The Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture had its fall conference not too long ago. This year, the conference explored the relationship between Church and state. It closed with a panel discussion between Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule, Gladden Pappin of the University of Dallas, Patrick Deneen, and V. Philip Muñoz, both of Notre Dame. Rod Dreher basically liveblogged the proceedings and offered a characteristically behemoth post summarizing his thoughts. In the coverage of the final panel discussion, it occurred to us that much of the resistance to liberalism is premised upon some legends about liberalism. However, upon closer inspection, some of these legends bear little resemblance to the facts as they are.
In this, we are reminded of the Black Legend—the set of stories told about the Spanish Empire, usually by English, intended to present Spanish rule as incomparably cruel. The Black Legend relies on exaggerations and misrepresentations of existing facts about Spanish rule, along with a certain economy with the truth about events and persons who might contradict the overarching narrative of bigoted, vicious Spaniards subduing and tormenting across several continents. Such legends, it seems to us, exist about liberalism. However, liberalism’s legends may properly be called White Legends. That is, they are the inverse of the misrepresentations and omissions of the Black Legend. Liberalism does not, as a rule, directly misrepresent illiberal doctrines or omit key facts about them. Instead, liberalism misrepresents itself as the sole defense against the implicit wickedness of illiberal doctrines.
In a certain sense, none of this matters in the broader debate about integralism. John Joy has convincingly argued that Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible and irreformable. Moreover, as we have noted (following Pappin’s lead), the canonical authority F.X. Wernz held that Leo XIII’s encyclicals have an intimate relationship with the infallible declarations of Quanta cura and Syllabus. Finally, Thomas Pink has shown at great length, whether you find it altogether convincing or not, that Dignitatis humanae does not contradict the Pio-Leonine magisterium. In other words, from a doctrinal standpoint, the onus probandi is clearly on the liberals. And given the careful arguments advanced by Joy and Pink, it is unclear that liberal urgency about tyranny or statism is much of an answer to the definitive status of integralism as Church teaching.
On the other hand, the recent agony on Twitter about whether integralism is “Catholic fascism” or totalitarianism or any of a whole parade of horribles shows that, from a forensic standpoint, the white legends of liberalism are hard to avoid. And there is a temptation to decline to do other people’s homework. However, given some of the horrible advanced by Muñoz and Dreher, it is clear even public figures are invested in liberalism’s white legends. Thus, integralists have some obligation, we think, to rebut these legends. For our part, we will address two of them here. Nothing we say will be particularly groundbreaking—and we suspect that this may be repetitive of earlier posts—there is some value to the exercise of outlining integralist teaching in the context of some of liberalism’s white legends.
The first white legend of liberalism is that liberalism alone is concerned with preventing the state from falling into tyranny. To reject liberalism, the liberals claim, is to start down the road to totalitarianism and tyranny. Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin have both written about liberalism’s bad habit of taking credit for procedural safeguards that it did not introduce. This perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this white legend: liberalism takes credit for the Church’s ideas, and then deploys them against the Church. However, the problem goes well beyond specific procedural safeguards. Catholic thinkers—illiberal Catholic thinkers—have considered the problem of tyranny at great length and well before the rise of liberalism. To suggest that liberalism is preeminently concerned with preserving liberty is, therefore, to misrepresent the fact that Catholic philosophers and theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas preeminent among them, were considering the same problem and coming to sound answers.
Aquinas thought at length about how to keep a ruler from going sour, as it were, and becoming a tyrant. Not quite a year ago, we wrote about a seeming development in Aquinas’s thought regarding the mixed constitution (partly monarchy, partly aristocracy, partly democracy). While Aquinas argues strongly in favor of monarchy in the De regno, by the time he wrote the Prima Secundae of the Summa Theologiae, he implies that a mixed constitution would serve as a strong bulwark against tyranny. Additionally, he argued against the idea that the ruler is totally free from his laws. It is true that the sovereign is not bound by the law, Aquinas admits, in the sense that the coercive power of law comes from the sovereign and no man is bound by himself (ST I-II q.96 a.5 ad 3). More to the point, if the sovereign violates the law, there is no one who can pass sentence on him. However, Aquinas insists on the directive force of the law on the sovereign. That is, before God, the sovereign is morally responsible for keeping his own laws, and he should do so by his own free will. In other words, the sovereign is morally bound to follow his own laws, even if he is free from their coercive power.
Moreover, Aquinas imposes limits on the power of the sovereign’s laws. On one hand, unjust laws do not bind subjects in conscience (ST I-II q.96 a.4 co.). Aquinas identifies several kinds of unjust law. First, a law beyond the competence of the prince is unjust. Second, a law that is not aimed at the common good, instead being ordered toward the ruler’s cupidity or vainglory is unjust. Third, a law that may well be aimed at the common good yet still be unjust if it inflicts disproportionate burdens. Finally, a law contrary to the divine or natural law is no law at all. Aquinas goes so far as to call these unjust laws acts of violence rather than laws. The moral law which imposes upon the ruler the obligation to obey his laws can also free the ruler’s subjects from the obligation to obey his laws.
We might also discuss Aquinas’s notion that human law should not try to repress all vices (ST I-II q.96 a.2). His argument turns basically on the idea that law should forbid only the more grievous vices, which tend to destabilize society altogether (ST I-II q.96 a.2 co.). He lists murder and theft, but it may be possible to come up with a longer list. The upshot of Aquinas’s argument is that law is a rule for human action designed to lead men to virtue, but this process is gradual (ST I-II q.96 a.2 ad 2). Forcing all men, including the less virtuous, into the life of the virtuous, who avoid all vice, would cause greater evils than permitting some vices.
This is, by the way, a really difficult point in discourse about integralism and Aquinas. The purpose of law, especially for Aquinas, is not to create some baseline condition of liberty suitable for maximum flourishing. It is to order people to virtue (ST I-II q.95 a.1 co.). To be sure, some people are naturally sort of virtuous and avoid vice through wise paternal teaching. However, other people, Aquinas argues, are depraved and inclined to vice. Law teaches these people to be virtuous by forbidding by force certain vices. Over time, the vicious, thus forbidden by force, might become virtuous. At the very least, they might leave others in peace. This is a more active and more energetic role for the regime that some like to imagine. It also requires certain choices to be made at the outset that are generally seen as choices regimes ought not to make. Put another way: one cannot be neutral about virtue and expect to frame laws designed to lead the vicious to virtue.
Changing gears a little, as Alasdair MacIntyre has discussed, criticizing the (purportedly) absolutizing and centralizing tendencies of King Louis IX of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen, Aquinas recognized the value of custom as an interpreter and source of law (ST I-II q.97 a.3). Aquinas’s argument is interesting. He argues that all law proceeds from the reason and will of the lawgiver. However, the reason and will of the lawgiver can be made known through action just as through speech (ST I-II q.97 a.3 co.). And custom is nothing more than repeated actions, so custom makes known the reason and will of those participating in the custom. Thus, custom can make and interpret law. Responding to an objection, Aquinas holds that custom obtains the force of law both for a people free and capable of giving itself laws and for a people under authority of another, insofar as those in authority tolerate the customs (ST I-II q.97 a.3 ad 3).
This sketch, which could profitably be expanded into a lengthy treatment, shows, we think, that Aquinas was acutely concerned with ensuring that the ruler does not become a tyrant and the regime does not become a centralizing, totalizing entity (Whether he goes as far as MacIntyre would have him go is another question.) It is no answer to claim Thomas for liberalism, either. One has only to read Aquinas’s treatment in the Secunda Secundae of coercion of heretics or the limited toleration to be afforded to nonbelievers to see that Aquinas’s vision of good government is far removed from modern liberal ideals such as freedom of religion or separation of Church and state. Instead, it must be recognized that even an illiberal Catholic like Thomas Aquinas can be concerned with tyranny and propose means of avoiding tyranny without endorsing modern concepts of liberty.
To the extent that liberalism advances its white legend that only liberalism is especially interested in preventing tyranny and totalitarianism, that is plainly false. Integralism no less than liberalism is concerned with preventing the well ordered state from decaying into tyranny (or dissension, though this is a matter for another time). Moreover, Aquinas’s thought on the limits of state power—both in terms of when it ceases to bind in conscience and in terms of the implicit decentralization represented by custom—shows that integralism is, in fact, far removed from an all-embracing totalitarianism.
The problem, of course, is that Aquinas’s thought permits a broader range of action for the regime than most American conservatives would like to tolerate. This demonstrates not a limitation or risk of integralism so much as a limitation or risk of trying to wedge Catholic political thought into an American left-right context. Vermeule discusses a little bit of this in his piece we linked above. The risks of applying American politics to Catholic economic thought are well known. The risks of applying American politics to Catholic political thought are no less acute. More on this in a minute.
The second white legend is the idea that liberalism prevents corrupt prelates from exercising too much authority. Dreher gets at this when he says, “integralism looks like Blaise [sic] Cupich and Ted McCarrick putting their loafers on your neck forever.” In other words, integralism means that morally compromised prelates will gain significant temporal authority; liberalism, on the other hand, ensures that these prelates will be kept far from the levers of power. (Perhaps this is a black legend after all!) Such an approach shows an admirable naïveté regarding secular politicians, especially in Dreher’s home state of Louisiana or Cupich’s state of Illinois. The realities of secular politicians alone explode any idea that integralism is a change for the worse. However, Dreher’s anxiety—naïve or not—gets to back to a more obviously white legend: liberalism is all that prevents theocracy.
Is this not really what Dreher is anxious about? Under integralism, prelates of the Church would have, so he implies, significant power that could be implemented by the civil authorities. The prelates become theocrats, which is worrying if they are unworthy. Of course, this ignores the history of actually existing integralist regimes. Frederick II’s Sicily was formally as integralist as Louis IX’s France, and Frederick spent much of his adult life locked in battles of varying intensity with Gregory IX and Innocent IV. This is especially noteworthy when one remembers that Sicily was a papal fief and Gregory IX and Innocent IV both claimed the power to depose the king of Sicily. And Andrew Willard Jones’s magisterial study of Louis IX’s France, Before Church and State, does not depict a theocratic state. The presumption that civil authorities will be entirely passive with respect to the Church does not appear to have strong support in historical fact.
Moreover, Leo XIII’s explanation of integralism in Immortale Dei states that the state and the Church are supreme in their separate spheres. It is when the spheres overlap that the subordination of state to Church comes into play. And Leo makes the salient point that, without such subordination, these instances of joint jurisdiction (so to speak) would result in conflict. Now, given the Church’s teaching on morality, which includes economic relations, perhaps these subjects of joint jurisdiction are particularly important. However, nothing in Immortale Dei suggests that integralism results in the Church obtaining plenary jurisdiction over the state. Moreover, in Cum multa, after condemning the error of separating Church and state, Leo XIII condemned the opposite error: confounding the Church and a given political party.
The bottom line is that liberalism’s claim to be a defense against theocracy has no more merit than its claim that it defends against tyranny and totalitarianism. Historically, integralist regimes have been far from theocracies, and Leo XIII’s teaching on integralism (teaching that is, after all, infallible and irreformable) rejects the notion of priests or prelates becoming dictators. Dreher’s (no doubt carefully chosen) image of “Blaise [sic] Cupich and Ted McCarrick putting their loafers on your neck forever” under integralism is mere hyperbole.
To a certain extent, these debates are unnecessary. No one really thinks integralists support fascism or totalitarianism or theocracy, whatever those terms may mean (and in the case of totalitarianism, it is the Catholic thinker Charles De Koninck who provides the most coherent and intelligent definition). The problem at Notre Dame and on Twitter and elsewhere is that integralism does not square nicely with American right-left politics. And, while integralism would hand culture warriors big wins, it would hand big losses to small-government conservatives who drone on (and on and on and on) about the virtues of personal liberty and personal virtue. Whether they would, in fact, prefer to have liberty over morality is another question for another time.