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Ross Douthat replies to Edmund Waldstein's article “All We Need Is Everything,” which is a response to Ross Douthat's article “A Gentler Christendom.” 

I am grateful to Edmund Waldstein for his kind response to my essay, and for his writings on these subjects generally. I am especially grateful in this case for his crisp elucidation of the Maritain–De Koninck debate and its implications for contemporary arguments, a subject whose subtleties I rather deliberately skirted in my own analysis, out of fear of displaying my own insufficiencies as a philosopher.

Such depth and rigor are a great virtue of the intellectual project Waldstein has done so much to elevate. Whatever one makes of the Catholic Church’s reconciliation with pluralism in the twentieth century, it cannot be denied that this reconciliation has contributed to a deleterious presentism in the life of the church, an assumption that if Catholicism’s political teachings could be reconciled with liberal democracy, they could therefore simply be subsumed into the categories and controversies of Western liberalism, deployed as props for partisan causes, and otherwise ignored. The contribution of post-liberal and integralist writers to a ­re-engagement with the richness of the pre-1960s Catholic patrimony should be acknowledged even by their sharpest critics.

That kind of reengagement is connected to the larger project of deepening and radicalizing—in the sense of “to the roots”—that Waldstein ­urges on Catholics, and which I would urge on my ­co-religionists as well (even if, as a layman who is often late to Mass, I embody its spirit rather less impressively than does a Cistercian monk). His analogy between the doomed attempt to forge a rationalist, bourgeois Catholicism in the face of the Reformers’ challenge and the disastrous post-1960s attempt to offer a secularized faith to an apparently secularizing world is well drawn, as is his keep-Catholicism-weird prescription. Restoring a thick and rigorous internal culture for the faith, after so much thoughtless iconoclasm, moral laxity, and bland cultural conformity should be the project on which serious Catholics of different political persuasions can agree.

But Waldstein, of course, goes further: He regards the full restoration of an integralist political theology—“the teaching that political life too, must submit to God,” and the elevation of ecclesial authority above civil authority—as essential to this project, and Maritain’s vision of a more indirect exercise of Catholic or Christian power as fundamentally inadequate.

The argument is eloquently made, but let me raise three questions. The first is a question of priority. Waldstein describes the integralist ideal as “a remote goal to be worked toward by small steps.” But for anyone not fully convinced of its perfection, it can seem that integralists are sometimes fascinated by this remote goal at the expense of the steps, small and large, that would have to be undertaken for it even to become a meaningful issue once again.

The two immediate realities of the church in much of the world today are institutional crisis and numerical collapse. At the elite level, Roman Catholicism is sufficiently internally divided that speaking of “church authority,” let alone appealing to it over and above the secular power, hardly seems likely to bring clarity. In recent years we have seen theological and ideological swings from papacy to papacy, widening gulfs between different national ­churches, and doctrinal conflicts dividing even the college of cardinals under the current pontiff.At the mass level (so to speak), in many formerly Catholic countries and regions, from Western Europe to Latin America, Catholicism has experienced an exodus that exceeds the crises of the Reformation.

That combination might suggest that the church needs to figure out how to govern itself before it aspires to any other sort of governance, and how to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively before it imagines itself ruling a society it has reconverted. The question of the church’s precise political status in the imagined future where these pressing goals are accomplished is not without interest. (If it were without interest, the neo-integralist position would not have stirred up so much debate!) But to the extent that settling this question becomes an intellectual priority, it risks becoming a temptation: either a way of skipping over the immediate tasks of preaching Jesus Christ and governing his church, as certain utopian Marxists would skip ahead to the classless society and leave the details of getting there aside, or a way of imagining a shortcut around the hard work of evangelization and conversion and reform, a Constantine ex machina that can fulfill the missionary project (as Constantine did not, in actual historical fact, despite his undeniable importance) in one explicitly political swoop.

Waldstein himself, to his credit, does not present integralism as a political shortcut, but he does present it as a necessary part of any effective argument against modern secularism. So my second question is about the scope of this necessity. Waldstein suggests, for instance, that since the secularizing aspect of the Enlightenment rejected both “teleology in nature” and “the authority of the church,” those twin rejections must necessarily be answered together for the religious counter-argument to work: “To oppose one without opposing the other is to fight with one hand tied behind one’s back.”

I am not sure this is true. After all, a belief in “teleology in nature” is hardly unique to Catholic Christendom: It belongs to pre-Christian antiquity, to non-Christian civilizations and our fellow Abrahamic monotheists, and to the ecumenical Protestantism that was foundational to the American republic. To insist that one must accept not just Christianity, not just the theological claims of Catholicism, but the political claims of the medieval or nineteenth-century church in order to reject eliminative materialism and gnostic superstition seems both intellectually and historically false. And the idea (traditionally associated with this journal) of an ecumenical alliance against these errors still seems like a more immediately effective way to answer them in a pluralist society than does arguing that teleology stands or falls on papal authority to an audience that is a great distance from being converted to the Catholic faith.

Both of these questions are about im­mediate dilemmas—where to begin a renewal or how to start a public argument. My longer-­term question, for a world in which Catholicism is stronger than it is today, is what lessons neo-integralism takes from the failure and collapse of its original model. Waldstein calls for a greater tolerance and mercy than the old Christendom displayed, which seems like the admirable point of overlap between his vision of Catholicism formally reestablished and Maritain’s vision of Christianity exercising power indirectly. But I think more needs to be answered on this question: not just about what integralism did, unjustly, to non-Catholics and non-Christians in the past, but also why its vision was ultimately abandoned by so many within the church itself.

Here Waldstein’s argument that Quebec’s integralism failed because it was abandoned by its erstwhile defenders raises more questions for his theory than it does for my critique. If the people who ultimately dismantled integralism weren’t enemies or apostates but people who thought of themselves as faithful Catholics, and if this happened in different ways almost everywhere at once, then anyone who wishes to restore such a system needs a clear account of why Catholics themselves so universally rejected it.

It is not enough for that account to speak of the undoubted errors of pride and hubris among those who did the dismantling, or to emphasize all the undoubted evils of our own, post-integralist age. It must also be conceded that one reason Catholic Christianity’s message of human liberation lost out to secular alternatives is that societies like Quebec or Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century simply did not feel like shining examples of Christian freedom lived in obedience to truth. They felt corrupt and claustrophobic to too many of their own Christian inhabitants, in ways that mapped neatly onto the liberal critiques of integralism, and eventually enabled that critique to win converts within Catholicism itself—such that the theory of the ideal Catholic state seemed to die by its own hand.

I take it for granted that today’s integralists are sincere in their desire not to repeat that unhappy history. But the theory they urge upon us as an ultimate ideal led often, and recently, to distinctly non-­ideal regimes and palpable betrayals of the ­gospel—to societies that felt formally Catholic without feeling spiritually Christian, and rapidly became neither when the formal power was withdrawn.

What Maritain offered, in the shadow of that failure, was an attempt to preserve the cultural aspirations of Christendom while setting the faith free from some of its political temptations. He may have been wrong about the balance, but for those who believe the church must risk those temptations once again, the record requires more than a few concessions to tolerance and mercy. It requires a greater reckoning with why that form of Christendom was both defeated and abandoned, and an account of why its revival would not bring the same unhappy destination round again.

Ross Douthat is a columnist for the New York Times.

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