We are not living in an integralist moment. Rocked by new revelations in the ongoing abuse crisis, the Church’s public standing is not especially high in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, it seems as though the liberties for the Church defended by St. Gregory VII against Emperor Henry IV are in jeopardy with numerous state and federal investigations into the Church ongoing. However, we are living in a moment when liberalism seems weaker than usual.
For a brief moment, the electric uncertainty in the air in 2008 returned when the stock market took a precipitous pre-Christmas plunge and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin took the unusual step of announcing that he had spoken with the heads of major U.S. banks and was sure that the banks were liquid and ready to lend. This had the same unhappy feeling as sitting on an airplane and hearing the pilot announce that he had checked with the flight crew and the plane had plenty of fuel and was ready to land safely. The pre-Christmas jolt was followed by a stupendous rally after the Christmas holiday and the crisis did not materialize.
However, the evident weakness of liberalism has led to wider acceptance of anti-liberal thought of all kinds—including Catholic anti-liberalism. As the year winds down, it is worth thinking about what 2019 holds for Catholic anti-liberalism, especially what Catholic anti-liberals ought to do to cement progress made. And there has been significant progress made. What was, not too long ago, a doctrine held by traditionalists and discussed in primarily traditionalist circles is getting wide press. Ross Douthat of the New York Times has addressed it in several columns, and high-profile conferences at Harvard and Notre Dame have gotten coverage at outlets like Public Discourse and Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative. There has been all year a lively debate in Catholic circles about integralism. Joseph Trabbic’s defense of the doctrinal status of the Catholic confessional state at Public Discourse was a response to Robert T. Miller’s critique of the same concept.
On the other hand, anti-liberal Catholicism still encounters significant resistance, particularly in the American Catholic right. We have already said enough about the debacle at First Things over Fr. Romanus Cessario’s review of Fr. Pio Edgardo Mortara’s memoir. While that affair implicated more than mere anti-liberal Catholicism, it was certainly a significant component of the debate. First Things, the vanguard of the fusionist project, has been slow to welcome the return—a return ad fontes—to anti-liberal teaching. They are not alone: the reason why there has been a lively debate all year is because people disagree.
Of course, the disagreements get narrower and narrower. Dr. John Joy’s argument that Quanta cura and Syllabus are infallible is basically unanswerable, and we have not seen anyone try very hard to answer it. The arguments, it seems to us, have fallen along predictable lines. On one hand, you have the argument that Vatican II changed the teaching of Pius IX and Leo XIII with Dignitatis humanae and Gaudium et spes. On the other hand, you have the argument that integralism is somehow impractical or poorly suited for the political problems of 2018. As to the first argument, this is broadly the debate over several issues associated with the Council, and the arguments on both sides are well known.
One would be excused for being of two minds about the progress of the debate into the well worn grooves of the debates over the Second Vatican Council. On one hand, it is always nice to know all the moves of the game before they are played. On the other hand, it seems unlikely to result in any real progress. Everyone knows the various narratives—hermeneutics of rupture and continuity—about the Council and how those narratives incorporate the prior teachings of the Church. Indeed, given how fixed everyone’s positions are, one would be excused for thinking of the descriptions of the tedium of the trenches punctuated with cataclysmic assaults in the great First World War authors like David Jones, Robert Graves, or Wilfred Owen.
It seems to us that the collapse of Catholic fusionism in recent years is necessarily tied up with the dispute over the Council, since most of the fusionists’ arguments are drawn from the Council’s purported outreach (or openness or whatever you want to call it) to non-Catholics. One might even trace the collapse of fusionism to Benedict XVI’s 2005 Christmas address to the Roman Curia, where the “hermeneutic of continuity” was given its most important presentation. Indeed, the erosion of the post-Conciliar consensus embodied by John Paul II seems to have included both the belief that the Council constituted a restart for the Church and the belief that fusionism represents a meaningful political strategy for the Church. Given the significant controversy over other parts of John Paul’s legacy today, it seems unlikely that anyone will pick up the banner and attempt to reconstruct John Paul’s consensus.
A more detailed response to the second point is in order, as it here that we think the central project for anti-liberal Catholicism in 2019 lies. There has been, we think, significant confusion as to what integralism is—or is not. Everyone works off the definition offered by Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., in his famous “Integralism in Three Sentences,” so we will too. At bottom, integralism concerns the right relationship between the temporal power (the state, let us say) and the Church. Integralism is not a general prescription for Catholic political action, and it definitely is not a plan for individual Catholics. (Except, perhaps, in the rare case when the individual is a monarch or something like that.) That people have latched on to “integralism” as a label for what would have been called Catholic Action once upon a time is hardly surprising. The American bishops have limited their political interventions to a narrow range of issues.
Certainly no one could complain that the American bishops have chosen to emphasize the Church’s teaching on abortion over any number of other questions. Not every moral issue is equivalently weighty. However, at a moment when liberalism is being questioned pretty vigorously, it is unfortunate that there is not really a satisfactory response from the bishops. This is doubly unfortunate when one considers that Pope Francis is an astute critic of modern liberalism and the spiritual sicknesses it cause. There are, of course, voices in the Church that have long upheld the Church’s condemnations of liberalism and supported integralism—here we are thinking most notably of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X. In a very real way, the resurgence of Catholic anti-liberal thought would not have been possible without Lefebvre and the SSPX. (Gabriel Sanchez, at Opus Publicum, has written several posts emphasizing the historical role of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St. Pius X in keeping the anti-liberal flame alive, including a very recent note.)
However, the point is not to litigate the history of integralism since 1965. Instead, we mean to say only that it is understandable that people have transformed the concept of integralism into a broader Catholic anti-liberalism or a new sort of Catholic Action. However, while it is understandable, it leads to all sorts of unwelcome consequences. Notably, there is a tendency to draw integralism’s dogmatic mantle over various political proposals that have very little to do with the strict definition of integralism. A careful reading of Leo XIII’s encyclicals, notably Diuturnum illud and Immortale Dei, would show that the Church has generally refrained from insisting on this or that arrangement, much less the sorts of arrangements that are offered.
On the other hand, what is modern-day integralism if not a part of broader attempt to recover the Church’s political thought? It would be strange to insist that the anti-liberalism of Quanta cura, Syllabus, and Leo’s encyclicals are infallible and irreformable, but then leave the matter at the fairly narrow question of the indirect subordination of the state to the Church. Indeed, the natural consequence of the recovery of integralism in its strict sense is to turn to the other treasures of the Church’s political teaching for guidance. However, it is counterproductive to reduce the entirety of the Church’s political teaching to the concept of integralism, even if only as a convenient shorthand. Integralism, one could say, is not the end of the Church’s perennial political teaching but the beginning.
Of course, turning to the Church’s perennial historical teaching for guidance does not necessarily mean a mere repetition of the content of the teaching documents. Some application of the Church’s teachings to modern problems ought to be done. This is why we say that, in 2019, anti-liberal Catholics ought to start thinking about specific policy proposals. One need not even consider policies specifically in terms of anti-liberal Catholicism. Laws against blasphemy and heresy are, of course, excellent and are well supported historically (after all, Justinian’s Codex begins with a condemnation of heresy). However, there are more political questions to be answered than free speech, blasphemy, and heresy, and it will be necessary to approach at least some of these questions.
It is necessary to emphasize that these questions are separate from the scholarly, technical questions addressed at The Josias. This is not to say that the work done at The Josias is not necessary. However, the philosophical, theological, and historical questions answered there are altogether different than, say, questions of concrete public policy. And it is precisely those questions that anti-liberal Catholics need to start addressing if they are going to continue to stake out a clear position in 2019.
One important contribution in this vein was Mehrsa Baradaran’s piece in support of postal banking at American Affairs. Baradaran, a law professor at the University of Georgia, makes the case that America’s banks prefer to serve the middle class and the wealthy, leaving America’s working poor in the hands of usurers. The response Baradaran offers is postal banking; that is, having the United States Postal Service make available retail financial services like savings accounts and small loans. Baradaran argues that, while America’s retail banks have deserted many communities, the Post Office has not. Additionally, as a public enterprise, the Postal Service could offer these services at a discount compared to the big banks and the usurers. Postal banking is widely used in western countries, and there is a history of it in the United States—that is to say: it is not a reckless, extreme idea.
The argument in support of postal banking can be made without reference to the Church; however, it is not hard to imagine a Catholic twist on this proposal. To be sure, the usurious interest charged by payday lenders is bad for the economy. However, the Church condemns usury. One could argue—we would say that one must argue—that an integralist regime would not tolerate usury. Postal banking, therefore, could represent one important step toward the sorts of institutions one could find in an integralist regime. One could also turn to the arguments about work advanced by the popes, notably John Paul II in Laborem exercens, when he sketches a connection between work, wages, and the universal destination of goods. It is trivial—though it does need to be said—that you cannot share in the universal destination of goods as fully as you ought to if a significant portion of your wages are eaten up by usurious interest payments or excessive fees.One can imagine similar, similarly detailed arguments on any of a whole host of issues.
One can also engage in detailed strategic arguments like Adrian Vermeule’s “Integration from Within,” also published by American Affairs. Maybe you agree with Vermeule—maybe you don’t. However, it seems to us that strategic arguments like Vermeule’s are implicitly at least as strong an answer to the charge of irrelevance as policy proposals like Baradaran. If one disagrees with Vermeule, setting forth in detail the bases of the disagreement and an alternate strategy would be an excellent contribution to the discussion.
Perhaps another way of putting all of this is to say that Catholic anti-liberalism has made its doctrinal case. It is now time to start making a practical case. After all, politics is eminently the exercise of practical reason.