In the past five years or so, discussion of Catholic political currents, especially online, has increasingly included an ideology called integralism. Prominent and influential jurists and law professors such as Harvard’s Adrian Vermeule have increasingly begun describing themselves as integralists; rank-and-file commentariat on social media will often identify themselves as such; politicians like US Attorney General Bill Barr and many figures in the current governments of Hungary and Poland are alternately feted and attacked for their perceived commitment to integralist ideals. One might say that the “specter of integralism” is haunting Catholic spaces.

What is integralism, exactly? Simply put, integralism is the view that the teachings, and possibly the institutional structures, of the Catholic Church should be integral to the functioning of a political system. Rather than interacting with the state as a civil society institution, as the Church currently does in most parts of the world, Catholic teaching should in fact direct important elements of state policy. If we view this transactionally, the state should defer to the Church on significant areas of policy and insulate the Church from secularization and from other religions. In return, the Church should demur from sustained criticisms of the state’s priorities. If we view it historically, integralism is the belief that the relationship between Church and state that one sees throughout much of medieval and early modern European history should still be the relationship between Church and state today.

In many ways, integralism is difficult to place in the conventional left-right spectrum of contemporary political ideologies. For example, most integralists realize that Catholic doctrine doesn’t involve the intense suspicion of state intervention in the economy that Anglo-American political conservatism typically does. For this reason, Adrian Vermeule is intensely in favor of the administrative state and supports legal doctrines like agency deference that most people on the American right do not. Conservative columnist George Will has disparagingly described Vermeule’s desire to see “government enforcing social solidarity for religious reasons,” and warned that “hierarchies must employ coercion.” Elliot Kaufman has written in the mainstream conservative magazine National Review that Vermeule wishes to “assail the basis of much of the world’s prosperity and freedom” (i.e., capitalism). There are even integralists (such as the very-online Millennials of the short-lived “Tradinista” movement, with whom I was briefly and very loosely associated myself) who see themselves as being on the political left. So integralism isn’t really “conservative Catholicism” as most people today understand it. It isn’t fixated on left-right point-scoring, and despite many American integralists’ strong support for the course the Trump administration has taken, people like Vermeule see Trumpism more as a way-station on the road to an ordered and re-sacralized society, rather than as worthy of uncritical defense on its own merits. I’ve known integralists who are even actively pro-Pope Francis due to Francis’s criticisms of liberal capitalism and low opinion of contemporary Anglo-American society. (Contrast, as so many do, with the anticommunist, philosemitic, philoamerican John Paul II.)

So what’s the problem? If integralists aren’t particularly invested in the political right for its own sake, and tend to be deferential towards Pope Francis, why warn against the movement on a site dedicated to defending Pope Francis’s magisterium from ideologized Catholicism?

In one sense, there isn’t much theologically or even politically wrong with integralism at all. If the Church teaches that a particular public policy is morally necessary, then the state is in some sense morally obliged to implement that policy, otherwise the Church wouldn’t teach that. Even Dignitatis humanae, the Vatican II document that defined an affirmative moral right to freedom from state coercion in matters of religion, retains some integralist influence. At one point in Dignitatis humanae we read “If, in view of peculiar circumstances obtaining among peoples, special civil recognition is given to one religious community in the constitutional order of society, it is at the same time imperative that the right of all citizens and religious communities to religious freedom should be recognized and made effective in practice” (6). At another point, we read that “immunity from coercion in civil society” is a principle that “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (2). The inclusion of both these clauses in the same document leaves it clear that Vatican II envisioned situations in which a country had Catholicism as its state religion but other religions still had full freedom of conscience and assembly. To the extent that this is what many integralists purport to want society to be like, there’s nothing about integralism that violates the human rights envisioned by Vatican II. This is more than can be said for certain other currents of Catholic political thought abroad in the world today. These variously violate Church teaching on solidarity, subsidiarity, or both; collude with or even justify some or even most of the “infamies” in Gaudium et Spes 27; and reject teachings on public affairs issued by Pope Francis, his two immediate predecessors, or all three of them. Integralism avoids these obvious pitfalls and in that respect it is to be commended.

There are two areas, however, in which integralism, in my opinion, falls short. One of these has to do with integralism’s relationship to history, the other with its relationship to the institutions of the Church.

First, many integralists have idealized notions of the conditions facing women, gay people, and sometimes also Jewish people and other religious minorities, in societies that have attempted to implement Catholic teaching as state policy in the past. Church direction of secular political policy was characteristic of medieval European societies, but these societies were also home to intense Jew-hatred, to the extent that oftentimes the medieval papacy actually had to rein in the secular arm from pursuing harsh persecutions. Various twentieth-century countries, including both dictatorships like Franco’s Spain and democracies like De Valera’s Ireland, attempted to implement Catholic morality as state social policy as well, but these governments often ended up with exceptionally punitive “vice” laws that led to the unjust and unedifying imprisonment of people deemed socially undesirable. (Bill Barr, for his part, has a harshly punitive philosophy of justice and has written book-length arguments in favor of the US’s policy of warehousing as many drug addicts as humanly possible regardless of whether or not they present any danger to public order.)

I too love the medievalist aesthetics of lords and ladies, knights and pages, bakers and millers, Gothic cathedrals and Byzantine palaces. I even love the mid-20th century Catholic world of Bing Crosby and lithographic prayer cards. If it weren’t for my heightened sensitivity to the antisemitism involved in those historical milieus, I might well have ended up a full-fledged “Tradinista” after all. As it is, I can’t honestly commend or support a political project that simply idealizes that history. Catholic teaching dictating the shape social policy takes is appealing in the abstract, but in practice, it doesn’t have the best track record of protecting the sorts of rights Dignitatis humanae is actually about.

Secondly, integralism makes claims about the Church’s rights over against the state that the Church itself no longer makes. Like Marcie from Peanuts constantly shilling for Peppermint Patty and defending her from all comers despite Peppermint Patty neither needing nor wanting her to, integralist theories claim privileges for the Church that the Church no longer claims for herself. As we have seen, the idea of an integral relationship between Church and state was not so much repudiated at Vatican II as finessed. However, statements like “Finally, government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons” (DH 6) leave little doubt that the Church today does not want the state to privilege some types of people over others or impose social hierarchies on its citizens.

I actually do believe that, typically, integralists are genuinely more concerned for the wellbeing of the Church and for the common good than many “Team Red” or “Team Blue” conservative or liberal Catholics. However, this concern is misplaced when it conflicts with the Church’s own understanding of freedom from religious coercion and of the political equality of the citizens of every nation.

Image: “The Coronation of Charles X of France” by François Gérard.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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