[Book Review] Integralism

A review of and response to Thomas Crean, OP and Alan Fimister’s Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy (Haverton, PA: Eurospan | Editiones Scholasticae, 2020).

An Apologia for Catholic Democracy in Response to Integralism

Francisco E. Plaza, PhD Candidate
University of St. Thomas, Houston TX
Editor, Reality

In the West today, we find ourselves collectively within a time of ongoing crisis and confusion. The crisis of meaning at the root of it all began with the modern age, progressing from the separation of faith and reason with rationalism to the current state of relativism and nihilism. This had dire political consequences which reached an apex of wickedness with the various totalitarian movements of the twentieth century. We have seen first-hand the practical consequences of hypermodernism[1], and we continue to bear witness to this in the present day with what Pope Benedict XVI termed as the “dictatorship of relativism.” The soft tyranny of political correctness and aggressive secularism has unrooted the very foundation of liberal democracy, one which began with the vestigial remains of a Christian culture, animated at first by a fleeting spirit of Christian humanism which turned into the anthropocentric, secular humanism of our time. Catholic political philosophers of the past century have, by and large, agreed with this diagnosis of modern culture, and while there is also agreement that we must return to Christian truths in culture and society to address this, there is nevertheless a disagreement regarding the means by which this is to be done.

Catholic integralism, generally speaking, comprises a return to the past in order to move beyond the modern problem. In effect, its answer is to discard the political developments of modernity wholesale and return pick up where the Middle Ages left off. To many who do not hold this view, and who are not as familiar with the Integralist movement, such a suggestion appears strange to the point that this characterization may seem to be an uncharitable. To the contrary, however, it appears to us that the integralists themselves characterize the spirit of their philosophy in the same manner. Consider that, in the preface to Crean and Fimister’s book, the following quote is taken to represent the spirit of integralist political philosophy:[2]

Reflecting on the possibility of progress in architecture beyond the sublime achievements of the medium aevum, A. W. N. Pugin remarked of the possibilities of development beyond that happy period: ‘I feel convinced that Christian architecture had gone its length, and it must necessarily have destroyed itself by departing from its own principles in the pursuit of novelty, or it must have fallen back on its pure and ancient models … we cannot successfully suggest anything new, but are obliged to return to the spirit of the ancient work … as the faith itself is perfect, so are the principles on which it is founded. …’ … It is in this spirit that we present to the reader Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy as an epitome of the Via Antiqua in its political aspect.

This stands in contrast to Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain who saw the possibility of Christian democracy as a solution, a view which combines traditional principles of Catholic political thought with modern liberalism (taken broadly in the philosophical sense). We encounter a conflict, then, between Catholics who believe modernity must be rejected entirely, and others who believe that modernity can be redeemed in a way, transformed into a new, genuinely postmodern order. Put simply, one way looks back to the past in history for the response, while the other looks to a new way forward which builds upon tradition to create a new order. What is common to both approaches, however, is a shared sense of the modern crisis, and an appeal in some way to a time or culture that does not currently exist as it did in the past.

In order to provide an account of Catholic Integralism, let us begin simply with its definition. At the beginning of Crean and Fimister’s book, the Integralist view is summed up as follows:[3]

Firstly, it is used to denote an uncompromising adherence to the Social Kingship of Christ, that is, an insistence upon the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ. Secondly, it is applied to the tendency to see Scholasticism, and more specifically Thomism, no less than the imperishable Patristic Age, as a completed and indispensable stage in Catholic thought which must be assimilated and appropriated as one’s own by any authentically ecclesiastical writer of a later age.

Moreover, Fr. Edmund Waldstein (in The Josias, another common Integralist source today) defines the essence of Catholic Integralism as such:[4]

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that rejects the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holding that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

This definition is broad enough to the point that, in our estimation, even Maritain’s philosophy of Christian democracy could be said to satisfy these conditions to an extent (i.e., “the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion”, the need for a living Thomism to permeate Catholic philosophy today and in the future, the need for politics to be oriented toward the true, final good, and the subordination of the temporal end to the eternal). We are not certain as to whether or not the proponents of integralism recognize this; it seems that some do, but argue that Maritain falls short, while others believe that Maritain did not uphold these principles in any way, or even attempt to. This book seems to argue the latter:[5]

Such authors wish to unite the principle of secularisation championed by the French Revolution to Catholic doctrine and sound philosophy. The principal proponents of this latter view in the 20th century were Jacques Maritain and Charles Journet. While not denying that the union of the temporal and spiritual powers, with the legal subordination of the former to the latter, had been a good in its time, and that the doctrines on which it rested remained immutably true, they referred to this political order as a ‘sacral’ or ‘consecrated’ Christendom, and declared that the time had now come for a ‘lay’, ‘secular’, or ‘profane’ Christendom. This they described as a society where the gospel, as taught by the Catholic Church, would be in fact the principal source of inspiration for the citizens and the institutions of the society, without the Church herself enjoying by law any privileged place within it. Moreover, they held that such a ‘secular Christendom’ was not to be regretted as a second best, but would constitute a moral progress. For in such a society, temporal values will be more perfectly “distinguished from spiritual realities, not in the least to be withdrawn from their influence, but on the contrary to achieve a dependence that is to be more conscious of itself, and more conformable to the respective nature of either”. This will benefit the Church, they argued, allowing her “to appear all the more clearly to the world as the Body of Christ, as the Kingdom not of this world”.

It is important to note, however, that it was not as though Maritain’s political philosophy was an abstract call for something completely new. He spoke of things that had already come to pass, trying to find ways in which to realign it with Catholic truth by finding silver linings with modern developments. His proposal was not only realistic, but something put into practice in several instances.[6] Unfortunately, the West has shifted away from what Maritain hoped for and toward secular ideologies instead.[7] This, of course, is the greatest counter-point that the Integralists have: namely, that what other opponents of modernity call for has likewise become a remnant of the past, and if this is the case, then their proposal is no less abstract. As this is a tangential issue in the book, we will assert for the record that Maritain’s position is more nuanced than this, but a defense will have to be made on another occasion. With that being said, we do not wish to focus on Maritain for the time being, rather, let us maintain our focus on integralism in itself as presented by this book. We will return to this point later, but we shall state for now that the most obvious (and to our estimation the most striking) objection against Integralism is its failure to account for the particulars of the moment.

Integralism is presented as a manual, a kind of handbook that goes through all the common principles of Catholic political philosophy. In this aspect, it certainly succeeds in presenting the matter in a systematic fashion, going through all the basic elements of politics (e.g., family, economy, law, authority, forms of government) and fundamental notions (e.g. defining the common good, law, the ends of the state, virtue and happiness with respect to the polis, the relationship between religion and politics). The book accomplishes this largely through an exhaustive summary treatment of these ideas coupled with extensive footnotes to provide all the expected sources like Plato and Aristotle, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, various popes, and other Catholic thinkers. This should be of particular use to beginners in the subject to get a sense for the traditional foundation of Catholic social thought. Even beyond that, however, we would say it is really the foundation of Western civilization itself. that being said, we must also caution the reader that, as language has morphed in meaning (speaking in terms of the common parlance), fundamental terms like “common good” can mean something entirely different depending upon the audience. In this regard, however, Integralism succeeds in clarifying such terms so as to specify the meaning within the proper Catholic framework it aims to put forward.

What you will not find in this book, however, is a clear prescription for what to do now in our own political reality. There are brief points throughout that criticize the modern state along with Catholic thinkers like Maritain who believe there exists a via media of sorts between aspects of modern thought and the Catholic tradition, but there is no explicit portrayal of how exactly these principles of integralism ought to be put into practice, not even in short. While we understand that this is not the precise aim of the book, it is nonetheless a crucial element that is missing from the work. Keep in mind that political philosophy is a matter of practical and not speculative philosophy. What this means is that this study is not for the sake of itself, but rather, it is for the sake of action. If we are to study political philosophy it should always be with an eye toward applying these truths to the moment in some way. Instead, what Integralism offers as a work is a broad series of principles in the abstract without also providing a specific political form that could instantiate such principles in the present moment.

Generally speaking, integralists who take up this challenge will speak of a return to a Catholic monarchy, or the creation of a kind of confessional state (however that may look). Others want a kind of authoritarian rule but under the banner of Catholic morality, like a Catholic Vladimir Putin—for lack of a better illustration—or perhaps what some imagined Francisco Franco to be in Spain. The book, Integralism, does not really advance any of these in particular (apart from pointing generally to the medieval construct). As noted above, this can be a strength in some ways as it allows the reader to focus purely on the theory and sort out the details for himself after the fact. It also helps in avoiding the pitfalls that come with attaching oneself to a particular political form. This is also a weakness, however, when we return once more to the natural take-away: “what now?”

Generally speaking, integralists seem to have a tendency toward side-stepping immediate questions of practicality (at least by omission), but this is not a concern that ought to be so easily ignored (for the reasons already started regarding the practical nature of political philosophy). In essence, this is where we see a sharp dividing line between a realist political philosophy (not in the sense of realpolitik but in the sense of classical metaphysical realism) versus that of an idealist that concerns itself more with an ens rationis alone. The sentiment looks as follows: “would it not be great if … etc.” In other words, we are speaking only of ideal conditions in the abstract, a “city in speech.” It is acceptable—to a point—to consider theory in this way, but we must also account for the reality on the ground so to speak. The natural follow-up to this reflection will always be “… but it is not now, so how can we get there from here?”

One example of this can be seen clearly in the eleventh chapter of Integralism titled “The Two Swords.”[8] This chapter describes the authority of the Church within Christendom and outside of Christendom. Outside of Christendom, the Church can only appeal to the conscience of the ruler, but within Christendom, the Church has the authority to depose a heretical ruler if necessary.[9] Would any state though, strictly speaking, be within Christendom today? Christendom is defined as a temporal society that is “materially co-extensive with the Church, though formally distinct from her”[10], so presumably, a realm within Christendom would be a homogenous Catholic state. While there exist countries that have a large Catholic majority (for instance, in Latin America and some European countries), none of them seem to consider themselves explicitly under this kind of framework at the moment. Whether or not they would be considered states within Christendom though, how exactly is the Church expected to wield such authority over temporal matters? Would it not be necessary for the Church to possess means beyond compelling the conscience to enforce such an order? If the only means available is an appeal to conscience, then there is no difference between the approach to a state inside or outside of Christendom. This would suggest then that in order to enforce greater authority within Christendom, the Church would need to possess the kind of temporal means it had in the Middle Ages (e.g. arms, land) to fulfill this. We would do well at this point to consider then if this would truly benefit rather than harm the mission of the Church altogether.

Let us return then to a point at the beginning of the work that sheds light on the authors’ broader inclination:

‘I feel convinced that Christian architecture had gone its length, and it must necessarily have destroyed itself by departing from its own principles in the pursuit of novelty, or it must have fallen back on its pure and ancient models … we cannot successfully suggest anything new, but are obliged to return to the spirit of the ancient work …’

The sense of this quote advances the sentiment that while modern architecture has gone astray, part of the reason why it fails is because we had already reached the ideal form with the medieval cathedral. As the ideal of architecture has already been reached, any new architectural projects should simply work within that style. Analogously, this applies in this book to politics. In other words, the modern secular state has failed inasmuch as it has deviated from the medieval sacral state which is taken to be the ideal political form. Now, we have already raised the issue of practicality with such a claim, but just to be clear, let us conclude that particular critique with the following considerations: what are the first steps to achieving this goal? Who would be the rightful monarch? How would this ruler be elevated to power? Would the Church herself support this kind of rule? The more these sorts of questions are asked, the more this appears to be a matter of fantasy. We should be clear, however, that as this is a critique based on the particulars, this could obviously change over time and no longer be the case. For the moment and for the foreseeable future, however, this does not seem feasible for the West. The main obstacles standing in the way would be the present culture of the West, the current political forms operating in the West, and the disposition of the Church. Even the Vatican seems uninterested in reunifying church and state.

Having stated the more obvious critique regarding practicality, let us now offer a more subtle critique based on principle. While we sympathize with the notion that the medieval cathedral was the peak of Western architecture, we would qualify this statement by adding that this is the case “up until this point.” The reason for this is because we must remember that while we are speaking of something divinely inspired in a sense, we are also speaking of a temporal work of art. This also extends to culture and politics in the same fashion. Given the very nature of our temporal world with all its imperfections, it seems that we are making a category error if we identify a particular good of this world with the completeness of the good itself (that is, the final good). Any instantiation of the good in this world cannot exhaust the good itself as this would be equating the finite with the infinite. It seems perfectly within reason to suggest that as good as the medieval cathedral may be, there are still other possible instantiations of the good that highlight other aspects of beauty more than gothic architecture. Even if this does not exist at the moment, it seems far too presumptuous to suggest no further good can be found.

The danger of identifying a particular with the universal is that we place limitations upon the infinite. Our concern, then, is not to diminish the esteemed beauty of the gothic cathedral, but simply to suggest that as good as it may be, beauty itself necessarily expands beyond it. Coming back to the temporal, political order, we cannot expect perfection in this realm such that even with the supposed ideal conditions, that this order would be impervious to faults or dissolution. While we are not suggesting that this is what integralists necessarily believe, our only point is that the solution to the problems of modernity extend beyond mere form. Clearly, something must change in the face of modernity’s failure in the West, however, any change in this world needs to take into account the material reality of the time. Thus, we must challenge the integralist to address what is truly possible in the present and offer immediate steps that can be taken now to solve the crisis of our time. Furthermore, we would caution that as good as one may estimate the medieval order to be, it still possessed its own particular set of challenges, and ultimately came to an end from within. Even if it is said that it met its end in spite of itself, defenders of a Christian democratic order like Maritain can respond in kind regarding the breakdown of modern Western democracies. In other words, the breakdown of a democracy within a Christian culture is not due the failure of Christianity, rather, it is the failure of secularism that is truly to blame.

[1] This take on the term “postmodern” rests largely upon John Deely’s critique primarily found throughout his Four Ages of Understanding (see, for example, pages xxxi and 578). It was his understanding that what passes for postmodern thinking or philosophy today is really just an extension of modernism to its logical conclusion (hence, “hypermodernism” or “ultramodernism”). Modernism began from nominalism as its starting point, proceeded into idealism, and ended in radical, deconstructive skepticism. Truly postmodern thought, on the other hand, would be substantially different from modern thought, and thus, must begin with an acknowledgment that the modernist path of idealism has reached a dead end.

[2] Crean and Fimister 2020: Integralism, 6.

[3] Crean and Fimister 2020: Integralism, 5-6.

[4] From 2016: “Integralism in Three Sentences”.

[5] Crean and Fimister 2020: Integralism, 269.

[6] Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were several “Christian Democratic” parties that formed throughout the world. Most notably, Presidents Rafael Caldera in Venezuela and Eduardo Frei in Chile were explicit in having been inspired by Maritain’s political philosophy.

[7] Maritain even saw the United States in the 1940’s and 50’s as being apt for this cultural shift he spoke of, seeing American democracy as being on the trajectory toward what he had in mind. As with other examples though, such cases have fallen away as Western culture has moved in an opposite direction.

[8] See Crean and Fimister 2020: Intregralism, 216-258.

[9] 2020: Integralism, 256.

[10] Ibid., 21.


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