There is a law in each well-order'd nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
—William Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act II, Scene 2, Lines 1178-1180
Recent criticisms of the movement known as “integralist” or sometimes “illiberal” have expressed concern that a confessional state using state power to enforce “the common good” over and above individual rights will result in an unjust society, perhaps even a repeat of the totalitarian catastrophes of the twentieth century. These arguments have asserted that no such use of centralized state power could be just or safe, even if it is directed at promoting objective goods in society, and that it will terminate in an oppressive theocracy. Opponents of integralism argue that the protections of liberalism, or at least a conservative-formulated separation of church and state, are necessary either because they are needed to preserve the common good itself or because the common good shouldn’t be the goal of governments in the first place. In the words of James Dominic Roody, for instance, “We have discovered, in hindsight, that the common good requires that the individual be protected from the overreach of government in many of the ways that classical liberal political theory outlined.”[i] In short, the critics of integralism become very nervous about the notion of a centralized confessional state pursuing explicitly religious ends in the public sphere by force. Bruce Frohnen writes in the February 2022 issue of Chronicles magazine, “The result is yet another variation on the theme of centralization and command by insulated elites convinced of their right to tule for the common good, as they define it.”[ii] While some of these critics may agree with certain principles of integralism, they reject the proposed means of implementation as set forth by integralists such as Adrian Vermeule and Gladden Pappin.
Let’s not lose sight of the valuable principles of integralism in the fog of their misapplication.
My purpose in contributing to this dialogue is threefold: first, to defend a form of integralism against those who believe a liberal or even non-religious “conservative” social order brings about greater happiness, stability, and good for society than a social order informed by faith; second, to make a distinction between integralist principles and their application; and third to propose a new term to clarify that difference. I wish to show that integralism does not entail the establishment of a Leviathan-type state, as many critics fear. Some of the proposed applications of integralist principles along Hobbesian lines of unlimited executive power should give us pause, and are largely serving, unfortunately, to give integralism a bad name. To that extent I agree with the critics. But let’s not lose sight of the valuable principles of integralism in the fog of their misapplication. I wish to propose the use of a new term, “organic integralism,” to signify the application of integralist principles in a different way from the manner of application most in vogue at present.
The debate between liberalism and illiberalism really hinges on the question, What is the purpose of government? Classical liberalism, a la Locke, holds that the government’s purpose is to protect the rights of individuals, particularly the right to self-determination. Within that framework, the individual chooses their own good and is left free to pursue it, their quest safeguarded by the state, which acts only to guard this freedom. Integralism, on the other hand, teaches that the end of government is to promote the common good.
What is the common good, then? It is precisely the slipperiness of this term that often makes integralism’s opponents uneasy. Let us put some grit on it, then, so it won’t slide away so easily. St. Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, writes that the last end of human life is happiness; happiness is precisely the good that everyone seeks, and common happiness, the happiness of the whole body politic, constitutes the common good.[iii] The end of the government, then, is to promote this common good, which is defined as common happiness. “Every law is ordained to the common good,” Aquinas writes. To complete the definition, then, we must outline the integralist view of happiness. Aquinas teaches that true happiness consists in the practice of virtue[iv] and possession of truth.[v]
Integralism does not sacrifice the human person for the sake of the community, precisely because the community exists for the sake of the human person.
Logically, then, if happiness is the good of human life, and happiness consists in virtue, then the common good consists in the promotion of common virtue—that is, the overall virtue of the civitas or body politic. But some standard is needed to judge what is virtuous and what is not, and this standard in integralism is provided by the Catholic religion. The faith, along with natural law, informs the human law so that it is oriented to the practice of virtue according to the moral teachings of Catholicism, which in turn serve as the means to happiness here below and ultimate Beatitude hereafter, a goal that the state must always keep in focus. The state also publicly recognizes its obligations to God. In this way, faith and politics are integrated.
If this notion of the common good is accepted, it becomes hard to see how liberalism could serve the common good, as Roody argues, for instance, since liberalism is predicated not on the promotion of societal virtue derived from an objective standard, but rather on individual freedom to choose whatever life goal one sees fit. Not only will many citizens choose a goal other than virtue and thus true happiness, but any idea of a common goal, common happiness, will be impossible, as each individual chooses a path different from all their fellows. At best, we are left with the “common goods”—which is itself an oxymoron since goods in the plural will, by definition, not be common.
Opponents of integralism fear that a common-good-oriented politics—or at least one enforced by state power—will steamroll the individual and their rights and create conflict and disharmony among the population. But much of this fear arises from a belief in the false dichotomy of individualism vs. collectivism (manifesting in liberalism vs. socialism/communism). Integralism does not sacrifice the human person for the sake of the community, precisely because the community exists for the sake of the human person.
Thus, integralism, rightly considered, neither grants unlimited power to the state to override individual rights, nor does it permit unlimited freedom to the individual to seek only selfish (and even self-harming) ends.
This requires further elaboration. St. Thomas makes a distinction between the human as an individual and the human as a person. This distinction is absolutely fundamental for understanding integralism and avoiding the traps of both individualism and collectivism. Viewed as an individual, a human is a part of something larger than themselves, namely, society. In some sense, then, he exists for society. Viewed as a person, however, with a soul and concomitant dignity, a human does not exist for society, but for a higher purpose—happiness here and hereafter. From that perspective, society exists for him—to enable him to fully develop his personality and achieve happiness. To quote Fr. Fahey’s excellent book, The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganization of Society, “Man as an individual is for society, but society is for the person.”[vi] Pius XI confirms this point in Divini Redemptoris. As persons, every human has immense and equal dignity. As individual members of a society, however, natural inequalities between members exist. It is important to remember, in addition, that moral dignity varies from person to person, depending on the person’s degree of virtue.
The integralist understanding of rights and duties and the relation between human being and state flows from this distinction. As a person with a soul, a human being is oriented to God, and has a duty to pursue Him. The person’s rights are intimately linked to this duty. Thus, for example, everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life, since these are prerequisites for the full development of the human person—and no government can overstep these lines. These basic necessities form a part of the overall common good that government and law must defend. As an individual, however, a human being’s rights are not unlimited and he is not totally autonomous. The member of society is not free to seek after any goal he sees fit, and, as a part of a larger whole, he has duties toward that whole. Individuals must act with an eye to the common good, sometimes at the expense of their individual, specific good. For example, a young man may be called upon to join the army and defend the country against invaders, sacrificing his personal good of bodily safety for the sake of a larger, common good, the safety of the nation, which is necessary for the development of virtue. In return—since society is oriented toward the full development of each human person in virtue and therefore happiness—every member has the right to partake of that common good in due measure. That same young man has a right to private property, for example, and to a good education and a Christian culture—all of which will develop him as a person.
Thus, integralism, rightly considered, neither grants unlimited power to the state to override individual rights, nor does it permit unlimited freedom to the individual to seek only selfish (and even self-harming) ends. By presenting an absolute moral code oriented to God, to which both governments and citizens are to be held, integralism offers a middle ground between the self-destructiveness of individualism and the tyranny of collectivist state-worship. Fundamentally, integralism stipulates that human rights will not be properly upheld unless the rights of God are first respected in the public sphere and both person and state understand their duties to one another.
Integralism, properly understood, respects the rights of citizens and limits state power while also insisting upon citizens’ and governments’ duties toward the common good, defined according to an objective standard.
The two dangerous currents of individualism and collectivism flow from a misunderstanding of the distinction between human personhood and human individuality described above. Liberalism stresses the first part of Article I of the Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 (“men are born free”—human personhood), while socialism/collectivism stresses the second part (“Men are born equal”—human individuality).[vii] For liberalism, each man is his own end, totally autonomous, with no obligations to anyone or anything outside himself. Society must maintain this autonomous status of its members. Natural inequalities, however, permit some members of society to take advantage of others, sacrificing the weak to the strong. In practice, then, liberalism undermines the equality of human persons. Socialism or collectivism reacts against this obvious injustice, emphasizing equality over freedom. The collectivists then aim at eliminating any inequalities in society, sacrificing individual rights for the sake of the collective along the way. Since both positions begin with a false premise that misses half the picture, both end in disaster. To quote from Fr. Fahey again, “either in the name of liberty, the strong will oppress the weak, or in the name of equality, the manipulators of the coalition will oppress everybody. In both cases, men will be treated as mere individuals, not persons.”[viii]
The opponents of integralism, perhaps, fear that integralism is really another form of this collectivism, hijacked by elites who will sacrifice the individual to the whole, and end up oppressing everyone. And perhaps some who call themselves integralist have something like this in mind. The reality is that integralism, properly understood, respects the rights of citizens and limits state power while also insisting upon citizens’ and governments’ duties toward the common good, defined according to an objective standard.
Some opponents of integralism argue that integralism leads to the suppression of a freedom and protection of rights that liberalism or non-religious conservatism guarantees, but this reveals a misunderstanding of liberalism as well as of integralism. Ultimately, the “freedom” of liberalism is an illusion. In the first place, absolute freedom for the individual in the public sphere is simply impossible if we are to avoid total anarchy. Even liberals acknowledge this, at least implicitly, since we retain a rule of law. At some point, the exercise of one individual’s rights will infringe upon the rights of another, and the first individual must be stopped. But then the first individual is not completely free. There are limits. Who decides where these limits are? And using what standards? If we are not to refer to an objective standard of morality and conduct, such as that proposed by the integralists, why do one person or group’s rights trump another’s? Why, for example, does LGBT communities’ “right” to avoid hearing so-called offensive language trump the fundamentalist or Catholic’s right to religious expression? Herein lies the basic contradiction of liberalism.
Only a politics rising from the foundations of a true and objective moral order can hope to avoid tyranny, in the end.
But in the second place, a neutral public sphere devoid of real standards, where all members receive equal freedom of action and belief, fails in practice. The reason is that some members of society will make their “free goal” the domination of other members of society—and according to liberalism’s own logic, they should not be stopped. Eventually, those whose “private good” is power will capture the organs of the state and begin to impose their standard of behavior and belief upon others. According to liberalism, the strong must be permitted to be strong. The weak must be permitted to be weak. Hence the current state of America’s institutions, where Postmodern/neo-Marxist/Leftist beliefs and concerns are the only ones tolerated. Where is liberalism’s purported freedom for conservatives? Where are the checks and balances? Both unbridled individualism and unchecked collectivism lapse into tyranny. In fact, only a politics rising from the foundations of a true and objective moral order can hope to avoid tyranny, in the end.
We must acknowledge that politics can never be free from ideology. That is liberalism’s great lie. Even if liberalism were not itself an ideology, at the very least it permits the eventual dominance of a single ideology over all others in a kind of political natural selection, survival of the fittest. To mutilate a metaphor, Darwin’s finches come home to roost in the political order when liberalism reigns. If we recognize that a dominant ideology will always exist in politics, we will be less shocked by integralism’s unabashed “bias” in favor of religion. Integralism simply tries to replace a harmful and false ideology in the public square with a beneficial and true one.
Integralism also need not imply the abandonment of all checks and balances to power. In fact, Catholic social teaching includes the principle of subsidiarity, which puts a rein on centralizing power. In Quadragesimo Anno, Pius XI writes, “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do.”[ix] A properly ordered authority does not overwhelm or subsume lower authorities. “For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them.”[x] Whatever can be handled at a lower level of government should be, though of course all levels of government should function with the common good as the goal. This is anything but Leviathan.
To prevent the degeneration into a tyranny, St. Thomas advocates a mixed form of government—part monarchy, part aristocracy, and part democracy—to provide checks and balances.
St. Thomas, too, was not unaware of the problems of fallen human nature in relation to power, and the need for some degree of decentralization. Commenting on the best form of government in the Summa, he writes, “A kingdom is the best form of government of the people, so long as it is not corrupt. But since the power granted to a king is so great, it easily degenerates into tyranny, unless he to whom this power is given be a very virtuous man.”[xi] To prevent the degeneration into a tyranny, St. Thomas advocates a mixed form of government—part monarchy, part aristocracy, and part democracy—to provide checks and balances.
Accordingly, the best form of government is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.[xii]
Thus, an integralist vision of the social order is by no means synonymous with a highly centralized state. The implementation of integralism could take many forms, just as there have historically been different types of confessional states. Any attempt at integralism in this country would, of course, have to be conducted within the parameters of the existing system, which includes a strong democratic element. An integralist state would involve at least as much cultural percolation as political maneuvering in order to come into being anyway. The implementation of integralism would likely involve both a grassroots movement and an executive approach, functioning in tandem. Even supposing a centralized integralist power could be established (and that we would want such a thing), it would accomplish very little faced with a population that lacked any education about the common good, the purpose of government, and the goal of human society itself.
The collapse of Christendom happened relatively quickly—a few well-timed revolutions, a few important philosophers, a bit of infiltration, a war or two, like fires set at key points inside a cathedral, and the whole thing came crashing down.
This is where the term “organic integralism” comes in. Building something takes much more time and skill than tearing something down. The collapse of Christendom happened relatively quickly—a few well-timed revolutions, a few important philosophers, a bit of infiltration, a war or two, like fires set at key points inside a cathedral, and the whole thing came crashing down. Some who wish to see the restoration of religion believe it can be achieved through reverse-engineering the collapse of Western civilization. All we need to do, they argue, is reverse-infiltrate the existing secular order, seize power, and we will be able to restore a Christian state. But we cannot merely adopt the tactics of the enemy and use them against them because they are often morally impermissible and because ours is a work of connecting, building, and nurturing, not using violence to tear apart and destroy. Jean Ousset observed this well in his book Action. One does not build a house in the same way that one demolishes it.
This work—which is much more arduous and complex than was the liberal revolution against a Christian order—must be an organic one and a local one. It must respect the principle of subsidiarity, outlined above. It must not seek to establish a tyrannical centralized power or usurp the existing authorities. And it will defy any attempt at a complete, systematic masterplan because, first, it will be guided by grace which operates in a way that baffles human calculations, and second, the growth of a true culture, like an ecosystem, must be allowed to happen naturally and on the local level first. It must be more a matter of conversion and cultural transformation than political usurpation. This, after all, is how the pagan tribes of the Dark Ages were transformed into the fountainheads of Christendom in the Medieval Era to begin with.
This does not mean that proponents of organic integralism cannot act with intentionality to further the end, however. As Pope Pius XII wrote in 1947, “The just man is a Christian who will not be satisfied with standing idly amid the ruins; he will feel it his duty to resist and prevent the catastrophe, or at least to lessen its impact. He will be there to rebuild.”[xiii] What exactly organic integralism would look like on a practical level is another discussion, however.
As our civilization faces the failure of liberalism—a failure with deathly serious implications for us all—the question we must ask is this: has the time come, at last, to have the courage to proclaim objective truths that citizen and ruler alike must submit to in order to save society?
The shots fired at liberalism in this essay may seem irrelevant to an audience concerned with debates over integralism that are taking place within conservative circles. Why spend so much time attacking liberalism when addressing avowed opponents of it? But I would propose that much of what passes for conservatism in America today is actually classical liberalism or libertarianism. In fact, I would argue that true conservatism can only be based on the conserving of an objective moral standard against unlimited personal “freedom.” In my estimation, such a standard can only ultimately derive from faith. This means there is no middle ground between some form of liberalism and a conservatism that boldly upholds an objective moral order. And where will that order be found apart from the Christian tradition? So the critique of liberalism here presented bears relevance, I think, to conversations in conservative circles, too.
As our civilization faces the failure of liberalism—a failure with deathly serious implications for us all—the question we must ask is this: has the time come, at last, to have the courage to proclaim objective truths that citizen and ruler alike must submit to in order to save society? Or will we continue to surrender ourselves to the ultimate tyranny of relativistic liberalism until we are all devoured by our own unrestrained desires, our “raging appetites,” to borrow Shakespeare’s term, and those of the people who shrink not from asserting the self over all else?
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[i] James Dominic Roody, “Illiberalism Will Not Secure the Common Good,” AIER, American Institute for Economic Research, last modified April 21, 2022, https://www.aier.org/article/illiberalism-will-not-secure-the-common-good/.
[ii] Bruce Frohnen, “The Lure of Integralism,” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, February 2022, 11.
[v] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk 3, Chap. 37.
[vi] Fr. Denis Fahey, The Mystical Body of Christ and the Reorganization of Society (1945. Fitzwilliam: Loreto Publications, 2017), 18.
[vii] Fahey, 374.
[viii] Fahey, 378.
[ix] Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno [On Reconstruction of the Social Order], sec. 79, https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_19310515_quadragesimo-anno.html.
[x] Pius XI, Qaudragesimo Anno
[xiii] Pius XII, “To the members of the Roman nobility,” The Lay Apostolate, Jan. 1, 1947.