For Integralism: A Realist’s Case for the Confessional State – Against Integralism: A Thomist’s Case for Limited Government

Jonathan Culbreath For Integralism: A Realist's Case for the Confessional State by 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.

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

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.

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 RepublicInvoking 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.

Against Integralism: A Thomist’s Case for Limited Government

Andrew Latham Against Integralism: A Thomist’s Case for Limited Government by Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the past two decades. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson.

Image: Washington as Statesman at the Constitutional Convention by Junius Brutus Stearn

This past March, The Atlantic published an essay by Adrian Vermeule, a Catholic professor of constitutional law at Harvard University, introducing the idea of “common-good constitutionalism” to an audience that I’m sure had never read anything quite like it.

At its most basic, Professor Vermeule’s argument unfolded something like this:

Human flourishing, or the “good life,” necessarily entails living a life of virtue—that is, a life ordered toward realizing one’s higher human nature which, according to natural law and the ius gentium, is the same for all persons, at all times, and in all places.

The common good is defined as the corporate wellbeing of the political community, defined largely in terms of its collective ability, through the state, to promote the ability of all its members to live such a life of virtue.

The proper and ordained end of any just constitutional order is to advance the common good, and thereby the ability of all citizens to live a life of virtue.

The constitutional order, therefore, must empower the state to do whatever it needs to do—including legislating morality—in order to advance the common good.

While I am in agreement with certain of Professor Vermeule’s arguments, I’m afraid that I can’t follow him all the way through to his conclusions about the desirability of a constitutional order built on promoting the “common good,” at least not as he defines it. The notion of the common good, of course, is a notoriously slippery one. It can mean, inter alia: the sum of the particular common goods of each of the members; the universal, objective good of all persons, at all times, and in all places; the good of society as a corporate whole or as a persona ficta; or the common utility of all of the members of a society. But the modern Catholic tradition of political thought generally holds that, given the ubiquity of sin and the lack of agreement in our fallen world regarding what constitutes the “good,” the final characterization is really the only viable one. Although I’m not going to enlist Saint Augustine in my cause, I will use his imagery here to underscore this point.  In an imperfect world in which the citizens of the heavenly city (i.e., those whose first love is God) must live cheek by jowl with those of the earthly one (i.e., those whose first love is man), the only common good that is truly possible is one that accepts that all that is possible is a qualified agreement on a limited number of intermediate goods that serve a “public good” (bonum publicum): peace, the satisfaction of basic material needs, orderly social intercourse, and security from attack. But this, as we shall see, is not the understanding of the common good underpinning common-good constitutionalism.  It is not, simply put, what Professor Vermeule is calling for.

In order to demonstrate the error of the common-good constitutionalism argument, I’m going to enlist an unlikely ally: Saint Thomas Aquinas. I say unlikely because, at first glance, Aquinas may seem an odd choice given that the first three of the common-good constitutionalist claims listed above would seem broadly in line with the political thought of the Angelic Doctor. They echo, for example, Thomas’s essentially Aristotelian anthropology, which holds that human beings possess a distinctive purpose or nature (telos) that must be realized if they are to be flourish qua human beings. As Aristotle, Aquinas, and all subsequent Aristotelian-Thomists agree, humans are by their very nature ordered toward realizing their natural capacity to reason (that is, to be rational), to living their lives according to the dictates of reason (that is, to living lives of virtue or moral excellence), and to associating with other human beings (that is, to living as a “political animal”) to enjoy the fruits of reason.

They also echo Aristotle’s claim that at least part of the purpose of associating in political communities is to facilitate the fulfillment of its members’ distinctively human nature—that is, their full flourishing as rational, moral, and social animals—through education and through laws that prescribe certain actions and proscribe others. In the Thomistic view, the common good of the political community was not merely the provision of the material necessities of life, but rather the promotion of what Aristotle called the “good life” or the “life of virtue.” Commenting on and applying these arguments in the later medieval context, thinkers like Aquinas tended to agree with Aristotle’s definition of the bonum commune: for them, the common good was primarily about cultivating moral goodness and the life of virtue.

To be sure, there were significant debates among these later Aristotelians. They typically disagreed with the philosopher, for example, on the nature of complete human fulfillment. While Aristotle emphasized humanity’s independent capacity to fulfill its own nature through virtuous living, medieval political thinkers assumed and insisted that true fulfillment was dependent both on God’s grace and, ipso facto, on the Church as a sign and instrument of that grace. At a very basic level, however, the Thomists agreed with Aristotle that the promotion of true human fulfillment, flourishing, or “happiness” required the state to engage in moral regulation and education, coordinate the complexities inherent in political life, provide welfare for those in need, promote economic prosperity, uphold the law, promote justice, maintain social peace, and defend the political community against aggression or injury from external sources.

The Angelic Doctor can be read, then, as having argued first that true human flourishing requires the pursuit of a life of virtue or beatitudo, that the role of the state is to cajole and compel citizens to lead such a life, and, finally, that the state exists to promote the “common good”—that is, to create the conditions of possibility for both the individual and collective good life. Taken together, this would seem to constitute three Thomistic cheers for common-good constitutionalism.

Despite these appearances, I’m going to enlist the Angelic Doctor in the counter common-good constitutionalism cause.  The reason for this is twofold. First, since the papacy of Leo XIII, Aquinas’s thought has been uniquely influential in the world of Catholic social and political doctrine. Because of this, he cannot be treated as just another voice to be deployed in support of one side or another in the current debate over what really constitutes the common good.  Rather, Aquinas’ political thought, placed in the context of current Church teaching, must be considered particularly authoritative, if not actually dispositive.

A second reason for recruiting the Angelic Doctor is that, contrary to first impressions, his arguments actually highlight the divergence between the Church’s modern teachings and their philosophical underpinnings on the one hand, and the theory of common-good constitutionalism on the other. Now if what Professor Vermeule is arguing is that the state must be competent to perform the functions to which it is properly ordered, then I’m sure the Angelic Doctor would not disagree. It sounds, however, as if he is advocating something more akin to an unfettered state charged with legislating and policing a Christian-naturalist moral order. As he puts it in The Atlantic article:

common-good constitutionalism does not suffer from a horror of political domination and hierarchy, because it sees that law is parental, a wise teacher and an inculcator of good habits…. Subjects will come to thank the ruler whose legal strictures, possibly experienced at first as coercive, encourage subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods.

This is simply incompatible with the Thomistic tradition, a tradition that placed strict limits on the competence, jurisdiction, and power of the state, even when purportedly acting in the interests of “individual and common goods.” Aquinas believed the common good or, more accurately, the “public good,” to be both public and limited—public in that it was distinct from the private realm of the individual, the household, and the Church, and limited in that it pertained only to public acts (rather than private ones) and only to earthly (rather than heavenly) ends.

The Angelic Doctor did not, then, view the prince as reigning over some sort of moral Leviathan ordered toward encouraging “subjects to form more authentic desires for the individual and common goods.” Rather, for Aquinas, the state was a framework within which some citizens could pursue the good life (beatitudo, in his language) while others could opt to follow a different course. Its moral purpose was nothing more than providing those narrowly tailored public goods (i.e., life, peace, just order, and security) necessary for human flourishing; its moral limits were nothing less than the self-evident truth that the domains of the individual, the family, civil society, and the Church are reserved to them and them alone (under God’s sovereignty).

For Aquinas, then, a fairly bright line could be drawn distinguishing what the state can and cannot do. In addition to providing internal order and security from external attack, the state can legislate and enforce only such norms of conduct as are necessary for a government to govern (from the Latin gubernare, to steer) effectively. In other words, in the moral sphere it can only act to promote public or civic—not personal or private—virtue, i.e., to promote, even legislate, only those relatively mundane virtues needed to be a good citizen rather than those truly extraordinary virtues needed to be a pious saint.

And this, even though the Angelic Doctor affirmed that there was such as thing as a common morality (i.e., a universal common good) that all human beings must respect in order to flourish as human beings. Saint Thomas simply rejected the notion that the state can legislate or otherwise impose this common morality. And, to anticipate a perhaps obvious objection, this does not mean that the state cannot legislate on any moral matters. Aquinas believed, for example, that murder is morally wrong and could be prohibited by law, but this legal prohibition was justified on the grounds of the security of the person and the social peace of order—both being consistent with, and derivative of, the proper and limited ends of the state. A similar argument could be made with respect to pornography: to the extent that it ruthlessly exploits women in the industry, and promotes an exploitative vision of women in society more generally, it can be said to be contrary to peace, order, and the basic conditions necessary for human flourishing, and therefore subject to legal proscription.  In neither case is it necessary to legislate on the basis of the argument of common-good constitutionalism that “promoting a substantive vision of the [moral] good is, always and everywhere, the proper function of rulers.”  The Thomistic bonum publicum is grounds enough.

In fact, any straightforward reading of Aquinas reveals that, although a man of his time and place, he would be very much at home with the ordered-liberty constitutional order established by the Framers of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, the Angelic Doctor would have agreed with the Framers’ endorsement of a state limited in competence and authority, ordered around the rule of law, founded on the assumption that individuals are naturally endowed with the capacity to govern themselves, and deeply rooted in the belief that there is, and ought to be, a realm of autonomous institutions between the individual and the state. Neither Aquinas nor the Framers envisioned or endorsed anything like the essentially Catholic integralist constitutional order proposed by Professor Vermeule under the heading of common-good constitutionalism.  Nor did they succumb to the temptation to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Both Aquinas and the Founders realized that ordered-liberty constitutionalism had little chance of creating a perfect society, that is, a society needing either no government (as was the case before the fall) or a Catholic one (which won’t come about until the Millennium). I’m also certain that they believed that, in the interim, both of these options were practical and/or theological impossibilities, and that, as Winston Churchill might have put it, ordered-liberty constitutionalism was the worst system imaginable—except for all the others (including common-good constitutionalism).

For an integralist rebuttal, see “A Realist’s Case for the Confessional State” by Jonathan Culbreath.

Tagged as Adrian VermeuleilliberalismintegralismSt. AugustineSt. Thomas AquinasAndrew Latham

By Andrew Latham

Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota for the past two decades. He is the author, most recently, of Theorizing Medieval Geopolitics: War and World Order in the Age of the Crusades published by Routledge in 2012, and The Holy Lance, his first novel, published by Knox Robinson.