The New Integralists

What they get wrong, and why we can’t ignore them
Bernard Picart, the banner of the Goa Inquisition by the Portuguese, 1722 (Wellcome/Wikimedia Commons)

 

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Just three years after the closing of the Second Vatican Council, in 1968, the prominent French theologian Fr. Louis Bouyer published a searing analysis of the battles already raging over its legacy. Bouyer did not write as an enemy of the council: he had played a key role in its deliberations and remained one of its staunch defenders. But he hoped that The Decomposition of Catholicism would serve as a warning, and in it he disclosed the greatest threat he saw facing the Church: a violent conservative reaction to the sometimes chaotic, flawed implementation of the council’s reforms. Bouyer admonished fellow advocates of those reforms that unless they found more persuasive ways of situating them within the sweep of Catholic history, then well-meaning believers, unable to recognize their Church, would turn to dangerous forms of traditionalism. He labeled this threat “integralism,” highlighting its “absolutization of authority,” “petrifying of tradition,” and nostalgic longing for the Church to wield political power as it did in the Christendom of old.

It’s now undeniable that Bouyer’s warning was prophetic. The most recent confirmation of this came in March with the publication of Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy by Fr. Thomas Crean, an English Dominican, and Alan Fimister, who teaches theology and Church history at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Colorado. The manual gives systematic, book-length expression to a set of reactionary political and theological ideas that have been promoted by right-wing Catholic intellectuals with growing frequency in recent years—ideas nearly identical, down to the very name “integralism,” to those Bouyer predicted would take hold in the Church.

The book should alert a complacent Catholic theological establishment that ideas once thought dead and buried are resurgent. Integralism clearly breaks with Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty and expresses a commitment to the political disenfranchisement (or worse) of women, sexual minorities, and non-Catholics. That might tempt some to dismiss the book as hopelessly “illiberal” or “outdated,” confident that others will react with the same justified horror—a response that Bouyer anticipated. “Such a reaction is no threat to us,” he imagined these skeptics saying about integralism. “It has become impossible.” But he insisted that this attitude only plays into the hands of reactionaries. It leaves their claims to represent Catholic tradition unchallenged, and it ignores the appeal integralism has to younger Catholics searching for meaning amid the shallowness of modern life. Instead, integralism can only be defeated on theological grounds—by offering a deeper, more expansive narrative of Catholic political thought to counter integralism’s bold but unjustified claims to authenticity.

 

Integralist intellectuals offer a strident critique of the dominant political ideology of the United States and Western Europe, which they call “liberalism.”

Integralism has already established itself as a force on the contemporary Catholic Right. This might come as a surprise to some—in part because integralist ideas circulate most widely online or in traditionalist media, outside establishment channels. The resurgence of these ideas owes much to Cistercian monk Fr. Edmund Waldstein’s efforts to popularize them on the website the Josias, though since 2016 integralist arguments have also appeared with growing frequency in influential conservative publications such as First Things and American Affairs. Several prominent Catholics with enviable media platforms, elite credentials, and, at the very least, a complex relationship with Trump-style politics have become its standard bearers: Adrian Vermeule, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard; Gladden Pappin, a political theorist at the University of Dallas and the assistant editor of American Affairs; and Sohrab Ahmari, an opinion editor for the New York Post. If these intellectuals give integralism notoriety and immediate political relevance, perhaps more concerning are the young Catholics sympathetic to their ideas who can be found not just on the internet but at seminaries, liberal-arts schools, and parishes throughout the country. 

Despite this newfound prominence, integralism remains in search of a concrete political and social vision. It’s not that integralism can’t be defined in abstract terms. Integralist intellectuals offer a strident critique of the dominant political ideology of the United States and Western Europe, which they call “liberalism.” In place of liberalism’s supposedly neutral procedural arrangements, integralists hold that a just society should promote a particular, Catholic vision of the “common good.” They do not aim to pursue a Catholic agenda within pluralistic societies that defend religious freedom and other liberal rights, but to dictate the very terms in which the public square is understood. Their ultimate hope is to create “integral” Catholic regimes that “subordinate” temporal government to the spiritual authority of the Church.

The integralists’ sweeping rhetoric about the dangers of “liberalism,” however, can license almost any political project that promises to combat it. Such vagueness seems intentional. Relying on concepts like the “common good” helps conceal the specific commitments integralists actually have, and terms like “subordinate” leave vague the measures required to realize their ideal confessional state. This strategy has allowed integralism to function as a kind of Catholic veneer for authoritarians like Trump or Viktor Orbán, but it could just as easily be invoked to support even more brazen brutality. In the medieval regimes integralists admire, the “common good” or the “subordination of the temporal to the spiritual” sometimes entailed burning heretics at the stake and putting Jewish people into ghettos. Most integralists sidestep these dark possibilities by suggesting “prudence” would temper their efforts; occasionally, however, the mask slips. In a 2018 essay in First Things, Fr. Romanus Cessario, OP, used integralist reasoning to defend Pope Pius IX’s nineteenth-century kidnapping of a Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized by his nurse—Edgardo Mortara deserved a Catholic education, after all. 

These ambiguities, along with the difficulty of piecing together from occasional essays, social-media posts, podcast episodes, and offbeat websites what contemporary integralists actually hope to achieve, make Crean and Fimister’s Integralism especially useful to consider. Here at last is a book-length exposition of integralism, one that promises to answer these questions and more. 

 

Before getting to Integralism’s startlingly reactionary content, however, the problem of its form needs to be addressed. The book is modeled after the “manual,” the genre favored by authors of nineteenth-century theology textbooks. While this form of organization has its advantages—the summaries in the form of short “theses” at the end of each chapter are quite helpful—it is first and foremost a symbolic act. By adopting the genre, Crean and Fimister reject the style of theology associated with the Second Vatican Council, which famously began as a reaction against the often dry, ahistorical, and rationalist theology of the manuals. But more fundamentally, the archaic language and the return to this older genre is an attempt to channel authority. Neoscholastic manuals are structured around a claim to present a rigorous, deductive “system” that should compel assent. A manual does not set forth the personal views of its authors; it is a synthesis of authoritative magisterial and theological sources. Thus, while Crean and Fimister eschew any claim to originality in the book’s acknowledgements, this ostensible gesture of humility is a subtle power play. It implies that the manual “merely” relays ecclesial authority, which cannot ultimately be questioned.

The choice of genre, then, performs the book’s thesis: that the Catholic Church’s teachings on politics form an organized system—integralism—rooted in principles that are authoritatively promulgated by the magisterium and have remained unchanged through the ages.

This attempt to cut through the messiness of Catholic tradition with the sword of authority conveys a unanimity that never really existed. It can only be sustained by removing the figures Crean and Fimister cite as authorities from the vigorous disputes in which they participated, disputes that sometimes pitted these authorities against one another. For example, Crean and Fimister scarcely acknowledge how the theories of Pope Gregory VII or Robert Bellarmine were shaped by their polemical context, or that the fierce debates among scholastics on political questions were precisely that: debates. They downplay the distinction between patristic and medieval political thought, and minimize the differences between the views of the great Jesuit theorists and the reactionary political statements of nineteenth-century popes.

Crean and Fimister fail to grasp that demonstrating the coherence of the Catholic tradition cannot take the form of a “mere” manual. Accounting for historical context and genuine differences across time is always a creative act, requiring an interpretation of what is essential and what can change. The attempt to find a lowest common denominator shared across the whole Catholic tradition, like Crean and Fimister’s (not so) minimal “integralism,” is itself a private judgment that can be disputed. Moreover, the unity of Catholic history may not lie on the level of explicit theory. The Jesuit John Courtney Murray, who knew Thomas Aquinas and Bellarmine far better than Crean and Fimister, argued that the continuity of Catholic political thought could be found not in some unchanging master theory but in a golden thread running through what can seem like quite different theories: the defense of the libertas ecclesiae (the liberty of the Church). Seemingly opposed proposals, such as the direct power of the papacy over emperors and modern notions of religious liberty, when situated in a larger story, can be read as motivated by a common purpose—the attempt to protect the Church from totalizing temporal powers, using the conceptual tools available at the time.

The deep irony of what Crean and Fimister have attempted is that the manual, like the idea that scholasticism is a “system,” is a thoroughly modern notion. Aquinas did not write manuals; in his greatest works, his preference was for the disputatio, which does not present a timeless, completed system, but rather proceeds by genuinely responding to objections and frankly grappling with conflicting authorities. Nothing could be further from the distinctly modern anxiety found in Integralism about the dialectical nature of tradition, with its conflicts, developments, and even reversals.

 

Crean and Fimister’s book is best read, then, not as the authoritative channel of tradition that it pretends to be, but as a narrative—one possible story of Catholic political history. Following Augustine, they identify the heart of this drama as the struggle between the City of God and the City of Man. However, whereas Augustine thought this struggle ran through every human heart and every social order, Crean and Fimister largely narrate it as the establishment, and then eclipse, of Christendom. They interpret the “social kingship of Christ” to mean that a just social order cannot exist unless political regimes acknowledge Christ’s authority, place their temporal power at the disposal of the spiritual power, and become provinces of a united Christendom. Christendom is “the temporal aspect” of the Church, given flesh with Constantine’s conversion, a permanently valid norm rather than a contingent set of arrangements. For them, the modern Church, without Christendom and its temporal sword, is like “a soul separated from the body.”

The most disturbing aspect of the story “Integralism” tells involves the fate of those who are essentially written out of its narrative: non-Catholics, women, and all those who don’t fit the patriarchal family model.

Crean and Fimister believe that although integralist doctrine has mostly languished in obscurity since the Second Vatican Council, the day will come when the Church will “call for it anew.” That’s how their story ends: with the Church reclaiming her rights, taking up the sword of temporal power once again, and wielding it against her enemies. This story is only presented in bits and pieces—after all, Integralism is a manual, not an epic. But a vision of what the world should look like, if the story of a once and future Christendom is the only true one, does emerge. When that vision is subjected to closer inspection, however, it falls apart. The manual’s topically arranged chapters outline an idiosyncratic and deeply reactionary vision of social order, driven more by nostalgia for the ancien régime than loyalty either to theological authorities or the Church’s magisterium.

The book might be roughly divided into two sections. The first few chapters are dedicated to developing the key concepts that structure this order: society, the common good, the family, servitude, and authority. Even at this foundational level, though, the illusion of an unchanging consensus faithful to Catholic tradition quickly breaks down. Crean and Fimister are forced to admit in the very first chapter that although they see the City of God as a single, all-embracing society, including within itself what we would today call “Church and state,” their beloved Pope Leo XIII and other modern ecclesial authors speak in terms of two societies, not one. Furthermore, their emphasis in the next chapter on the political role of patriarchal families requires them to follow the Protestant theologian Robert Filmer, rather than the great Catholic political theorists of the Counter-Reformation who rejected his theories. Perhaps most shocking of all is their deep hostility to popular sovereignty (the notion that the authority of rulers is derived from the consent of the political community). Here they find themselves at odds with a central pillar of the entire Thomistic tradition of political thought, from Aquinas himself to Suarez and Bellarmine.

Later chapters begin to sketch out the contours of a just regime, covering topics ranging from the distribution of power between ecclesial and temporal authorities to the best constitutional configuration to international law and economic theory. Crean and Fimister’s ideal is a hereditary monarch who has declared his kingdom officially Catholic and sworn fealty to the pope, submitting to the Church on spiritual matters while punishing those who violate natural law or disrespect the true religion. Once again, however, the manual often borrows from sources that are far from traditional. For example, Crean and Fimister explicitly disagree with Aquinas and Bellarmine by favoring hereditary over elective monarchy as the best regime, and their idea that the right to private property is “proportionate to” human nature owes more to John Locke than to Aquinas. 

This approach to property rights reflects the manual’s odd libertarian streak, smuggled in from modern Anglo-American conservatism. In addition to jarringly positive citations of Ronald Reagan, Roger Scruton, and Robert Nozick, Crean and Fimister show a surprising interest in conservative preoccupations like corporate personhood and immigration restrictions. But those aren’t the only cases of their deference to magisterial authority proving to be mere lip service. They also deny Pope Francis’s authority to declare capital punishment “inadmissable,” and they can only manage to ignore the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious liberty through a hermeneutical sleight of hand. In short, Crean and Fimister have produced a deeply personal synthesis, one which often follows Protestant thinkers or early modern political theory rather than mainstream Catholic sources, and one that plays fast and loose with magisterial authority when convenient.

The most disturbing aspect of the story Integralism tells involves the fate of those who are essentially written out of its narrative: non-Catholics, women, and all those who don’t fit the patriarchal family model. Crean and Fimister openly state that Jews, atheists, and all non-Catholics will be denied citizenship and voting rights. They will be forbidden to proselytize, while polytheistic religions will be banned (along with, the manual insinuates, Islam). Protestant ministers will not be tolerated, and heretics can be put to death. Women, unless they are heads of households, will not be allowed to vote and may work outside the home only with the permission of their husbands, by whom they are governed and to whom they must offer sex whenever requested. Sexual minorities fare no better. Cohabiting couples and those born out of wedlock can be disenfranchised, and a footnote implies (with a reference to an obscure Latin text) that the execution of some LGBTQ people may promote the salvation of souls. It should not be totally surprising, then, that the manual also insists that permanent and even hereditary slavery can be “a potentially valid legal relationship” in certain circumstances.

 

If these conclusions are rightly offensive to our “modern” and “liberal” sensibilities, they are most fundamentally a theological error, a distortion of the Gospel. Integralists have forgotten “the one thing necessary” (Luke 10:42); they ultimately misrepresent the Catholic tradition because they misrepresent Christ, the crucified victim. Abstracting away Christ’s body and his concrete history, they forget that his Lordship is manifest in service, and that his victory is accomplished in the powerlessness of the Cross. Christ is undoubtedly a king, and the Church he founded inevitably manifests as a political presence that challenges all other lords. But Christ’s “form”—the shape of his life, death, and resurrection—must be allowed to reshape our notions of kingship and the political. Integralists, like Christ’s disciples before the Resurrection, think they already know what his reign will and must look like, and this presumption means they fail to truly recognize him, turning him into nothing other than the capstone of another hierarchy, the authorization for one more Inquisition.

The distortions that follow from their failure to recognize Christ’s form are exemplified by their treatment of the Eucharist. Citing a French law that made the desecration of the Eucharist a capital offense, they turn the very embodiment of Christ’s self-giving love into an occasion for coercive power. Similarly, their tendentious interpretation of Luke 22 turns Christ’s final meal with his disciples into a discourse on integralism. Ignoring Christ’s insistence that leadership should take the form of service, not mastery (Luke 22:25–26), and his rebuke of a disciple for wielding a sword (Luke 22:51), they conclude that the Lord “instructed the disciples to obtain the means of temporal coercion.” To buttress this claim, they twist the very temptation in which Christ refused the Devil’s offer of the kingdoms of the world into an argument for confessional states.

These exegetical perversities should serve as a warning: those whose imaginations have not been remolded by Christ’s crucified body will inevitably abuse Scripture and disfigure his ecclesial body, putting them in service of the libido dominandi, the lust for domination that animates the powers of this world.

Not all integralists would go as far as Crean and Fimister and embrace such brutal punishments for non-Catholics and sexual minorities—although it’s disturbing that even those proposals will find a ready audience. But despite potential disagreements about particular claims in the manual, there is still a very real danger that too many young Catholics, genuinely seeking a sense of identity and belonging, will follow a similar trajectory if they are convinced doing so is the price of orthodoxy. For them, integralism fills a void left by homilies and catechesis that are ignorant of Catholic history, or that do little more than put a religious gloss on trendy causes. 

This is why Bouyer was right that it’s not enough to merely wave away integralism as retrograde: its appeal lies precisely in the ownership it takes of a centuries-long story of emperors and popes, mystics and saints. The integralists’ claim to be the authentic voice of “tradition” is unwittingly affirmed when the alternatives seem to suggest, as William Cavanaugh has wryly put it, that by “some terrible mistake of the Holy Spirit” Catholic political history took “a long detour in the fourth century,” a dark age that lifted only with the dawn of Vatican II. That kind of story concedes integralism’s monopoly on the past, allowing its selective and ahistorical pastiche of authorities to substitute for real engagement with Catholic tradition in its full depth, breadth, and complexity. 

A better approach is to make clear that the integralists’ problem is not too much tradition, but not enough—that they are depriving their followers of the richness and depth of Catholic political thought, not least in their superficial treatments of the Second Vatican Council. To take only one example, there are several theological accounts of recent teaching on religious liberty that are more robust than anything offered by integralists: looking to the patristic period, Joseph Ratzinger sees Dignitatis humanae as a “recovery of the deepest patrimony of the Church”; John Courtney Murray points to precursors in the thought of medieval figures like Aquinas and narrates the council’s teaching as the latest act in the ongoing drama of the libertas ecclesiae; and Cavanaugh sees in Christendom an important reminder of the significance of the Church as a political body, while simultaneously welcoming Vatican II’s clarification that it does not take the same coercive form as worldly powers.

Those alarmed by the rise of integralism need to draw on such resources and offer a different political story, one that is both more compelling and more fully Catholic. This story acknowledges those parts of the past that are binding and authoritative without embarrassment, but also recognizes historical context and complexity, development and reversal. While faithful to Vatican II, it reaches back to previous centuries to trace the work of God through flawed and holy men and women, and it urges the Church to return again and again to her sources, confident they still have something to teach us. This is the story of a Church not too triumphalist to repent of its sins, confident that it is sustained by the Spirit that, while ever new, continues to make visible the same Christ.

A generation of younger Catholics are among the many believers hungry for this kind of story. They deserve better than the cheap substitute being peddled by integralists. 

Integralism
A Manual of Political Philosophy

Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister
Editiones Scholasticae
$32 | 290 pp.

Published in the November 2020 issue: 

Timothy Troutner is a doctoral student in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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