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More Thoughts On Integralism

Church, State, and the future of religion and the common good
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Reader Hector St. Clare, on the integralism discussion at Notre Dame over the weekend:

Not a Catholic, so it’s not really my business. Having said that, Pappin and Vermeule clearly won this debate, in my opinion. Philip Munoz ended up simply repeating talking points about how great freedom is. He was unable to respond to Pappin’s question, which I think is a really, really good one: how much longer do we need to conclude that the American experiment has failed? If your answer to that is ‘never’, then you’re not really espousing a falsifiable hypothesis any more, you’re just running on blind faith.

I’m not Catholic and I don’t really have a dog in this fight: I think Catholicism is wrong in many particulars so it wouldn’t bother me if people move on from Catholicism to some other creed, although I hope it wouldn’t be towards atheism. That said, if you really do want to promote the practice of Catholic faith and morality, I think the only reasonable conclusion is that the hypothesis “Catholicism is compatible with Americanism” has been tested, and failed the test.

Reader Elijah says, quoting my account of the ND discussion:

“Deneen says yes, we have the right to go to church, but church attendance is collapsing.”

It seems to me that this statement is the linchpin of the problem under discussion by those scholars. Harve is right – when people have the freedom to go to church, they also have every right to stay home. But for me the question is WHY is church attendance collapsing?

I don’t think there is any way to get around the fact that the church and its authority – moral authority, too – has been shot to pieces, largely by self-inflicted wounds. It’s no good blaming Vatican II or sexual license or whatever – lots of folks are still looking for the transcendent, just not in churches.

Look, I finally finished Leon Podles’ book “Sacrilege”, and I challenge anyone to read that book and then assert that the ruling powers ought to somehow be under or subservient to the Church.

In an airy-fairy scholarly discussion of ideas and Ideals, I can see how one can make the argument that the Church should come first (I don’t agree, but I can see the point). But when you say fine, but what will that actually look like, there’s a lot of mumbling and foot-shuffling because what it looks like is Blaise Cupich or Ted McCarrick or Donald Wuerl and the useless dishonest bureaucracy of the USCCB. That’s a lot less attractive to most Americans than even Hillary or Trump.

Pappin: “We have to talk about what juridical authority the Church has in the world.”

Here I have to agree with Harve again and say my own family left the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1884 and 1908 precisely to escape the Catholic Church’s corrupted influence on society and their communities in particular.

I know that this is Notre Dame and a scholarly discussion, but sometimes I find it hard to take these kinds of things seriously when a majority of American Catholics don’t really accept the teaching of its own leaders. How can the Church possibly lay claim to authority in a nation when its own members don’t?

I want to say a few things about that integralism discussion; my liveblogging the other night only featured my reporting things the academics onstage were saying, not my opinion on their words. For a thoughtful, accessible explanation of integralism, read this essay by Father Edmund Waldstein, perhaps the foremost advocate of it today.

From my point of view, the problem exists in the space between Hector’s and Elijah’s observations. Deneen recognizes this, I think, though his account is both the most truthful and least satisfying of those offered onstage Saturday night. (Patrick Deneen’s interlocutors were fellow Notre Dame political theorist Philip Muñoz, who defended classical liberalism as compatible with Catholicism, and the integralists Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin.)

I want to believe my friend Philip Muñoz’s optimistic account of liberalism and its compatibility with traditional Christianity. True, he was talking about Catholic Christianity, but I think it is fair to say “traditional Christianity.” What I mean by that is a Christianity that believes its moral, theological, and metaphysical account of the world is objectively true. There are obviously forms of Christianity that do not challenge liberalism, but they amount to a spiritualized form of liberalism. These pseudo-Christianities — Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, in other words — will not last.

Anyway: Muñoz agrees that things have gone quite wrong, but he believes this is a perversion of the Founding. Deneen, of course, believes that the disorder we’re now living through was baked into the cake from the beginning. Muñoz had a great line about how no-fault divorce is not mandated by the Declaration of Independence — meaning that things did not have to turn out this way. To which the Deneenists — I am one — would say, “They didn’t have to, but the logic of liberalism — where autonomous individualism is considered to be the summum bonum — is such that it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t have gotten to that point eventually.”

Muñoz might say, “Don’t blame liberalism for the failure of the churches to maintain their authority over the people.” And he would have a point. Deneen would probably say that the catechetical power of liberal culture is overwhelming; his book Why Liberalism Failed explains this in greater depth.

And that’s where the integralists have their strongest point, in my view. Pappin said that “statecraft is soulcraft” — a chilling statement in one regard, but one that makes sense if you consider the state as the social order. The social order in which we live determines to a great extent how we see right and wrong, truth and falsity.

An example from this past weekend: I spoke with someone who said the students at his conservative Catholic school are almost all strongly pro-life. But they are equally mystified as to why the Catholic Church opposes same-sex marriage. They simply don’t get it. My interlocutor explained it this way: “The power of the culture is just so strong.”

The answer is probably because as good conservative liberals, these young Catholics see the unborn child as a rights-bearing individual, same as a gay person. They have been acculturated by the liberal order. You can say that is a good thing or a bad thing, but we have to recognize that it is a thing.

The Catholic scientist Carlo Lancellotti — who really should write a book — makes a good point here:


Lancellotti speaks to my basic objection to integralism: it is an answer to a second-order problem. In plain terms (and to repeat myself), we live in a highly pluralist and fissiparous culture and a civilization in which the authority of the Roman Catholic Church is so weak that it cannot even command much more than the nominal loyalty of its own communicants. Before attempting to make a society’s political order Catholic, churchmen should focus instead on making the Church Catholic. I’m not being flippant here. The re-evangelization of Catholics themselves (and all Christians, I should add) is the primary task of churchmen in the West today. When you cannot even get a group of very conservative Catholic undergraduates to comprehend and defend the Catholic Church’s position on marriage, you have problems that a new — and doubtless very different — Generalissimo Francisco Franco cannot solve.

Besides which, Elijah is right: integralism looks like Blaise Cupich and Ted McCarrick putting their loafers on your neck forever. Vermeule and Pappin have fiercely criticized other Catholics who have spoken out against Pope Francis’s theological liberalism, I’m guessing because those two believe that integralism cannot work without unquestioned deference to the pope. That is a problematic position for reasons I don’t have to articulate at length. Suffice it to say that if integralism requires ultramontanism, there are quite a few solidly orthodox Catholics who would reject it, and rightly so.

And finally, integralism grants the Catholic state the right — and even, if Pius IX is to be believed, the obligation (“Non possumus”) — to do things like remove baptized Jewish children from their families, for their own supposed good. How secure could any of us non-Catholics, or Catholic dissenters from Catholic orthodoxy, be under an integralist order? In the High Middle Ages, popes would put entire cities under interdict (a state in which everyone there was forbidden to receive the Sacraments) when the political behavior of the city governments opposed the temporal goals of the pontiff. Do Catholics really want to live under an order in which the Patriarch exercised the right to deny the Sacraments to the King’s enemies?

Here’s the thing, though: as Lancellotti says, liberalism is not neutral. As an Orthodox Christian, I would probably find an actually, existing Catholic integralist social and political order to be more just and healthy than many actually, existing liberal states, given their decadence. This is why I cannot write off the integralists entirely, even as I reject their proposals as thoroughly unrealistic. Yet I cannot endorse the views of conservative Catholic liberals like Philip Muñoz either, because — as Hector emphasizes above — the post-Christian liberal order is producing results that cannot be reconciled with a traditional Christian understanding of the good.

You could say — and I imagine that Muñoz does say — that the Church retains the freedom to evangelize and to change people’s minds, such that the laws that Catholics and other Christians find to be unjust can ultimately be repealed. True, in theory. But liberalism is not neutral. I had a number of conversations with professors over the weekend — some Protestants, but mostly Catholics — who teach in confessionally Christian institutions, and all of whom are genuinely afraid about their freedom to speak on LGBT matters within their universities. I’m talking about professors who are afraid even to present the traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality within their classrooms, as a matter of intellectual discussion. So great is the fear of being denounced by a student as a homophobe, no matter how petty the grounds, and of being thrown under the bus by the university administration, that professors are censoring themselves at Christian universities. I’m not saying “thinking about censoring themselves.” I’m talking about censoring themselves. Let me be crystal clear: there are Catholic professors who are afraid to affirm publicly that they agree with what the Catholic Church teaches about homosexuality and marriage, because they believe this will cost them their jobs.

You think the liberal order is neutral? Then you’re as much of a fantasist as any throne-and-altar integralist. Liberalism supports religious liberty only insofar as religion supports liberalism. This is going to become much clearer, very soon.

Which brings us back to Deneen, who sits uneasily between liberalism and integralism. Saturday night’s session did not last long enough for him to explain in any detail why he rejects integralism as an answer to the problems he identifies with liberalism. In his book, Deneen foresees that whatever is to follow liberalism will have to emerge naturally from experiments in localist forms of building political community. That is the most optimistic take I can muster myself. What seems most likely to happen is that liberalism will give way to some form of authoritarianism, either of the left or the right, and whatever happens, the Church is going to be sidelined, and will only be given space if it proves useful to the political regime. This is what it means to live in a post-Christian civilization.

One last thing: It is certainly possible in the distant future that some form of integralism will emerge out of the ruins, as it has done in post-Soviet Russia. On the other hand, Russia’s political and religious culture is far more open to that sort of thing than the West’s. We should hope and pray that we do not have to undergo the total degradation of our people, as the Russians did under Soviet rule, such that during the reconstruction, an alliance of church with state might be the least bad of all possibilities.

UPDATE: Here’s a very good essay on “the eclipse of Catholic fusionism” by Kevin Gallagher, which appears in American Affairs, edited by the integralist Gladden Pappin. Gallagher writes of the comprehensive failures of Catholic fusionists (that is, the Neuhaus-Weigel-George school) in the public square:

It is tempting, and perhaps also somewhat satisfying, to blame Catholic parties to the fusionist alliance for their failure to shape American politics. Nor would it be unfair. But if they have lost credibility among those younger Catholics who are attempting to puzzle through political questions, the main cause is a cultural shift that the elder pundits barely foresaw, and could not have prevented. The hoped-for “Catholic moment” at least presumed a culture in which the Church and ordinary American life might be easily combined, and in which the Church’s greatest moments of tension with American life could be understood as a kind of “loyal opposition.” At least for a couple of generations in the middle of the twentieth century, this is the role the Church played. And although becoming part of the establishment incurs certain costs, there is no doubt that this gave the Church a degree of cultural prestige and influence that nudged politics in a more Catholic direction.

The Church has now completely lost this role. Although it continues to do charitable works on an immense scale and its bishops are never reticent on political questions, Catholics today, and especially young Catholics, live in a heightened tension with the world around them. In media, at law, in HR trainings, in advertisements, Catholic distance from mainstream culture is growing in a way that makes fusionist attempts merely to supplement American culture unrealistic. Young Catholics now live in a context in which their deepest ideals and aspirations are no longer merely unusual, but oppositional. These signs were there to be seen well before the Obama years, and opponents of the fusionist synthesis pointed them out from the 1960s onward. But events have made them unmistakably clear in a way the younger generation of Catholics is unlikely to forget. Though one periodically hears talk of a “rediscovery of the sacred” parallel to the new nationalisms, the dream of an Americanist “Catholic moment” is not coming back.

The most common response to the patent incongruity of Catholicism and the modern world is for Catholics to leave the Church. “Ex-Catholic” is the second-largest Christian denomination in the United States; Catholic institutions everywhere are losing momentum and support, even as they water down their Catholic character; and it is clear the vestigial obedience and participation of “cultural” or “ethnic” Catholics is not being transmitted to their children. Catholics may welcome certain legal victories defending the Church, or may appreciate expressions of Christian identity from the Trump administration, but as a demographic matter the decline of the Church appears unstoppable. Catholics who remain in the Church certainly cannot blame fusionists themselves for this situation. But they also cannot follow the thought leaders who spent the last thirty years planning for a fusion that neither side actually desires. More and more, fusion looks like a one-sided accommodation to liberal norms that few other than fusionists still embrace.

He goes on to talk about why integralism appeals to young Catholics like himself. More:

On its own terms, a Catholicism more critical of the mainstream of American thought would have little to recommend it to outsiders. Neither Republicans nor Democrats nor libertarians have any real appetite for neoscholastic treatises on political order; there is no base of donors or network of think tanks eager to promote the careers of young “integralist” scholars or assure them of an audience for their writings. But in the wake of the practical failure of the Catholic fusionists, of the closure of the “Catholic moment,” of the arrival in many places of a secular right-wing politics not beholden to Christian sources, now is the time for Catholics to avail themselves of all the sources needed to understand the current crisis—and even, if the possibility emerges, to make a positive contribution to rebuilding from political liberalism’s steady decline.

Read the whole thing.  I still think integralism is a dead end, but is it as dead an end as Catholic fusionism? I’m not at all sure about that.