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Reconciling integralism, the magisterium, and the modern world

Thomas Pink. Courtesy photo.

Political division is nothing new in American culture - or the American Church. Catholics are not exempt from the sometimes heated public policy debates that permeate society at large.

But the rise of integralism in some corners of American Catholicism - particularly among commentators online - has added a new dimension to the political debate.

The subject of integralism is a challenging one to discuss - in part, because it is tricky to nail down a clear definition of the term.

In April, Charlie Camosy dedicated his weekly interview at The Pillar to ascertaining a clear and coherent definition of integralism.

What is integralism, anyway?
One of the more talked about phenomena in American Catholicism in recent years has been the rising popularity of “integralism” among a section of Catholic commentators and academics. The term can seem to mean different things to different people, and lead to calls for different, sometimes competing…

This week, Charlie took that discussion one step further, speaking with two scholars with differing views on integralism.

Bill McCormick, S.J., visiting assistant professor of political science and philosophy at Saint Louis University, is the author of “The Christian Structure of Politics: On the De Regno of Thomas Aquinas.”

McCormick examined integralism through the lens of Thomas Aquinas, concluding that Thomas would have rejected intregralism, but without embracing modern liberalism. That interview can be found here.

Thomas Pink, philosophy professor at King’s College, London, has published widely on the freedom of the will, and on ethics and political philosophy and their history.

Pink has written in defense of Catholic integralism, arguing that it is not only compatible with Catholicism, but is in fact part of the Church’s magisterial teaching. That interview is below.

In a recent interview Professor Joseph Capizzi at CUA characterizes your integralist views as an insistence that the state should be subordinate to the Church. That idea entails a rejection of liberalism, insofar as liberalism denies it.

Is all that a fair description of your view?

Integralism is Catholic magisterial teaching about the proper relation between the Church and the state. The most comprehensive modern statement is Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei, though there’s lots more going back through medieval councils to the earlier popes.

Each of Church and state, according to Leo XIII, is an authority instituted by God. Each authority is supreme and sovereign in its own sphere and calls on our allegiance. Each authority directs us through law and each teaches us how to live.

Notice that the state is just as pervasive a teacher as the Church. Laws that punish theft teach that property rights matter and that theft is wrong. Laws punishing racist expression and abuse teach the dignity of humans. Or consider marriage. By regulating marriage through state law, permitting certain forms of marriage and not others, the state is teaching us what properly counts as a family and what marital obligations really matter and what do not. Few states are neutral about family structure.

The Church’s authority is, of course, over religion. And the happiness offered by the Church is ultimately not of this world – it consists in the vision of God in heaven. Whereas state authority is civil and is immediately concerned with an earthly happiness, and the goods necessary to that.

But that needn’t prevent a clash. For the Church exists and pursues her mission in the earthly sphere ruled by the state, which is constantly inclined to prioritise the earthly, and to subordinate religion to its ends. Religion may be turned into a civil cult at the service of the state or it may simply be excluded from public life.

The Church can survive living under a hostile state. But it won’t be easy, because Catholics will be subjected to a profound clash of opposing authority and teaching – about the family for example, or about who has a right to life. And if Catholicism is true, the opposing state teaching will be false and destructive of human happiness.

Since each authority of Church and state is instituted by God, harmony between them must be God’s antecedent will, at least. Conflict may be permitted as an evil; but it is hardly going to be good. Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei is about how conflict is to be avoided. Integralism is magisterial teaching about the conditions for Church-state harmony.

Leo insists that to avoid conflict, each of Church and state must respect the sovereignty of the other. The Church cannot dictate to the state about purely civil matters. The state cannot dictate to the Church about religion. So integralism does not generally subordinate the state to the Church. The state remains sovereign in the civil order, and in purely civil questions the Church is subject to the state and governed by civil law.

For there to be harmony between Church and state, the state must recognize that religion transcends its authority and is properly governed by the Church. Obviously only a publicly Catholic state will recognize that. Then also, given the supreme importance of religion to human happiness – loss of heaven is total loss – but religion’s dependence in this life on the things of earth, though the state has no authority of its own over religion, a Catholic state should still be prepared to act under the Church’s authority and on her behalf, defending the supreme good of religion and supporting religious truth.

An analogy was used by Leo XIII that goes back to the patristic period, to Gregory of Nazianzus.

The Christian state stands as body to the Church as soul – supporting religion as the body (sovereign in its own sphere of bodily functioning) also supports the intellectual activity of the soul.

This is clearly not a liberal theory. The modern liberal state generally presents itself as neutral about questions of religion, and its political community is religiously diverse. Such a state will reject Leo XIII’s vision. But given religious diversity among its citizens, it is anyway unclear how a state could effectively support Catholicism. Which is why Leo XIII’s vision always presupposed the Catholic commitment of the political community. It was only on condition that the citizens were Catholic that the state could be effectively Catholic too.

On the other hand, if a whole political community is committedly Catholic, something approximating to Leo XIII’s ideal will surely obtain. A state teaches and legislates about matters fundamental to the flourishing of its community; and its teaching and legislation will tend to align with the shared convictions of its citizens. A political community that really is committedly Catholic will surely expect state laws and institutions to protect what they take to be the highest good of all – their path to heaven. Their state will teach and legislate in ways that protect Catholicism.

Liberal modernity reflects the disappearance of such commitment to Catholicism at the level of whole political communities. If Catholicism is true, and the loss of heaven is total loss, I doubt the vanishing of this commitment is to be celebrated.

It is obviously difficult to imagine how a Catholic state might work in most of today's political and social environments, but I take it that this is nevertheless your ideal, right? It would be better if we could live in a Catholic state?

By 1965 the Catholic commitment of many political communities was declining or had disappeared. Many saw this as the future and as irreversible.

Dignitatis Humanae was the Church’s response. The declaration seems opposed to Leo XIII. Leo XIII, after all, taught that a Catholic state should privilege and protect Catholicism as the true religion. But Dignitatis Humanae condemns state privileging of religious truth as a violation of religious liberty. How then could Vatican II’s teaching of religious liberty be based on Leo XIII?

But at Vatican II, the commission drafting Dignitatis Humanae really did claim, repeatedly 1964-5, that the declaration applied Leo XIII to modern times - to a pluralistic world where states and their political communities were decreasingly Catholic or even Christian.

A publicly Catholic state could act in matters of religion on the Church’s behalf – on her authority as the Church’s agent or minister, as the old seminary manuals put it. But what if the state is no longer politically a community of the baptised? What if religious diversity and lack of commitment have already detached the state from the Church? Then the Church must address the state as so detached – not as her potential agent but acting purely on its own authority within the civil order. That is how Dignitatis Humanae addresses the state - as a purely civil power detached from the Church.

It was from this detachment of the state from the Church that the declaration’s right to religious liberty then followed. By Leo XIII’s own teaching, we will then have a right to religious liberty in relation to the state – a right of the civil order - that is total. This is a moral right based on our human dignity, exactly as Dignitatis Humanae teaches. For humans, created in the image of God, have a God-given power of freedom that must not be subjected to sanction or pressure without proper authority – which in religion the state, acting on its own and apart from the Church, entirely lacks.

Dignitatis Humanae doesn’t formally teach about whether political secularisation, this separation of the state from the Church that comes with religious pluralism, is a new ideal and sign of progress. It’s clear though what leading Vatican II progressives (Paul VI, Cardinal Journet and others) all thought. Church-state separation was spiritually progressive – a new and ideal mode of harmonious co-existence for the modern age.

Few Catholics would have supposed this before the twentieth century. The secularization of modern politics surely reflects loss of faith, not some higher form of spiritual culture. Leo XIII clearly denied this progressive view. A state that abandoned public commitment to Catholicism and even Christianity would eventually intrude into the sphere of religion, pressuring religion to conform to its political programs. The state would also clash with the Church about morality, such as about marriage and the dignity of human life. And trends since the 1960s suggest Leo XIII was entirely right to worry.

The Church’s integralist teaching matters – though not as a program that prioritizes political action over evangelization. Trying to bring back the Catholic state without a reconversion of the people is just not possible.

Integralism reminds us instead what loss of faith at the level of the political community will cost. The Church cannot expect to live in harmony with an unconverted world but is destined to spiritual conflict with it. That spiritual conflict with an unconverted world will extend to conflict with the post-Christian state. In the 1960s the Church’s leadership thought that the Church really could live in harmony with a secular state. That is proving ever more clearly to have been a mistake.

Professor Capizzi suggests that there may be some tension between the views of contemporary integralists like yourself and the views and teachings of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI. What's your reaction to this suggestion?

The post-conciliar popes work within a pluralistic context, and they address political right and authority as Dignitatis Humanae did – while assuming the state’s detachment from the Church. So of course popes today do not repeat Leo XIII’s call for the state to privilege Catholicism.

These post-conciliar popes may or may not privately agree with Leonine teaching. But the ever changing and very various theological opinions of popes are not magisterial teaching. The post-conciliar popes have not delivered any formal magisterial denial of Leo XIII. Such a denial would only discredit the authority of the magisterium. A teaching authority that solemnly contradicts itself only diminishes its authority. Dignitatis Humanae was expressly and deliberately framed to avoid such a contradiction; instead it applied Leo XIII’s teaching to a new context, as I’ve explained.

In a more recent Q&A I did on this topic, Fr. Bill McCormick of St. Louis University claimed that Thomas Aquinas was not an integralist – but he didn't name him a liberal or proto-liberal either.

Could Thomas' views serve as a bridge or meeting place for those who discern that something is deeply wrong with the current liberal order as it exists in many Western states but disagree about what the Church's relationship should be with the state?

Fr. McCormick must be using the term ‘integralism’ differently from me. He treats ‘integralism’ as ‘akin to civil religion’ – so religion not as transcendent, but in the service of the state – and a practical program with affinity to ‘Machiavelli, Hobbes and Marx’!

The integralist teaching of the magisterium is completely the opposite. It is about removing religion from state authority. The state should protect religion – but as a supreme good transcending its own authority.

Aquinas, like Leo XIII, opposed a civil religion governed by the state rather than by the Church. Aquinas, like Leo XIII, thought that the secular power should support the true religion but do so ‘subject to the spiritual power as the body to the soul’ (Summa 2a2ae q60 a6). Aquinas didn’t deny the integralism of the magisterium.

Finally, I suspect not a few integralists are frustrated with the kinds of critiques you have received in several Catholic circles. What else would you like to say in response to critics?

Two objections are very common. The first is that Dignitatis Humanae somehow contradicted and thereby ‘abrogated’ previous integralist teaching. I’ve answered that objection, and there is more argument here.

A second objection is that integralism is nastily authoritarian. It is committed to defending everything done in the past by the Church and by the Catholic state at her behest – such as the inquisition and its methods or the terrible laws governing relations with the Jewish people. But integralism is not about defending this.

Here’s a parallel. Pastor Aeternus of Vatican I teaches about the juridical structure of the Church as a sovereign legal authority. It accords the pope legislative supremacy over the whole Church. There is no legal appeal against the pope. What Pastor Aeternus does not say, however, is that in addition to being doctrinally infallible in his teaching, the pope is morally infallible in his legislation. (Cardinal Newman, in his Letter to the Duke of Norfolk, made exactly this point.) Not only are popes not morally infallible in their legislation, but going back through the centuries there have been papal laws that were monstrously unjust - so bad that there could never have been any moral obligation to comply.

Like Pastor Aeternus, Immortale Dei teaches about a juridical structure - a proper juridical ordering of the two legal authorities of Church and state. But nothing in Immortale Dei guarantees that this juridical ordering was always applied morally. Papal legislation and policy can be grossly unjust, including some of the past use by popes of the state to enforce their legislation. Popes do have the authority; but they can abuse it too.

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