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I’m baffled when people warn of the dangers of “Catholic integralism.” Last year, the Jesuit magazine La Civiltà Cattolica published an attack on American Catholic conservatives, charging them with “integralism.” More recently, commentators have labeled as “integralist” various critics of liberalism, such as Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermuele. What does the label mean?

The term “integralism” came into use during the modernist crisis in early-twentieth-century Catholicism. It denoted the party opposed to liberalizing trends in European Catholicism. The word suggests nostalgia for an earlier period, one in which the moral, cultural, and political life of Europe was organized around—integrated with—the authoritative teachings of the Church.

More precisely, “integralism” refers to a distinctly modern cultural-political project. The most notorious instance of this project was Action Française, a fascist movement in France between the wars that attracted support from traditionalist Catholics. Franco’s Spain provides another example, though one less theorized. In these and other instances, the Catholic concept of authority (or what proponents imagined to be the Catholic concept of authority) was of central importance, rather than any particular theological or moral claims. The Church’s supreme authority was thought to provide the integrating principle that would restore the differentiated, hierarchical social system that had been weakened by modern economic, political, and cultural developments in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.

In Europe, those decades were felt as a time of disintegration. Robert Graves’s Good-Bye to All That was one of many reflections on the recession of the old order after World War I. From Bloomsbury to Weimar Germany, the smashed world seemed to some wonderfully open—and to others disastrously chaotic. Of the latter, some were attracted to integralism and the Catholic concept of authority (which, again, is not the same as Catholic dogma).

Our time is quite different. We live in a highly integrated era. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a broad, neo-liberal consensus emerged, one that has dominated the West for the last generation. To an astounding degree, we have united around the liberal democratic political and cultural project. The upshot is an integrated global economic system that works in concert with a fairly narrow set of ideas about politics and morality, which gain authority from science and the ongoing process of technological innovation.

John Rawls was the great theorist of this integration. He fused the comprehensive, imperative-driven morality of Kant with the metaphysical minimalism of utilitarianism. The upshot was an obligatory liberalism that serves as the master philosophy of public life. (In our current issue, Richard Spady argues that this master philosophy now finds its idiom and logic in economics.) In the English-speaking world, liberalism polices all other rival accounts of social life, requiring them to cleave to the requirements of “public reason.”

Like the Christianity of yore, the liberalism of today does not see itself as a temporal regime or the political tradition of a particular society. It is a universal revelation of reason. One can, perhaps, adopt a historical sensibility, recognizing that our present liberal sensibilities are of recent vintage. But that is of no moment, for liberalism regards itself as history’s end. The arc of history bends toward justice, we’re told, and of course justice means liberalism’s triumph. In this context—our context—the only integralism on offer is liberal integralism.

All this makes me more than a little suspicious when dissent from liberalism attracts denunciation, as raising the specter of “Catholic integralism.” I have many criticisms of Patrick Deneen’s new book, Why Liberalism Failed. Its analysis is too Hegelian. Deneen lines up stages of liberal theory from Hobbes to the present, showing how they fall like dominoes, leading to our doleful present circumstances. Criticisms aside, people who oppose the idea of a complete cultural, moral, and political integralism—which today’s liberalism aspires to—should welcome his voice of dissent. I certainly do.

Deneen has withdrawn his loyalty from liberal integralism, and he wishes to persuade others to join him. He seeks to describe a mode of citizenship that refuses liberalism’s claim to be the complete and final realization of justice. He does not make comprehensive counterclaims about the shape, order, and logic of public life—other than to deny the sufficiency of liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine that integrates culture, morality, economics, and politics into a single system.

That’s not surprising, because Catholic dogma—as distinct from the very modern fixation on the Church’s concept of authority—discourages us from aspiring to integralism of any sort. Our supernatural destiny is other than our natural end. As St. Augustine put it, though they are intermixed in this age, the City of God is ordered to a different end than the City of Man. As a consequence, a Catholic politics never seeks to be a sacred politics, never proposes a full and complete integration of statecraft with soulcraft.

Today’s liberal integralism naturally interprets any lack of full loyalty as a mode of counter-revolution. It does so because it claims socio-political comprehensiveness, an omni-competence that accounts for all circumstances and meets all needs. We saw this pattern, for instance, in the Obergefell decision. Marriage must be reshaped and reconstructed in accord with liberalism’s principles.

Liberal integralism collapses soulcraft into statecraft. It allows no room for diversity of opinion about the regime. This is why the reactions to Deneen, Vermuele, and others are often so shrill and denunciatory. I’m reminded of the Monty Python line, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” As Vermuele has noted, liberal integralism has a liturgy, one that perpetually conjures dark and threatening forces to justify its universal and punitive authority.

For all our talk of freedom, we live in a claustrophobic, conformist society. Whether this means that liberalism has “failed,” as Deneen insists, is an open question. Perhaps liberalism has been perverted rather than brought to completion by the secularist zeal that turns its political modesty into an integralist doctrine. That’s my hunch. But there can be no doubt that we need oxygen, which means that we need freedom from liberalism’s false claim to be the true, final, and comprehensive doctrine for public life.

R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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Photo by Ad Meskens via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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