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.
A Manual of Political Philosophy
Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister
$32 | 290 pp.