January 2017 Print

Liberalism and Integralism

by Gabriel S. Sanchez

The 2016 Presidential Election has come and gone. No matter who prevailed, there was little expectation going in that the result would do anything except further polarize much of the country. Catholics of various ideological stripes took to social media and other, arguably more savory, outlets to stump for their preferred candidate, often relying on attenuated arguments to “prove” that the Church’s social magisterium dictated voting for mainline Candidate A over Candidate B (or vice versa). Some opted to keep faith with Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s provocative dictate: “When offered a choice between two politically intolerable alternatives, it is important to choose neither.”

Who can blame them? Long past are the days when the American faithful could expect to find authentically Catholic political candidates, particularly at the national level. Indeed, arguments have been put forth that no Catholic, regardless of the strength of his convictions, can live out his faith fully in public office; the forces of liberal secularism, and the temptation to compromise with them, are simply too powerful. Moreover, the faithful have seen time and again the promises of ostensibly “pro-life” candidates go unfulfilled while the highest court of in the land—comprised mostly of Catholics!—issues rulings contrary to natural and divine law.

And yet American Catholics press on with the hope that liberalism, in either its Republican or Democratic guise, will save them. For more than a century, Catholics have been told there is no contradiction between being a “good American” and a “good Catholic” despite the fact that the United States, from its inception, professed liberal dogmas contrary to Catholic teaching. People may fight over the “true” or “original” meaning of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States, but the reality is that when it comes to religion, particularly the true religion which is Catholicism, America has no place for it in public life. At best, religion is a “private affair” to be “tolerated”; once it openly contradicts the liberal Zeitgeist, however, the Faith becomes anathema.

The Integralist Thesis

Many, perhaps most, Catholics, including those who define themselves as “traditional,” don’t want to hear any of this. It’s too unsettling. They would prefer instead to believe that even though liberalism is rotten right now, it will get better in the future so long as the “right candidates” take office and pass “good laws.” Lost is the understanding that liberalism, at its core, is antithetical to the Catholic Faith—a point made repeatedly by numerous holy popes, bishops, theologians, and philosophers from the 18th century onward. Liberalism, for example, rejects the social kingship of Christ. His rule must yield to the will of the people, no matter how barking mad their transient wants and desires may be. As for the Church, her only respectable place is off in the corner and her voice, should it ever be heard, must never speak against the amorphous values of liberal ideology and certainly not about man’s true and final end, which is Heaven.

This is nothing less than a perverse reversal of the proper relationship between Church and State, one which is now so engrained in the ethos of the United States that few American Catholics bother to question it anymore. What should be recognized as an undeniable tension between what the Church teaches concerning spiritual and temporal authority and what liberalism professes is, more often than not, ignored.

Thankfully, however, a small but growing number of Catholics are reclaiming the integralist thesis, namely the true and proper understanding of how the ecclesiastical relates to the earthly. This has been summed up neatly by the American-born theologian Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

“Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding 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.”

While some charge that integralism is little more than a form of Catholic reactionary politics that arose in the wake of the 1789 French Revolution, its foundation can be found in Pope St. Gelasius’s famous fifth-century letter to the Emperor Anastasius, which Waldstein and other integralist thinkers have cited. Here is an extended excerpt.

“There are two, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority (auctoritas sacrata) of the priests and the royal power (regalis potestas). Of these, that of the priests is weightier, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, most clement son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in divine matters you bend your neck devotedly to the bishops and await from them the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly sacraments you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these things you depend on their judgment rather than wish to bend them to your will. If the ministers of religion, recognizing the supremacy granted you from heaven in matters affecting the public order, obey your laws, lest otherwise they might obstruct the course of secular affairs by irrelevant considerations, with what readiness should you not yield them obedience to whom is assigned the dispensing of the sacred mysteries of religion?” (For a collection of Pater Edmund Waldstein’s articles on integralism, along with other integralist pieces by this author and others, see The Josias, http://www.thejosias.com/.)

Integralism in America

Waldstein’s words, and indeed the historic testimony of St. Gelasius, may seem far removed from contemporary American political reality, but that does not make them irrelevant. Man’s final end and political truth are, after all, never irrelevant. What is sorely missing today are the right institutions (and, further, the right institutional arrangements) to make the integralist thesis a reality at the highest levels of governance. Further exacerbating the problem is that the Catholic Church, particularly in America, has lost its nerve, so-to-speak. Few in the American hierarchy are willing to call liberalism on the carpet for subverting the rights of Our Lord Jesus Christ over society, and it appears none would go so far as to condemn liberalism outright as an ideological pathology that openly attacks man’s soul.

None of this means that faithful Catholics cannot live their lives in solidarity with the integralist thesis. For instance, when the demands of the world contradict the express teachings of the Church, instead of seeking a compromise or some way to “finesse” the truth in order to meet the world’s demands first, Catholics should humbly submit to what God, through the Church, has called them to do. This may mean scheduling vacation and personal days at work around specific holy days or not participating in particular secular celebrations in order to better keep the liturgical seasons of the year, such as Advent and Lent.

For Catholics who are involved in public life to some degree, including the legal profession, extreme care should be taken not to engage in any activity or take any case that is likely to defy natural or divine law. Catholic lawyers should eschew promoting the destruction of families by thoughtlessly taking divorce cases and refuse to put themselves in the service of clients, particularly corporations, which wish to use the law as a tool for exploiting laborers, damaging the environment, or any other immoral end clearly condemned by the Catholic Church. This will not be easy, of course; but at some point all Catholics must ask themselves, “Will I be a follower of the world or a follower of Christ?”


At a smaller but crucial level, all Catholics, regardless of their station in life, can hold true to the integralist thesis by simply refusing to submit to the liberal decree that their faith should be private. Catholics ought to make time to pray every day, and especially during meals, whether at the workplace or a public restaurant. Those who find themselves commuting to and from work each day should feel no shame in reciting the Rosary on the bus or train, nor should they shy away from speaking openly and honesty about Christ and His Blessed Mother. These small acts, these modest but beautiful professions of faith, are hardly irrelevant in a society that has lost sight of the one thing it needs above all else, and that is Salvation which comes only from God.

A Horizon beyond Liberalism

The political philosopher Leo Strauss, in his 1932 review of Carl Schmitt’s provocative book The Concept of the Political, opined that a “horizon beyond liberalism” was required to both critique and overcome liberalism. Despite Schmitt’s best efforts to lay waste to liberal ideology, Strauss thought that Schmitt was still too beholden to liberal categories of thought. Whether that’s accurate or not is neither here nor there. What is known is that Strauss spent the next four decades of his life looking for that horizon in classical and medieval philosophy, especially the works of Plato. On a natural level, Strauss’s instincts were in the right place; but being an atheist Jew, Strauss privileged reason as the sole reservoir of truth over-and-against revelation.

Catholics, on the other hand, have access to the fullness of truth through Holy Mother Church—reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. The integralist thesis provides the very horizon Strauss was looking for. It serves as both a powerful critique of liberalism and shows the means to overcome it by nothing more than a return to the right relationship between the spiritual and temporal authorities. Comprehending that relationship is, of course, not the same as actualizing it, and in these troubled times it is far easier to either give in to despair or slide into apathy rather than to stand firm in life for the truth. But at a period in history when man has reached a point of unprecedented confusion over the purpose and end of life itself, and at the same time constructed a totalizing ideology in liberalism that actively upholds this confusion, Catholics cannot withdraw from the field of battle. Now is the moment to stand firm for the Faith, to offer prayers to Christ and His Saints, and never relinquish the hope that God will see all things through in His infinite wisdom and love.