Against the New Integralists

Once upon a time, political discourse among orthodox Catholics was dominated by the old First Things school – Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, George Weigel, Michael Novak. These writers adopted Fr. John Courtney Murray’s reconciliation of American constitutionalism and Catholic political thought. At root, they were “classical” liberals.

The great promise of liberal democracy was that its neutral institutions and procedures provided a check against tyranny. But as Catholics are excluded from the public sphere, the body counts of abortion and euthanasia (not always voluntary) rise, and the quasi-religious aspect of liberalism comes to the fore, that promise is no longer credible. Even mainstream figures like Scott Hahn and Sohrab Ahmari now agree that the only alternative is a polity ordered by Christian principles to seek the common good. Moving beyond the attempt to baptize liberalism, Pater Edmund Waldstein O.Cist. turned to the perennial social teaching of the Church, and revived for it the name “integralism,” which refers to the integration of temporal and spiritual authorities. Inspired by his writings, journalists, academics, and bloggers have theorized the political project which I call New Integralism.

Some form of anti- or post-liberalism is a needed corrective to the old First Things line. But New Integralists have fallen into an opposite error. They have forgotten that the spiritual power has limits. Catholics must accept that the Church exercises jurisdiction over matters of faith and morals the world over, and that the spiritual power is superior to the temporal. But if the phrase “matters of faith and morals” conveys some meaning, the Church’s jurisdiction is not unlimited, and, past a certain point, she gives no more than general guidance.

New Integralism is a Utopian project. Some writers (Pater Edmund and Professor Adrian Vermeule fall into this category) view the Church’s reluctance to endorse political positions as evidence that Catholic social teaching advocates a specific third way (“neither right, nor left, but Catholic”). Others, Left-Integralists like Jose Mena and Kevin Gallagher, advocate explicitly for Catholic socialism, using a combination of esoteric readings and convenient blind spots to circumnavigate the Church’s repeated condemnations of socialism and communism.

But all are wrong. The Church cannot and will not attempt to prescribe social or fiscal policy in any level of detail, because the spiritual jurisdiction extends only to articulating the goods and evils that governments must consider, not the means by which they should pursue or prevent these. There is a right and a wrong answer to specific policy questions, but this answer will be supplied by secular statesmen, not by the Church. There is no single ideal of a Catholic political economy.

This Utopianism has had unfortunate consequences. If Catholic social teaching contains a comprehensive vision of the ideal polity, then elements of a polity which are not clearly present in that teaching are extraneous – can be discarded or ignored without detriment. In theological terms, this approach reflects an assumption that grace replaces or destroys, rather than elevates, nature: that we should derive our politics from encyclicals and catechisms alone, while ignoring what history, tradition, or reason tell us about the common good. It is also a form of clericalism – an ascription of undue authority to the pronouncements of the Church’s hierarchy. The Church’s teachings emanate from her supernatural authority; but God did not grant her that authority in order to supplant the natural hierarchy already present in human society as He created it, but to supplement it.

Reasoning solely from papal teachings designed to be of global applicability, the New Integralists fall into one preeminent failure: they ascribe no value to particular cultures, traditions, or nations. Through much of history, these needed no articulation or defence. Natural and artificial barriers to mobility meant that homogeneous populations tended to stay together, preserving traditional mores with only gradual and organic change. Only in the industrial era have they been eroded, by ease of travel, mass media, and other ideological and technological assaults. Only in the cultural vacuum left by this erosion could Catholics have argued that the particularity of communities is at best unnecessary and at worst pernicious.

Vermeule, among others, has explained his opposition to what might be called the virtue of patriotism:

“Catholics should not become too enamoured of the traditions and practices of a particular locality, polity or period; there should be no Catholic “theology of place” and, correlatively, no Catholic nostalgia for lost place and time. It’s not just that you can’t go home again; it’s that for Catholics, whatever place and time is at issue was never truly home in the first place… Because Catholics are exiled in the world, they can ultimately have no attachment to man’s places and traditions, including political traditions.”

Catholic tradition does not in fact teach that the faithful must not consider any earthly place home. We owe piety to our country and our fellow-citizens (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, II-II q. 101 a. 1). Our ultimate destination is not Heaven as a purely spiritual realm, but the New Jerusalem, in which our fallen world is made whole and perfected, and where we reach our particular home in a glorified form which we glimpsed in the goodness even of fallen creation.

Vermeule cites no authority to suggest that Catholicism rules out a theology of place. In fact, the Church’s understanding of sacraments, sacramentals, and sacredness would suggest precisely the opposite. The church, the supernatural centre of the Christian community, stands on consecrated ground. But the home, the fishing-fleet, the knightly sword, the ploughshare, the royal crown and sceptre, also have their significance in the Christian order, supplemented and anointed by the Church, but ultimately deriving from the inherent natural goodness given by God. Consider too the idea, supported by Origen and the Book of Deuteronomy, inter alia, of particular angels appointed to guard the destinies of nations. Their existence is incompatible with Vermeule’s idea that a nation is ephemeral, contingent, without any real claim to our loyalty beyond its coincidence with Catholic doctrine.

A Principle of Immigration Priority” goes even further, expressing a hope that confirmed Catholics be given priority over all other prospective immigrants to the United States, that America’s southern border will be effectively opened, Europeans excluded, and that “The Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe” and eventually one-world government will be brought about.

The Church teaches that immigration is a prudential question, to be regulated according to its effects; and Vermeule’s lack of concern for the likely effects on both fellow-countrymen and immigrants is troubling. Mass immigration does not replace decadent American culture with another, better-ordered one. Rather, the children of immigrants assimilate to liberalism, and their descendants live on without culture, deracinated and deprived of their birthright, a prey to whatever spiritual bromide offers itself as a replacement for the faith of their fathers.

A 2013 Pew survey of Hispanic-Americans found that 60% of the foreign-born identified as Catholic, compared to just 48% of the American-born. 24% of adults were former Catholics. Support for same-sex marriage amongst the foreign-born stood at 39% in favour, 38% opposed; amongst the American-born, the numbers were 58% in favour and 29% opposed. Similarly, support for legal abortion amongst the foreign-born was 33% in favour, 58% against, while amongst the American-born the numbers were 49% in favour and 45% against. Bereft of their native culture, even good Catholic families cannot long resist liberal values.

As (often) liturgical traditionalists, New Integralists should be able to grasp that men need aids in maintaining the faith, and that these aids are not crutches to be cast off at the first opportunity, but heirlooms to be guarded jealously. Just as incense, vestments, chant, bells, and candles are powerful adjuncts to liturgical worship, so a particular Catholic culture with its food, dance, music, songs, stories, heroes, villains, and political constitution is an indispensable aid to widespread practice of the faith. An exceptional few may worship devoutly at liturgies which lack adornment, or remain faithful without the support of a Christian culture; but the salvation of many must be the Church’s goal. Social changes which would thwart this – whether mass immigration, artificially enforced multiculturalism, or attacks on a European or Western culture which is seen to belong to the privileged – must be deplored by anyone who seriously desires a Christian society.

The New Integralists’ rejection of the need for roots leads to another failure, by which they paradoxically fall back into the liberalism they excoriate. They cannot see that industrial technologies are not neutral – that they are consequences of, and contributing factors in, the advance of liberalism. Similarly, they are blind to the reality that the modern administrative state has inherent tendencies which prevent its being repurposed as illiberal. The past cannot be rebuilt. But elements which predominate in our liberal society and cannot be found in ancient, mediæval, or early modern Christendom should not be accepted as part of an illiberal future without careful scrutiny.

“Nobody wants a return to feudalism—or any earlier economic system,” writes Jose Mena, painting a Whig-historical picture wherein the savage and brutish conditions of mediæval “subsistence farming” have been improved to the point that only the oppression of our capitalist overlords prevents us from ending hunger. Certainly age need be no virtue in an economic system. But Mena’s thesis belies the record of the 20th and 21st centuries, which revealed that industrial socialist economies present no real alternative to capitalist ones. Vide China – Communist, yet also a state capitalist behemoth and a polity arguably less aligned to the common good than any other. Mena’s optimism even seems at odds with the current pope. Laudato Si’ proposes that industrialization has given modern life an unprecedented and harmful rapidity, and explicitly supports an æsthetic critique of contemporary cities (paras. 17-19, 43-44); Mena dismisses criticisms of modernity emanating from “æsthetes.”

The New Integralist fascination with the administrative state originates largely with Vermeule and his disciple Professor Gladden Pappin. Drawing on Carl Schmitt, Vermeule proposes that Catholics should employ the administrative state, rather than electoral politics, to implement their ideas of the common good. Unlike parliamentary politics, he explains, state bureaucracies are not inherently tainted by liberalism, and engagement with them is less likely to corrupt Catholics who populate them into some form of fusionism.

But it is not at all clear that the modern administrative state is compatible with a well-ordered Christian society. Salazar’s 20th-century fascist regime in Portugal is the only example cited by Vermeule. No prior historical era knew such large or powerful central bureaucracies as our own. Judging by size of central government, Mediæval Catholic monarchies were more or less libertarian. And there is a compelling argument to be made that large central bureaucracies cannot coexist with the diversity of local communities which I have argued above to be a sine qua non of widespread Catholicism – that, in essence, they violate the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

The threat which such bureaucracies pose should obvious given how they were used throughout the 20th century (to stamp out pre-liberal cultures in the U.S.S.R. and Red China, for example) and how they are used today. In Canada, the administrative state is the foremost weapon of tyrannical liberalism. Trinity Western University was prevented from founding a private Christian law school by administrative authorities. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario has commanded all doctors to refer patients for abortion and euthanasia. The Human Rights Tribunals, whose raison d’être is to enforce liberal morals, recently produced a decision on the use of gender pronouns that reads like dystopian fiction.

Vermeule is aware at some level of the dangers of his proposal. He jocosely calls it the “Saruman-” or “Boromir Option,” referring to characters who advocate the use of a powerful tool of Satan in battle against him, despite the inevitable corruption it engenders in its user. These names are apt for both Vermeule’s endorsement of the administrative state, and Mena’s of modern technology. Neither writer explains why illiberal Catholics should accept these developments, which are without precedent in nearly all real-life integralist states the world has seen. Neither grapples sufficiently with the effect of this famously condemned proposition on his ideas: “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization” (Pope St. Pius X, Syllabus Errorum, para. 80).

Left-Integralist Kevin Gallagher has told us that there is nothing more to be gained from fusionism. Certainly social conservatives have given much and received little in their alliance with fiscal liberals, and the old First Things intellectual project no longer compels. But alliances with Protestants are still workable. Senator Josh Hawley is the closest thing to an integralist in American politics today, and it is Protestant states, not Catholic ones, which have been busily passing “heartbeat bills” with an eye to constitutional reform. Moreover, European countries which integralists laud – Poland and Hungary prëeminently – align more closely with common sense than with New Integralism on issues like unregulated immigration.

Populism of a rough and ready variety is the only actually existing alternative to liberal tyranny. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that a group of intellectuals, who tend to be based in urban cultural centres and educated at Ivy League universities, should propose an alternative less jarring to the sensibilities of their milieu. To those from the atomized world of the urban upper-middle-class, where no shred of native culture remains as a shelter against the liberal tempest, the Faith must be exotic to be attractive; it cannot be accurately represented in the conventional morality voiced by generations of old-fashioned family men or housewives. Hence, that elaborate refashioning of Catholic political thought to suit 21st-century bourgeois technocrats which is called integralism.

A turn toward a substantive politics of the common good would be welcome. But if integralists are to play a part in it, they would do well to consider that older generations knew a thing or two after all.