Integralism Visits First Things?

Today, over at First Things (FT), Brandon McGinley’s article “Liberal Limits—And Our Opportunity” represents another in a growing line of (mostly) Catholic commentary expressing exhaustion with liberalism. Now that same-sex marriage is perfectly legal and fresh attention is now being paid to stripping religious institutions of their tax-exempt status if they fail to fall in line, it is now a tad more respectable to suggest that the promise of liberalism was never more than a lie. Concepts like pluralism, relativism, and tolerance made for easy consumption when people—including many devoutly religious persons—believed their absence could only mean insularity, persecution, and hatred; now it’s starting to become clear that all three will be dealt out freely against any man, woman, or child who dares to speak ill of the Supreme Court’s attempt to do the impossible, namely redefine the meaning of marriage. Liberalism, according to McGinley, is giving way to a more destructive post-liberalism, but in the midst of this post-liberal chaos McGinley sees an opportunity. Here are his words:

I see, perhaps, maybe, hopefully, an opportunity. It is an opportunity, in the long run, to supplant the status quo and to win individuals and families and communities—souls—by appealing to rather than obscuring the comprehensive truth of Christian doctrine. Light chases darkness.

If my suspicions are correct—if the liberal order is fracturing whether we like it or not—then we should argue for marriage not because the Supreme Court overstepped its authority, but because marriage is true and same-sex marriage is false; we should argue for tax exemptions not because of fairness, but because the Church deserves the state’s favor; and we should argue for freedom not because of the words of Jefferson or Madison, but because of the Word of God.

This may seem unrealistic—extravagant, even. But is it any more extravagant than same-sex marriage was thirty years ago? We at least have historical precedent for Christian civilization. Our task, which must begin now, is to discern how to remake that civilization in a post-modern, post-liberal world.

Reading these remarks surprised me for two distinct but interrelated reasons.

First, they contain an almost unqualified rejection of liberal discourse, a discourse FT adopted without compunction in the 1990s and 00s. Even the infamous “End of Democracy” symposium still presupposed that the liberal order was normative and that the high crime of the Supreme Court in the 1990s was its incursion against democracy. Things have changed at FT to be sure, but have they really changed that much? There has been talk of “Benedict” and “Dominican” options in its pages recently, though it is possible, perhaps even likely, that such prescriptions are not so much authentic alternatives to liberalism as they are under-theorized (and catchy!) ways to deal with the present liberal ordo.

Second, McGinley’s call to witness to the truth on the basis of reason and revelation has more than a slight integralist ring to it. Strange then that he didn’t make mention of one of, if not the only, integralist game in town (at least in English): The Josias. Although some of its pieces have been more than a tad bit controversial, it is neither in the pages of FT nor even the more radical reflections associated with outlets like Ethika Politka that one is likely to find Catholic principles espoused by authentically Catholic thinkers against any and all hopes of “keeping the peace” between Catholicism and (post)modern liberalism. The integralist turn is nothing new, mind you. It is simply a continuation and deepening of a more militant Catholic spirit, one that became absolutely necessary in the wake of 1789 before petering out about 50 years ago.

McGinley’s final paragraph acknowledges that his call (an integralist call?) “may seem unrealistic—extravagant, even.” Perhaps. That this call can be heard from 35 East 21st Street in New York rather than, say, a seminary in Econe, Switzerland is certainly astonishing . . . and long overdue.