In November 1945, Jacques Maritain wrote a letter to his friend Étienne Gilson in which he complained about “the integralists in Quebec” who were accusing him of “neo-liberalism, neo-individualism,” and “neo-Pelagianism.” Maritain was particularly frustrated because he saw the world that was just emerging from the smoke of World War II as being poised on a knife’s edge between two responses to the catastrophe. On the one hand was the nihilism of the existentialists. They saw the world as basically absurd. It would be necessary, therefore, for us to take responsibility for our own values, to choose what meaning to impose on the meaninglessness of existence. The second response was a Christian-inspired personalism. Personalists thought the proper response to the atrocities of totalitarian Germany was to proclaim the inalienable dignity of the human person as the guiding star of our common political life, and as the foundation of the rights and duties of all. Hence Maritain was incensed by what he saw as the stubborn and counterproductive stance of the integralists in Quebec, who equated Christian-inspired personalism with individualism and liberalism.
I recalled Maritain’s complaint about the Quebec integralists when reading Ross Douthat’s subtle and thoughtful attempt at recovering Maritain’s political stance for contemporary post-liberal politics. For contemporary integralism, as I and others have defended it at the Josias, is in large part inspired by the Quebec integralists to whom Maritain referred. I am convinced that those Quebec integralists were in the right; they had recognized crucial errors in Maritain’s thinking, and in correcting those errors had pointed to profound truths about the common good. In responding to Douthat, I want to appeal to those same truths.
Whom exactly did Maritain mean by “the integralists in Quebec”? He was referring primarily to the dean of the faculty of philosophy at the University of Laval, Charles De Koninck, and his defenders. In his 1943 book On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, De Koninck had criticized “personalists” for having accepted too many of the premises of the totalitarians against whom they were reacting. De Koninck did not explicitly mention Maritain, but it was clear that Maritain and his followers were included. If totalitarians had seen the state as a kind of super-individual, of which human beings were merely parts, and had therefore subordinated the individual to the state (one can see this position very clearly, for example, in the work of Othmar Spann), De Koninck thought that personalists had basically accepted this false notion of the state, but had argued that human beings were subordinated to the super-individual only insofar as they were material beings, whereas as spiritual beings (persons) they transcended the state. The dignity of the person, personalists argued, made them superior to the state. They were not subordinate to the state; the state was subordinate to them.
De Koninck argued that this was the wrong way to pose the question. The highest goods of the person, he showed, are goods that are communicable to many persons without division or diminution, precisely because they are greater goods than any merely private good. Whereas a merely private good is ordered to the person (for example, food is ordered to the one eating), it is the person who is ordered to a truly common good (for example, the philosopher is ordered to the good of wisdom). This ordering of persons to the common good is not totalitarian, because it is persons who are the beneficiaries of the common good. The true dignity of persons is rooted in their ability to participate in common goods greater than themselves. The primary human good is what Aristotle called “happiness” (eudaimonia), and this is the common good of the most complete human society. Though it is true that persons in some sense transcend the political community, they do so not because any merely personal good of theirs is greater than the political common good, but rather because they are further ordered to the more universal common good of the city of God: supernatural happiness.
De Koninck and his followers saw personalism as a form of neoliberalism and neo-individualism, since it resulted in seeing the purpose of the state not in the pursuit of a truly common good, but rather in establishing a framework of liberty in which each person could pursue a personal good. Most controversially, they saw personalism as a form of Pelagianism, since its concept of personal dignity led to an exaggeration of human freedom even in relation to the divine good.
What consequences do these seemingly abstract considerations have for the question of integralism? The first consequence is that human political communities have the same duties toward the true religion that human persons have. As Pope Leo XIII put it, “men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings.” The debt of gratitude that a political community owes to God is fulfilled by the political community’s recognition of the church, which God himself has founded. Moreover, since the teleological order of the human person to common goods is so fundamental, it is natural for human beings to see the common good of the most complete society to which we belong as our primary good. Hence, if the political community does not recognize that there is a higher society (the church), the temporal good will come to be seen as more important than the spiritual good. Such recognition must include the acknowledgement of church authority as a higher authority than that of the state, and church law as a higher law than civil law, since otherwise the two authorities, ruling over the same subjects, will inevitably come into conflict.
Those, in brief, are the reasons why I think it is necessary for the integralist ideal to be preserved, at least as a remote goal to be worked toward by small steps. But I also think that integralism is preferable on pragmatic grounds. Douthat argues that the decline of Christianity’s influence in Western societies was caused not by Christianity’s giving up on integralism, but rather by its “internal divisions, its failure to respond effectively to social and economic and technological changes, its theological civil wars and failures of leadership and egregious scandals.” Now, I quite agree with Douthat that those factors were crucial. I would also add the failure of Christian thinkers to respond adequately to the rise of a non-teleological approach to natural science in the early Enlightenment. But I disagree that those factors are entirely separable from the question of integralism. The twin foundations of the Enlightenment philosophy, which had such great influence on the social, economic, and technological changes in modernity, are the rejection of teleology in nature and the rejection of the authority of the church. To oppose one without opposing the other is to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back.
The integralist understanding of the relation of the two powers is part of a comprehensive understanding of human sociality and human freedom. To give up on one of the central pillars of that understanding is to call the whole vision into question. Douthat notes that in Quebec, with its stronger integration of church and state, the collapse of Christian influence was more rapid and complete than in the U.S., with its more indirect model of church influence on politics. But a strong case can be made that in Quebec the collapse of Catholicism (whose influence had been so strong that it was said even the potatoes of Quebec were Catholic) was in part due to the Catholics’ abandonment of the integralist ideal, and with it the whole Catholic understanding of human flourishing and human freedom. Michael Gauvreau has provided a great deal of evidence for that thesis in his book The Catholic Origins of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. In other words, when Douthat writes that there was “no countervailing example [to the U.S.] of how a closer relationship between church and state could have saved Christian power from eclipse,” and points to Quebec, Ireland, and Spain as examples of the opposite, his examples fail. We do not have a countervailing example, precisely because the Maritainian strategy was adopted everywhere in the Catholic world. That the decline was quicker in places like Quebec is quite probably due to the fact that the change there was more sudden and more traumatic.
The question of the nature of freedom is, I believe, crucial to a proper understanding of Christianity’s decline, because secularism has always opposed Christianity in the name of freedom. In taking on the mantle of freedom, secularism has turned Christianity’s own claim of being a gospel of liberation against Christianity. As historian Tom Holland has argued, there are strong parallels between secular and Christian movements of liberation. In late antiquity, Christianity was the cause of truth, justice, and freedom. The Christian gospel was defeating superstition, oppression, and vice. The deplorable pagani, sinister reactionaries, in thrall to false and defeated gods, were being overcome by the forces of justice and truth. Christian reform movements throughout the ages would recall the same dynamic: seeing themselves as championing truth, justice, and freedom against superstition, oppression, and enthrallment. The great reform movements of the Middle Ages—such as the Gregorian Reform or the Albigensian Crusade—saw themselves in such terms.
But this was also how heretical movements often saw themselves. The Protestant Reformation saw itself precisely as the cause of truth and freedom against ignorance, superstition, and oppression. And secular progressivism is very much in the tradition of the Reformation. The Enlightenment began as a movement among believing Christians, but with time its more radical proponents came to see themselves as championing reason against Christian pretensions of revelation. The spirit of Christian reform is turned against Christianity itself. Now Christianity is ignorance, superstition, and oppression, while secular reason is the cause of truth and liberation.
In our current era, postmodern versions of critical theory have effected a similar reversal on Enlightenment reason. Now the Enlightenment metanarratives of liberation and progress are exposed as masks of patriarchy, racism, and hatred of difference. The new dawn of an endless play of difference will liberate all the oppressed groups of the world. The great evil these critics unmask is the injustice inevitably imposed on the less powerful by the more powerful. Despite their general contempt for Christianity, we can still see here a trace of the Christian gospel: “He has pulled down the dynasts from their thrones, and raised up the humble” (Lk. 1:52). It is this trace, however faint, that gives the current woke movement its power and attraction.
Human beings are political creatures, and we yearn to serve great political causes of justice and liberation. But this aspiration makes it all the more vital that we discern whether a given movement is based on truth or falsehood. I believe that the Christian answer to the would-be liberators of our day must be to show that true freedom means the ability to live according to the truth about the human good, a truth written into the teleology of our nature, elevated and fulfilled by the Catholic Church. The woke liberation movement of our day is based on a false and (as Douthat rightly points out) gnostic understanding of freedom that is destructive of true human happiness.
Maritain hoped, after the trauma of the world wars, that the human community was open to a new commitment to a fundamentally Christian understanding of human dignity and natural law, that a reconciliation between the church and secular progress was within reach. But, as Douthat admits, Maritain’s hopes were dashed. Part of the reason is that the position of his less subtle followers amounted to a concession that the enemies of the church had been right all along, that the church had been the enemy of human freedom, and secular Enlightenment its true defender. If that were really true, then could anyone be blamed for abandoning the church?
To many it seemed that in the twentieth century, the end of the “Counter-Reformation Age” in the church had finally come. The tension between the church and the modern world, which had emerged during the Renaissance and the Reformation, could now be resolved. At the time, this position was plausible. I do not believe it is plausible anymore.
What we need today is a renewal of something like the church’s strategy during the Counter-Reformation. There were Catholics in the sixteenth century who wanted to water down those aspects of Catholicism most attacked by the Protestants: penance, fasting, vigils, indulgences, veneration of relics, scholasticism, and much else of the fabric of medieval Catholicism in both its popular piety and its mystical and speculative theology. Such Catholics wanted a Catholicism more in keeping with the tastes of the ascendant middle classes, and more theologically illuminated by humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam than by the scholastics. But the great figures of the Counter-Reformation—St. Charles Borromeo, Fr. Domingo Bañez, St. Teresa of Avila, Pope St. Pius V, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and many others—took a different path. Their approach was not to water down Catholicism, but to radicalize it, to draw more deeply from the sources of the tradition to invigorate the present. They met the challenges of Reformation theology by showing that the truths the Reformers saw in a partial and distorted way were more fully given in the Catholic tradition. We must do something similar in our own day. Part of such a confident assertion of Catholic truth must be a renewal of the teaching that political life, too, must submit to God, and that this is where true political freedom is to be found.
But to say that integralism is necessary is not to say that a Catholic society of the future will have to emulate Counter-Reformation societies in every respect and detail. Once the basic theses of integralism have been accepted, there is still a wide range of possible applications. I agree with Douthat that we must learn from the past, beware of overreaching, and guard against being unmerciful to religious minorities. I think that Vatican II’s more humble and respectful attitude toward the Jewish people, an attitude marked by repentance for the many injustices done to them in the past, is necessary.
And to say that integralism is necessary is not to say that it is the only thing necessary. As John Rao likes to say, “all we need is everything.” Just as, in the Counter-Reformation, political reform was but one element of a more comprehensive movement—which included reform of religious orders, the foundation of new orders, a renewed commitment to ascetical discipline and to Christian education, and a new style in the fine arts—so today we need all of those things and more to bring our world to the peace of Christ in the Kingdom of God.
Edmund Waldstein, O. Cist., is a monk of Stift Heiligenkreuz.