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More on Integralism: Authority, Choice, and Social Order (Matthew Shadle)


About a month ago, I had occasion to write about emerging voices in U.S. Catholicism advocating for a revival of integralism, the broad Catholic social movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the “reconquest” of society for the church, the restoration of all things in Christ. I argued that any such revival would necessarily be a “postmodern integralism” in important ways quite different from its predecessor. I further argued that these differences would only intensify certain paradoxes or tensions already present in the earlier form of integralism, and that these paradoxes would ultimately limit postmodern integralism’s viability as a form of Catholic engagement with social and political life. The most important of these paradoxes is that, while integralism harkens back to a time when Catholic faith was un-self-consciously integrated into daily life, today’s integralist has no option but to adopt their integralism as a self-conscious lifestyle choice.

Gabriel Sanchez, an advocate for the new integralism whom I engaged in my earlier post, has written on his personal blog Opus Publicum a considered but critical response to my thoughts on “postmodern integralism.” Sanchez notes that while my essay raises sociological questions about integralism, it leaves unaddressed the central question of whether its beliefs are indeed true. I believe this is correct; in my post I was more concerned with describing the possible appeal of a revival of integralism and what I see as the limits of its viability than with addressing its claim as the authentic interpretation of Catholicism. I agree with Sanchez that “the heart of the matter” is what is true, what “properly promotes the common good in political society,” so my earlier points should not be taken as disregarding questions of truth. But I also do not think we can so easily disentangle sociological questions and questions of truth. For an interpretation of our faith to be true, it must be able to give a plausible account of the social conditions in which it must be lived out, and here is where I think integralism falls short.

In my original essay I asserted that today, the adoption of integralism (or any other form of Catholicism, for that matter), is by necessity the self-conscious taking on of a particular style of life. Now Sanchez interprets this as if I am saying that this decision is “little more than one other choice among many” (emphasis mine) and that “all of these choices rest on the same plane.” Although today a great deal of pressure is placed on us to think of all choices as merely consumer preferences, there is no necessary reason to conclude that having to make a choice means that none of the choices is better or truer than any of the others. Sanchez himself seems to realize this, writing that integralism “is presented [by its advocates] as the right choice” (emphasis mine). But my contention is that the fact that contemporary integralism does, and indeed must, present itself as a choice has a direct bearing on whether it is the right one or not.

Before returning to this point, though, I need to make a detour into the history of political philosophy. As the British sociologist Margaret Archer, now President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, points out in her Realist Social Theory, “traditionalists cease to be such from the moment they realize this is what they are.” I believe this insight helps explain what I am calling the paradoxes of integralism. As the French Revolutionaries brought chaos and violence to their nation in the name of Reason, the British statesman Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, argued that tradition—the nation’s long-standing religion, customs, and institutions—would be a surer guide. Burke was later echoed by the French Catholic traditionalists: Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, Louis Bautain. But, by justifying tradition precisely because it is traditional, Burke and the French traditionalists in a sense betrayed the old traditions, which in the past were justified because they were “natural,” they reflected the cosmic order of things. Once people become self-conscious of tradition precisely as tradition, it loses the aura of naturalness and therefore its integrating function, at least as Burke and the French traditionalists understood it.

That is why the traditionalists gradually appeal less and less to tradition as the source of social order, and instead more and more to power and violence. We already see this in de Maistre, but it becomes clearest in the writings of Juan Donoso Cortés, who Sanchez has elsewhere rightly identified as an important precursor of integralism. For Donoso, writing in his Speech on Dictatorship and Essay on Catholicism, Liberalism, and Socialism, it is the ruler’s unquestioned will and the pope’s infallible authority which serve as the bulwarks of order because of the corruption and depravity of the masses. Significantly, Donoso proposes that because of the wreckage left behind by revolutionary liberalism, traditional monarchies may be inadequate for restoring order, and instead he suggests a more brutal form of dictatorship. Although he understood himself as defending the traditional order, Donoso’s thought represents its passing, because it is no longer preserved because it seems “natural,” but rather done so at the point of a gun (and indeed it is ironic that, for the tools needed to ensure the traditional order of things, Donoso turns to the increasing coercive and surveillance powers of the modern state). Burke argued that the French Revolutionaries had to rule through force because they had eliminated the customs that bound the people together, but in time the defenders of custom and tradition found they had to do the same.

Integralism inherited this attitude toward authority. It supported maximalist claims about the authority of the pope over the church and used the church’s authority to root out disobedience and wrong thinking, as in the Modernist controversy. As I noted in my previous post, integralists also tended to support fascist or quasi-fascist movements as a means of promoting social order. Whereas religion served as a given, unchosen, shared framework of meaning in pre-modern Christendom, with integralism the imposition of authority serves as a substitute (this is not to say that authority played no role in pre-modern times, only that later the role of authority is intensified, and also makes use of the tools of modernity, such as surveillance, mass media, etc.; also, in pre-modern times authority was accepted precisely because it was thought to reflect the order of the cosmos, whereas the absence of such a shared framework in modern times helps account for integralism’s intensified appeal to authority and power).

As I pointed out in my previous post, the key paradox of integralism was that, while it sought to impose a lost communal order, to do so it depended on the mobilization of the laity, through spiritual pursuits such as devotions, pilgrimages, etc., and in the social and political realm through trade unions, peasant leagues, and Catholic Action. As the political scientist Stathis Kalyvas shows in his book The Rise of Christian Democracy in Europe, the nineteenth-century episcopal hierarchy initially opposed the mobilization of the laity because they feared the emergence of lay leadership within the church would challenge their own authority. Originally seeking the restoration of the traditional order through support for traditional authorities such as the monarchy, the bishops only turned to the laity after it became clear that liberalism was a long-term reality. Of course, in the long term the bishops’ fears proved correct, as by the 1920s new understandings of the laity’s role in the church were emerging that eventually bore fruit at the Second Vatican Council. But the broader paradox of the mobilization of the laity was that it required of the laity a voluntary commitment to their faith in the pursuit of the restoration of a social order in which such commitment made no sense. After all, I don’t have to make a commitment to breathing. Rather than restoring something old, integralism was creating something new, and as its own inner tensions became clear, these tensions were resolved in the forms of Catholicism characteristic of the contemporary church (which is not to say these do not have their own tensions or paradoxes).

While integralism’s dependence on voluntary commitment could be to some degree masked by the Catholic sub-culture’s mimicking of the traditional order, and its adherents could claim their commitment was simply an act of obedience to the orders of the pope, a “postmodern integralist” can operate under no such illusions. This is why my point that today’s integralist is out of step with both the pope and bishops is important. Today’s integralist has no choice but to recognize their identity as a choice, even if in their eyes the “right choice,” and their movement as one dependent on its “power to persuade,” in Sanchez’s words. But, as I have been saying along, a faith based on choice and persuasion is quite different from the faith that existed in the traditional, pre-modern order, and if it is different, then integralisn’s claim to embody a timeless, unchanging faith is false. That is why I believe forms of Catholicism that can give a more adequate account of the role of choice and commitment in faith, while resisting the culture’s idolatry of choice, provide more promising ways of living the faith in contemporary society.

Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.

One Comment

  1. I think your argument is correct as far as it goes, but I think it needs to take into account that the current “natural order of things”–i.e. the Enlightenment inheritance of liberalism, individual autonomy, etc.—may be (will be?) replaced in the future by a different order. One could imagine in this future time a handful of “reactionary” thinkers arguing that society needs to restore the old traditional Enlightenment ways.

    Given this, one could argue that the integralist project is to convince enough people to make a choice for their “traditional views” that they will, in the end, become the natural order of things again: essentially unquestioned because, while they have not always been done this way, are now commonly, unquestioningly, accepted as the right way.

    In arguing this I am very much influenced by Slavoj Zizek’s ideas about universal partisan truth and the ways in which one set of natural or universal ideals replaces another. For Zizek, the French revolution marked one such moment and he seems to argue that a violent revolution is required to make this change. If he is correct, then the appeal of integralists to modern dictatorships could be seen as an attempt to foment the revolution needed to impose a new universal partisan truth. A question which he does not address is whether such a change can happen in a peaceful, self-conscious fashion: in other words, can the integralist project, as I think of it, succeed?

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