art of politics and a utilization of the coercive state towards the common good.

Other voices in the media, such as Ross Douthat of The New York Times, have explicitly connected this line of thinking to “integralism,” which has been defined at The Josias as a “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.” While neither Douthat nor Ahmari would be happy to identify as integralists, a question that is beginning to arise is whether there is any other coherent political philosophy — or theology — that has proposed anything like a positive alternative to political liberalism, whether of the classical or progressive variety (they are, after all, connected).

The assertive post-liberal politics that both authors are proposing has likewise been called for — with even greater vim and vigour — by known integralists such as Gladden Pappin and Adrian Vermeule, in the increasingly renowned post-liberal American Affairs journal. Vermeule has gone so far as to claim — and in this, it seems to me, Ahmari agrees with him — that progressive liberalism has moved beyond classical “conservative” liberalism, and now seeks openly to engage with substantive questions of truth and the formation of strong political identities. (Classical conservative liberalism, to be clear, does not abstain from thus engaging in questions of truth; it only refuses to admit that it does so.) Liberalism, claims Vermeule, even sets itself up as its own religion, with its own sacraments, its own liturgies, its own theology — at least in some vague sense. The proportionate response to such a politics is decidedly not to take a stance of supposed neutrality. To do so is in fact not to be genuinely neutral, but to become politically weak and defenseless, to render oneself vulnerable to the onslaught of whatever political ideology happens to reign. The proper response can only be to invoke an assertive political vision that is equal to, or greater than, but opposite to the political theology of liberalism. For Vermeule, the natural choice is the political theology of the Catholic faith, or what is known as integralism.

Integralism begins with the first premise that it is the role of politics to direct human beings to their final end, the purpose for which they were created by God, their highest good — which is of course God himself. The end or purpose of human life is union with God, and political power directs humans to this end. But this end has two distinct but interrelated dimensions: a temporal dimension and an eternal dimension, or a natural and a supernatural dimension. To these two dimensions of the end, or the good, there correspond two dimensions of political power itself: a temporal power and and a spiritual power, or the State and the Church. These institutions have distinct but interrelated jurisdictions over matters directed to the two dimensions of the good. Consequently, they are obligated to cooperate towards the joint attainment of this end, in its two dimensions. It is obvious at this point that integralism is diametrically opposed to the classic liberal principle of the separation of Church and State, expressed in the First Amendment to the Constitution — which is just one application of the general liberal commitment to political neutrality. Integralism, unlike classical liberalism, adheres to an assertive and substantive vision of the political good, making no pretenses of a politics which abstains from such a vision.

Such a politics is no doubt alien and unbelievable from a classically liberal standpoint — even from the standpoint of many Catholics who adhere to conservative liberal fusionism. To these Catholics and conservatives, it is unthinkable and unrealistic to hope that politics could ever assume a positively religious quality. Integralism appears as nothing but a nostalgic and utopian ideology, akin to Fascism or Marxism. But the direction of current political discourse seems to indicate that conservative liberal fusionism itself is not only failing as a political strategy, but that the only posture that anybody can realistically take in politics is one that is explicitly religious and theological, as Vermeule so convincingly argues about progressivism itself. Progressivism, the natural child of liberalism, is also somehow at odds with the older tenets of classical liberalism, being the manifestation of the inherent instabilities of any liberalism which claims to be politically neutral. Progressivism is the proof that no political philosophy can properly function if it does not forthrightly embrace a political theology. In this conviction, progressivism has the right instinct; only, the particular theology which it embraces is an idolatrous one. But idolatry, as the ancient fathers of Christianity knew, is the inevitable outcome of lukewarmness — which is not a neutral disposition by any means, but positively vicious; and liberalism was always lukewarm to begin with. The only alternative can be to embrace a theology which is neither vicious nor idolatrous, but truly virtuous and ordained to the worship of a true God.

Conservatives — and especially Catholics who should know better — must acknowledge that they cannot engage in meaningful politics if they do not also engage in some form of political theology. The failure to acknowledge this does not amount to an abstinence from so engaging, but only a failure to do so honestly and reflexively — which is to do theology badly. To be sure, one who begins to engage in a meaningful and productive way with some form of political theology might not get so far as integralism or Catholic social doctrine per se; one might only get as far as formulating a vague idea of the relevance of the Christian religion for politics. This can be formulated with varying degrees of clarity, in thinkers who honestly engage with questions of these sorts.

Thinkers such as Sohrab Ahmari and Ross Douthat, as well as the now famous author of Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen, are only just beginning to formulate this idea of a politics ordered to a substantive vision of the common good. Not yet having engaged in political theology as such, these thinkers are motivated by a conception of the common good which is nonetheless partially theological, insofar as it relies on an ancient philosophical tradition of treatment with the idea of God. But it remains properly philosophical, even if it is distantly motivated by something resembling theology. Consequently, Ahmari and Douthat are both resistant to integralism, even as they are pushed to pursue a politics more explicitly aimed at the common good.

A more erudite political philosophy sharing the same motivations is expressed in the prolific work of Alasdaire Macintyre, one of the most renowned moral thinkers still living, who was post-liberal “before it was cool.” Macintyre famously advocates for a politics of the common good that transgresses the boundaries and limitations of conventional left-right liberalism. Moral discourse in America, remarks Macintyre, is marked by a refusal to engage in conscious thought regarding the end and purpose of human life. The recovery of such a consideration, on the basis of traditional Aristotelian and Thomistic philosophy, is the hallmark of Macintyre’s ethical and political thought.

But not even Macintyre has made it completely to integralism. Indeed, the mark of all of these post-liberal thinkers is that have not adequately engaged with the properly theological political doctrine of the Catholic Church of which they all are members, even as this doctrine remotely guides their explorations in political philosophy. Students of traditional Catholic theology know that, among the many sub-divisions of theology, the category whose subject matter covers the political institution of the Church is ecclesiology. In ecclesiology, the theologian studies everything that the Church teaches regarding her role as a universal (catholic) society instituted by Christ for the salvation of all men — a common good. The Church is in this way the political institution par excellence. If her ecclesiology is true, then all men who seek the truth are obliged to submit to her authority as the most universal political (or meta-political, given her supernatural character) institution. Furthermore, if her ecclesiology — her political theology — is true, then any politics which honestly engages with the theological dimensions of its commitments must eventually embrace integralism.

The embrace of integralism, and the subordination of states to the sole universal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church, is the solution to all of the problems which are facing liberals — and conservatives — not only in America, but globally. Under the jurisdiction of the Church, no government can pretend to uphold religious neutrality, a pretense that has only proven destructive to truly religious customs, conservative mores, and human happiness in general. The enshrinement of individual liberty as the god of liberalism has only allowed the powerful to oppress the weak, in order to appease their own self-interest. Communities have broken down; people no longer share and participate with one another in meaningful activity, culture, or worship; the rich grow richer while the poor grow poorer; children are misled by perverse sexual ideologies taught to them in their classrooms; the unborn are daily sacrificed to the idol of American liberty. Any quasi-libertarian embrace of political neutrality and tolerant pluralism is simply counterproductive, especially from the perspective of Catholics and social conservatives. The only legitimately productive political action is to take a stance in the face of aggressive opposition, and eventually to capture the very political apparatuses which presently support a system of oppression and convert them into a servant of the Catholic Church.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store