“What is the reality of the situation?”

In the 1970s, Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt produced some decks of cards with various questions or statements printed on them. Eno and Schmidt came up with Oblique Strategies, as they called the cards, as suggestions of ways to approach a problem that were not the straight-on approach. They had found, it seems, working separately on their own projects, that they would reach some impasse. The questions or statements were intended to get themselves (at first) out of the jams they found themselves in. The cards, originally released in 1975, were revised in a couple of subsequent editions. The cards and the sayings on them have been a sort of mid level cultural artifact since then, appearing in Richard Linklater’s Slacker. (Indeed, in Slacker, a putative card is “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy,” which isn’t a card in the original sets. The phrase, however, is striking and found its way to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”) One of the sayings from the first edition (and kept all the way to the third edition) is “What is the reality of the situation?”

This is a question integralist Catholics need to ask themselves right now. We should be clear at the outset that we are aware, though perhaps we should be more aware, that “integralist Catholic” is—or ought to be—a redundancy. Integralism is simply the perennial teaching of the Church, finding its finest expression in Leo XIII’s encyclicals, regarding the relationship of the Church to the state. It is assumed that the Church backed away from this teaching in the Second Vatican Council, especially Dignitatis humanae. However, this assumption is perhaps harder to justify than it might first appear. We will, therefore, use the expressions integralism and integralist simply as convenient shorthand, not least since they are at the moment used in discussions outside Semiduplex. (We were surprised to learn that such things happen, too, dear reader.) They’re not perfect, but they’ll do until perfect expressions are found.

Anyway: the reason why integralists need to ask themselves the question “What is the reality of the situation?” is because, at this moment, integralist Catholics have a little visibility and a little momentum. Much of this comes from a broader suspicion of liberalism that seems more and more justified every day. Consider for example the critique of liberalism in Scott Hahn’s new book, The First Society. Hahn graciously permitted the excerpt to run at The Josias, and you should read it as soon as you can. We haven’t read The First Society, but if the excerpt is any indication it’s probably well worth our attention. We can debate what Hahn says, but what we cannot debate is Hahn’s prominence as a Catholic apologist and writer. Suspicion of the liberal order—especially the compromises the liberal order demands (and demands and demands) of Christians—is in the air. Moreover, integralists have been recovering their own tradition. It only seems like these ideas emerged overnight. In addition to the magisterium and the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and others, there were those thinking about these ideas when liberalism’s reign seemed unquestionable. Consider, for example, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was as disturbed by the assault on the reign of Christ the King as he was by anything else. One consideration in the reality of the situation is the (increasingly dicey) relationship between integralists and liberals and the relative lack of integralist institutions.

Turning to the first point: liberals, even Catholic liberals of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together variety, cannot provide shelter for integralists in liberal institutions. The fundamental claims of liberalism are not compatible with the claims integralist Catholics make. Everyone knows this. Integralists relate to the United States and the American project in a radically different way from liberals, even liberals on the right. Let us drill down on this example for a moment. It is often argued that the American order before recent deformations—let us say, before 1965 or so, though even that date may be too late—provided an opportunity for the Faith to flourish in an environment of ordered liberty. Why, runs the implicit question, do the integralists have a problem? Even acknowledging that there have been moments when American liberalism has benefitted the Church, as Leo XIII did in Longinqua oceani, we must affirm, as Leo XIII also did in the same letter, that the American order is not the ideal order of Church and state. It is that simple. This point, by no means the most controversial point of integralist thought, though perhaps among the most fundamental, means that integralists cannot write prose poems to the “wisdom of the Framers” and the alleged natural-law foundations of the federal Constitution.

Given that liberals on the right—even liberal Catholics–feel constrained to write exactly those prose poems, this alone would result in significant opposition between integralists and liberals. Of course, we know that the opposition is broader than that. The example, however, is an important one. Integralists have a hard time trading even in the hoary cliches that pass with hardly any notice among liberals. Think about that for a moment: if we take Leo in Longinqua seriously, we are free to acknowledge the gains for the Church under the American regime, but we are by no means free to say—against Immortale Dei or Diuturnum or Libertas—that the American regime is ideal. Given the concepts that have been bundled into the idea of the American regime by conservatives, here we are thinking of liberal democracy, free speech, free market ideology, and the rest of it, denying that the American regime is ideal is a significant act. And one liable to leave integralist Catholics in the position either of silence on these issues or radical opposition to liberals.

The bottom line is this: Jake Meador, a while back, talked about a parting of the ways of Catholics and some protestants as both Catholics and protestants delved deeper into their respective traditions and found greater points of incompatibility. The same thing is happening even among Catholics. As integralist Catholics recover the Church’s perennial teaching on its relationship to the state and to non-Catholics, it will be difficult for integralists to maintain the same close relations with liberal Catholics who, by and large, react to integralist Catholicism with anything ranging from polite bemusement to horror. Now, it is impossible for Catholics to part ways from Catholics in the same manner that Catholics are parting ways from protestants. We are, ultimately, bound together in communion with Peter in the Mystical Body of Christ. Nevertheless, it is possible to acknowledge that certain differences make certain forms of cooperation impossible. Liberal institutions simply cannot support—whether out of hostility or not—integralists for any length of time. It is clear, therefore, that integralist Catholics have to begin the laborious work of building their own institutions. This is our second point.

Some institutions already exist—The Josias comes to mind first, followed by a circle of blogs more or less in The Josias‘s orbit, including Semiduplex—but there is room for development. Naturally, one thinks of magazines of theory, criticism, and opinion, broadly along the lines of existing magazines. One may also think of magazines aimed at more popular audiences. Certainly this would solve problems that have crept up in recent weeks and months in existing—liberal—publications. There would be no problem, for example, articulating an authentically Catholic position about the duties of the state toward the baptized, even those baptized in exigent circumstances, at an integralist magazine. Nor would there be problems articulating potential aspects of the penal law in a Catholic state. But to confine one’s thought toward that sort of institution may be a strategic blunder. For one thing: there’s more to life than debates over politics or the effects of baptism in a confessional state, hard as that may be to believe.

Adrian Vermeule has talked, notably, about a strategy of replacement; that is, Catholics take positions in elite institutions and gradually populate those institutions. One can discuss the merits of the strategy another time. We will take it for granted for now. Could not a similar strategy of replacement be appropriate in cultural or artistic institutions? Indeed, might not such a strategy be necessary? And if those institutions are too hardened toward population—infiltration, they would call it—by Catholics, ought not Catholics attempt to create rival institutions? This is an elaborate way of saying that, if the strategy is replacement, then the strategy is replacement across the board. An integralist website for movie reviews or music reviews or book reviews is a component, if not perhaps an essential component, of an integralist strategy. Now, there is, we admit, some difficulty here: what is an integralist movie review? Surely it is not a movie review that assesses the aesthetic merits of a movie on how well the movie represents the correct ordering of state to Church. That would be ridiculous.

This is a point worth pondering. The answer is obviously that it would be a movie review from a broadly Catholic perspective, unafraid of considering modern aesthetic developments, but also unafraid of making moral judgments or comparative judgments. Indeed, one might argue (it has been argued in the past, so we are hardly breaking new ground) that aesthetic judgments require above all a recognition of truth. We will let the aesthetes puzzle it out in greater detail, however. We raise the point simply to highlight the danger of considering integralism a particular tendency requiring a particular set of postures to the exclusion of everything else. (This is a danger we find ourselves susceptible to.) As we have said, one of the central claims of integralism is that it is simply Catholicism. That is, it is what the popes have taught and the faithful have believed, according to their station and education. When it is expressed in the context of politics, it takes the form of integralism. But Catholicism is expressed or informs one’s expression in other contexts, and it is necessary to consider these other contexts, too.

And if you don’t accept the strategy of replacement? Well, it is clear, as we cannot help repeating, that existing liberal institutions are hostile to integralist Catholics. An integralist, regardless of his or her artistic views, is going to have a hard time obtaining and maintaining access to the most notable institutions. There are basically two choices: first, it is possible to decide that integralism is a view that must be kept secret and gain access to liberal institutions as an apparent liberal. Of course, since integralism is merely the political expression of traditional Catholicism, this will require a commitment to keep other things secret. Second, it is possible to decide that the best people to talk about these things with are like-minded people and the best places to talk about them are friendly places.


Lately, we have been thinking a lot about L. Brent Bozell’s brilliant, doomed Triumph magazine. At a time when the Church’s bargain with liberalism seems like more and more of a raw deal—and at a time when integralist institutions are increasingly necessary—the story of Triumph is one that ought to be told. Mark Popowski, a professor at Collin College in Texas, published, not too long ago, The Rise and Fall of Triumph: The History of a Radical Catholic Magazine, 1966–1976. We suspect this is a revision of his 2008 doctoral dissertation. It is a great resource for anyone looking to learn more about Triumph. There are other resources. A few years ago, Daniel Kelly published a biography of Bozell, and one can get The Best of Triumph and Bozell’s own autobiography. There is also an interesting essay on the topic from John Médaille at Ethika Politika from several years ago.

Many of you probably know the story. Bozell had been with Buckley and others in the early days of National Review. Bozell, a convert to the Church unhappy with the line Buckley and others took (Mater Si, Magistra No!), started Triumph in 1966 with some fanfare to present a staunchly Catholic viewpoint—taking aim at the right and the left alike. This was, however, basically the worst possible moment in history to undertake such a task. (Of course, Bozell might answer that it was, therefore, the most crucial moment in history to undertake the task.) On one hand, the Second Vatican Council initiated a process that saw the Church’s traditional anti-liberal doctrine diminished (if not eliminated) almost overnight, along with other changes, not the least of which was the complete revision of the liturgy between 1964 and 1970. On the other hand, the conservative movement was well on its way to solidifying its free-market ideology by 1966. Bozell found himself, therefore, between a rock and a hard place. Over the next ten years, however, Triumph produced a considerable amount of intelligent, incisive commentary from a Catholic perspective. Unfortunately, the publication diminished over time, ending up as little more than a newsletter before it wound up operations in 1976.

Triumph was not narrowly political, though certainly there was much to discuss politically between 1966 and 1976. But in reading The Best of Triumph, one finds the expression generally of a certain outlook. The sort of publication that would provide the best home for Catholics is a publication that, like Triumph, has a certain outlook that, among other things, expresses itself politically in integralism. There are other lessons to learn from Triumph—and other publications—and Catholics with the skills and motivation to learn those lessons will, we suspect, be capable of building the institutions that are so clearly required.

2 thoughts on ““What is the reality of the situation?”

Comments are closed.