Integralism: The End of Government?
Coerced virtue is no virtue at all.
“JESUS FOR PRESIDENT.” These words emblazoned on a yard sign during the 2016 election cycle still stick in my mind to this day, and for good reason. Jocular nature aside, the endorsement is a poignant commentary on the relationship between politics and religion as it exists in the mind of the common man.
Taken most directly, the sign is a plea for help, a call for a divine solution to the political ailments of our nation, which most of the country rightly understand to be moral in nature. But oftentimes, the proposed cure is truly worse than the disease.
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As Dr. James M. Patterson, Chair of Politics at Ave Maria University, cogently asserts, “It is important for those who stand for ordered liberty and constitutional government to stay vigilant against dangerous ideologies on the right as well as on the left and not assume that they will simply burn themselves out.” Integralism is one such ideology that must be guarded against, made especially dangerous since it poses as a principled political solution that logically follows from the truth of Catholicism.
Given the burgeoning rise in integralist sympathy, especially among “many young conservatives [who] are unsettled by the status quo and want a definitive answer to the many setbacks they experience in public life,” Patterson’s warning is more relevant than ever before. As he says in a 2023 article titled The Promise and Peril of Freedom Conservatism, “it is tempting to think that the years since the rise of Donald J. Trump, Catholic integralism, Christian nationalism, and National Conservatism are merely an interruption of the old fusionist place defining the American Right.” Transient or not, effective political discourse now requires the consequences of integralism to be discussed and its flaws exposed.
Most of us know intuitively that politics and religion are linked in some way or another. The popularly dubbed “culture wars” are just the latest example of man’s collective understanding that where there is moral conflict, political conflict necessarily follows. From the death of Socrates onward, the prevailing philosophical understanding of politics has involved the inculcation and enforcement of some moral order with a corollary view of man’s ultimate good.
In recent years, this traditional philosophical groundwork has crystallized in a compelling new way with the emergence of Catholic integralism. This is a school of thought which, generally speaking, holds that the ideal political arrangement is decidedly theocratic in nature—a confessional state ordered around the moral truths of Catholicism. It does so on the basis that “political rule must order man to his final goal”, which, in the mind of Catholics, is logically synonymous with the attainment of salvation via the Church.
Such a belief has been vociferously promoted within traditionalist Catholic circles and increasingly influences the greater public dialogue with high-profile academic proponents such as Adrian Vermuele. In his 2020 article Beyond Originalism, he advocates for injecting a more substantive moral vision, which he brands as “common-good constitutionalism,” into constitutional interpretation which would essentially graft Catholic moral principles directly onto the American project:
“This approach should take as its starting point substantive moral principles that conduce to the common good, principles that officials (including, but by no means limited to, judges) should read into the majestic generalities and ambiguities of the written Constitution. These principles include respect for the authority of rule and of rulers; respect for the hierarchies needed for society to function; solidarity within and among families, social groups, and workers’ unions, trade associations, and professions; appropriate subsidiarity, or respect for the legitimate roles of public bodies and associations at all levels of government and society; and a candid willingness to “legislate morality” —indeed, a recognition that all legislation is necessarily founded on some substantive conception of morality, and that the promotion of morality is a core and legitimate function of authority. Such principles promote the common good and make for a just and well-ordered society.”
-Adrian Vermeule, Beyond Originalism
He justifies this belief later on in the same article: “Promoting a substantive vision of the good is, always and everywhere, the proper function of rulers. Every act of public-regarding government has been founded on such a vision; any contrary view is an illusion.”
Being Catholic, Vermuele’s substantive vision will necessarily draw from Catholic doctrine, and as a devout, traditionally-minded Catholic myself, I am sympathetic. Questions of practicality aside, integralism as an ideal solution to political disorder seems at first blush to be both logically coherent and morally satisfying. In my ideal world, everyone would be as convinced of the truth of Catholic moral doctrine as I am. However, as much as I hate to say it, integralism is misguided. Shocking, I know, but in true Lockean fashion, no man should be so foolish as to place care of his eternal soul in the hands of a political magistrate. A certain degree of separation between Church and state is not only prudent, it is necessary.
To justify this belief, let us consider the philosophical root: I do not hold to be true, as integralists must, that the purpose of government is to guide men to their final end. I do not believe that the political community is ordered to the highest of all goods. The Aristotelian paradigm, as wise and useful as it is, does not contain the fullness of truth. Neither does the Christian conviction of possessing absolute truth in the person of Christ necessitate that this truth be politically administered. The underlying premise of the “Jesus for President” sign, rightly understood, is that good governance is moral governance. But by the same token, the inherent humor of the sign lays bare the fundamental flaw of taking this logic to its extreme: a divine paragon of moral virtue will never be president.
Philosopher kings simply do not exist. A fundamental tenet of all Christian traditions is that all men share the same fallen nature. Any form of government, no matter how moral, will nonetheless be tainted and unable to guide men to their ultimate end because of the inherent limitations of political activity. Suffice it to say, it cannot rationally be said that the goal of the political community is that which, by man’s very nature, it cannot achieve. That is, if orienting men towards their ultimate end is impossible to achieve via governmental administration, it logically follows that this cannot be the proper role of government.
In this, I presume to echo the words of Pope Saint John Paul the Great, whose thoughts are particularly pertinent to the considerations at hand.
“After Christ, it is no longer possible to idolize society as a collective greatness that devours the human person and his inalienable destiny. Society, the State, and political power belong to the changing and always perfectible framework of this world. No plan of society will ever be able to establish the Kingdom of God, that is, eschatological perfection, on this earth. Political messianism most often leads to the worst tyrannies. The structures that societies set up for themselves never have a definitive value; they can no longer seek for themselves all the goods to which man aspires. In particular, they cannot be a substitute for human conscience or for the search for truth and the absolute.”
-Pope St. John Paul the Great, Discorso Di Giovanni Paolo II
What makes this statement by the Pope most striking is his assertion that everything that follows is contingent upon Christ and His teachings. This contingency claim may seem like a stretch given that the only vaguely political statement Christ makes in the Gospels suggests a distinction between duties to God versus duties to the state but contains no roadmap for which duties might fall into each category. (Matthew 22:21). However, the key to this all is contained in the last sentence of John Paul II when he says that the structures of society cannot be a “substitute for human conscience.” The value of human conscience stems from the fact that virtue is a function of the internal state of the soul rather than external performance. The external form of society is instructive, but the interior inclination is essential to the substance of virtue.
Virtue begins and ends in the individual human soul, not the administrative state, no matter how much morality is legislated. The law, contrary to Aristotelian thought, cannot make men virtuous. Rather, “the highest function of the law is to guarantee to all citizens equally the right to live in accordance with their consciences and not to contradict the norms of the natural moral order which are recognized by reason,” as asserted by Pope Saint John Paul the Great. Law must make room for conscience because enforcing morality may be good for society as a whole but not for the punished individual’s soul. When virtue is identified solely as adherence to the law, the purpose of the law is twisted.
A prime example of this is Christ’s accusation of the Pharisees. In Matthew 23:2-7, Christ condemns dogmatic performance by pointing out the false righteousness of the Pharisees. In light of this, it is not only possible but likely that minute constraints of the law do not result in a correlative transformation of the soul. One can hope that an authoritative state would be capable of administering virtue directly into the souls of the citizenry, but a state-effected “elixir of morality” assumes that many possess sincere virtue in the first place. This truth is the central misunderstanding of the whole integralist position. Sanctification is not a governmental endeavor. At the end of all days, it comes down to God and the individual.
In the absence of any compelling reason to believe that external enforcement will bring about the necessary internal character of each individual to achieve the sanctification that confessional states ultimately hope to achieve, the integralist's argument is reduced to “if everyone was compelled to live by the moral dictates of our faith, society would be better.” Absent any assurances that true virtue on an individual level can be achieved by this method, the question becomes “better in what way, and for whom?”
The problem with integralist thought is that it cannot logically carry concern for the fate of each individual soul through the channel of bureaucracy. Ostensibly, integralists believe society would be better in general, and rightly so, because moral actions by the very fact that they are moral will necessarily lead to temporal flourishing when practiced on a grand societal scale. This is obvious. Of course it would be easier to live a virtuous, peaceful, and fulfilling life if everyone else was also virtuous. But this purely situational state of affairs is the best an integralist can honestly hope for when one advocates for a theocracy or any sort of substantive “common good.”
If one can’t guarantee the transformation of the soul via the administrative state, an impossible task as we’ve established, the imposition of external moral practices is more indicative of one’s own desire for moral expediency and not true concern for the souls of one’s fellows. With no assurance of salvation for individuals, the integralist appeal to the “common good” falls into the same temporally-minded category of analysis that they so deride in contemporary democracy.
The aspirations of the integralists are noble. They wish to have their cake and eat it too—to have sincere virtue in the people and temporal flourishing. The problem is, when these goals are pursued in tandem, only the latter can effectually result. The best we can hope for politically is a system concerned with temporal flourishing. This does not conflict with man’s spiritual end insofar as what is spiritually beneficial will necessarily result in temporal flourishing. To limit the project of government to the temporal sphere is not to deny the reality of man’s spiritual destiny. It is to acknowledge that this is too much reality for the government to handle. It is outside the scope and purview of what the government ought to administer.
Following the logic of Saint John Paul the Great, the proper end of government is not to transform the individual soul en masse. The end of government is to provide the conditions so that man may pursue his final end with the sincerity of heart necessary for true virtue. The safety, security, freedom, and well-being necessary for the salvific endeavor are the temporal conditions the government ought to be primarily concerned with and rightly attempts to bring about. Whatever form of government suits those ends best, the integralist vision is certainly not it.
Joshua Ray is an undergraduate at Ave Maria University, where he studies politics. He has previously worked as a canvasser for the Susan B. Anthony List.
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