Further thoughts on liberalism and integralism – Catholic World Report

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The great problem of politics today is how the contemporary vision of social life, whose atomic individualism leads to totalitarianism, can be overcome and the more complex, adequate, and humane traditional vision brought back.

Further thoughts on liberalism and integralism – Catholic World Report
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City. (Image: Dana Andreea Gheorghe/Unsplash.com)

A couple of months ago, I wrote an anodyne column about integralism, the view that political should be subordinate to spiritual authority.

It said that today the subordination would be reversed in practice. Its real effect would be to deprive the Church of what independence she had and make our pastors more like German and Anglican bishops.

Even so, I argued that integralism is important as a matter of principle, and if conditions were different—in particular, if the people who ran things thought Catholicism made sense as a basis for cooperation—then government should recognize the Faith as true, and promote it as it promotes other true, important, and beneficial things.

The Church would then hold something like the position now held by academies of science and human rights bodies. It would be the authority on the highest standards, accepted as such by government, and in some cases its determinations would have legal effect.

That, I thought, would count as integralism, and it seemed right for Catholics to hold it as an ultimate political goal.

I also dealt with objections, arguing for example that notwithstanding Fr. Waldstein’s favorable views on burning heretics, the risk of unjust excesses is less with integralism than other principles of government.

To my surprise, the piece violently triggered some conservative Catholics. Intelligent men who work with words and ideas for a living said I sounded like Machiavelli and that I literally wanted to burn heretics.

What was going on? Every argument must be dealt with on its own merits, but the overall situation called for explanation. Why does “integralism” provoke the same fear and outrage among many conservative Catholics that “MAGA” does among secular progressives?

It seems to me the reason is the same: these two very different non-liberal tendencies both appeal to realities like man’s social and religious nature that liberalism excludes from public consideration, and my critics were sympathetic to some form of political or philosophical liberalism.

Basically, liberalism sees man as an independent individual, and society as a contract among sovereign individuals to help them pursue whatever reasonable goals they may have.

On such a view, a political appeal to man’s social or religious nature is fraudulent, an attempt to deprive him of his rights for the sake of an image of higher unity that is in fact nothing more than an expression of the will to power of those promoting it.

So a call for national greatness is not a call for something that elevates each of us because nationality is part of us, just as we are part of the nation. And a call for a Catholic society is not a call for social recognition of our most humanly necessary goal: communion with God. Instead, each is an attempt by a few people to bamboozle the public into sacrificing their own freedom and dignity to the projects of their would-be masters.

In line with that outlook, these critics demand that government be neutral: it should recognize nothing as authoritative beyond what can be demonstrated to every individual by natural reason. For them, that apparently includes natural law as the Church understands it, but not the Church itself. So the views of secular thinkers in favor of contraception and abortion can be disregarded as unreasonable, while their rejection of the authority of Revelation cannot.

To discuss that distinction, we’d have to weigh the force of various reasonings, which seems complicated. So let’s agree for now that, in principle, rejecting arguments against contraception and abortion is unreasonable while rejecting the evidences for Revelation is not.

But that doesn’t affect the reality that people don’t and aren’t likely to agree on any of these issues. Regardless of what positions are theoretically reasonable or unreasonable, as a practical matter, there has to be a visible social authority with the power to decide who’s right and who’s wrong on these and other contentious issues.

Currently, such issues are decided by the consensus of educated, influential, and well-connected people—top academics, journalists, lawyers, bureaucrats, and so on. Bodies such as the Supreme Court and United Nations Human Rights Council are expected to develop, express, and give concrete form to that consensus. (There’s a fuss when they don’t, as in the Dobbs decision.)

With that in mind, it’s natural that human rights orthodoxy increasingly presents the self-idealization of technocratic society, and thus of rule by global commercial and bureaucratic institutions. That’s why “human rights” increasingly emphasize procedural regularity and social uniformity, along with the importance of equal access to career, material well-being, and rational development and use of human resources.

That emphasis, which is manifested in slogans like “inclusiveness,” is equivalent to a demand for conversion of the social world into a uniform and orderly industrial process devoted to satisfying manageable preferences. As such, it comes at the expense of family, religion, particular cultural community, and other traditional arrangements. These are given lip service, but increasingly deprived of definition and social authority, so much so that social recognition of a principle basic to most traditional arrangements—the existence of two sexes that differ in ways that matter—is now thought to violate human rights.

That situation shouldn’t please Catholic critics of integralism, but it is a natural outcome of their position. If there is no socially authoritative transcendent standard that tells us what life, law, and politics are ultimately about, we’ll get a standard that emerges from the everyday workings of political and social life. And in a dynamic society dominated by huge institutions concerned purely with the things of this world—and thus with their own pragmatic success—that will inevitably be an idealization of rule by those institutions.

The main response by critics to such concerns, apart from repeating secular liberal perspectives, is to identify integralism with totalitarianism. The problem in totalitarian states is less the state than the political party that guides it and stands for the regime’s ideals. So why wouldn’t the relation between the Church and an integralist state be like that between the communist party and the Soviet state?

On that point, Augusto Del Noce had it right:

It is hard to imagine a greater historical error than confusing medieval theocracy with totalitarianism. … The latter—inasmuch as it subordinates every spiritual activity to politics, and in fact to the judgment of the politicians—affirms the “primacy of the temporal”, which is the complete negation of what justified the former, at least in theory.

Church and state have different habitual goals and spheres of activity. They also have different geographical jurisdictions, kinds of personnel, ways of acting, and sources of authority and support. So there’s more likely to be a problem getting them to work together productively than keeping them from joining together and acting tyrannically. The conflict between pope and emperor in the Middle Ages is an obvious example of the tension inherent in their relationship.

In contrast, totalitarian parties are interested only in politics. Like the state, they care only for practical advancement of this-worldly goals. So there’s no diversity of nature and concern, only in degree of involvement in immediate practicalities. Party and state are thus more likely to become indistinguishable than argue with each other.

Liberals, including philosophically liberal Catholics, miss that point because they believe that only the individual and the state can have social authority. On that view, the big political problem is how to limit the Leviathan state, but the increasingly tyrannical nature of liberalism makes it evident that without a third force no solution can be more than temporary.

The social understanding behind integralism is very different: political authority is natural to society, but so are other authorities including Church, family, and particular cultural community. Basic social institutions should work together, so it is the duty of the state to recognize and support these other authorities.

The great problem of politics today is how the contemporary vision of social life, whose atomic individualism leads to totalitarianism, can be overcome and the more complex, adequate, and humane traditional vision brought back. At bottom, then, what most need discussion in connection with integralism are the understandings and social conditions that make it impossible for many intelligent people to see it as anything but clerical tyranny. Until that issue is dealt with, the discussion goes nowhere.

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