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.