What Catholic Integralists Leave Out

In late February, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) dropped an electrifying remark during a debate on the pro-transgender Equality Act: “What any religious tradition describes as God’s will is no concern of this Congress.” Nadler’s words were an outrageous dismissal of God—and of Rep. Greg Steube (R-FL), who had just cited Scripture while arguing that attempting to change genders is a rebellion against God (as indeed it is).

But Nadler’s shocking assertion presented the fundamental problem of religious pluralism clearly for all to see. In the name of religious liberty and equality before the law, how can the government privilege one religious tradition over another? It can cautiously reference “one nation under God,” but can it legitimately consider whether the God in question is the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—or only the distant Supreme Being of the Deists who never came to earth to save anyone? Is “what any religious tradition describes as God’s will” something governing bodies ought to take into account?

According to Catholic tradition, the answer is yes: what the Catholic religion describes as God’s will must be taken into account by governing bodies, including the U.S. Congress. This is because the truth about God and what He wants for the world has been entrusted to the Catholic Church, along with the mission of dispensing the grace capable of restoring fallen individuals and corrupted societies. 

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For this reason, the complete separation of the Catholic Church and the State was steadily condemned by the constant teaching of the Church throughout the centuries up until the Second Vatican Council, and the proper relationship of cooperation between the two has been explained over and over again by the popes in response to the rise of liberalism, as, for instance, in Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei (1885).  

This traditional body of teaching is the basis for the claims of today’s Catholic integralists, and if defending the tradition of the Church were their only raison d’être, I think they would not need to call themselves anything other than traditional Catholics. Anyone who visits the Catholic integralists’ online home, The Josias, cannot fail to be struck by their studious dedication to the social teachings of the popes, not excluding—perhaps even emphasizing!—those who reigned before 1958, and to the writings of the Doctors of the Church. And as liberalism dissolves into totalitarianism all around us, it is encouraging to hear voices, now even in the mainstream, recalling the perennial teaching of the Church on the futility of seeking in liberalism a cure for problems created by a disordered emphasis on liberty at the expense of morality and truth.

And yet there are a number of aspects of today’s integralist movement that remain unclear. First, why call it integralism? If, as Alan Fimister, co-author of Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy (2020)  writes, integralism is “simply the principle that divine revelation ought to be the highest principle of public policy and public law,” then why not simply call it traditional Catholicism? Controversial as Fimister’s definition may seem today, it was basic Catholic social teaching up until the 1960s.

Perhaps integralism sees itself as a deliberately political movement, not merely a doctrinal one—in which case Fimister’s definition does not suffice. There is a certain difficulty in nailing contemporary integralists down to a specific set of ideas—its supporters don’t seem to all agree on exactly what it is—so it’s hard to opine fairly about the movement’s collective tendencies. But it seems that while most self-described integralists adhere, at least in theory, to traditional Catholic social teaching about the proper relationship between Church and State, some (not all!) would prefer not to deal with the other consequences of openly embracing the fullness of Catholic tradition. 

This could prove to be the movement’s Achilles’ heel. For how can there possibly be a revival of hierarchical Christendom without a wholesale return to the traditional Mass that was Christendom’s beating heart, its inspiration, its school of self-sacrificial leadership and loving duty, its fount of supernatural charity, that uniquely powerful bond capable of uniting Christians in cohesive social structures despite the reality of sin?

It is this beating heart that seems to me to be missing from the vision of “common-good constitutionalism” offered by prominent Catholic integralist Adrian Vermeule, law professor at Harvard. Vermeule proposes a new way of interpreting the Constitution in the interests of the common good, which would be authoritatively enforced across the nation by a powerful executive branch. 

Catholic integralists generally push toward the ultimate goal of a Catholic confessional state, but Vermeule’s ideas call for integralists and their fellow-travelers to try to gain positions of influence in order to shift public policy toward a common good based on the natural law, at least for the foreseeable future. Note that for the foreseeable future, at any rate, Vermeule’s plan focuses on using politics to influence culture, and is founded, for the moment at least, on a common good informed by the natural law—not by the teaching of the Catholic Church as founded by Christ.

His critics express their fear of a strong, authoritarian regime—and part of that, surely, is because in the cultural soup in which we all swim, authority is often viewed as contrary to nature, a necessary evil; another part is perhaps due to the trauma experienced by people who may have known nothing but ineffective or abusive authorities, in their own families, in government, even, tragically, in the Church. 

For others, the idea of trusting a philosophically and religiously ill-formed government to articulate a vision of the common good and enforce it across the nation is a tough sell. And in the absence of a strong, well-catechized Catholic majority in a nation, it’s hard to argue. Better the challenges we already face than a robust non-Catholic integralist government making it even harder to live a Catholic life. Politics is downstream from culture, as Breitbart said, and the Catholic state is downstream from a profoundly Catholic population, which in turn is downstream from a healthy Catholic Church—so perhaps we should start there.

In my view, the biggest thing missing from the common-good integralist approach (at least insofar as Vermeule articulates it at the Atlantic) is this: social transformation through grace. For the Catholic, Christ’s Incarnation and His crucifixion changed everything. We were no longer children of the bondwoman but of the free. We were given a new law of love that through our cooperation with grace could transform not just individuals, but also social institutions: families, cities, governments, nations.

This transformation was possible only through our submission, both as individuals and as social institutions, to Jesus Christ as our Ruler and to His Church to which He entrusted the truth. Therefore, the Catholic could no longer accept that the ideal form of society would be governed by the natural law alone, setting the truths taught by Christ off-limits. Nor could the Catholic fight for a general religious liberty enabling the government (or any other social body) to arrogantly declare, à la Jerry Nadler, that the rights of Jesus Christ, the Author of all true law, can’t be legally differentiated from the “rights” of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, Jr., or any other “religious tradition.” 

The Catholic understood that the State could only function well when it supported the Church’s mission to diffuse grace throughout the nation, and when it accepted the Church’s guidance on matters affecting the souls of its citizens. (That said, the union of Church and State was not a Catholic teaching, since both are distinct societies with distinct ends, although the Church’s supernatural goal had to take precedence over the State’s natural goal. If some integralists are secretly pushing for a theocratic union of Church and State, there’s nothing traditional about that.)

Cooperation between Church and State is all well and good in theory, but what do we do in 2021, when the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is in a disastrous state, plagued by constant scandal, doctrinally ill-formed, prioritizing social activism over the salvation of souls? If the U.S. government were to accept the USCCB’s guidance today, how, exactly, would that help anyone?

It wouldn’t help at all, which is my point: we have to begin at the beginning. Integralism has hold of a nugget of traditional doctrine, and its dream of one day bringing about a truly Catholic State is wrongly mocked. But only those willing to embrace the entirety of Catholic tradition, both in its doctrine and in its liturgy, and to work steadfastly to restore the Church and its hierarchy to a state of health, can talk seriously of rebuilding Christendom. 

Some integralists are certainly up for the challenge; but are the majority? It is a pity that most self-described integralists do not acknowledge—publicly, at any rate—their intellectual debt to Monseigneur Marcel Lefebvre, unquestionably the greatest champion of traditional social doctrine since the 60s, a man who moreover possessed the greatness of vision to see the unbreakable links joining the Church’s traditional doctrine, Her traditional liturgy, and Her missionary spirit. He saw that it was necessary to insist, not just on the Mass, not just on the doctrine forbidding separation of Church and State, not just on the primacy of the supernatural over the natural, but on all points at once—for anything less would be only a maimed version of the Faith, a bird forever struggling to take flight.

[Image Credit: Coronation of Charlemagne (Public Domain)]


  • Jane Stannus

    Jane Stannus is a journalist and translator. Her writing has also appeared in the Catholic Herald of London, The Spectator USA, and the National Catholic Reporter.

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