The Core of Integralism

Integralism has led to a firestorm of controversy in Catholic intellectual circles, and it has its able and enthusiastic defenders as well as its strident detractors. What is at the core of Integralism?

Integralism seems to be the “in” topic among Catholic intellectuals today. Ahmari, Bouyer, Coulombe, Deneen, Douthat, Dreher, Feser, Fimister and Crean, French, George, Hahn and McGinley, Hanby, Kwasniewski, Maritain, Miller, Murray, Pappin, Pink, Rawls, Reilly, Reno, Schindler, Spadaro, Stannus, Tollefsen, Trabbic, Vermeule, Voegelin, Waldstein, Weigel, Wiker—this is only a partial list of (mostly) current analysts dissecting the phenomenon of Integralism. 

Father Waldstein’s definition is this: “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds 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.” 

Integralism, then, seeks to integrate the secular into the sacred, modifying it and metamorphosing it into something supportive of, if not altogether subordinate to, Catholic orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

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This concept has led to a firestorm of controversy in Catholic intellectual circles. Integralism has its able and enthusiastic defenders as well as its strident detractors. So, the debate rages about Integralism and its corollary questions: Does it return us to desirable classical Catholic roots and resources? Is it an outcropping of a fascist mentality, utterly at odds with “religious liberty”? And what, by the way, is the authentic Catholic attitude toward such liberty? Was the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae the blossoming of Catholic social thought or a cowardly capitulation to withering Modernism? 

Is Liberalism a sin (as Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany once suggested)? Is Integralism a veiled reactionary force for superseded social ideas and practices? Should the Integralist instinct toward a plenary, all-encompassing, Catholic state be encouraged, or is the “American pluralist model” sufficient? This is only a partial list of questions swirling around the controversies raised by Integralism.  

Indeed, Integralism’s center—its promissory theory—has much to commend it; but Integralism’s circumference—its practical decisions and details—warrant prudential superintendence. How ethically and effectively to combine might and right, Saul and Samuel, power and probity—has for centuries taxed the wit and wisdom of Athens, of Jerusalem (see, e.g., the “Allegory of the Trees” in Judges 9:7-15), of Rome, and of all their successors. No one—politician, priest, bishop, or even Frodo Baggins—is immune to libido dominandi, to power-lust. And the necessary role of the Church morally to oversee the civic realm must not be read to imply a practical ecclesiastical role in the discharge of diurnal matters of state. (For an arboreal analogy, see this article.) 

Such esoteric and labyrinthine matters will not be resolved here. Rather, my purpose is to raise an issue upon which too few have reflected: So what? Does the mythical man in the pew care at all about Integralism and its allied issues? Recently, Anthony Esolen bemoaned the sad state of learning among the “elites—who is this Augustine fellow anyway?

Reality, however, is even starker. At Mass, the reader (I won’t say, lector) announces, “A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Filipinos.” As a deacon, I have tried to give readers at least hints about pronouncing the names in Acts 2:5-12, but often without success. And what is one to do when the priest thinks the biblical book of Hebrews is in the Old Testament, maybe between Isaiah and Jeremiah? We know better: it’s in the New Testament, right after the Epistle to the Filipinos. This is anecdotal evidence, too easily and much more sorrowfully multiplied, of broad ignorance of, and apathy about, catechesis and its sources.

Given the state of learning today, both inside and outside the Church, how is one to discuss the facets of Integralism? In a military chapel, I once gave a homily grounded in Acts 5:29—that we are to obey God before men (the essence, by the way, of Integralism). After Mass, I was approached by someone irate about my presumed lack of patriotism. I knew him: an “educated” man, well into his forties, and a regularly attending, practicing Catholic—and utterly ignorant of our primordial Christian responsibility to follow Our Lord before we follow our politicians.

About which point of Integralist philosophy was I to talk to him? (By the way, this dilemma is even worse—imagine!—when it comes to discussing issues in bioethics.) To use the King James translation: “Come now, and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18)—but “to reason together” is practically impossible when there is hardly a foundation upon which to build the edifice of logical thinking. The prophet Hosea warned us: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (4:6).

As there are important differences between the “natural law school” and the “new natural law school,” there are critical distinctions, too, between those who favor Integralism and those who frown upon it. Ordinary Catholics do not know and do not care about these abstruse debates. But ordinary Catholics can—and, I think, must—share in a lapidary series of truths, the full and erudite intellectual unfolding of which need not, frankly, detain them (cf. Sirach 3:21, Acts 26:24).  

Here are ten building blocks for any understanding of politics from a Catholic perspective

  1. God is.
  2. We sin (CCC #1739).
  3. We need a Savior-God, not a savior-prince (cf. Job 19:25).
  4. We live now, assiduously seeking God’s grace to be with Him later.
  5. Living now means we are invariably embroiled in political matters, for civil society, at its best, tolerates and, at its worst, terrorizes devotion to Christ and His Church (Ephesians 2:2, James 4:4).
  6. Full and final solutions will not come until the Parousia—until Our Lady is Queen of Heaven and of Earth (Glorious Mystery Five). Do not expect paradise from any political party: “Quantula sapientia regitur mundus,” as Oxenstierna once put it. 
  7. We pray for, and work toward, His will to be done on Heaven and earth (the Our Father), and we try daily to illuminate our earthly personal and political lives by the light of the natural moral law (CCC #1955, #2044, #2244 [q.v.]). 
  8. We must try to “infuse the Christian spirit into the mentality and mores, laws and structures of the communities in which [we live]” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, #13; cf. 31b, CCC #2105).
  9. Our Lord bestows power upon Caesar (Wisdom 6:1-11, Matthew 22:21/Romans 13:1,5)—the “City of Man”—and we conscientiously discharge our social duties unless those secular obligations deny the sacred ordinances of the “City of God”; contravene “the demands of the moral order”; violate “the fundamental rights of persons”; or thwart “the teachings of the Gospel” (CCC #2242).
  10. Christ is King (cf. John 19:15 [a profound warning against tyranny]), and it is only to Him that we owe indelible allegiance (Matthew 6:33). To all other governments, organizations, or projects, we may owe loyalty which is circumstantial, conditional, contextual, and contingent.

One need not understand the intricacies of automotive engineering to be a good driver; but one must understand and follow the basic rules of the road. Similarly, one need not know all the problems and possibilities of sometimes sinuous Integralism to be a responsible Catholic citizen, but one must understand and follow the basic rules of the natural moral law (upon which and for which Integralism ostensibly stands).  

Here, then, is the heart of authentic education, which leads us to the Light of Christ, by which we are enabled to discern the order and the purpose of life. (See Russell Kirk’s excellent short essay.) We, the faithful, can—and we must—“reason together,” for on the two wings of faith and reason “the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth,” arriving at knowledge of who we are, where we are destined, and how to find our way home (cf. St. John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). Hebrews gives us sage spiritual and political counsel: “this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come” (13:14). This is the core of Integralism. 

[Image: The Coronation of Charlemagne by Raphael]


  • Deacon James H. Toner

    Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.

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