Despairing of Integralism

by Jonathan Culbreath


One hears a good dose of defeatism recently expressed by Catholics who, though serious about their faith, are pessimistic about the practicability or desirability of seeking the integralist ideal in the current political climate.[1] The confessional State is deemed too lofty a goal to be worth seeking in the present circumstances. Accordingly, such Catholics (or non-Catholics, as the case may be) may read a simple statement about the relationship of temporal and spiritual power, and their reaction will be very similar to the reaction of two well-known commentators on twitter: “The prospects for integralism politically are almost too fantastical to make contemplating them a good use of time.” and “Can Catholic integralists come up with a successful modern example of their theories at work?” But such a defeatism involves a dual error originating in liberalism: it effectively banishes both grace and nature from the public sphere.

1.  The False Despair of Politics and Perfection

The defeatist challenge, by dismissing as idealistic and fantastical any notion of political ideals, radically narrows the scope of political action. But this is a mistake. Consider Glaucon’s similar challenge to Socrates, when the latter sketched a picture of the ideal State, in the Republic. “It seems to me, Socrates, that if one allows you to go on talking about things of this sort, you’ll forget altogether to deal with the subject you earlier pushed to one side in favour of these other ones: namely, the possibility of the realization of these political arrangements of ours, and exactly how their realization would be possible.” (Republic, 471c). Socrates responds that the ideal which he has proposed is a paradigm, something which stands as a model and a goal for what is realizable in practice. (472c). “Well then, do you think a painter is any less good a painter if he paints a paradigm of what the most beautiful human being would be like, and manages to render every detail in his painting accordingly, but isn’t able to demonstrate the possibility of such a man’s coming into existence?” (472d). Accordingly, says Socrates, “Then don’t make me have to prove that the sorts of things we’ve been describing would be realizable in practice, in every detail. If we’re able to show how a city might be governed in a way that comes closest to our description, that should be enough for you to declare that we’ve discovered how the things you yourself are prescribing are possible. Won’t you be content to achieve this much?” (473b).

Socrates here warns Glaucon against a kind of despair: Although perhaps one cannot see how the paradigm might practically be realized in every detail, one nonetheless is not free to despair of seeking that ideal, trying to approximate it in whatever way one can. This would seem to be rather common sense, especially for Christians who believe that mankind is fallen, and yet whom Christ commanded to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48). To despair of such perfection, simply because we cannot see how one can be perfect, is to despair of salvation itself and to cast aside the necessary exemplar of what we should strive for. It would be to despair of all virtue, to despair even of God’s grace, which is the supreme unlikelihood, from the standpoint of fallen man. Is it any different in the case of integralism?

2.  The Liberal Separation of Nature and Grace from the Sphere of Politics

Their mistake then is not simply a political mistake. Indeed, integralism is not itself first and foremost a theory about the relationship of political powers, civil and ecclesiastical, although it has much to say on that score. The doctrine of the relationship between temporal and spiritual power is one consequence of something much more fundamental, which, when seen clearly, is not so easily disregarded as something incidental to the Catholic faith as such. On the contrary, it is essential to the Catholic religion that grace perfects and builds upon nature; and conversely, nature needs and desires grace, especially on account of its fallenness. For the human good is twofold: temporal and eternal, and the former subordinate to and perfected by the latter. This is a universal truth; there is no part of human life that is exempt from it, nor any part of human life that is exempt from the effects of the Fall.

The defeatism which one commonly finds in neo-conservative Catholic circles buys into the liberal separation, not only of Church and State, but also of private and public life, and applies this dichotomy to the practice of religion itself: Religion is a private affair irrelevant to public life. Accordingly, such a defeatist Catholic may recognize the truth that grace perfects nature, but only (in effect) as long as it is qualified by “in the private sphere.” But once the topic shifts to matters of a public nature, a veil descends over the eyes, and grace seems to disappear from the scene altogether—perhaps because nature itself has also disappeared from the public scene.

This is both a theological and a philosophical error. Theologically, Catholics are obliged to recognize the effects of the Fall in every area of human life. Indeed, not only human life, but the whole world groans and travails, until it should be set free by God’s grace from the tyranny of corruption. (Romans 8:20-22). Contrary to many caricatures, integralist politics does not propose some sort of utopia of perfect heaven-on-earth, “immanentizing the eschaton”; rather, it is predicated precisely on the reality of sin, which has corrupted the whole of creation without any discrimination between private and public. Consequently, the whole of creation is in need of that “spiritual adoption” which God grants by His grace. This is of course most true of humanity. Nature can no longer suffice: “Thus, brethren, nature has no longer any claim upon us, that we should live a life of nature. If you live a life of nature, you are marked out for death; if you mortify the ways of nature through the power of the Spirit, you will have life.” (Romans 8:12-13).

But the refusal to see the relevance of grace in all spheres of existence, including the political, may also rest upon a philosophical error about the nature of politics itself. Liberalism and its efficient bureaucracies have forced men to adopt a certain mindset, which assumes that political reality, or the reality of human institutions, is an imposition upon nature, for the mere mastery of it—or for the mere master of other human beings and institutions—rather than a perfection of nature itself. Liberalism has changed the very meaning of politics. When Aristotle asserted that “man is by nature a political animal (Politics, I.2, 1253a), he was explicitly uttering a truth about human nature. For liberalism, politics is a machine that is placed in dualistic opposition to nature, in order to beat it into submission and force its powers into artificial equilibrium. Accordingly, under this conception nature might desire grace, but only in the measure that the bureaucratic machine allows—which is in private—because nature itself only flourishes in the individualistic measure that the political machine allows. A classical understanding—which is also the Church’s understanding—rejects this conception of nature and politics, and asserts on the contrary that human nature is to be perfected by political life inasmuch as men are thereby directed to the common good. The nature that desires grace is accordingly not merely a private nature, but also a political nature.

3.  Family, Village, and City: The Ideal and Practical Politics Revisited

The neo-conservative, right-wing liberal will now ask: “Well then, explain to me how an integralist is to go about practically implementing the integralist ideal in the public sphere? After all it is useless to discuss politics without making concrete proposals.” True enough. However, recalling Socrates’ response to Glaucon, the integralist ideal is precisely that: an ideal. But this does not permit us to therefore relegate the ideal to some abstract realm that is for the time being irrelevant to practice. In the Platonic sense, an ideal is always relevant, even as it is not attainable in every detail; for it is unattainable in many details if not all of them, and it is the ethical agent’s responsibility to seek that ideal to the best of his abilities, in whatever capacity he finds himself. The ideal is something sought, not something given up because of its lofty ideality. So how does an integralist go about seeking his ideal?

Let us first attempt to let go of this artificial separation of private and public domains. They are not so apart as one might think. Aristotle taught of many “layers” of a city, all pertaining to political life, and some of which we might today consider “private.” Each of these orders of the polis has its own proper goods, and accordingly its own prudence and its own arts which as such are not political; yet they each participate in political prudence insofar as they are governed by it and ultimately ordered to it. (Politics, I.1). Within the city, not only do we distinguish individuals of rational nature, but families, villages, and the city itself. (Politics, I.2.) Each of these domains has its parts and members.

The individual has reason, will, sensation, and appetite. Individual prudence consists in placing these parts and their activities in the right order, so as to direct them all in proportionate measure to the good of the whole person, which is discerned by intellect.

Something analogous applies also at the level of the family or household, within which the daily needs of human life are fulfilled. In a family there are different parts – father, mother, son, daughter, etc. – the regulation of which is done according to the very same principles as that of the individual: the subordinate parts are ruled by the more authoritative part, and directed by it to the good of the whole family. Not only the passions of each individual, but also their intellects, are ruled by the domestic prudence of the head of the household, who is most responsible for discerning the good of the family and the means to attain it.

There are already, within this single distinction between the individual and the family, many layers of part-to-whole relationships, and many layers of subordination of lesser and greater goods—proper goods of the parts and common goods of the wholes. An individual is a complex being; a family, likewise, is a complex social unity, as small as it may be compared to society at large. Its complexity is constituted not only by the multiplicity of its parts, but also by the multiplicity of its goods, which pertain to the parts or the whole in various ways. The function of the highest or most authoritative part—intellect in the case of the individual, and the father (and his intellect!) in the case of a household—is to discern the nature of the good of the whole, and order all the subordinate parts and their proper goods according to that good.

But this does not stop with the family; the ideal continues to apply, as one transitions from the family into the village, and from the village into the city. The village is the immediate community of friends and extended family, wherein personal relationships and the first degrees of economic life flourish, and the more ongoing non-daily needs of life are fulfilled. The village also has its parts, beyond those that make up the family. The village has its bakers, butchers, farmers, doctors, etc., who all cooperate in order to secure, once again, the good of the whole community as such. Each part has its proper good, but the good of the whole is secured by the ordering of those proper goods in the right away, as discerned by whoever has care of the community. Once again, he who has care of the community is responsible for discerning the nature of the common good as such, and directing all other goods accordingly.

Finally, the city is the widest range of community life identified by Aristotle (although we in the modern age might further distinguish nations and international empires). The city has its own concerns, which once again involve the more proper concerns of villages and families, but within a greater order to a good that is common to them all. It is in the context of the city that the arts and sciences flourish, and that not only the necessities but also the pleasantries of life are supplied. The city depends on the villages and families in order to maintain its closeness to nature – hence it should not interfere with their proper functions, but recognize their distinction and diversity. Yet the ruler of the city has the responsibility to order these proper functions in the right way, directing them to the common good of the city.

The image of politics that is portrayed here is quite different from what modern citizens of American liberal democracy are accustomed to: it is a politics of the common good, that penetrates straight down from the State to the individual, through the village and the family, encompassing the enormous diversity of their proper goods and functions, inasmuch as they all pertain to the common good. Never is political prudence irrelevant, and never is the common good out of view. (This is not to say that all other kinds of prudence and art—including the prudence and the arts pertaining to the family and the village—reduce to politics; they are formally distinct from it, yet it governs them.) What this means is that every individual, within his proper limits, participates in political prudence—not in a democratic way, e.g. by voting, crafting policy, being a “politician,” etc.—but by doing precisely what pertains to his particular station in life, in a way that contributes to the common good. Non-political prudence, such as individual and domestic prudence and the arts they govern, are political by participation. The cultivation of individual virtue is hardly irrelevant to politics. The regulation of the family is likewise a political act by participation. The cultivation of a farm and the sharing of one’s goods with the local community is a political act, again by participation: for the baker and the butcher have much to contribute to the common good, within the limits of their particular stations. The office of the lawyer and the judge are likewise political offices. None of these things is relegated to any “private” sphere in which it can absolutely hide away from political concerns, because none of them is absolutely separate from the common good. Granted, different occupations may have more or less proximity to the common good as an end; but the very act of determining the measure in which they contribute to it according to their proximity to it is a political determination. Every office in society participates in this highest function of enabling the citizens to enjoy the common good in community.

Nor is this picture “idealistic” in the pejorative sense meant by its critics. Although it looks to an ideal, it is in fact far more realistic in its outlook than the liberal theories of the enlightenment. Rather than proposing that a good society may easily be constructed via mechanistic procedures, this view understands that truly good societies are rare indeed. Nonetheless, though the ideal may never be perfectly realized given our fallen nature, this view understands that through virtue it is achievable, even if imperfectly. For a Christian society, the prospects are even better, for nature will be healed and elevated by grace.

4. Living in a Catholic Way and the Twofold Ends of Gelasian Dyarchy

But the common good is twofold: temporal and eternal. Therefore integralism as a political ideal applies not only on the large scale of the city or the nation-state, in the crafting of policies and the direction of millions of citizens; rather, integralism applies also to the cultivation of individual virtue, the raising of families, the farming of land, the building of communities, the life of the village, the works of mercy, the cooperation amongst various stations in life, the interactions of people on all levels of social reality—and above all, the public act of worship. Integralism promotes the cultivation, not only of natural virtue in all these spheres, but also of supernatural virtue; not only of friendship, but also of charity; not only of natural religion, but the Catholic religion. In the measure that one seeks to inculcate natural and supernatural virtue in oneself and in those under one’s care; or seeks to enable and share in the communal act of worship; or seeks to evangelize a society; or protests publicly against sins and heresies which offend against “the business of the peace and the faith”;—in these measures, one embraces the integralist ideal. One does neither more nor less than this, in seeking for the restoration of a Catholic State.

It may be difficult to reach that stage when the Catholic Church will finally be given public recognition as the leading religious institution within the modern State. Such a recognition may well be the climax of the integralist “project,” but it is hardly everything that pertains to integralism. Yet neither should it be ignored for this reason; on the contrary, it should be all the more promoted and hoped for, precisely because it is simply of-a-piece with every other aim which any Catholic ought to seek in the political sphere. It is essentially the same ideal as that which is realized by allowing the faith to reign supreme within men’s hearts, within the family, within the parish, etc. Integralism is nothing more nor less than living in a Catholic way, as a member of both Church and State, whether as individual, father, lawyer, doctor, priest, president, king, or all together.

To the pessimist who doubts the practicability of the integralist ideal, we therefore respond: Everywhere that integralism is practiced, it is successful. For the practice of integralism is none other than the acceptance of God’s grace, as given through the sacraments and the mediation of His Church; and grace is always salvific. One need only look wherever the faith is authentically being practiced, wherever there are saints and holy men and women, wherever there are communities who live and worship together, wherever there is true virtue, wherever virtue is rewarded and sin is punished: that is integralism. If you despair of a Catholic society, you should despair of those cases too, where your despair is clearly unwarranted. If you despair of a Catholic society, you should despair of evangelization and conversion; you should despair of the salvation of men; you should despair of being perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. On the contrary, integralism (which is none other than Catholicism in practice) exhorts you to know and accept God’s grace wherever it is offered—and where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20)—and work for the restoration of grace to the entire race of your brethren, for all of whom, without exception, God became man. In the meantime, reject the establishment of liberalism, which seeks to uncrown Him who is our King; reject this as you reject sin itself. For who are we to exempt ourselves from His Reign?

[1] See, e.g., here.