A Thought on Integralism and Symphonia for Sunday

It has been nearly two years since Rod Dreher infected American religious discourse with The Benedict Option, an under-theorized mishmash of derivative ideas and conclusions meant to finance its author’s extravagant trips to foreign dinner tables. By spawning a litany of lesser-known “Options” in magazine articles and web-logs, Dreher managed to unwittingly play into liberalism’s hands. Liberalism is not concerned with the “right life” or the “best life” per se, but rather with the “right” or “best life” the individual defines for himself. And so the “Benedict Option” (whatever it means) becomes a choice among many, a mere possibility whose goodness is measured by the number of adherents rather than the substance of its claims. Luckily none of the other proposed “Options” ever gained much traction, perhaps because there is nothing more intellectually loathsome than to be a derivative idea of a derivative idea that, in and of itself, is not particularly impressive.

One other related consequence of Dreher’s drivel is the reduction of all things political to “Options” in the minds of contemporary American Christians, particularly Catholics. Take, for instance, the integralist revival inspired in no small part by The Josias and the earlier writings of its contributors. Both friends and foes of integralism have a tendency to treat it as an “Option,” a political posture that is worth adopting — at least in word — on a visceral basis alone. Integralism “sounds cool” to a certain type of 20/30-something Catholic disillusioned with American politics and its two main parties. Integralism seems “edgy,” and the willingness of integralists to callback to supposed “golden ages” in the distant past or more questionable eras of religious-political union in the last century has a polarizing effect that too many of these otherwise well-meaning Catholics revel in. This is contrary to one of if not the most central tenant of integralism, namely that integralists are doing nothing more or less than holding to the Catholic Church’s indefectible teachings. Integralists do not advance new doctrines or novel theological speculation; they merely adhere to the proper ordering of the spiritual and temporal powers.

On its face, that’s incredibly less “sexy” (or shocking) than saying that one longs for the days of the Inquisition or proudly hangs portrait’s of Franco and Salazar in their “study” (ok, fine, parents’ basement). By promoting a caricature of integralism, one that is more fit to be a Right Wing Death Squad t-shirt design than a topic of serious discussion, these unwitting integralists feed integralist’s critics with ample ammunition to gun-down the integralist thesis (or, rather, a certain degraded idea of the integralist thesis). That is unhelpful. For until the time comes that integralism, properly understood, is taken as neither a novelty nor a romantic hope, it will not only fail to gain traction in the wider Catholic Church, but few if any will begin the heavy lifting required to operationalize integralism in a socio-political environment beset by liberalism. To put it another way, for as long as integralism remains mired in useless discussions centered on some of its adherents’ silly social-media excesses and poor rhetorical choices, it will always have the appearance of an idea, of an “Option,” that can be freely chosen (or not) without serious intellectual and moral consequences. If that is all integralism truly is, then we need it not at all.

None of this is to say that integralism is beyond criticism or that integralists cannot disagree among themselves. One challenge to integralism that remains more hypothetical than realized at this stage is the Eastern Orthodox concept of symphonia. Leaving to the side for the moment any criticism of “symphonia in practice” as opposed to “symphonia as proposed,” symphonia does away with the hierarchical structure of the spiritual and temporal powers intrinsic to integralism in favor of an integrated model of ecclesiastical and secular authority. Under symphonia, temporal power is not directly subordinate to the spiritual, but rather interwoven with it. In the Byzantine, and later Russian Tsarist, iterations of symphonia, the emperor is vested with a coordinate role in protecting and promoting the true religion alongside the Church hierarchy (specifically the patriarch). Some argue that this is necessary insofar as the Christian East knows nothing of a central ecclesiastical authority figure in the way Western Christendom does with the papacy. While the bishops may, in theory, all be equal successors to the Apostles, it is the temporal ruler, the emperor, who binds them together and calls them forth with the dogmatic unity of the Church is threatened. Integralism, by symphonia’s lights, goes too far in subordinating the temporal power to the spiritual while also claiming indirect temporal authority to the spiritual power. This hierarchical structure makes the temporal the handmaid of the spiritual, an arrangement that is both theologically unsound and practical untenable.

Integralist adherents, mainly Latin Catholics, may wish to dismiss symphonia’s claims on the thin ground that it belongs to the Christian East, specifically the Eastern Orthodox, and therefore has no say in the doctrinal structure of the Catholic Church. Maybe. However, does not the Christian East no less than the Christian West belong by right to the Catholic Church, that is, the one Universal Church of Christ? Is it so clear at this stage that integralism has vanquished symphonia? Or do both models have room to exist within One Church? There is no space to answer those or a myriad of other questions here. Rather, they are brought up only to suggest that even if integralism should be conceptualized not as an “Option” but rather part and parcel of the Church’s historic social doctrine, then can it stand alone when an equally ancient and arguably more successful model (at least for a time) in symphonia is also available? For those inclined to dismiss symphonia out of hand, remember that without it there would be no Nicene Creed.

A Tiny Postscript to Yesterday’s Post

I confess I was both surprised and heartened by the positive reactions to yesterday’s post. Having not blogged regularly for approximately two years now, it is impossible to predict if anything posted will ever get read. In scanning Twitter, I noticed a few comments concerning the reaction of certain online traditional Catholic males toward fellow Catholic females who, apparently, lost their virginity prior to marriage. (I write “apparently” because I am not sure how these Catholic men know who is or is not a virgin unless these ladies are advertising it.) This led me down a social-media rabbit hole where I found, much to my chagrin, a great deal of “commentary” (loosely defined) on why a “touched” woman is unfit to be a true traditional Catholic wife.

Let me be clear: “touched” is a euphemism of my own design. The adjectives I encountered in my visits to the four corners of online trad-dom included, but were hardly limited to, “corrupt,” “spoiled,” “unclean,” and “immoral.” Not surprisingly, I found scant commentary on traditional Catholic males who lived “Augustinian” lifestyles prior to finding the Latin Mass and even less on what is likely a far more pervasive problem among that demographic, namely pornography. On what basis, I wonder, is a female who has engaged in a monogamous sexual relationship outside of marriage more dirty or foul than the male who makes not-infrequent visits to PornHub to peruse videos that would make Caligula blush? Say whatever you want about Christianity replacing the “Old Law”; traditional Catholicism has its own deeply engrained notions of “ritual purity” that happen to be targeted toward a single sex.

This is not to say that the “slut shaming” traditional Catholic male community found online approaches the matter on the basis of either authority or reason. Their negative reactions to non-virgin Catholic females is almost entirely visceral. These women are “forbidden fruit,” objects of both desire and derision. These attract attention, wittingly or not, because they offer the idea of access to something these males have never had, and yet most of these ladies are now committed to “withholding” said access until marriage. And so the traditional Catholic males, by and large, do not know what to do with that information. Why should they “pay” for something that was otherwise given away “for free”? Compound this sideways view of things with those general feelings of inadequacy so many inadequately socialized males committed to a religious minority are often encumbered with and what you have is a recipe for fruitless resentment.

Since I am disinclined from dispensing advice and find moralizing tedious, let me say that regardless of what gets spewed online, my sense is that at the close of business a lot of the online Catholic rhetoric is not reflective of the on-the-ground reality. There are far more traditional Catholic men than women, and converts-to-tradition are overwhelmingly male. To the extent these men want wives, they are going to have to expand their horizons beyond the Mary Margarets, Catherine Annes, and Ann Catherine Margaret Marys of their imaginations. I do not mean that men should pursue morally casual women (or vice versa). No one in their right mind wants to be wedded to someone who snatches an extra 100 when passing “Go” in Monopoly or believes the infield fly rule extends to the outfield during postseason baseball games.

What is “Convertitis” in Latin?

A traditional Catholic friend and writer recently lamented in private about the cabal of young-ish covert-to-traditionalism types who feel compelled to pontificate on “things [traditional] Catholic” on web-logs, online publications, and social media. He feels – rightly so – that these folks ought to put a lid on it, at least for the time being. I cannot say I disagree with him. Having been a convert myself at one time (to Eastern Orthodoxy) and young blogger (I started when I was 23), I understand the temptation to share every thought and feeling that springs forth from my being. I also get that with conversion comes a great deal of misplaced zealotry. Converts to traditional Catholicism (who may or may not have been nominal Catholics beforehand) revel in throwing stones at the so-called “Novus Ordo Church” while also taking potshots at other Christian confessions they deem “heretical” and/or “schismatic.” Converts to Orthodoxy are similar, though they typically spend their time going on about the supposed “laxity” of cradle Orthodox while ripping on Catholicism. (For those unaware, a vast majority of converts to Eastern Orthodoxy are former Protestants, most of whom cannot let go of their deep-rooted anti-Roman biases.)

Speaking for myself, there is very little that I wrote during my time as an Eastern Orthodox Christian that I stand by today. (Thank Heavens my old web-logs are but digital dust.) It was not until after I returned to Catholicism in 2011 that I finally gained some perspective on my Orthodox days. Here in 2019, it seems that too much time has passed for me to give that period a fair accounting. That is one reason why I now opt to tread lightly around Orthodoxy, qualifying my criticisms when warranted and doing my best to apply a hermeneutic of charity to the Orthodox despite the fact many (if not most) refuse to apply the same toward Catholicism (especially Greek Catholicism).

As for the current batch of neophyte traditional Catholic commentators, they are mostly harmless despite being unoriginal, unimaginative, and uninspiring. Any person of sound mind who has read the works of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and Michael Davies knows all they need to of the ongoing crisis in the Catholic Church. What more is there to say? God bless those who have something constructive to offer, but they are few and far between, and most have a decade or more of post-graduate life experience behind them. I cannot see for the life of me what benefit accrues to a single soul to read another digital screed against the “revisionist-homosexualist-relativist-ecumenist” mafia that apparently controls the Catholic Church. And no, neither I nor anyone else should be privy to what this-or-that traditional Catholic is “giving up” for Lent. I assure you: not only is it trite, but no serious ascetic will be impressed. (On this point I must mention that the normative fasting practices for the Eastern Orthodox Church are exponentially more demanding than anything a Latin Catholic blogger has thought up.)

I could offer up some words of caution, but no one is going to listen. If they did, I might say something to the effect of, “Be careful what you write today; it will come back to bite you tomorrow.” Or, to put it another way, “What future law firm/hospital/accounting office/fast food restaurant that you plan on applying to is going to be impressed that Googling your name instantly yields a dozen blog posts and 1,000 Tweets about how the Jews control the United Nations?” Should the Catholic Church begin healing her many wounds, particularly the ongoing sex-abuse scandal, I assure you it will not be because you blogged about it. In fact, I can super-super, double-dog guarantee that ecclesiastical healing will not come about because you ripped your local pastor a new one on the Internet for some minor infraction of the 1962 Missale Romanums’s rubrics or you shot off 15 paragraphs about how the Divine Mercy Chaplet is a fraud.

Rather than write, let me suggest you read. While I concede that some of Archbishop Lefebvre’s works are rather dry, Michael Davies’s are not. After you finish his corpus, expand your horizons a bit and take a walk on the Eastern side. Pick up Fr. Aidan Nichols’s Rome and the Eastern Churches; it will cure you of the delusion that “to be Catholic” is “to be Latin.” While you are at it, get ahold of Fr. Robert Taft’s magisterial study, The Liturgy of the Hours East and West. It ought to dispel any notion that the “Roman liturgical crisis” began a mere 50 years ago. And for Heaven’s sake, acquaint yourself with the Church’s authentic social magisterium, both through the original papal encyclicals (Rerum Novarum, Quadragesimo Anno, Quas Primas, etc.) and secondary works like Fr. Cahill’s The Framework of a Christian State. By the time you finish all of that while pursuing additional works that come to light during the course of your studies, you should be old enough to realize you should not blog or write anything on the Internet.

 I hope to get there someday myself.