Catholic integralism (sometimes referred to as “integrism”) is today dismissed as a relic of a bygone era which received its final chance at life through a number of ostensibly misguided socio-political movements during the early decades of the last century. Though the term “integralism” would be appropriated and reworked by several prominent 20th Century theologians, it is largely associated with hyper-traditionalist reactionaries who refuse to recognize the ideological realignment of the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council. Whether or not this ideological realignment has been either prudent or wise remains a vexing question. Serious inquiry into this matter is too often taken as a sign of flagrant disobedience, and there remain forces within the Church which wish to uphold that the ideological realignment toward liberalism is the direct result of, or coeval with, authentic doctrinal development. That thesis has come under significant and sustained scrutiny in recent years, as evidenced by Pater Edmund Waldstein’s four-part article, “Religious Liberty and Tradition” (available here, here, here, and here) and theologian John Lamont’s paper, “Catholic Teaching on Religion and the State.” Some, naturally, remain unconvinced, including those who believe that Vatican II’s document on religious liberty, Dignitatis Humanae, not only conflicts with pre-conciliar magisterial statements, but has had the practical effect of obscuring the social rights of Christ the King. That the Kingship of Christ has become, for many Catholics now living, a “lost doctrine” is almost beyond dispute. Nevertheless, as the Dominican theologian Fr. Aidan Nichols recently opined, “[P]ublicly recognising divine revelation is an entailment of the Kingship of Christ on which, despite its difficulties in a post-Enlightenment society, we must not renege.” It is for the restoration of this public recognition that Catholic integralism continues to strive.
Contrary to popular belief, Catholic integralism—or what I shall refer to simply as “integralism” for the duration of this essay—is not first and foremost a political program. For the integral understanding of Christianity begins first with the supernatural society established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, namely the Corpus Mysticum, the Holy Catholic Church, which transcends the temporal sphere and has for its end the salvation of souls. By carrying out its mission in the world, the Catholic Church possesses indirect power over the temporal sphere which is exercised for the good of souls. This indirect power in no way sullies the Church’s divine mission nor dilutes it by way of overextension since the civil authority retains at all times direct power over temporal matters.
Sitting at the head of both the ecclesiastical and civil authorities is Christ the King. Contrary to distortions which entered the Church’s liturgy nearly a half-century ago, the Kingship of Christ is not exclusively spiritual. Although Christ’s spiritual rule in this world began 2,000 years ago and can in no way be abrogated, the temporal acceptance of this rule, that is, the recognition of Christ’s reign in its full integrity and truth only came about after the course of centuries whereby the civil rulers, whose authority was never their own and always from God, accepted the divine mission of the Church and her supernatural constitution. While the nations of this world have drifted far from accepting this reality, their denial cannot with any true effect “uncrown” or “dethrone” Christ. His social reign may, through ignorance or sin, be unrecognized and unimplemented by the present civil authorities, but they possess no right to do so. As Pope Pius XI made clear in his great encyclical Quas Primas, “It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power.”
Integralism follows this reminder of Pius XI with the utmost degree of seriousness. Even in the absence of states and more localized political communities which are fully permeated with the teachings of the Catholic Church, integralists live out their public lives, be it in the workplace or the voting booth, under the reign of Christ. That is, there is no separation between private “religious life” and public “citizen life”; the obligations in justice which should bind all nations at all times continues to bind all Catholics, regardless of what the civil authority recommends. While prudential considerations will affect application, no Catholic businessman, for instance, holds the right to pay his workers unjust wages simply because liberal economic ideology equates “justness” with the prevailing market wage. Similarly, no Catholic politician, regardless of which level of office he holds (municipal, state, or national), has the right to support immoral laws legalization, inter alia, abortion, same-sex unions, narcotics, prostitution, and pornography. Integralism recognizes no right to abscond from moral duty in the name of temporal convenience.
Here it is important to stress that integralism is neither romantic nor utopian. On the charge of romanticism or the accusation that integralists simply want to “turn back the clock” on human history, it must be said that while there may be some integralists who believe that something like that should occur, such a fantastical belief is not intrinsic to integralism. Indeed, a brief glance back over the last several centuries of papal teachings on religion and society reveals, at least up until 50 years ago, a desire to maintain an integral approach to political and economic affairs in the modern world. Given the rapid pace of change that occurred between the 19th and 20th centuries, the great popes of the past sometimes felt compelled to address the same topic in a relatively short time span. For example, it only took 40 years since the promulgation of Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum for Pius XI to issue Quadragesimo Anno which both deepened the former’s economic prescriptions while extending them to a world reeling from the effects of unbridled capitalism and economic depression. Neither Leo XIII nor Pius XI called for dismantling the modern industrial machine, intentionally retarding scientific and technological progress, nor restoring the older system of social safeguards, such as guilds, in isolation from the economic revolution which had occurred over the course of the previous two centuries. Integralism embraces timeless principles, but not without two eyes fixed firmly on the concrete situation which the world finds itself in.
As for the claim that integralists are utopians, nothing could be further from the truth. While an integral relationship between Church and State reached its high point during the Middle Ages, integralists acknowledge that this relationship was never perfect and that the sinfulness and shortcomings of man often undermined the ability of the Church to fully furnish the world with her treasures. At the same time, integralists recognize that plethora of non-Catholic forces which continue to conspire against the Church and the social rights of Christ the King. While these forces have changed over the centuries, taking on new platforms upheld with fresh lies, they remain a grave challenge to the restoration of a truly Catholic culture and a society which radiates with the splendor of truth. It must also be stressed that a disturbing number of modern errors have made their way into Corpus Mysticum, infecting both clerics and laity with the virus of liberalism which leads to the disastrous syndromes of indifferentism and relativism. Integralism is dedicated to combatting these errors, first for the good of the Church and her divine mission and, second, for the common good of society which can never be divorced rightly from man’s intended supernatural end.
The future of integralism as a significant force within the life of the Church and the nations of the world is unwritten, but the principles of integralism, which are bound to the truth of Christ’s rightful rule in the spiritual and temporal spheres, will survive with the Church until the Second Coming. The defeatist mindset which holds that the days of integralism have passed and that a “new order” or “new relationship” must be established between the Church and the world remains a prevalent temptation; and like all temptations, which are from the devil, must be resisted. Equally tempting to integralists is despair. Have the affairs of the Church and society not become so corrupted with error and moral rot that there is no longer any hope or, if there is hope, it is in trying to escape the world and pray for the eschaton? Ah, but no Catholic has any right to despair. None! The integral Catholic must remain fortified by the messages of light which God, in His love and compassion for his frail, fallen, and fearful creatures has delivered through the Church. And above all the integralist repairs to the words of their savior and king: “These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you shall have distress: but have confidence, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).