Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule has lately become an intellectual celebrity among reactionary Catholics in the United States. His reputation is due not only to an unusual talent for polemics and public debate, but also to a willingness, rare in elite academic circles, to passionately identify with the Christian faith. He does not compartmentalize or soft-pedal his Catholicism. Vermeule’s work has especially resonated in recent years because he has compellingly articulated a number of important truths about our current situation. He is critical of unrestrained capitalism and shallow materialism, and appeals instead to a politics of the common good. He’s an active—and frequently provocative—participant in the debates about the fate of “liberalism” that have followed the victories of right-wing populist movements both here and abroad.
Vermeule’s prominence in these debates has earned him his share of critics. It’s not uncommon to hear him described as a sophisticated, sometimes slippery defender of theocracy. If I, too, find myself troubled by Vermeule’s work, it’s not because he brings his Catholic faith to bear on contentious political debates. As someone who converted from an ardent atheism to Roman Catholicism over a decade ago while still a graduate student at Berkeley, I appreciate his attempts to draw from Church tradition while addressing high-level questions of political and legal theory. Even so, some of Vermeule’s work is seriously flawed, and some of his ideas are dangerous. And this is because his thinking is not Catholic enough.
Like many conservative converts to Catholicism, Vermeule seems to have been attracted to the supposed salvific political powers of the Roman Catholic Church. In a 2016 interview in First Things, he recounted abandoning a milquetoast Episcopalian faith after he realized there was “no stable middle ground between Catholicism and atheist materialism. One must always be traveling or slipping unintentionally, in one direction or the other.” If civilization was to be rescued from moral decline and collapse, the Church would lead the way. As he explained in a 2017 essay, the Catholic Church “serves as a kind of ark,” saving society from “the universal deluge of economic-technical decadence, and the eventual self-undermining of the regime.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Vermeule reveres such Catholic critics of liberalism as the philosopher Joseph de Maistre (who rejected the French Revolution in favor of monarchy) and the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt (who once proclaimed the Roman Church alone was politically capable of overcoming modern individualism). Vermeule seems to enjoy provoking members of the liberal intelligentsia by coyly advancing almost-forbidden ideas.
This gift for controversy was apparent in a manifesto Vermeule published in the Atlantic in March. There he recommended that conservatives abandon their longstanding originalist jurisprudence in favor of “common good constitutionalism.” His brief sketch of this legal theory mentioned tenets of Catholic social teaching such as subsidiarity and solidarity, but it also argued for the return of “hierarchies,” “rulers,” and “political domination.” When interpreting the common good, Vermeule later suggested, judges should defer to the executive branch and the “administrative state, within reasonable boundaries.” It all amounted to a case for vastly expanded presidential power, written against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies—and provided a glimpse of the formidable intellectual and political project Vermeule has undertaken since becoming Catholic.
The name for that project is “integralism,” and Vermeule has become its foremost defender in the United States. Integralism seeks to subordinate temporal power to spiritual power—or, more specifically, the modern state to the Catholic Church. Integralism doesn’t always fit easily into the prevailing categories of American politics, and can’t be reduced to the ethno-nationalism and Prosperity Gospel hucksterism so prevalent on the Right. Integralists do not usually fear-monger about immigrants the way many nationalist conservatives do, for example, because they portray themselves as loyal to the Church, especially the pope, not the flag. But as demonstrated in Vermeule’s Atlantic essay, integralism exists in a complex relationship with darker elements on the Right, and they overlap in two key ways: a fixation with reinstating “Christian values” via executive rule and a visceral disgust for the liberal tradition. In both cases, Vermeule has drawn deeply from Carl Schmitt’s work to support those positions.
Vermeule’s debt to Schmitt is no secret. In a 2017 First Things essay, “A Christian Strategy,” he praises Schmitt for grasping that “the universal jurisdiction and mission of the Church require it to be flexible in different places and times, willing to enter into coalitions that would be unthinkable for anyone with a merely political horizon.” Vermeule displays similar flexibility himself, drawing from Schmitt but adapting him to contemporary debates. Unlike Schmitt, he uses the prestige of the social sciences in order to advance his often tendentious ideological claims. (He’s not alone in that, a phenomenon I critically examine at length in my recent book, We Built Reality). Vermeule makes clear the need to replace Schmitt’s metaphysical obscurities with what he calls the “simple causal intuitions and models” of “the social sciences, including economics, law-and-economics, and political science.” It’s a sophisticated strategy of translating Schmitt’s authoritarianism into the sober findings of social-science research and the institutions of American democracy.
That strategy is seen in the way Vermeule adopts the central Schmittian doctrine of rule by supreme executive. Vermeule began to elaborate his view of executive power in the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In Terror in the Balance, published in 2007, Vermeule and his coauthor Eric Posner made a case for deferring to the president on policies that include “coercive interrogation” (i.e. torture), ethnic profiling, surveillance, military trials, and the indefinite detainment of enemy combatants. Vermeule and Posner stated their neutrality on practices like torture—at the time, Bush-administration policy—while insisting on the supposedly descriptive, social-scientific finding that the executive alone had “the resources, power, and flexibility to respond to threats to national security” in the age of terror. In their view, the consolidation of executive power was simply “natural” and “inevitable.” This was an excellent example of how intellectuals can provide a rationale for terrible abuses while avoiding any straightforward endorsement of them.
Vermeule and Posner’s defense of rule by executive was presented largely as a sociological fait accompli in their next book, The Executive Unbound (2010). There, instead of providing a standard ethnographic or empirical study of the modern state, they employed the methodology of law-and-economics pioneered at the University of Chicago, where they both taught. This approach depicts politics as a series of ideal game-theory scenarios and follows the economist Milton Friedman in assuming that social theory did not need to accurately describe reality per se. Such a methodology leaves researchers free to build abstract models of human behavior based on a few axioms of supposedly transcendental rationality. The result is a narrow vision of human beings as strategic, self-interested preference-maximizers.
Part of Vermeule and Posner’s case for a supreme executive is their assurance that it will not devolve into bald-faced tyranny. That sanguine view also rests on a methodological assumption: that as rational actors, executives will be checked by a strategic assessment of the game scenarios and “institutional mechanisms” facing them, such as popular opinion and elections. Vermeule and Posner claimed that a president, even if unchecked by other branches of government, is unlikely to veer into wanton falsehood or cruelty because he needs “credibility in order to persuade others that his factual and causal assertions are true and his intentions are benevolent.” For them, rational-choice theory justifies the astonishing assertion that an executive who is above the law will not abuse such power.
Schmitt’s influence on Vermeule is also evident in the latter’s invocation of the so-called crisis of liberalism. Vermeule often depicted this crisis as external to the state in his immediate post-9/11 writings; it was brought on by waves of terror, technological innovation, and globalization. But as his thinking developed, he began to present the crisis as internal to liberal states—the enemy within was liberalism itself. The idea that liberalism is beset by a constant condition of moral and spiritual emergency is a commonplace on the Right these days, but before its widespread currency, Vermeule spent years arguing that it was a factual finding of the social sciences. In his current integralist writings, the explanation for this crisis frequently takes one of two forms.
The first, more straightforward claim is that liberalism is destined to fail because it follows a deterministic process of decline. This is the view expounded in Vermeule’s 2018 essay “Integration from Within,” that “the progression...from one form of liberalism to another unfolds by logical dynamic, an inner necessity.” Vermeule often presents liberalism as being propelled by an “internal mechanism” of “relentless aggression,” a kind of moral avant-gardism that can never be satisfied, let alone reversed. For liberalism, he argues, “yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what.” He chastises conservatives like Ross Douthat for failing to acknowledge that liberal regimes always move in this direction.
This mechanistic conception of liberalism faces a problem similar to that of early orthodox Marxism. Culture and politics do not evolve according to predictable linear stages, but are the result of the creative agency of human beings. The history of liberalism is richer and more complex than its critics typically allow, and it can always take on new, unexpected meanings—as it certainly has in the United States. Liberalism should be thought of more like a literary genre, with new forms and innovations continually emerging.
Vermeule sometimes seems aware of this problem. In another 2018 essay, “Some Confusions about ‘Classical Liberalism,’ Progressivism, and Necessity,” he acknowledges that liberalism may not necessarily collapse. But after making this concession, he once again marshals the authority of the social sciences to insist that, while liberalism might not decline in fixed stages, it nevertheless has a “structural propensity” to collapse—which could happen at any moment.
This second defense of the crisis-of-liberalism thesis still requires that liberal politics be understood as taking a single, unified form—as opposed to a variety of forms possessing what Wittgenstein would call a “family resemblance” to one another. Establishing a fixed, ahistorical core to any ideology is a highly problematic endeavor, involving a deeply flawed philosophy of social science. But even if liberalism could be reduced to a set of timeless formulae, it would still need to be empirically demonstrated that it is essentially unstable.
To solve this problem, Vermeule has drawn on the work of the Polish social theorist Ryszard Legutko, who has characterized the inner essence of liberalism as a particular form of liturgy or religion. In this view liberalism is a kind of aggressively secular “Festival of Reason.” As Vermeule puts it: “liberalism is in fact a liturgy, centered on a sacramental celebration of the progressive overcoming of the darkness of bigotry and unreason.” Liberalism in all times and places, then, turns out to be the hidden worshipping of reason alone. This disordered form of worship generates defective social bonds and Jacobin-style outbursts of political terror directed at the unenlightened (or, as we might put it today, the un-Woke).
It should now be clear how the “crisis of liberalism,” in either of the two guises Vermeule has described, relates to his understanding of executive power. When Vermeule portrayed liberalism as imperiled by foreign enemies after 9/11, he tended to describe the resulting emergencies as cyclical and periodic. They could therefore be confronted only by an executive unfettered by the rule of law, one who can torture, racially profile, and indefinitely detain if necessary. The background to these post-9/11 writings was the frantic Islamophobia that convulsed the United States in those days, and Vermeule’s arguments from that period may be read as subtle efforts to justify the targeting of religious and racial others, especially foreign-born Muslims. But in his later writings, the emergency created by the supposed crisis of liberalism is more or less permanent because the enemy is within: American liberals and their allies. That crisis can be resolved only by a supreme executive and administrative state that inculcates Catholic morality, replacing liberalism’s disordered worship with genuine religion. Regime change now begins at home.
It’s not surprising that, in a country where Catholics are a minority, Vermeule does not expect his integralist regime to take power democratically; instead, it will have to be imposed from above—or rather, from within. In “Integration from Within,” he argues that Catholic integralists should endeavor to become the “elite administrators” who occupy “the commanding heights of the administrative state.” Once in such positions, they will deploy the lessons learned from “behavioral economics that agents with administrative control...may nudge whole populations in desirable directions.” As a Harvard law professor, Vermeule is well placed to train such an elite cadre and help them find positions in key American institutions. He tidily summarized this plan for regime change in a 2018 essay, “Ralliement,” as the “integral restoration of Christendom” via “executive-type bureaucracies.” As in the early Soviet Union, a vanguard assumes the burden of reeducating ordinary citizens. What this will look like in detail (for example, what happens to gay people or other nonconformists in such a regime) remains unsettlingly vague. This is most likely by design: Vermeule’s disciples can thus project their fantasies onto the blank canvas of a post-liberal utopia without him being on the hook for their cruel and wild imaginings. His integralism thus fuses sober, quasi-scientific analysis with the most extravagant wish-fulfillment.
Vermeule’s plan for regime change at home, however, is not just practically dubious, a recipe for destructive ideological crusading. It relies on premises that often clash with the Church’s basic theological and philosophical precepts. Take, for example, his heavy reliance on rational-choice and decision-theory models to make his case for executive supremacy. Vermeule’s economistic conception of agency is false as a picture of human behavior and therefore generates an empirically false theory of the state. The best current sociologies of the state have long made clear that rule by a supreme, unitary branch of government is always to some degree an ideological myth. Modern states actually consist of networks of governance and “governmentality,” points well known to political theorists and sociologists. By contrast, Vermeule’s adoption of rational-choice theory, insulated from sociological and historical evidence, allows him to idealize how the state works.
Nor does his description of human beings as rational preference-maximizers fit the Catholic Church’s understanding of human beings. The entire logic of Christian selfhood is centered on the possibility of various forms of agape—a self-emptying love of the other. This stands in sharp contrast to the calculating agent of decision theory, which makes sense only within an extreme form of liberal ideology.
In a grand irony, Martin Heidegger’s famous comment on Schmitt also seems to fit Vermeule: he still thinks as a liberal. At the methodological level, Vermeule’s vision of human agency is shaped not by agape but by a strain of liberalism that came to prominence in the late twentieth century and envisioned all individuals as market actors. Some may suppose that he left all this behind when he converted to Catholicism. But he has continued to draw on his old theories in his integralist writings. For example, in a brief essay published in May, “Deference and the Common Good,” Vermeule argued that judges “should broadly defer to the administrative state, within reasonable boundaries,” and backed up this claim by citing his fusion of Schmittian executive rule and rational-choice theory in The Executive Unbound and other writings from that period.
If Vermeule has changed his mind, then he needs to offer an alternative philosophical grounding for his vision of executive rule or clarify the relationship between his earlier and more recent work. That might prove useful to those who follow his writing: after all, his economistic approaches to the state have been explained in university-press books and peer-reviewed articles, while his current integralist work takes the form of occasional essays and blog posts. Still, until Vermeule provides a different justification for his program of “integration from within,” it continues to be best understood as derivative of the economistic thinking associated with the Chicago School.
Vermeule also goes astray when he jettisons those aspects of the liberal tradition that have been affirmed by the Church. The liberal tradition is the most important ideological movement in history to have articulated and defended human rights, and its influence can be found in Catholic social teaching’s affirmation of the infinite dignity and worth of the individual person, which includes the need for “human rights” (a term adopted without reservation by the U.S. bishops). It’s not merely that Catholic social teaching has serendipitously developed to overlap with important aspects of the liberal tradition: the Church’s engagement with the liberal tradition has actually deepened its understanding of what is required to uphold human dignity.
This is not to say the relationship between Catholic social teaching and liberalism is uncomplicated. The liberal tradition must be carefully sifted to determine which of its elements can be affirmed and which others must be rejected by Catholics. But Vermeule simply has failed to do this work. His refusal to think with the Church in this area results in a tendency to emphasize the worst elements of liberalism while ignoring the best.
Take, for example, his long flirtation with unbounded executive power and his willingness to provide cover for such practices as torture. For the Church, no earthly authority has the unbounded power to make life-and-death decisions that Vermeule seems to grant his executive; the requirements of human dignity always place limits on any exercise of force. Vermeule must choose between Schmitt’s unbounded executive and the Church’s vision of dignity and human rights. He cannot have both.
Although integralists often portray themselves as unusually devoted to the pope, that says more about their valorization of authority than their attentiveness to what recent popes have actually taught. The same year that Vermeule published his book-length permission slip for the Bush administration’s torture program, Pope Benedict XVI offered a very different assessment of what was happening. Benedict wrote that the infinite dignity of the human person meant that “the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” Shortly thereafter, the United States Bishops affirmed this teaching in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: “The use of torture must be rejected as fundamentally incompatible with the dignity of the human person and ultimately counterproductive in the effort to combat terrorism.”
Vermeule’s integralism encounters further difficulties with its retrograde insistence on subordinating secular to spiritual power. Gaudium et spes clearly states that the Church “does not place her trust in the privileges offered by civil authority” and “by reason of her role and competence, is not identified in any way with the political community nor bound to any political system.” Instead, “the Church and the political community in their own fields are autonomous and independent of each other.”
Until Vermeule reckons with Catholic teachings he finds inconvenient, his “Catholic integralism” will lack theoretical integrity and should not be described as Catholic. I’ll leave it to others to decide what description might be more fitting.