Rod Dreher Doesn’t Understand Integralism

Rod Dreher has been a tear the past week writing about integralism. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to understand what integralism is. In his latest attempt to wade into waters which he has not properly scouted, Dreher declares that integralism “is a philosophy that would subjugate the state to the power of clerics.” This is a grossly misleading way to frame the integralist thesis, especially since just days earlier Dreher quotes from Pater Edmund Waldstein’s compact but thorough explanation of that thesis:

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.

Integralism, as can be seen from Waldstein’s definition, is not the clerical fascism that Dreher fears, and yet Dreher does nothing to correct his mishandling of the integralist thesis. Here is Dreher again:

I can easily imagine myself around 1998, as a younger Catholic, full of ardor and ideology, finding the clarity and logic of integralism appealing, but having spent years writing about the abuse scandal, and seeing how terribly clerics can screw things up—not because they’re clerics, but because they are human beings, and their ordination does not change that—there is no way on God’s green earth I would stand for an integralist regime. I say that mostly as someone who wants the Church to flourish. A church that has too much temporal power imperils itself in a different way from a church that it [sic] completely at the mercy of the secular state—but imperil itself it does.

No one denies that clerics “can screw things up,” but then again, so can secular politicians and the people who vote them into office. It happens all of the time. Still, this is beside the point. The real problem with Dreher’s panicky remarks is that they miss the point of integralism almost entirely. Integralism does not recommend that priests and bishops should be handed the reins of political power. Indeed, integralism keeps in clear view the distinction between the temporal and spiritual, recognizing in line with Church tradition that the spiritual only exercises indirect temporal authority while keeping the spiritual realm safe from temporal encroachment. This is not true in what appears to be Dreher’s preferred political model, Byzantine-style symphonia. Although symphonia contemplates a distinction between the temporal and the spiritual, the practical result in history is that the weaving of the two results in the spiritual becoming the handmaid of the temporal. Much of the history of the Byzantine Empire and, later, the Russian Empire attests to this lamentable problem.

Dreher’s scattered remarks implying that integralism would, among other things, give cover to clerics who sexually abuse children are beyond grotesque. Nowhere does Dreher point out how integralism provides cover to anyone—clerical, religious, or lay—who violates divine, natural, or rightly ordered civil law. Dreher’s casual juxtaposition of the sex-abuse crisis with his misguided remarks on integralism read as little more than a childish attempt to besmirch integralists in the mind of his audience. If anything, integralists, almost all of whom are conservative-to-traditional Catholics who routinely uphold classical moral teaching, would press for a legal and penal system that deals far more harshly with sex crimes than what we find under liberalism. Moreover, as staunch defenders of the priesthood’s dignity and the proper formation of seminarians, integralists are likely to champion strict screening procedures for candidates to the priesthood.

It is sad that Dreher, a man who frequently claims that he is misunderstood and read uncharitably by his critics, is content to treat integralism so thoughtlessly. As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, it is understandable that Dreher might have some reservations concerning integralism, especially since his chosen confession—as I have argued before—lacks a genuine integralist tradition. However, having reservations is no excuse for calumny. Dreher admits that The Josias is a solid repository of integralist thought. Perhaps he should take some more time to read it and read it carefully. Until then, it would behoove Dreher, as a Christian, to cease making irresponsible claims about integralism while misleading his readers into thinking that an integralist state would necessarily be rife with abuse, scandal, and the covering up of unspeakable crimes. No integralist state will be perfect and no integralist is promising paradise on earth. Rather, the integralist state can help order man toward his final goal, which is Heaven.



  1. 123
    January 17, 2018

    How does “the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power” not equate at least broadly with integralism being “a philosophy that would subjugate the state to the power of clerics”? It may be clear to those on the inside, but they are effectively synonymous to those of us on the outside with Waldstein’s phrase seeming studiously, politically vague.

    1. 123
      January 17, 2018

      If we are focusing on the practical results of integralism and symphonia – and you would seem to be arguing for what amounts to a “better-balanced” symphonia (that is still symphonia between distinct spheres) – then hasn’t integralism’s historic “practical results” been something more like what Dreher is describing, i.e., the temporal becoming the handmaid of the spiritual, the [subjugation of] the state to the power of clerics?

  2. 123
    January 17, 2018

    My reading of the quote from Dreher you provided is not that he thinks sexual abuse would flourish in an integralist state but that the assumption that the Church could properly order the state is faulty given his experience of the Church during the abuse scandal. I could agree the Church triumphant, the mystical Body of the Church rightly orders history for salvation, but one can be forgiven for doubting the ability of the institutional Church militant to so order society given the “practical results” of Church-dominated states in history.

    While “error has no rights” is a succinct slogan anyone can agree with in theory, “do unto others as you would have done to you” as better provenance and is the basis for religious tolerance not only by Catholics but of Catholics, too. Every faith – whether religious or secular – prefers “error has no rights” when they are in power; and they all prefer Christ’s command when they are facing the crucifixion he faced.

  3. jacopo
    February 9, 2018

    Dreher probably isn’t allowed to blog approvingly about any social order that conflicts with the interests of the anarcho-capitalist ghouls lurking within two degrees of separation from American Conservative’s masthead. The Benedict Option, of course, will be attractive for practical purposes if the anarcho-capitalists have their way dismantling government.

Comments are closed.