Integralism and Eastern Orthodoxy

Following yesterday’s brief post on integralism, I was asked whether the Eastern Orthodox Church, either now or in the past, has an integralist tradition. Although there have been certain Orthodox-backed political movements that contain what might be called “integralist elements,” it seems to me that integralism—with its powerful emphasis on the subordination of the temporal to the spiritual—has no deep roots in the Orthodox East. This is because, since the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox have promoted symphonia, that is, a complementary relationship between church and state with neither being subordinate to the other.

At the legal level, symphonia first appears in Justinian’s Corpus Iuris Civilis as at the start of Book 6 of the Novels. Here is the Preface in full from the 1932 translation of S.P. Scott.

The priesthood and the Empire are the two greatest gifts which God, in His infinite clemency, has bestowed upon mortals; the former has reference to Divine matters, the latter presides over and directs human affairs, and both, proceeding from the same principle, adorn the life of mankind; hence nothing should be such a source of care to the emperors as the honor of the priests who constantly pray to God for their salvation. For if the priesthood is, everywhere free from blame, and the Empire full of confidence in God is administered equitably and judiciously, general good will result, and whatever is beneficial will be bestowed upon the human race. Therefore We have the greatest solicitude for the observance of the divine rules and the preservation of the honor of the priesthood, which, if they are maintained, will result in the greatest advantages that can be conferred upon us by God, as well as in the confirmation of those which We already enjoy, and whatever We have not yet obtained We shall hereafter acquire. For all things terminate happily where the beginning is proper and agreeable to God. We think that this will take place if the sacred rules of the Church which the just, praiseworthy, and adorable Apostles, the inspectors and ministers of the Word of God, and the Holy Fathers have explained and preserved for Us, are obeyed.

Notice that there is no acknowledgment here that the state is subordinate to the church, or that the church can rightfully exercise indirect temporal authority. Rather, Justinian is proposing a sort of equilibrium in principle, albeit one that was rarely achieved during the long history of Byzantium or in any other Orthodox empire. In fact, Book 131 of the Novels, Justinian takes it upon himself to enact as a matter of civil law the canon law promulgated at the first four Ecumenical Councils.

Therefore We order that the sacred, ecclesiastical rules which were adopted and confirmed by the four Holy Councils, that is to say, that of the three hundred and eighteen bishops held at Nicea, that of the one hundred and fifty bishops held at Constantinople, the first one of Ephesus, where Nestorius was condemned, and the one assembled at Chalcedon, where Eutyches and Nestorius were anathematized, shall be considered as laws. We accept the dogmas of these four Councils as sacred writings, and observe their rules as legally effective.

Again, contrary to the integralist position that the state has no independent authority over spiritual matters, the symphonia introduced by Justinian presupposes that the state may turn the canonical into the civil (or not) as it sees fit. And, in fact, during the course of the Byzantine Empire, the conflation of civil and canon law would become far more frequent, resulting in the Orthodox Church being compelled to develop a form of ecclesiastical divorce that still plagues the Orthodox communion to this day.

With symphonia remaining largely an abstract ideal, the practical outcome of Orthodox political theology was the advent of caesaropapism with the state taking a direct role in ecclesiastical affairs. While several Eastern Saints felt compelled to resist this tendency, including Ss. John Chrysostom, Athanasius, and Maximus the Confessor, their witness was never enough to put an end to the practice. With the fall of Constantinople and the rise of Russia as the last Orthodox imperial power, caesaropapism continued to be the normative model for church/state relations in the Orthodox East. Indeed, caesaropapism appears to be alive and well in contemporary Russia, with the Russian Orthodox Church serving as a handmaid of Russian state policy, including international aggression in places such as Georgia and Ukraine.

None of this is to say that the Eastern Orthodox could not develop an authentic integralist tradition, though to do so would mean setting aside the ideal of symphonia in favor of a much broader understanding of the proper relationship between church and state. The Christian East is not devoid of an integralist tradition, after all. The role of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in building up strong national and civil institutions in Galicia from the 18th century onward is an excellent example of “integralism in action.” Although the aspiration for a free Ukrainian state was torn apart by two world wars and Soviet aggression, the practical potential borne out of a proper ordering of church and state should never be doubted.

The Return of Integralism

I must admit I was caught off guard a couple of days ago when integralism became a talking point on Catholic social media. The source of this discussion was an article by Jake Meador at Mere Orthodoxy, “Indexing Political Theologies: Six Christianity and Culture Strategies.” One of the “options” made available was “Catholic Integralism,” which has been neatly defined by Pater Edmund Waldstein over at The Josias:

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.

Meador, however, is skeptical that integralism can develop into a real movement in the United States since “the only way American Catholicism has been able to establish a political foothold in America is by repudiating Integralism.” I agree with Meador that embracing liberalism over integralism has been the historic practice of American Catholicism, though there’s no reason it had to be that way. By the early part of the 20th century Catholics had gained a comfortable foothold in American social and economic life; there was little incentive to “rock the boat.” By the 1960s, liberal distortions had penetrated large swathes of the Catholic Church, leading to the distorting declarations of the Second Vatican Council on religious liberty, the modern world, and the relationship of the Church with non-Christian religions. It has taken 50 years, but a growing number of Catholics (not all of them traditionalists) are discontent with the liberal fruits of Vatican II; they are now taking a wider view of Catholic Tradition, including the Church’s social magisterium as it developed from the Patristic period through the age of liberal revolution. This is why integralism is back on the scene.

There is a great deal more to be done, of course. Meador is right to observe “that the most pressing need for the integralists would seem to be catechetical—how do you teach American Catholics their church’s traditional political theology and how do you do it in a way that sticks in a place that is so famously hostile to such political theology?” However, the very fact that Meador—and others who are not necessarily integralists—are writing on this topic means that the message is starting to get out. The Josias, which has been quietly building-up an archive of fresh integralist writings and translations, has been acknowledged in The American Conservative and The New York Times. (Additionally, I have worked for several years to present integralism both practically and theoretically.) And beyond all of that, a large body of Catholic social writings from yesteryear, covering everything from economics to the proper composition of the state, are back in print and available from outlets such as Angelus Press, Loreto Press, and IHI Books. There is no shortage of materials available for those looking to learn.

But, yes, there are challenges. The integralist community remains rather small and confined mainly (though not exclusively) to traditional Latin Catholic circles. Integralists, unlike the liberals, don’t have the benefit of a well-funded propaganda machine like the Acton Institute, nor are they likely to curry favor with Church hierarchs beholden to liberal values. But with God, all things are possible. Just a few years ago, nobody was speaking about integralism, let alone writing about it in a fresh and invigorating way. Up until various Catholic (and some non-Catholic) camps started identifying themselves as “Radical Catholics” or “Illiberal Catholics” or the “Benedict Option” became a household word, those holding integralist views (meaning those who faithfully adhere to what the Catholic Church has always taught about the relationship between the temporal and spiritual orders) never felt inclined to define themselves. Now, with so many “options” circulating about, it’s become a necessity—and that’s not a bad thing.