Rod Dreher Doesn’t Understand Integralism

Rod Dreher has been a tear the past week writing about integralism. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand what integralism is. In his latest attempt to wade into waters which he has not properly scouted, Dreher declares that integralism “is a philosophy that would subjugate the state to the power of clerics.” This is a grossly misleading way to frame the integralist thesis, especially since just days earlier Dreher quotes from Pater Edmund Waldstein’s compact but thorough explanation of that thesis:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding 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, as can be seen from Waldstein’s definition, is not the clerical fascism that Dreher fears, and yet Dreher does nothing to correct his mishandling of the integralist thesis. Here is Dreher again:

I can easily imagine myself around 1998, as a younger Catholic, full of ardor and ideology, finding the clarity and logic of integralism appealing, but having spent years writing about the abuse scandal, and seeing how terribly clerics can screw things up—not because they’re clerics, but because they are human beings, and their ordination does not change that—there is no way on God’s green earth I would stand for an integralist regime. I say that mostly as someone who wants the Church to flourish. A church that has too much temporal power imperils itself in a different way from a church that it [sic] completely at the mercy of the secular state—but imperil itself it does.

No one denies that clerics “can screw things up,” but then again, so can secular politicians and the people who vote them into office. It happens all of the time. Still, this is beside the point. The real problem with Dreher’s panicky remarks is that they miss the point of integralism almost entirely. Integralism does not recommend that priests and bishops should be handed the reins of political power. Indeed, integralism keeps in clear view the distinction between the temporal and spiritual, recognizing in line with Church tradition that the spiritual only exercises indirect temporal authority while keeping the spiritual realm safe from temporal encroachment. This is not true in what appears to be Dreher’s preferred political model, Byzantine-style symphonia. Although symphonia contemplates a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, the practical result in history is that the weaving of the two results in the spiritual becoming the handmaid of the temporal. Much of the history of the Byzantine Empire and, later, the Russian Empire attests to this lamentable problem.

Dreher’s scattered remarks implying that integralism would, among other things, give cover to clerics who sexually abuse children are beyond grotesque. Nowhere does Dreher point out how integralism provides cover to anyone—clerical, religious, or lay—who violates divine, natural, or rightly ordered civil law. Dreher’s casual juxtaposition of the sex-abuse crisis with his misguided remarks on integralism read as little more than a childish attempt to besmirch integralists in the mind of his audience. If anything, integralists, almost all of whom are conservative-to-traditional Catholics who routinely uphold classical moral teaching, would press for a legal and penal system that deals far more harshly with sex crimes than what we find under liberalism. Moreover, as staunch defenders of the priesthood’s dignity and the proper formation of seminarians, integralists are likely to champion strict screening procedures for candidates to the priesthood.

It is sad that Dreher, a man who frequently claims that he is misunderstood and read uncharitably by his critics, is content to treat integralism so thoughtlessly. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, it is understandable that Dreher might have some reservations concerning integralism, especially since his chosen confession—as I have argued before—lacks a genuine integralist tradition. However, having reservations is no excuse for calumny. Dreher admits that The Josias is a solid repository of integralist thought. Perhaps he should take some more time to read it and read it carefully. Until then, it would behoove Dreher, as a Christian, to cease making irresponsible claims about integralism while misleading his readers into thinking that an integralist state would necessarily be rife with abuse, scandal, and the covering up of unspeakable crimes. No integralist state will be perfect and no integralist is promising paradise on earth. Rather, the integralist state can help order man toward his final goal, which is Heaven.

One Irreligious Man

Uriel da Costa (born Gabriel) was a rather pious man, at least for a time. Born into a family of cristãos novos in 1585 who thought it better to convert than be thrown out of Portugal with the other Jews, he lived in the tension between his ancestral Judaism and his family’s new-found (but not altogether sincere) Catholicism. Costa tried to make a good run of it. After studying canon law in his teenage years, he came to hold an ecclesiastical office and later, when penning his brief autobiography, made a point to present his father in particularly as a devout Catholic. His father’s early death, coupled with other misfortunes, prompted the Costa family to flee Portugal for the Netherlands and Germany, respectively. Having already come to doubt the tenets of the Christian religion in favor of Judiasm based on his own independent study of Scripture in Portugal, Costa was in for an existential crisis when he finally came face-to-face with Rabbinic Judaism abroad. While Costa thought of himself as a faithful adherent to the Law of Moses, he saw little in Continental Judaism except for emptyheaded legalism and ritualism.

Now in his early 30s, Costa set out to disrupt the flawed but stable orthodoxy of his day through a series of publications which, inter alia, challenged the structure of Rabbinic Judaism; denied the immortality of the soul; and posited that that the Judaism of his day was devoid of the spiritual riches contained in Scripture. Prior to his critiques reaching their crescendo with the 1623 work An Examination of the Tradition of the Pharisees, Costa was excommunicated by the rabbis of Vienna—a mark that would follow him to his eventual settlement in Amsterdam. While Costa appears to have been able to maintain a decent standard of living through his business dealings during this period, his life became one of painful solitude. By 1633, he sought to reconcile himself with the local Jewish community, though it failed to take. Here is Michael Della Rocca’s account of the closing years of Costa’s life from his book, Spinoza.

Da Costa’s ban was harsher than most. When he was banned in 1633, the possibility of atonement was left open, but it was atonement by flagellation that was required. Da Costa refused, but by 1640, after enduring years of isolation, he agreed to go through with the punishment during which he was not only whipped in the synagogue, but, after the display, was forced to lie down at the threshold of the synagogue. Those who exited then stepped on his body on their way out. Unable to bear this humiliation, da Costa shot himself several days later.

Many years after his suicide, Costa’s autobiographical statement, Exemplar Humanae Vitae, made it to print. Later criticized by scholars for its inaccuracies and incompleteness, the document still stands as Costa’s last word on his beliefs—beliefs that had degenerated from a hopeful embrace of Biblical Judaism to religious skepticism. By the time he had reached the end, Costa could confidently declare that religion was little more than a human invention and that God (or, rather, his own conception of god) cared little for man-made rites and ceremonies. Even the Law of Moses, which Costa had once held up against the rules of the rabbis, lost its divine character. Lonely and humiliated, Costa left this world without the comfort of the religious outlook he once suffered to defend.

For those few who bother to pay Costa a bit of mind today, he is typically seen as the forerunner to Baruch Spinoza and an early progenitor of Biblical criticism. Some Jewish scholars, uncomfortable with the nature of Costa’s treatment during his lifetime, have attempted to rehabilitate him as a Jew whose conditions removed his culpability for heresy. Costa, after all, was born into an environment of coerced conversions where any sign of “Judaizing” could result in the loss of property, freedom, or life at the hands of the Inquisition. Having never been brought up in an authentic Jewish milieu (i.e. a Rabbinic Jewish milieu), Costa cannot be blamed for his errant understanding of Judaism generally and Holy Scripture particularly. Moreover, infused with non-Jewish ideas at an early age, Costa’s outlook—so the apologetic story goes—was forever marred; no matter how hard he might have struggled to reconcile himself with the faith of his fathers, it was never to be. As such, Costa must be held harmless for his heterodoxy while his life and legacy should be interpreted as a tragedy rather than a blemish on Jewish history.

That is, so-to-speak, a nice way of putting matters, though one wonders what Costa would think of this revisionist narrative. It’s hard not to imagine that Costa would see the biggest error of his life not in his rejection of Rabbinic Judaism, but in his attempt to reintegrate into the Jewish community of his time. Further, it is hard to shake the feeling the true tragedy of Costa’s life was not the confusion imposed upon him by his environment but rather his mental-spiritual instability, an instability that led him to expect far more from the religious culture of his times than it possibly had to offer. Of course, perhaps Costa wasn’t that unstable, mentally or spiritually. Maybe, like some now living, Costa believed that the lofty spiritual, philosophical, and theological teachings of the Bible warranted earthly representation which, though always inadequate to the task, could be far, far better than what’s available. Costa, tortured by this dashed hope, ultimately succumbed; most tortured similarly today walk away from the pain under the guise of becoming illumined.

Two Religious Men

On September 16, 1666, in the ancient city of Adrianople, Sabbatai Sevi, the reported Messiah of the Jewish people, converted to Islam. Although the event did not bring to a close the movement known as Sabbateanism, it did mark the decline of the last great messianic movement within Judaism. Scorned by Muslims and Christians alike, the Jewish populations of Europe and the Middle East, arguably, never quite recovered from the blow their “Mystical Messiah” dealt them. Meanwhile, over in the land of Russia, an archpriest named Avvakum was causing a bit of a stir himself. Steadfastly opposed to the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, Avvakum turned altering the Sign of the Cross and Slavonic orthography into an apocalyptic event. As the best known of those Russian Christians who would come to be known as “Old Believers,” Avvakum is credited with creating the first masterpiece of Russian literature: his frenzied, paranoid, and heterodox story of his life. Avvakum, unlike Sevi, had no pretense to being a messiah; he did, however, see himself as God’s agent in the world, the last of the saints who would hold fast to the spiritual, liturgical, and linguistic patrimony of the Russian Church in the face of torture and death. Having had enough of his antics, the Russian state burned Avvakum and three of his followers at the stake in 1682.

With the publication of Gershom Scholem’s monumental work on Sevi in the mid-20th century, a small but noticeable scholarly enterprise has been built up around this seminal figure in Jewish history. Scholem’s study, which eschewed a materialist explanation for Sevi’s popularity among the Jews of his day, has been met with equally compelling accounts that see, for instance, the origins of Sabbateanism in the plight of Eastern European Jewry in the 17th century. Others see in Sevi an opportunity for the Jews to abandon beliefs and practices which had made them stand apart for centuries. As a messianic figure, one of Sevi’s perceived tasks was to abolish the ritual law of the Jews before inaugurating a bloodless restoration of the Kingdom of Israel. Perhaps, some opine, Sevi’s appeal came about due to a general Jewish exhaustion of adhering to religious tenets that seemed to bring them nothing but misery for over 1,000 years. Whatever the reasons behind the growth and popularity of the Sabbatean movement, the final world has yet to be written about this delusional figure and the impact his life had on Jewish history.

And what about Avvakum? In the Anglophone world, Avvakum is typically only known by way of passing mention in Orthodox history books or the English-language translation of his autobiography. He is not, in the estimation of most Orthodox Christians, a figure to be revered. Yet there is an argument to be made that he is a figure who lurks behind any and all liturgical pedantry among the Orthodox, particularly the Russians. Avvakum’s great error, as many have pointed out, was to identify the Christian Faith with liturgical praxis. Avvakum, like almost all of his Russian contemporaries, did not realize that the Byzantine Rite, no less than any other approved rituals within the Universal Church, did not spring into being by way of a few strokes of a saint’s pen. The Byzantine Rite, as it was kept in Russia in the 17th century, was the byproduct of numerous revisions, redactions, and recensions—sprinkle on some scribal errors, obscure local practices, and a general ignorance of Church history and theology and what you have is a recipe for religious disaster. The Old Believer movement, though always a minority movement within the Orthodox Church, nevertheless caused a serious rupture within Russian Orthodoxy and arguably contributed to the eventual secularization of the Russian Orthodox Church by Tsar Peter the Great at the turn of the 18th century.

Today, the Jewish people are still waiting for a messiah while Russian Orthodox zealotry typically takes the form of militaristic nationalism rather than spiritually inspired apocalypticism. Might an argument be made that this tempering of what one might call the “religious spirit” is a sign that despite protestations to the contrary, secularism—with its inordinately positive appraisal of a certain type of rationalism—has, on some level, “won”? (Won what? I do not know.) The Jews, on the one hand, appear to have lost hope, or at least otherworldly hope, while the Christians of Russia, on the other, see their “mission” to the world materially rather than spiritually. Maybe this is for the best. After all, few good things, humanly speaking, befall those who get carried away by enthusiasms not easily measured empirically, and the sum total of the psychic and moral damaged caused by misplaced enthusiasms is likely incalculable. Still, their absence is decidedly felt, especially in a world where the surest cure for boredom is an iPhone.