For Integralism: A Realist’s Case for the Confessional State

Catholic integralism holds that the state must confess the Catholic religion. Integralism follows the teaching of Pope Leo XIII (as in his encyclical Immortale Dei) and a host of other popes in denying the liberal doctrine of the separation of Church and state, and proposes instead that the state is truly subordinate to the Church, a minister of her temporal power insofar as it serves her spiritual power. Rather than a liberal or libertarian understanding of government which requires the state to refrain from making a substantive judgment about morality, religion, or the common good, integralism requires the state to give explicit preference to the Catholic religion and to the moral doctrine of the Catholic Church.

A common objection to the old doctrine of integralism is that it seems unfeasible in modern-day America, where Catholicism is certainly not the majority religion and where increasingly many do not even profess a religion of any kind. Even the leading politicians of either American political party do not seriously profess a faith, and the few who claim to be Catholic—Joe Biden, for instance, or Nancy Pelosi—appear to be radically anti-Catholic in the politics which they uphold. The prospects of political Catholicism do not look good in the United States. Therefore, it is argued, it is imprudent and unproductive to seek to establish a confessional Catholic state in this country.

Yet the Catholic Church has always been faced with a world that has presented many challenges to her supremacy. Continuously throughout history, the Church has had great odds stacked up against her, making her bold assertion of sovereignty over the earth appear to be mere foolishness to the gentiles. The early Christians were a terribly underprivileged minority in the ancient Roman Empire, which persecuted them with often inhuman cruelty. The likelihood of Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire was, to all appearances, extremely low. And yet it happened.

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The evangelical mission of the Church is rightly conceived as a political mission. It is nothing other than the quest to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. When Christ told His apostles, “Go and baptize all nations,” He was entrusting them with a mission that was truly imperial and global (i.e., “catholic”) in its scope and ambitions. In this light, the apostles as evangelizers take on the mantle of Christ’s appointed propagandists, winning over hearts and minds to the Church’s timeless agenda. Moreover, to baptize all people is to be understood as conferring citizenship upon them, i.e., citizenship in the Kingdom of God, a truly political entity.

Doubtless, it is foreign to modern ears to describe evangelization as a political mission. “We must lead with Christ, not with politics,” they will say. Yet, as Pope Pius XI taught, Christ is King not in a mere metaphorical sense but in a quite literal sense. His kingdom, though not of this world, is a true kingdom, and like Christ Himself is incarnated in the forms of this world. Accordingly, evangelization itself is rightly conceived as a mission of conquest.

The early Church fathers such as Saint Augustine observed the providentiality of Christianity’s emergence in the heart of the Roman Empire: God planted the seeds of the Christian religion in a place where the political infrastructure necessary for its spread throughout the whole world was already in place. The faith of the Christian fathers was so great that they could see this plan of providence even in an empire totally mired in the corruption of paganism. Saint Augustine did not hesitate to excoriate the Roman Empire for its total lack of justice, for it did not give to God His due. No doubt he would excoriate secular America in similar terms. How can we of modern America have such faith as the early fathers in the universal, imperial destiny of our Christian religion, despite the apparent obstacles which our increasingly secular republic sets up against our religion?

Naturally, anyone who compares modern Christianity to the faith of the early Christians will notice one great difference: Christianity then was on the rise, whereas today it is in decline throughout the West. One can only conclude that this is because Christians today are responding otherwise than did our forefathers, given that the world both then and now has been ruled by decadent, secular powers. Whereas the latter responded bravely, with a militant faith and a sense of destiny, Christians today respond in defensive fear, with a reticence to embark on conquest. Even contemporary forms of evangelization are reduced to presenting Christianity as merely one among a host of ideas, floating about in the neutral “marketplace of ideas.” This fear of the political is only counterproductive to the Church’s universal ambitions.

Thus, the lesson from Augustine, and from all the early Christians who pursued relentlessly the establishment of the earthly City of God, is that we have no cause whatsoever to abandon hope of conquest. We are not permitted to lapse into a conservative complacency regarding the situation of Catholicism in a religiously pluralistic and indifferent world. Rather, faith motivates us to work tirelessly for the conversion of the entire human race to the true religion, as a society: that is, it motivates us to seek always the building up of a polis, the City of God, which explicitly confesses Jesus Christ.

“But how do you intend on building your Catholic empire?” This is the next challenge posed by integralism’s critics. Once again, in its broad outlines, a Catholic political strategy takes its inspiration from the early Christians.

Christianity in pagan antiquity was not merely one of many religions or peaceful ideologies that populated the Roman Empire. It was a movement, a concerted and collective effort by the whole Christian community to spread the Gospel to all corners of the earth. As such, though Christians displayed the greatest reverence for political authority (even pagan authority), they were viewed by the Empire as a formidable threat—hence the persecution to which they were cruelly subjected.

The ancient model of Christians engaging with the social and political world around them differs significantly from the model practiced today by Christian conservatives. Indeed, the latter model is rather a model of non-engagement or minimal engagement, rather than a model of organized and radical action. The willingness of the ancient Christians to put their faith on such radical display that nothing short of martyrdom was the likely outcome—this degree of dedication and radicalism is simply absent in the  modern mode of political engagement for most Christians living under the liberal order. Embarrassingly, such a radicalism is more likely to be found in the enemies of Christianity (e.g., communists and social justice warriors) than in Christians themselves.

What, then, are modern Catholics to do? The circumstances of the day are probably not yet so dire that martyrdom will be demanded of them. Yet, as ever, the circumstances do demand action rather than quietism, and radicalism rather than lukewarmness. It requires the organized and coordinated effort to combat any legislation that is enacted contrary to the morality of Catholic doctrine, and to enact legislation in accord with it. Such action entails not merely popular demonstrations in the streets, but the positive and planned effort to occupy positions of power, or to speak truth to power, within the existing regime so as to transform it from within. Naturally, evangelization, witness, and conversion are necessary components of this process—in particular, the conversion of power itself.

Nothing less than such a plan of action was recommended by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical, Au Milieu des Sollicitudes, addressed to French Catholics living under the French Republic. Invoking the example of the early Christians in the Roman Empire, Leo XIII exhorted Frenchmen to rally to the existing regime, with the purpose of combating legislation that might undermine the Faith, and securing a greater unity of Church and state in the long term. Although Leo emphatically advised due respect for legitimate power, he did not conceal the fact that in a climate that was unfriendly or indifferent to Christianity, it was incumbent upon Christians to engage in a real political combat.

Another model for Catholic political engagement that arose almost simultaneously with Leo XIII’s ralliement, and which can certainly supplement it most fruitfully, was Catholic Action. Leo’s successor, Pope Saint Pius X, spelled out in detail what was entailed by Catholic action in his encyclical Il Fermo Proposito. There he taught that Catholic action requires the sustained and energetic effort, on the part of all Catholics in concert with each other, to inform the practice of their civil life with the principles of Catholic social teaching. This was more than just a call to live as faithful Catholic individuals; it was a call for coordinated, strategic, and collective action, with the goal of infiltrating the major organs of public influence, building up the institutions of civil and political society—families, schools, corporations, unions, charities, media, and especially the state—and seeding them with the Word of God.

Coordinated, strategic, and collectivethe presence of modern Catholics in the public sphere seems woefully lacking in these traits. Unfortunately, modern conservatism inclines Christians away from collective political action, and towards a quiet individualism marked by political inactivity and a crippling “minority complex.” The early Christians suffered from no such minority complex. In a world where they were the minority, they mobilized to bear public witness to the truth and to speak that truth to power. Jean Cardinal Danielou once observed that it was only after the conversion of Constantine that it became possible for the great multitude to practice the Faith. That initial conversion of power had to be accomplished by the Christian minority.

If the establishment of an integralist polity were unfeasible, it would not be because society had stacked the odds high against Christians; rather it would be because orthodox Christians lacked the courage and commitment to face those odds directly. To be the Church Militant surely requires that Christians take action as though we were indeed the army of God. Integralism means that the battle which we fight, though it is certainly spiritual, is also temporal. Christ’s insistence that “My Kingdom is not of this world” was not intended as an excuse for political inaction. Christ’s Kingdom, like Himself, is meant to be incarnated in an earthly and human form. The Church is a human institution as much as a divine one, just as Christ is Man as well as God. As a perfect human society, she is thus a truly political society. This surely has practical consequences for her members, who are charged with advancing her empire over the earth.

For a conservative rebuttal, see “A Thomist’s Case for Limited Government” by Andrew Latham.


Image: Richelieu on the Sea Wall at La Rochelle by Henri-Paul Motte


  • Jonathan Culbreath

    Jonathan Culbreath is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, and has studied philosophy at the graduate level at the University of Leuven in Belgium. He is an assistant editor at The Josias, an online manual of Catholic social teaching and Catholic integralism. He lives with his wife and son in Southern California, where he teaches Latin at a small Catholic high school. He tweets @maestrojmc.

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