At the 1867 universal exposition in Paris, the Papal State chose to be represented by a catacomb. It was a time when the papacy, which had already lost the majority of the Papal State and would also lose Rome in 1870, was apocalyptic about the future of the church in the modern world. At the same time, the Catholic laity were entering a new age of mobilization and engagement with that same world, with the encouragement of the Catholic hierarchy, which knew it had lost much of its direct influence on modern society. Today, during Pope Francis’s pontificate, we see something like the opposite situation: a pope who preaches “the joy of the Gospel” and has little time for nostalgia, and a rising cohort of Catholic intellectuals (a minority in the church, but especially active in the United States) who are looking forward to the nineteenth century.
The debates in conservative and traditionalist circles in the English-speaking church—and in the United States particularly—provide a stark contrast to this pontificate’s view of the relationship between the church and the modern world. Some rather musty theological isms are once again circulating. There is, for example, a new wave of ultramontanism that looks to an idealized conception of Rome for its points of reference. There is also a related resurgence of “integralism,” inspiring conferences at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard. The new integralism takes a step beyond the more tentative Catholic post-liberalism, or the simple proclamation of the crisis of liberal Catholicism. Integralism is the attempt to imagine for the Catholic Church—but also for the world in which the church lives—a future that rejects the “liberal” separation between temporal and spiritual power, and subordinates the former to the latter.
According to Sacramentum Mundi (first published between 1968 and 1970, and now available online—its general editor was Karl Rahner, SJ) integralism is
the tendency, more or less explicit, to apply standards and directives drawn from the faith to all the activity of the Church and its members in the world. It springs from the conviction that the basic and exclusive authority to direct the relationship between the world and the Church, between immanence and transcendence, is the doctrinal and pastoral authority of the Church.
Here one can detect a subtle difference between the classic definition of integralism and its twenty-first-century variety. This new strain is focused almost exclusively on the political realm. In fact, what it resembles most is another phenomenon of nineteenth-century Catholic culture: intransigentism—the belief that any concession to, or accommodation with, the modern world endangers the faith. Unlike mere conservatism, which values elements of the past and seeks to preserve them, intransigentism rejects the modern outright and preemptively. This has consequences for the theological thinking of Catholics who today call themselves integralists, traditionalists, and ultramontanists. For these Catholics, the past sixty years—and especially Vatican II—either do not matter at all or matter only if they can be interpreted as a confirmation of the church’s past teaching. This is, among other things, a misreading of what Pope Benedict XVI had to say about continuity; while he stressed the continuity of the church itself as a single subject extended throughout history, that does not necessarily mean that all doctrine remains constant. Church documents that are key to understanding how the theological tradition works in the Catholic Church, especially the four constitutions of Vatican II (for example, Dei verbum on Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium), are not really part of the culture of this intransigent worldview. Typically, this theological culture reads the conciliar declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, as if it were perfectly in accord with the church’s previous teaching on that topic.