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What Is Integralism?
The Catholic movement that wants to use government power in the name of public morality.
Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of contemporary American conservatism. The more familiar—traditional conservatism—holds that the founding principles and institutions of the American polity remain sound but have been distorted by waves of progressive activism that have eroded our commitment to individual liberty and limited government. The task is to preserve these fundamentals while restoring their original meaning and function.
The second kind of conservatism claims that America was flawed from the start. The focus on individual rights comes at the expense of community and the common good, and the claim that government exists to preserve individual liberty creates an inexorable move toward moral anarchy. These tendencies have moved us so far from traditional decency and public order that there is little of worth left to “conserve.” Our current situation represents a revolution against the forces—religion, strong families, local moral communities—that once limited the worst implications of our founding mistakes. The only remedy for this revolution is a counter-revolution. Instead of limited government, we need strong government capable of promoting the common good and defending moral common sense against the threat posed by unelected elites.
This proposed counter-revolution has little to do with conservatism as traditionally understood. It seeks not to limit the flaws in our founding principles but to replace them. Specifically, it is a revolt against liberalism, the political theory rooted in the Enlightenment that inspired the Declaration of Independence. This New Right is unabashedly anti-liberal, at the level of philosophical principle as well as political practice.
There are different kinds of anti-liberalism. Some are secular—for example, fascism, which rests its legitimacy on the culture and spirit of a specific “people” and uses all available means to pursue the interests of this people, as defined by an elite that purports to speak in its name. Other kinds of anti-liberalism appeal to a specific religion, the truth of which is taken for granted. Legitimate government rules in the name of this religion and promotes God’s will on earth.
With these distinctions, we have reached integralism, which is a distinctive form of religious anti-liberalism within Catholicism. It arose many centuries before the emergence of liberalism, as a justification for the integration of Catholicism and political power that began under the Roman emperor Constantine and was completed in 380 by emperor Theodosius I, who embraced Christianity not only as his personal religion but also as the religion of his realm. At the end of the next century, Pope Gelasius I formalized the Catholic understanding in his famous distinction between priestly and royal authority. In matters concerning religious practice and ultimate salvation, Gelasius argued, political authorities are required to submit to the authority of the Church.
Among other implications, this arrangement precludes religious liberty as now understood. Any political authority that permits individuals and groups to freely choose among religions ipso facto denies the authority of the Church in spiritual matters.
This account of the proper relationship between the Church and political leaders came under attack by the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution, whose explicit anti-clericalism sent shock waves through the papacy. In response, integralism became a defensive doctrine opposing developments that undermined the authority of the Church. In 1864, Pope Pius IX issued his famous “Syllabus of Errors,” which summarized and refuted 80 propositions on topics ranging from theology and philosophy to ethics and marriage.
Propositions 77-80 concerned “modern liberalism.” These allegedly erroneous statements asserted that Catholicism should no longer be the religion of the State, that religious pluralism should be permitted, that freedom of religion would not corrupt public morals, and that the Church should reconcile itself to and come to terms with “progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.” In case anyone missed the point, his successor, Pius X, drove it home: the thesis that the State must be separated from the Church is “absolutely false.” According to these popes, the church must stand as a rock against all these pernicious developments, as it did for most of the following century until Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council in 1959.
Integralism in its contemporary sense (which many observers call “neo-integralism”) represents an effort to return to the pre-modern “Gelasian” understanding of the right relation between politics and the Church. This revival began in 2014 with a terse document, “Integralism in Three Sentences,” penned by Pater Edmund Waldstein for the integralist website The Josias:
Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end [i.e., the ultimate purpose] of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him—a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.
In a longer document, “The Good, the Highest Good, and the Common Good,” Waldstein makes clear that political leaders should use their power to direct their citizens toward the highest good and the love of God, which is the foundation of the common good. In another detailed article, “Integralism and Gelasian Dyarchy,” Waldstein drives the point home: “It is necessary that those who have charge of the common good [i.e., political authorities] order it explicitly to God.” And he emphatically endorses the teaching of Pope Leo XIII: it should be a “public crime” to act as though there were no God or to worship God in any way other than what the one true religion—Catholicism—requires. “We are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will,” and the Church is the one true representative of His will.
Most Americans will find this stance incomprehensible and, if they come to understand it, deeply troubling. Religious liberty has been called the “First Freedom,” and permitting religious diversity within society is the grain of sand around which the pearl of political liberalism developed. Surely a government that can tell us what to believe about God and how to worship God is a tyranny.
More broadly, liberalism embodies a basic distinction between the public and private realms. Government may act, within limits, in the public realm, but it may not invade the private realm, the zone of protected individual liberty. Although liberals argue about precisely where the line between these two realms should be drawn, they agree that the distinction exists and is morally fundamental. Catholic integralists reject freedom of religion, and they are prepared to use government power in the name of public morality to control what liberals consider private and individual decisions.
This clash between neo-integralism and the American political tradition makes it all the more striking that this avowed anti-liberal doctrine has gained a following in America, especially among young Catholic intellectuals. In recent conversations with students, I have been surprised by how many of them have heard of this doctrine and are attracted to it. Political liberals must try to understand why.
In a 2019 article entitled “Against David French-ism,” Sohrab Ahmari, a recent convert to Catholicism, offers some important clues. For him as for many other members of the New Right, the culture war is the heart of the matter. Although liberalism claims to be religiously neutral, Ahmari says, it has sparked a cultural revolution that leaves no room for traditional Christianity. In language which echoes the influential treatise by Waldstein, he says they must “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Ahmari rejects the idea that either law or public culture can be a neutral space that accommodates deep differences of morality and religion. In an italicized sentence, he channels what he takes to be the demand of those who take personal autonomy to its logical extreme: “For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.” He also provides a timely example of what this means: “Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community.”
Ahmari’s bottom line: if neutrality is a myth, then either the partisans of unlimited autonomy or the defenders of traditional morality backed by religion must define and dominate the public culture, which is shaped by public law. This a fight to the finish, a war with no possibility of compromise. Progressives seek to discredit those who defend traditional beliefs and destroy the institutions that embody these beliefs. The New Right must fight fire with fire and subordinate values such as decency and civility to the imperative of total victory. Rather than seeking peaceful coexistence with our enemies, he concludes, we should do what they do. We must “enforce our order and our orthodoxy.”
Fighting words, to be sure. But is this a plausible strategy in a religiously diverse country where Catholics constitute only one-fifth of the population and integralist Catholics could fit into a small auditorium? Enter Adrian Vermeule, a well-known Harvard law professor and another convert to Catholicism. New Right advocates, he says, should set aside originalism in favor of “common good constitutionalism.” This new doctrine rests on the principles that government directs individuals, associations, and society as a whole toward the common good and that “strong rule” to attain the common good is “entirely legitimate.” In practice, this means “a powerful presidency ruling over a powerful bureaucracy.” While traditional conservatives seek to deconstruct the administrative state, a common good constitutionalist will see the bureaucracy as the “strong hand of legitimate rule.”
Traditional conservatism, says Vermeule, is content to act “defensively” within the procedural rules of the liberal order. By contrast, common good constitutionalism represents an “illiberal legalism” openly willing to “legislate morality.” Forget about limited government and judicial restraint. Instead, use strong government to bring about a new religious and moral order. In a theological flourish, Vermeule suggests that “The vast bureaucracy created by liberalism … may, by the invisible hand of Providence,” be turned to new ends.
Still, the reintegration of Church and State seems like a dream without a strategy to make it real. Not so, Vermeule insists. Neo-integralists do not need anything close to a majority. Purposeful and determined integralists must come to occupy “strategic positions within the shell of the liberal order.” Their goal must be to seize the commanding heights of the administrative state. Once there, they can work with an equally purposeful and determined chief executive to bring about outcomes that majorities would not have endorsed at the ballot box.
Isn’t this coercion? Not exactly, says Vermeule, because the distinction between coercion and persuasion is “so fragile as to be nearly useless.” Soft paternalism can “nudge” whole populations in desired directions, while strategic positions can be used to “sear the liberal faith with hot irons” and turn the institutions of the old order toward the promotion of the common good, as people such as Professor Vermeule and Father Waldstein define it.
At bottom, the increasingly widespread embrace of anti-liberal theory and practice reflects a deeply felt belief that animates the leaders of the New Right. Political liberalism is both a sham and a threat: a sham because neutrality does not exist and functions to conceal the substantive moral doctrines that today’s progressives are trying to impose on everyone else; a threat because it diverts and disarms religious and moral traditionalists from waging the cultural war that must be won. If political power always shapes culture, as increasing numbers of traditionalists are coming to believe, they will conclude that they must seize and use this power—if necessary, without the limits they have long advocated.
While liberals can acknowledge the concerns that have sparked the revival of integralism, they cannot split the difference with it. Integralism denies the basic principles of political liberalism: that individual rights are fundamental; that among these rights is freedom of conscience and religion; that government is created to protect these rights; that diversity of opinion, belief, and ways of life is the fruit of liberty; that legitimate government respects the boundary between public and private concerns; and that government without consent—tyranny—is the worst of all political ills.
As we resist integralism, political liberals should ask themselves some hard questions. Have we truly respected cultural pluralism, or have we been willing to use coercive power to bring about the cultural change we support? Have we used the judicial system to bypass the slower task of democratic persuasion? Have we allowed federalism and localism to serve as sites for the expression of different conceptions of morality and the good, or have we nationalized issues that did not require a unitary and binding national response? Have we inadvertently undermined the credibility of a liberal public square that makes room for conflicting conceptions of the individual and common good?
Political liberals face a strategic choice. Either we can approach cultural conflict as our adversaries do—as a fight to the finish without the possibility of honorable compromise—or we can work to de-escalate the conflict without abandoning our principles. This means refraining from using government to promote our views unless there is a clear legal or constitutional justification for doing so. The fact that a specific belief is moral does not justify using public institutions to promulgate and enforce it.
One thing is clear: what citizens come to view as disorder, physical or moral, always sparks a demand for the restoration of order. If political liberals cannot offer a plausible account of social order, our adversaries will prevail by default, and the threat to liberal freedoms will deepen. It is a mistake to suggest that groups whose objectives we approve are not bound by the rule of law. It is hypocrisy to imply that law-breaking is unacceptable on Capitol Hill but acceptable in Portland and Seattle.
If we cannot show that our creed embodies limits to what is morally acceptable that most citizens can endorse, we will lose credibility and open the door to the rule of those who are prepared to enforce limits without regard to the niceties of individual rights or civil liberties. This is no time to be adding fuel to the fire that threatens to consume liberal democracy.
William A. Galston is Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution.
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