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.