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What would Thomas Aquinas think of integralism?

Bill McCormick, S.J.

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.

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 can be found here.

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 is below.

Just a few years ago, conversations about Thomas Aquinas and the Christian structure of politics would have been mostly taking place among, academics,  discussing matters of historical or theoretical interest.

But my strong sense is that this has changed, especially with the fairly mainstream discussion of integralism.

Do you agree? And if so, what do you take to be the motivation for this shift?

It’s hard to make those sorts of assessments. Catholics in the U.S. have always been animated by some political issue. And, in any case, we are talking primarily about a small subsection of Catholics: the “very online.”

But, yes, such questions do feel urgent today, at least among Catholic Christians. And the reasons for that sense of urgency are part of what is in dispute.

No doubt part of the reason integralism and other questions are coming to the fore is because of the perceived sense that the Left/Right ideological sorting is weak, including the much-debated death of conservative fusionism. Meanwhile, for many younger Catholics, “Left” and “Right” mean very little. They are animated by a more eclectic set of concerns to which they see neither politicians nor churchmen responding. There is a sense that too many of our leaders are trapped in the battles of ‘68.

This intensely acrimonious culture bears upon not only politics but also ecclesial life. The reception of Pope Francis’ papacy has been bitter, with deep partisanship all around. Even some of the Holy Father’s most loyal defenders operate in an “us versus them” way, which is problematic. The spirit of Thucydides, Hobbes and Carl Schmitt is alive and well today.

But let’s not get too caught up in the Catholic bubble. We live in an age characterized by a generalized, if vague, dissatisfaction with the foundations of our culture. (I think of the brilliantly-titled Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture by Robert Pippin.) There are few scenarios in which today’s Catholics were not going to be disillusioned and divided by something. “Liberal modernity,” whatever that means, may be the best thing we’ve got, but we are far from the overweening confidence in it that animated some of its worst failures.

Again, getting an overall sense of the picture of Catholics in the U.S today is hard because it is part of what we disagree about. That in turn makes the path of understanding the appeal of integralism more difficult. The Catholic Church is getting smaller and less relevant by the day in the U.S., but we don’t agree on why. But it does lead to a sense of urgency that does not always make for careful thinking.

Before we move on and discuss it in more detail, let's get a working definition for integralism, not least because it seems like a moving target in many circumstances.

How do you understand the term, perhaps with reference to those currently arguing for it in the public sphere?

The Josias website offers a three-sentence definition: “Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end 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.”

Integralism has too often been criticized in a question-begging manner, namely for not being liberal or democratic. But there are a great many Catholics who would agree with these three propositions and still not be integralists. Much of the controversy comes down to what we mean by “subordinated.” St. Robert Bellarmine, for example, would have no problem with these claims but was a champion of the indirect power.

For thinkers like Aquinas, it’s the need to affirm the transcendent that makes integralism too akin to civil religion. For thinkers like Augustine, it’s the ambiguity of history and the Two Cities that renders integralism impossible. For my great mentor the late Fr. Jim Schall, SJ, it’s the transience of human affairs, what he would call their “unseriousness.”

Part of what is at work in integralism is the Baroque-era sensibility that integralism is a program to be imposed upon pre-existing regimes, a prescription that would have been difficult to imagine prior to the rise of the nation-state. On this account, revelation offers a set of propositional claims about how the Two Cities construed as earthly institutions should be organized.

In these ways, integralism offers only a partial retrieval of the tradition insofar as it tends to elevate the practical over the theoretical, again a hallmark of Machiavelli, Hobbes and Marx more than Aristotle, Augustine or Aquinas.

Most folks who are familiar with Thomas go to the Summa for his views on the political order, but your book adds the brief tract De Regno (on Kingship) as an essential, and even central, text for understanding his views.

Taken together, how should Thomas' views on the Christian political order reflect on the discussion of integralism today?

Aquinas is one of the most difficult medieval thinkers to pin down on politics, and not by accident. As Heinrich Rommen argued, Aquinas was one of the few medieval thinkers who could synthesize and hold in balance seemingly contradictory propositions about political life, whereas many more polemical theologians, e.g., John of Paris or Marsilius of Padua, tended to erase certain truths in favor of others. Catholics like to say that we are the “both/and people,” but it’s more of an aspiration than an achievement.

While I argue that the Summa Theologiae and De Regno can be read together fruitfully, Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that the degree of precision one can expect in a science depends upon its subject matter. In the case of ethics and politics, the degree of precision can never be high. This is where pre-modern and modern political thinkers perhaps most characteristically disagree, and it’s where many integralists of the Baroque period and beyond look quite modern.

Aquinas’ political thought is shot through with the wisdom of St. Augustine, who always returns to Scripture. One need not be an “Augustinian” to recognize the ephemerality of all political arrangements, and therefore to resist the identification of the Church with any fleeting political regime.

Indeed, for Aquinas, the threat of civil religion is a pressing concern in De Regno: the subjection of religious authority to political power. I would appeal to the founder of my religious order, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who argues that all created things are means to be pursued indifferently for the greater glory of God. That includes the political order.

Most Christians in most times have been deeply attached to a regime form, whether monarchy for much of history or democracy today. A great temptation of any Catholic “postliberal” project is to replace one ideological attachment for another.

So, if Thomas was not an integralist, what was he? A liberal? A proto-liberal? Something else for which our current categories fail us?

Aquinas defies labels, because such labels suggest something about the character of Aquinas’ deepest commitments that is simply not true. This has always been the greatest challenge of debates about whether Aquinas was a Whig: even a negative answer to that question does not say much about him.

Part of the work of someone like Charles Taylor is to show just how contingent so many of our political, social and economic constellations are. When we identify unconditionally with some aspect of it, we inevitably sacrifice what is more enduring, more lasting.

The challenge of reading Aquinas on politics is in part to distinguish the contingent from the necessary, the fleeting from the eternal. I’m not sure we as a community can claim to be good at recognizing that need, let alone acting upon it. But the more we do so, the more we can affirm what is good and helpful in the ephemeral realm of politics.

I'm not an integralist, but I do think that Christians' willingness to basically abandon theological narratives and language in the public sphere has made our witness to the Gospel that much less compelling.

Indeed, I recently published a book arguing that it has put the very notion of fundamental human equality at risk.

Do you think this kind creative or category-collapsing space in which you locate Thomas could be a home for views like mine?

One of the greatest gifts of the integralist debate is to remind Christians of their deepest commitments, something ecclesial life should be ceaselessly drawing us back toward.

To read Aquinas is to be introduced to a way of thinking that is quite foreign to Christians today. Many Christians today proceed implicitly from unexamined political commitments that always stand in judgment of the Gospel and its dictates for politics. It’s probably not helpful to pretend that Christians can simply abandon any and all ideological priors, but we can become more reflective about what they are, and we can become more immersed in the call of the Gospel to participate in the Kingdom of God.

This is not just a conceptual problem: it’s a practical problem that requires constant cultivation of the dispositions, virtues and practices in a community. Perhaps this is another reason why we need to reclaim the parish.

Aquinas calls on Christians to drink deeply into the traditions that have brought the Church to where it is today. Christians who are not seriously formed in those traditions have nothing to offer other people, and indeed have no contribution to a pluralist society. That’s part of what my book seeks to do: to be an act of ressourcement in the service of a better formation of all who would enter more deeply into the life and mind of Thomas Aquinas, and precisely to enter more deeply into the abundant life offered by the Gospel.