Friday, June 7, 2019
A clarification on integralism
Talk of integralism is all the rage in recent weeks, given the dispute between David French and Sohrab Ahmari and Matthew Continetti’s analysis of the state of contemporary conservatism, on which I commented in . What is integralism? Rod Dreher the following definition from the blog :
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.
End quote. Now, I wouldn’t say that this definition is wrong, but it does need qualification. In particular, where talk of “the end of human life” and related terms are concerned, we need to draw some distinctions – distinctions that are usually ignored in modern discussion of these issues, and the neglect of which leads to serious misunderstandings, certainly where the topic of Catholic integralism is concerned.
What I am talking about are the distinctions between a natural end and a supernatural end, and between natural theology and revealed theology. A natural end of a human being is an end toward which we are aimed or directed by nature, just by virtue of being human beings or rational animals. For example, by virtue of being a kind of animal, we are naturally aimed or directed toward the realization of ends like acquiring food and shelter. And by virtue of being rational, we are naturally directed toward the realization of ends like the attainment of truth.
A supernatural end is one toward which our nature itself does not direct us, even if it is not inconsistent with our nature. It is one that is above what our nature would by itself allow us to realize (hence supernatural), so that realizing it requires special divine assistance. The beatific vision – the direct or unmediated knowledge of God’s nature enjoyed by the blessed in heaven – is our supernatural end, impossible to achieve without grace. (Note that “supernatural” in this sense has nothing to do with ghosts, goblins, and the other usual strawmen.)
Natural theology has to do with knowledge about God’s existence and nature that is possible for us to acquire simply by virtue of applying our natural powers of reasoning, via purely philosophical arguments. It requires no appeal to special divine revelation – to scripture, the tradition of the Church, the teachings of a prophet, or the like. It is the kind of knowledge that pagan philosophers like Aristotle and Plotinus had, even if their views were mixed with various errors. Revealed theology, by contrast, is knowledge of God’s nature and will of the kind that is available only through some special divine revelation (and thus through scripture, etc.). The doctrine of the Trinity is a standard example. And knowing that it is possible for us by grace to attain the beatific vision would be another example.
Now, since there is such a thing as natural theology, acquiring knowledge of God’s existence and nature through the use of pure reason is also among our natural ends. Indeed, for pagans like Aristotle and Plotinus, no less than for Christians, it is the highest of our natural ends. And it entails that the highest of our natural obligations – what we most need to pursue in order to flourish as human beings – is, in Aristotle’s words, “the contemplation and service of God.”
This is not the same as the beatific vision, because it involves merely mediated or inferential knowledge of God, rather than the intimacy of a direct knowledge of the divine nature. Unlike the beatific vision, such mediated knowledge is possible for us by nature rather than only by grace. And there is much else that we can know by nature or via purely philosophical arguments, such as the immortality of the soul and the natural law conception of ethics – with everything that entails about abortion, sexual morality, and the general obligation on the part of both individuals and societies to recognize and honor God.
The relevance to Catholic integralism is this. Many people seem to think that the debate over integralism is a debate over whether religion, in general, ought to have an influence in politics, and it seems to me that the definition provided by The Josias might reinforce this impression. Many people also seem to think that Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty abandoned the idea that religion should have any influence on politics. But all of that is incorrect. From the natural law point of view, and from the point of view of both traditional and post-Vatican II Catholic social doctrine, there is no question that natural theology and natural law must inform politics, whatever one says about specifically Catholic theology.
That means that even a non-integralist Catholic could and should hold that at least a generic theism should be affirmed by the state and that government policy should be consistent with the principles of natural law. For these are matters of philosophy, not divine revelation. They can all be established by rational arguments that make no reference to scripture or the magisterium of the Church. You could be a purely philosophical theist – a Neoplatonist, say, or an Aristotelian, or a Leibnizian – who completely rejects the very idea of divine revelation, and still hold that the state ought to honor God, that abortion should be outlawed, and so on. The atheist state is contra naturam, not merely contrary to divine revelation.
It might be objected that arguments for these theses, even if purely philosophical, are obviously controversial, so that no such theses should influence public policy. But though the premise is true, the argument is a non sequitur. Every substantive claim about morality and politics is controversial, including those to which liberals are committed. Liberals had no qualms about pushing for same-sex marriage even when it was far more controversial than it is now. They had no qualms about imposing the legalization of abortion on the entire country by judicial fiat when the idea was highly controversial, as it still is. So they cannot consistently hold that philosophical views about natural theology and natural law ethics should not influence public policy, on the grounds that those views are controversial.
(Liberalism claims to be “neutral” or impartial between competing controversial philosophical, moral, and religious views in a way that other political philosophies are not, but as I have argued in several places, this purported neutrality is completely bogus and delusional. See e.g. my essay “Self-Ownership, Libertarianism, and Impartiality,” in .)
Rightly understood, the debate over Catholic integralism has to do with whether specifically Catholic doctrines, which concern our supernatural end and are matters of revealed theology, should have an influence on public policy. The state should favor theism, but must it favor the Church? That is the sort of question that the debate over how to interpret Vatican II’s teaching on religious liberty has always been about. No one can justify a complete separation of religion and politics on the basis of Vatican II. The most one could argue for (whether correctly or incorrectly) is that Vatican II abandoned the ideal of a specifically Catholic state.
There are two basic schools of thought on the latter question. On one view, Vatican II reversed the teaching of the pre-Vatican II popes and rejected even in principle the idea that the state should favor the Church. Call this the “hermeneutics of rupture” interpretation. Some people who adopt this interpretation approve of the purported rupture in teaching (i.e., progressives and some neo-conservative Catholics), while others deplore it (i.e., some traditionalist Catholics, who argue that the teaching of Vatican II was not infallible anyway and thus can and ought to be reversed in the future).
On another view, Vatican II did not reverse past teaching, but merely made a prudential judgment to the effect that, though the Church retains the right in principle to be favored by the state, it is no longer fitting for her to exercise this right. Furthermore, on this interpretation, Vatican II’s reference to an individual right to religious liberty can be interpreted in a way consistent with the Church being favored by the state. Call this the “hermeneutics of continuity” interpretation. Some who adopt this interpretation think that the prudential judgment in question was sound (i.e., many conservatives and probably at least some traditionalist Catholics), while others think it was unwise (i.e., those traditionalist Catholics who don’t accuse Vatican II of doctrinal error but think the state should, where possible, continue to favor the Church).
Catholic integralists are essentially those who think that, however we interpret Vatican II, it is irreformable Catholic teaching that the ideal situation is for the state to favor the Church. But integralists in this sense nevertheless can and do disagree over the practical implications of this position. What we might call soft integralism is the view that, though in theory the state may and ideally should favor the Church, in practice this is extremely unlikely ever to work out very well. Politics and culture, on this view, are always too messy for the ideal to be anywhere close to realizable. Hence, for the soft integralist, functionally the Church is better off keeping integralism on the shelf indefinitely as a dead letter (and perhaps should never have tried to implement it even in the past). It’s a doctrine that is only of theoretical interest and too hazardous to apply in practice.
Hard integralism would be the view that it is always best for the Church to try to implement integralism as far as she can, so that Catholics should strive not only to convert the world to the faith, but also to get the state to favor the Church wherever this is practically feasible.
Moderate integralism, naturally, falls in between these extremes. Whereas the soft integralist thinks it is never or almost never a good idea to try practically to implement integralism, and the hard integralist thinks it is always or almost always a good idea to do so, the moderate integralist thinks that there is no “one size fits all” solution and that we have to go case by case. In some historical and cultural contexts, getting the state to favor the Church might be the best policy, in others it might be a very bad policy, and in yet others it might not be clear what the best approach is. We shouldn’t assume a priori that any of these answers is the right one, but should treat the question as prudential and highly contingent on circumstances.
In my opinion, orthodoxy requires a Catholic to be at least what I am calling a soft integralist, but Catholics may legitimately disagree about whether a moderate or hard sort of integralism is preferable. I am sympathetic to the views of , who has given powerful arguments in defense of the claims that pre-Vatican II teaching is irreformable and that the teaching of Vatican II can be reconciled with it. (Also important are the arguments in defense of a “hermeneutic of continuity” interpretation given by and .)
The situation here is, in my opinion, analogous to the situation vis-à-vis the death penalty. Catholics can legitimately disagree about whether it is ever advisable in practice to resort to capital punishment. But they must all affirm, on pain of heterodoxy, that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in theory. Similarly, Catholics can legitimately disagree about whether it is ever advisable in practice for the state to favor the Church. But they ought to affirm that it can be legitimate at least in theory for the state to do so.
In any event, “Are you for or against integralism?” is not a very helpful question and needs to be disambiguated in the ways I’ve indicated.