The Meaning of Neo-Integralism

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The apogee of collaborationist Catholicism, alongside its more radical co-religionists, was undoubtedly the day of my birth: November 8, 1960. It was the day John F. Kennedy was elected president. He had already paid the price of admission to the Oval Office with a speech before the Houston Ministerial Association the previous September 12, in which, after vigorously defending religious pluralism and a confessionally neutral state, he declared that,

contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.

Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.

Those sentiments, together with the post-Vatican II implosion of Catholic social thought and effort in the United States, had several unexpected results. One of these was the imposition of abortion upon the country by the Supreme Court in the face of little organized opposition by the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, despite the yeoman service done the pro-life cause by innumerable individual Catholic laity, clergy, and religious over the years since Roe v. Wade, most Catholic bishops (with honorable exceptions) were content to pay lip service to the cause.

It was not just a question of many of Their Lordships continuing to partner with pro-abortion politicians at fetes from Los Angeles’s Labor Day Mass and Prayer Breakfast to New York’s Al Smith Dinner to innumerable Saint Patrick’s Day parades across the country. Nor was it only Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Robert J. Drinan, S.J.’s radically pro-abortion voting record during his 1971–1981 tenure in the House. Above all, it was the ideological cloak placed over these sorts of actions by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s invention of the “seamless garment.”

Woven at a speech by that prelate in 1983, this so-called garment allowed abortion to be thrown in as just one ingredient in a pot of such “life issues” as the death penalty, health care, senior care, refugee resettlement, disarmament, and the like. If a politician agreed with the Democratic Party’s stance on all these issues—save abortion—he could thereby be accounted a “pro-life candidate,” suitable for voting for by conscientious Catholics. To be fair to Cardinal Bernardin, however, this was only the codification of a methodology many of his brethren on the bishop’s bench had been using to explain their endorsing such folk tacitly or otherwise.

For those who refused such reasoning, opposition to abortion—whether through more conventional if ineffective political means, or through direct action such as Operation Rescue—became pretty much the sole independent public expression of Catholicism through the 80s and 90s, outside the prelates’ me-tooism. At that point, for many believing Catholic laity, voting Republican had become as much a religious duty as voting Democrat was for many of the clergy. But the fall of the Soviet Union also had an unexpected aftermath: not merely abortion but a host of clashes between Church teaching and the government arose, while the pontificate of Benedict XVI led many prelates to defend key elements of that teaching.

In March of 2010, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave a speech marking the golden jubilee of JFK in that same city:

His speech left a lasting mark on American politics, It was sincere, compelling, articulate—and wrong. Not wrong about the patriotism of Catholics, but wrong about American history and very wrong about the role of religious faith in our nation’s life. And he wasn’t merely “wrong,” his Houston remarks profoundly undermined the place not just of Catholics, but of all religious believers, in America’s public life and political conversation. Today, half a century later, we’re paying for the damage.

To his credit, Kennedy said that if his duties as President should “ever require me to violate my conscience or violate the national interest, I would resign the office.” He also warned that he would not “disavow my views or my church in order to win this election.” But in its effect, the Houston speech did exactly that. It began the project of walling religion away from the process of governance in a new and aggressive way. It also divided a person’s private beliefs from his or her public duties. And it set “the national interest” over and against “outside religious pressures or dictates.”

This was an important speech, because it overturned the golden calf of “not imposing my personal views upon others” that Catholic politicians had worshipped for over half a century. Over the following decade, as the tenor of civil life became ever more opposed to the Church’s teachings, Catholic American thinkers (and those of other nationalities) began to wonder if not just JFK but John Courtney Murray himself might have gotten the relationship between Catholicity and America wrong. Perhaps, contrary to what both Murray and Kennedy had argued, the First Amendment was not in fact the best model for the relationship of the Catholic Church to the state. The stage was set for what has become the latest intra-Catholic feud in the United States over political theory.

If the American and other Western governments’ embracing of abortion, transgenderism, and other grotesqueries over the past few decades showed nothing else, it did indicate that the post–Vatican II strategy of abandoning any distinctive Catholic political action in favor of simply joining with non-Catholics to work for a more just society was a colossal and dismal failure. As if in response to this, younger Catholic writers and theologians—such as Fathers Edmund Waldstein and Thomas Crean, Gladden Pappin, Adrian Vermeule, Thomas Pink, and Alan Fimister—centered around such websites as The Josias produced what has been called a revived integralism.

On the one hand, that name has had several wildly disparate uses. For instance, under Saint Pius X, during that pontiff’s struggle with Modernism, his supporters came to refer to themselves as “Integral Catholics” or “integralists”—a usage forbidden by Benedict XV in his first encyclical, Ad Beatissimi. Various right-wing political groups in France, Portugal, Spain, and Brazil called themselves or were called integralists during the interwar period. Different as all these usages of the word were, all the groups mentioned had one thing in common with each other and with those to whom the name is given today: they all sought to see the Catholic faith as integral to everything, including culture, economics, and politics.

As with their predecessors, the modern integralists believe that the Church’s social action in these areas should embrace all of the Church’s past teachings in these matters, and attempt to enact them in the present. The latter-day manifestation differs from the older ones chiefly in that where the earlier groups rejected the strategies of Popes Leo XIII and Benedict XV of ordering the faithful to “rally” to newly emplaced liberal governments in order to capture them from within and Catholicize them, the new integralists readily accept them. This is particularly true of American neo-integralists—and this is where the conflict has arisen.

Said conflict has not risen with any remnants of the old integralists, but rather with the ideological heirs of John Courtney Murray, such as George Weigel and Dan McLaughlin. For where Father Murray and his heirs believed and believe that the role of Catholics in the public square should be “recalling Liberalism to its best self,” imagining the difference between Anglo-American and Continental liberalism to be one of kind rather than degree, the new integralists reject this as a false distinction.

Where the Murrayites see the goal of Catholic American political action as being a return to the ideals of the Founding Fathers, the integralists see in this a chimera. For them, the Constitution merely embodies Locke’s false principles, enshrining myriad self-interests as the greatest good society can achieve. For the integralists, the Catholic confessional state remains the ultimate goal; the Constitution must be made to serve not merely the individual’s own self-perceived interest, but the true and actual common good. This in turn means both the orientation of the state in assisting the Catholic Church’s salvific mission and a decent livelihood. For the Murrayites, this is both an attack on religious freedom and what they conceive of as socialism—in a word, fascism.

While this reading of integralism ignores such encyclicals as Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno, to say nothing of the movement’s endorsement of localism and subsidiarity, and nothing of the objective reality of the Church’s salvific mission, it does have one essential tactical advantage. It plays to the innate American fear of the foreign, a fear to which Catholic Americans of the conservative variety are far from immune.

Whatever one makes of the philosophical questions involved, it is clear that the two sides are each carrying on in the tradition of the two parties that have been present in Catholic American history since the war between the states: the Murrayites are the lineal descendants of the Americanists, Monsignor John Ryan, and of course their eponymous founder; the American integralists carry on the tradition of the Ultramontanes, Monsignor Fenton, and Father Connell, while differing in tactics (if not ultimate intent) from Father Coughlin, the Catholic Worker, Integrity, the Detachers, and Triumph.

Now, whether or not one accepts the Murrayite contention that the Constitution as envisioned is the best such thing ever conceived by man, or the integralist insistence that it is a means to an ultimately Catholic end, one thing is certain. Under it, Catholic Americans did have the opportunity to evangelize their country, and they chose not to—a decision that has ultimately caused this nation millions of unborn and other lives, as well as sundry other horrors. As early as the 1840s, Orestes Brownson maintained that unless the United States were converted their system must inevitably fall apart.

One is reminded of the great ongoing arguments in pre-Reformation England, namely, whether Glastonbury or Saint Albans was the oldest and thus senior abbey in England; it raged for almost a millennium. A solution finally came when Henry VIII suppressed them both. One dreads a similar outcome for this ongoing feud which has ever characterized Catholic American history. Conversion seems a much happier alternative for these United States than collapse.

Image: The Coronation of Charles X by François Gérard

Charles Coulombe

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Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine's European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan's Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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