You don’t have to be a member of the Catholic Worker movement to be attracted to its political vision. You certainly don’t need to be a Christian anarchist like Peter Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker, to believe that “we must try to make that kind of a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” This idea—a society in which it is easier to be good—offers a Christian standard for assessing politics in theory and in practice. Of course, good people are not things that can be produced like good socks. But we can at least hope to foster a society that creates paths toward a life of dignity, solidarity, and virtue.
I kept returning to Maurin’s words as I read Kevin Vallier’s All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism. The book is a response to the unexpected return of integralism as a political option, but it is also a reflection on what kind of society enables goodness. Integralism is one version of postliberal politics. It is an option because a series of political and economic shocks have broken liberalism’s grip on our political imagination.
Integralists contend that liberalism’s internal contradictions are causing it to fail, and they seek to accelerate its decline while working for a new society freed from such contradictions. In this new “integral” society, people could live integrated lives ordered toward the right ends. Vallier argues that the integralist project depends on three claims: that the state exists to direct people to their natural good; that the Church is a polity ordering people to their supernatural good; and that the Church, therefore, ought to have indirect power over the state to direct people to their supernatural good.
While Vallier never mentions Maurin’s axiom, his sympathetic but deeply critical appraisal of the integralists hinges on it. He is sympathetic to them insofar as he takes seriously their goal of making an America where it is easier to be good. For the integralists, liberalism has created a society where it is hard to be good. In part, this is because it denies that there is a shared good. Meanwhile, its claim to promote a tolerant and diverse society is, in the view of its integralist critics, a charade. As Vallier summarizes this view, “liberalism ingeniously masks its own violence and sectarianism. That is its superpower.” Liberalism dominates and excludes those clinging to the good while pretending “all are welcome.”
Catholic integralists such as the Harvard Law professor Adrian Vermeule and the Cistercian monk Edmund Waldstein argue for a society ordered toward the supernatural end of union with God. While the state should direct citizens toward natural virtues (something the liberal state refuses to do), the Church alone can foster supernatural virtues. Being good, integralists believe, requires both kinds of virtue. The two polities, Church and state, remain separate, but the Church directs the state where needed to promote the Catholic faith. This coordinated separation, Vallier writes, means that “the church has the right to rule the baptized, the state has the right to govern its citizens, and the church has the right to direct the state in a confined range of cases.”
Vallier tries to take integralism on its own terms and evaluate its most compelling form. He takes seriously the integralists’ historical claim that the Church has long supported integralism and that Vatican II did not reverse this. He also takes their logic seriously. If our goal is truly to make people good, then we cannot bracket off the supernatural virtues. If we agree with integralists that “union with God is the greatest good of all,” then our politics should aim to promote this good. Vallier is unafraid to engage with integralism and to delve into the reasons for its increasing appeal. A good liberal himself, he believes in the marketplace of ideas and the possibility that honest argumentation can make a difference.
But, of course, he does not leave it there. Having established the strengths of integralism, he proceeds to show how integralism actually makes it harder to be good. He does this in three ways. First, he demonstrates how the process of creating an integralist America would require unjust actions. The kind of administrative and judicial seizure of power that Vermeule and others promote might work, but would require dramatic actions of coercion to overcome the majority of Americans who would passionately oppose an integralist state. Second, if the integralists were to succeed, they would establish an unstable regime torn between the rival powers of Church and state, opposed by most Catholics and the hierarchy, and split between those who support the regime and the majority who do not. The use of force would be required not only to install such a regime but also to maintain it. Finally, Vallier argues, even if integralists could somehow take power and establish political stability, their regime would still be unjust. Integralism means that the state, guided by the Church, may compel the baptized to fulfill their religious obligations. For Vallier, this compulsion cannot be justified by baptism. Forcing lapsed Catholics to go to church would not make them good Catholics; it would merely inspire fear and promote hypocrisy. Some Christians might decide not to baptize their children in order to avoid such coercion.
And what about the unbaptized? Most contemporary integralists claim they are not interested in coercing them, but once you have taken the step of compelling the baptized to the greatest good, why abandon the unbaptized? Would Jews, Muslims, or atheists be forbidden full rights of citizenship? As Vallier writes, “integralists will face theoretical pressure to abolish democracy and mistreat religious minorities on the basis of commitments internal to integralism.” Of course, integralists believe—in defiance of Dignitatis humanae—that religious coercion by Christians is not a bad thing, and that helping people to be good might require protecting them from Jews, atheists, and homosexuals. But no one ends up good in this scenario. Everyone will be a member of an isolated and oppressed group or of an isolated and oppressive group.
Vallier does a decent job of showing how an integralist regime would make us worse, but he fails to explain how liberalism might foster a society that enables us to be good. This is no small problem. Integralism has made a comeback because it offers direction to people looking for a Christian politics, people who wish to build a better society out of the ruins of neoliberalism. Our society is afflicted by rampant consumerism, devastating ecological damage, ubiquitous pornography, the killing of the unborn and (increasingly) the unwell, and a “preferential option” for the rich and against the poor. In the face of all this, Vallier’s proposal that integralists aim for something like a Benedict Option while “liberals recover an appreciation of their values” seems insufficient.
For Dorothy Day, a good-enabling society is one that makes it “a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do.” Integralists show little concern for a central political question: care for the poor. Vallier should have addressed what integralists neglect, especially because neoliberalism has thoroughly abandoned social justice. Poverty and inequality make it hard to be good. The rich corrupt themselves with their wealth, members of the middle class claw for success, and the poor, left with the bitter solaces of drugs and gambling, increasingly die “deaths of despair.” Integralists fail to acknowledge that scandalous material inequalities are among the things that make it harder for people to be good.
In any case, the Christian task in a time of diminished religious practice is not planning a political takeover. It is evangelizing a world weary of the political and perhaps open to the good news of a Kingdom that operates differently from all the kingdoms of the world. Integralists show a remarkable lack of interest in convincing people who do not already agree with them, preferring instead to seize power and use it to order people to be good. But as Bartolomé de las Casas taught, there is only one way to evangelize, “the way that wins the mind with reasons, that wins the will with gentleness, with invitation.” Blocking people on X (formerly Twitter) and seizing the administrative state fail on both of those fronts.
Vallier’s book succeeds in revealing the dangerous flaws of integralism, but he offers few reasons to believe that liberalism has the resources to address the major social challenges we face today. His claim that liberalism’s continued dominance comes from its flexibility doesn’t address the concerns of those worried not about the stability of the liberal order but about its moral effects—about whether liberalism makes it easier or harder to be good. Perhaps it’s too much to expect Vallier to offer an alternative vision of Christian politics along with his rejection of integralism. But nothing less than such a vision will blunt integralism’s growing appeal.
All the Kingdoms of the World
On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism
Oxford University Press
$29.95 | 320 pp.