Some Thoughts on The Keepers

Less is being made of the new Netflix murder-drama spectacle The Keepers than I had anticipated. After the rousing success of Making a Murderer and, prior to that, the podcast Serial, I had assumed that The Keepers would become the talk around the water cooler at thousands of offices across the country. Apparently not. That is not to say that there hasn’t been some discussion of the miniseries’ contents. The graphic depictions of sexual abuse on teenage girls at a Baltimore Catholic school in the 1960s are as difficult to overlook as they are to stomach. Personally, following the grotesque revelations made in episodes 2 and 3, I had to hit pause on the show lest I find myself overtaken by irrational anticlericalism. Yes, I am well aware that the abuse accounts contained in the series are a gross exception, not the general rule, but acknowledging that fact does not relieve the burning sense of betrayal all Catholics should feel when presented with evidence of priests who violate all standards of decency and care in pursuit of their vile desires.

Like any expose of the Catholic Church, there are points where The Keepers tries to exaggerate the extent of secrecy, malfeasance, and general vice within the Church. There are, naturally, stories of people losing (or, rather, abandoning) their faith because of the abuse that went on, and the “hero” of the story—Sister Catherine Cesnik, who was murdered because she was apparently prepared to expose the abuse scandal in 1969—was a “hip” nun who had been granted permission to live outside of the cloister sans habit prior to her death. (It is hard to not shake the feeling that if she had remained living with her order rather than a mid-grade apartment complex, she might still be alive.)

Beyond the tales of abuse, corruption, and cover-ups galore, The Keepers provides an indirect, but interesting, snapshot of Catholic life during the reforms following the Second Vatican Council. While the image of Catholicism as it appeared in decades prior is still present, there is a noticeable shift in attitude among some of those interviewed about what it meant to be Catholic. For instance, one interviewee, an ex-Jesuit priest, had at one point proposed marriage to Sister Catherine just prior to his ordination and before she was to take her final vows. He was unashamed in his recollection that he had grown to love her; and though she apparently talked him into fulfilling his vocation, it didn’t “take” as they say. Like so many priests and religious after Vatican II and the laicization of the Church, he opted to abandon his calling, perhaps no longer seeing any “value” to it.

As the series proceeds, it’s hard not to notice the shift in aesthetics and tone that are presented over the decades. Well-adorned temples that had been standing for more than a century give way to barns decked out with modernist statuary surrounding priests vested in horse blankets presiding over an emaciated rite. One of the abuse victims, up until her grueling trial of attempting to get the Diocese of Baltimore to take action against the priest who repeatedly raped her, boasted of her involvement in the Church, complete with serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” of the Eucharist. Now, however, the unconsecrated fingers that once held the Body of Christ have been washed of all dealings with the Catholic Church. There was, in her mind, nothing left for the Church to give in exchange for everything some of its priests had taken from her decades ago.

In addition to the abuse accounts themselves, nothing is more chilling in the series than the descriptions of how these perverted clerics used the confessional to their advantage. Without compunction, these priests excommunicated themselves by violating the sacred seal of Confession in order to manipulate their victims into submitting to their carnal desires. While the abuses detailed in The Keepers are undoubtedly excessive, they do call to mind the more general problem of how clerics can use confession to inflict psychic and emotional harm on others, all in the name of being their “spiritual fathers.” Rather than dispensing God’s infinite mercy, they seek to aggrandize themselves by micro-managing the souls entrusted to their care, often leading them not to virtue but to emotional confusion and spiritual despair.

It is difficult for me to recommend The Keepers to everyone. Those who have suffered some form of abuse, regardless of the source, will find the graphic depictions contained in the miniseries difficult to stomach. Those already inclined to blame the Catholic Church for so many of the evils in this world will probably find the series to be little more than a confirmation of all of their prejudices. Even faithful Catholics might be so put off by what unfolds during the documentary that they may begin to question their place in the Church generally. Heaven forbid. However, despite its flaws and occasional biases, The Keepers should remind us that the Church is both a divine and very human institution. It is not, by virtue of its divine establishment, immune from satanic machinations and the corroding power of sin. Its history is one riddled with crises, both moral and doctrinal. While it may be difficult to acknowledge that, particularly in a day and age when “religion” is believed to be either outdated or representative of little more than easygoing sentimentality for the “spiritual,” there’s no good reason to look away from that reality, either.

How Not to Convert the Russian Orthodox

The following is an excerpt from a translated article by Fr. Sergey Golovanov, a Russian Greco-Catholic priest concerning the 1920 Jesuit mission to Istanbul, Turkey. The full text can be read over at the Holy Unia web-log here. (Thanks to Fr. Athanasius McVay for bringing it to my attention.)

In 1920, the superior general of the Society of Jesus ordered Fathers Baille, Jansseand, and Tyszkiewicz to go to Georgia. The war prevented the Jesuit missionaries from reaching their goal and stopped them in Istambul, where there were many thousands of Russian refugees. All Russians felt anxious and feared an attack by the Bolsheviks or extradition back to Soviet Russia. With the cooperation of the occupational administration of the Entente, the Jesuits organized relief action among Russians. Lois Baille, SJ, founded St. George’s Residential School for orphans. He appointed a Russian Latin-rite priest, Sipiagin, as director of the school. Sipiagin came from a family with mixed Russian-Polish origins. He was enthusiastic about the Latin rite and Western culture. Stanislas Tyszkiewicz, SJ, set up a hostel for Russian proselytes. He taught the Catholic Catechism. The proselytes passed an examination after several months, repudiated Orthodoxy, made a profession of Catholic faith and communicated at a Latin-rite Mass. The Jesuits stimulated the transit of Russians into the Latin rite. Tyszkiewicz enrolled paid secret informers among Russians to control the situation. He had many secret contacts with persons among the Orthodox intelligentsia and suggested making conversion to Catholicism a condition of any financial help. Many Russians angrily rejected the unbecoming proposals of Tyszkiewicz. Fr. Sergiy Bulgakov was disappointed in Catholicism after the meeting with Tyszkiewicz: the great universal idea of St. Peter’s ministry boiled down to mere proselytism. Tyszkiewicz was a Pole by origin and wrote many articles under the Russian pseudonym, Serge Bosforoff, where he called on Russians to convert to the Roman Catholic Church. He used the emigrants who received charitable help for his own purposes. He wrote a provocative «Open letter of the Thirty Russian Catholics to Orthodox Metropolitan Anastasiy Gribanovskiy», and used the names and signatures of those Russian people whom he had aided. This scandalous action compromised the idea of Catholicism among Russian intellectuals, who had sympathized with it earlier in the spirit of the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev.

In 1922, Fr. Gleb Verhovskiy came to Istanbul at the direction of the Oriental Congregation. He set himself at variance with Tyszkiewicz owing to such improper methods of missionary activity and urged the conservation of Byzantine-rite status for all Russian proselytes. The Jesuits made Fr. Verhovskiy’s situation very moral uncomfortable, and obliged him to leave Istanbul.

The most scandalous action committed by Tyszkiewicz involved sending a group of Russian young people to study in France and Belgium with stipendiums from the Catholic Church. Tyszkiewicz came from a very aristocratic family, and normally tended to give excessive importance to other aristocrats. He appointed a former courtier and aristocrat, Nikolay Burdukov, as a curator of the group. All the Russian settlement in Istanbul was scandalized and moved to laughter by this appointment. Nikolay Burdukov was famous in high society as a sodomite with the telling alias «princess Mescherskaya.

I’m quoting this article excerpt on Opus Publicum for three reasons.

First, despite what the situation may be today, this debacle serves as an important illustration of just how poorly the Society of Jesus often handled its encounters with non-Catholic Eastern Christians, particularly the Orthodox. Rather than respect their traditional rites and spiritual patrimony, they frequently attempted to foist a particular brand of Latin Catholicism on their would-be proselytes, which did very little to win much sympathy toward unity with the Catholic Church. Compare this with the missionary efforts of Blessed Bishop Mykola Charnetsky and other Redemptorists working in Ukraine to bring the Orthodox back into the Catholic fold. Rather than attempt to equate “Latinism” with “Catholicism,” they adopted the form of the Byzantine Rite in use among the Russian Orthodox in the hopes of demonstrating that to be Catholic does not not mean sacrificing one’s authentic traditions.

Second, there was genuine interest among certain segments of late 19th/early 20th century Russian society for unity with Rome. After seeing how the Russian Orthodox Church had become little more than a handmaid of the Russian Imperial state, only Rome proved to be a truly independent ecclesiastical force working in the world; standing up to the onslaughts of liberalism; and refusing — at least until the 1960s — to forego the social rights of Christ the King in favor of a “safe compromise” with secular powers. Even Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who eventually became a fierce critic of certain Latin Catholic doctrines, was interested in joining the Catholic Church after his exile by the Soviets, though clearly that never came to pass.

Last, there are far too many (traditional and some conservative) Latin Catholics today who seem to think that the Church should approach the Orthodox in a manner not dissimilar from the Jesuits recounted above. Given the suspicion in which many of the Orthodox now hold the Catholic Church, coupled with the Latin Church’s demolition of its liturgical patrimony, that’s never going to work. Yes, some individual Orthodox priests and laity do choose to unite themselves with Rome, but often only after wading through a great deal of nonsense. (Those fortunate enough to have access to a Greco-Catholic parish tend to have an easier time of it.) This is why true ecumenical dialogue — understood as a necessary step toward re-unification — is neither a waste of time nor a betrayal of the Catholic Faith. Before unity can become a reality, centuries of misunderstandings and political animosity have to be swept away. While Catholics — Latin or Greek — should continue to witness  to their estranged Orthodox brethren and never compromise the Faith, they should do so with patience and charity. In other words, don’t follow the historic lead of the Jesuits.

Some Comments on a (Liturgical) Tweet

Yesterday, in a moment of mild exacerbation over—yes—something I read on the Internet, I tweeted out the following: “I remain astonished that there are people out there deeply devoted to private revelations and yet don’t pray the Psalms.” (In retrospect, I probably should have just said “private devotions” generally.) Thankfully, no one took my remark as a knock against devotion to Our Lady of Fatima (a devotion I hold and have recently defended). My point (to the extent one can have a “point” in a tweet) was to express a real perplexity over present day devotional priorities, one which I admit likely plays into certain Protestant-based narratives about the Scriptural ignorance of Catholics and the absence of a surefire Biblical foundation to the Catholic Faith. Then again, on that matter, Protestants aren’t entirely wrong. Catholic Biblical literacy is probably as poor as it has ever been since the advent of the printing press; just because people own Bibles doesn’t mean they read them. Further, given the extent to which the ideologically charged “findings” of “objective Biblical science” have penetrated Catholic Scriptural exegesis and preaching (“The words the second-century author of the Gospel we attribute to John placed on the lips of Johannine community’s conception of the Jesus who rose in their hearts…”), I long for the days when the Biblical text had to be copied-out by hand—in Greek or Latin, safe from the raw idiocy of armchair exegetes.

But in many ways that’s a separate matter from the one which caught my attention, namely the sure and steady replacement of the Church’s public prayer (appropriated, I should add, from the public prayer of the pre-Christian Jews) with devotions which often have less than half-a-millennium of history behind them. No doubt the reasons for this phenomenon are complex, particularly in the Latin Church where the Divine Office has all but disappeared from parish life despite the greater “accessibility” of the rather problematic Liturgy of the Hours. Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite do a noticeably better job of things, though restoring Matins or even the small hours (Terce and Sext) to regular usage has been a struggle for many Greco-Catholic parishes in the West. It’s difficult not to sympathize a tad bit with certain liturgical extremists who throw their hands up in the air when they see 30 minutes of para-liturgical devotions before morning Mass but no interest in reciting Prime in common.

It seems that there is a sense among too many Catholics that the Psalms, if not the Bible as a whole, “belong to the Church,” which by that they mean, “Belong to the priests.” It is the duty of the cleric to recite the Miserere, De Profundis, and Laudate Dominum de caelis; it is the reserve of the people to make novenas to the Sacred Heart and pray the Rosary.

Now, before the pitchforks and torches come out, let me make clear that I have nothing against para-liturgical and/or private devotions per se, particularly ones with as long and wonderful history as the Rosary. Moreover, I am not insensitive to the fact that for a significant portion of Christian history, most lay folk were illiterate and therefore depended largely on fairly simple, memorized prayers (Pater, Ave, and Gloria). Even as recently as the 17th and 18th centuries, St. Alphonsus and the members of the Redemptorist order sought to instruct the poor and uneducated faithful in meditative prayer so that they may draw closer to God in their everyday lives. Praise be. However, it should be recalled that before the spread of prayer books and increased literacy, the public recitation of the Divine Office was far, far more prevalent than it is today. It was not absent from the life of the Church—the whole Church—even if, arguably, it may have been kept at some distance from the laity.

Despite likely being in the minority, I am convinced that until the liturgical life of the Church is revived for the people of God (clerical and lay), the Church’s spiritual and physical health will not be restored. This has to mean more than just the Mass (Divine Liturgy), even if it is necessary to begin there. Christianity, particularly in the West, has been reduced to a “Sunday church,” and with regard to Catholicism in particular, liturgical observance is primarily thought of in terms of legal obligation rather than an integral part of a renewed life in Christ. And that must mean more than being present at the Eucharist; it must also mean standing in continuity with all God’s people throughout the millennia, giving praise and worship to God at the dawning of the day and the setting of the sun.

Lubac, Ressourcement, Preparing a Talk

One could say, from a certain point of view, that there are two kinds of theologians; some say: let us reread Scripture, Saint Paul, etc.; let us examine tradition; let us listen to the great classical theologians; let us not forget to pay attention to the Greeks; let us not neglect history; let us situate ourselves in this vast context and understand the ecclesiastical texts according to it; let us not fail, either, to inform ourselves about the problems, needs, and difficulties of today, etc.—The others say: let us reread all of the ecclesiastical texts of these last hundred years, encyclicals, letters, occasional speeches, decisions made against something or other, monita of the Holy Office, etc.; from all of that, without dropping any of it or correcting the least word, let us make a mosaic, let us push the thought a little farther, let us give to each assertion a stronger value; above all, let us not look at anything outside; let us not lose ourselves in the new research on Scripture or tradition or a fortiori on any recent ideas, which might make us relativize our absolute.—Only a theologian of the second type is considered to be “sure” in a certain milieu.

“Hoc non fundatur in documentis” [This is not based on the [ecclesiastical] documents]: I have heard that more than once. The conclusion to be drawn from it: it is not a sure doctrine; it is a doctrine that is advisable to dismiss, even if it has the support of Scripture and tradition. Only the ecclesiastical documents count, especially the most recent ones. The least words of these documents are received as absolute. In response to any objection against any particular idea or formula or one-sided phrase: “Ipsa verba desumpta sunt ex documentis; sunt in talibus litteris encyclisis; in tali oratione pontificali” [These expressions are taken from the ecclesiastical documents; they figure in some particular encyclical letter or other; in some pontifical discourse or other].” So no one can do anything any longer but submit.

There is in this a very excessive positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit—which could provoke as a reaction, among some, a contempt for all writing of the magisterium.

– Henri de Lubac, “September 30, 1961,” Vatican Council Notebooks, vol. 1 (Ignatius Press 2015), pp. 93-94.

In preparing for a panel talk based around Fr. Thomas Joseph White’s excellent First Things article, “Catholicism in an Age of Discontent,” I found myself skimming back through Fr. Henri de Lubac’s Vatican II notebooks, particularly his critical remarks concerning the so-called “Roman theologians.” It is generally expected that my contribution to the panel will be along traditionalist lines with the other two panelists defending (albeit with some possible reservations) the “new theology” and ressourcement (“return to the sources”) movement to which de Lubac belonged. Truth be told, I am not sure what “angle” I will take, or if I will even take one at all. For as White’s article itself makes clear, the story of pre-/post-Conciliar Catholic theology is not as simple as the polemicists of our age maintain. There is an undeniable childishness found in de Lubac’s description of his theological adversaries in the run-up to Vatican II; but that doesn’t make his description wholly inaccurate either. Today, there is a culture of “positivism of method and fundamentalism of spirit” found within certain traditional Catholic circles which cannot be dismissed lightly. At the same time, a nauseating triumphalism permeates the work of too many post-Conciliar theologians who wish to maintain the falsehood that Vatican II dogmatized the theological projects of a handful of men whose works were once eyed with understandable suspicion.

As a Greco-Catholic who has never had a high fondness for the excesses of manualism nor believes that the theology of the Church can be reduced to St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa and the commentarial tradition, I am not unsympathetic with de Lubac’s desire to take a broader view of the Church’s tradition, one built by the Greek and Syrian East just as it was built by the Latin West. However, as Fr. Peter Totleben observed in an old thread on a previous iteration of this web-log, one of the perils of ressourcement is the tendency for some to use this-or-that passage in a Church Father or two in order to perform an end-run around the settled magisterium of the Church. In the hands of unscrupulous souls, ressourcement becomes just another tool of dissent; it purports to uphold tradition while simultaneously tearing it down. Consider Elliot Milco’s words on the matter.

[T]here is an overall difficulty in the implications of the Ressourcement position for the proper approach to the Tradition as a whole.  If these new theologians are correct in claiming that the main threads of theological reflection as practiced over the past thousand years are largely fruitless and disposable, and that “authentic theology” needs to be recovered from some hidden trove where it has lain undiscovered in the writings of the Greek Fathers, then it becomes difficult to tell how one is supposed to perform this rediscovery.  Doesn’t one become a kind of highly-educated protestant?  Isn’t the entire function of the tradition between the Fathers and the Present that it has conveyed the former reliably to the latter together with all necessary clarifications and developments to render their testimony intelligible in the present time?  And what are we to make of the innumerable commendations by great Popes and Saints for this supposedly dry and barren mode of theological reflection?  Could it be that Ressourcement is just an excuse to abandon the Catholic tradition altogether, and reconstruct a new one according to one’s tastes and creative inclinations?

Of course, it is possible to warp Milco’s line of critique into an excuse to ignore Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the non-Latin patrimony of the Church—which, as noted, is a real problem for some traditional Catholics (though not for Milco himself). There is no obvious reason one can’t defend the Catholic renaissance of the 19th and early 20th centuries while drinking deeply from the theological orations of St. Gregory Nazianzus or the ascetical homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian. A Greco-Catholic should feel perfectly comfortable in joining Ukrainian Catholic Patriarch Cardinal Josyf Slipyj in studying the Angelic Doctor and seeing his theology as a bridge between East and West just as a Latin Catholic should see the same in the works of St. John Damascene. Why this broadmindedness seems so difficult to attain to in a day and age of unprecedented access to the Church’s vast intellectual and spiritual treasures isn’t entirely a mystery; ideological black boxes are safe havens. Noting that doesn’t make this closeminded reality any less unsettling, however.


As I have mentioned before, it is not uncommon for me to have recourse to the extensive archive of sermons by Fr. Patrick Reardon (Antiochian Orthodox) housed over at Ancient Faith Radio. While I wish I could say I keep up on them from week to week, the truth is that I often “binge” three or four, especially on long car rides. In a sermon entitled “The Danger is not an Armed Guard,” Reardon reflects on the Gospel of St. Mark in both its historical context and deeper theological meaning with respect to the Cross, Baptism, and the Eucharist. As those who follow the Byzantine Rite perhaps know, St. Mark’s Gospel is read throughout the Lenten season due to its emphasis on Christ’s Passion. It is a Gospel which was produced during a time of intense persecution in Rome and therefore places starkly before the reader (or listener) the cost of following Christ. To be baptized in the Lord, Reardon emphasizes, is to be baptized into his death; to accept the Chalice is to accept all that comes with it, including the pains of martyrdom. What should be obvious to all Christians is today obscured by the world, particularly our desire to be a part of it, to compromise, to find a “middle way” between the demands of secularism and liberalism and the law of God.

Reardon concludes his sermon by admonishing those who are ashamed to make the Sign of the Cross in public to not come up for Holy Communion. And if a person is embarrassed to stand firm for the Faith, particularly in the face of those who would denigrate it, then do not approach to kiss the Cross at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy—for it is the kiss of Judas.

In hearing this, I wondered to myself how many priests and bishops of any Apostolic confession would ever say such a thing, especially in the United States where it is “commonly understood” that one ought to check their “private religious convictions” when walking out the front door. It is not uncommon to find even conservative Catholic priests (and, no doubt, a very traditional ones) adhering to certain liberal doctrines which demand that Christians only express openly those beliefs which can be “squared with reason” or to only preach a Gospel evacuated of all eschatological import. American Christians, particularly Catholics, are so desperate for public recognition, for being “good Americans,” that they do not think twice about implicitly denying Christ when engaged in “discourse” or “dialogue” with non-Christians, including atheists, Jews, and Muslims. Catholics have been told for the past 50 years that they must see the “good fruits” and “laudable aspects” of these other pathways through life; mutual understanding, not conversion, is now the order of the day.

Aside from a handful of holy souls that walk among us, no one is left from the temptation to compromise, to turn away from our Lord publicly (“just a bit”) and be overtly pious behind closed church doors (“for all to see”). And how pathetic it all is. At this juncture, we do not fear prison, torture, and death. Rather, we are paralyzed by the thought of losing social recognition, a career advancement, or the companionship of a worldly friend.

As I write this, I find it fitting that tomorrow is the Sunday of the Paralytic according to the Byzantine Rite. This poor man waited to be placed into the Pool of Bethesda after the troubling of the waters before Christ cured him of his paralysis of 38 years (mine has lasted only 37). And what did this man do upon finding out it was Jesus who cured him? He proclaimed it to the Jews. He did not remain silent about the unmerited gift of physical healing our Lord bestowed upon him. But what do we say about the far greater gift of Baptism that has been given to us? What words do we speak about the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ? If the Paralytic was admonished by Christ after his physical curing to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you,” what awaits those of us who sin mightily after the curing of our souls? Do we fall down on our knees in Confession, seeking God’s infinite mercy, or do we continue denying Him by our public words and deeds while thinking that “popping in” for Sunday liturgy and partaking in its attendant rituals will lead us to a better end than the Iscariot?

Opus Publicum On The Move (Again)

Several months ago I made the imprudent decision to migrate my web-blogging efforts over to a personal site hosted by Squarespace. I had, at the time, bought into the hype about what Squarespace could deliver without taking account of my own limitations with regard to time and technical proficiency. Moreover, several complaints from longtime readers concerning the Squarespace site coupled with the fact that my pieces weren’t being “noticed” at anywhere near the same volume as the WordPress site convinced me that it was time to throw in the towel and return to my home.

I will, in due course, be migrating much of the content from the previous Squarespace site ( and will try, to the best of my abilities, to “get the word out” that is back in business.

I apologize for my flip-flopping on this and to those web-logs who have graciously updated their links with my various moves, your support has been appreciated.

Update: The posts from the Squarespace site have been migrated. Unfortunately, I am having trouble getting the “Comments” to turn on for all but the most recent posts.

For the time being, new posts will appear under this pinned post.

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.