The Political Path for Conservative Catholics

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The Massive Secular State (MSS) looms like a forbidding shadow over the future of the Catholic Church. This form of government is aggressively secular, and aggressively growing. It is also anti-Catholic—designed, whether explicitly or implicitly, to work against the desires of the Church. And although the Church has long battled various governments, the MSS is a uniquely modern threat. 

The very idea of a separation of Church and State (i.e., a “Secular” State) is a modern conceit, since for millennia people assumed that politics and religion not only mixed, but were often the same thing. Likewise, although massive empires have existed in the past, the ability for a small elite bureaucracy to exert complete control over the lives of a far-flung populace only truly became possible in the 20th century. The 2nd century peasant in a small British village cared little about what was going on in Rome, but the farmer in remote Idaho today is dramatically impacted by the actions of leaders in Washington.

So how is the Catholic to respond to the threat of the MSS? (For my purposes here, I’m only referring to conservative Catholics, since most liberal Catholics do not see the MSS as a threat, but a friend.) Interestingly, the two most prominently proposed solutions appear to be diametrically opposed: integralism and libertarianism.

Integralism, in a nutshell, sees the State as the servant of the Church. In the words of one integralist, “Since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.” The unique authority given to the State should be used to further the goals of the Church. While toleration of other religions might be prudentially necessary, the fundamental role of the State is to preference Catholicism, which could even include Church officials making laws for the general population.

Libertarianism, on the other hand, sees the State as, at best, a necessary evil. It should be reduced in size and scope as much as possible. Knowing that all men are prone to evil, libertarians seek to limit the power that one man, or a small group of men, can wield over others. While there is debate among libertarians as to exactly what the State should be allowed to do, it is generally agreed that it should be extremely limited.

Integralism, then, proposes to convert the State, while libertarianism proposes to minimize it. The Integralist sees the State as a means to promote the Church; the Catholic libertarian sees the State as an obstacle to the Church’s growth. When it comes to the Massive Secular State, the integralists seek to change the “Secular” to “Catholic”; the libertarians seek to change the “Massive” to “minimal.” 

Both options have their problems, particularly if taken to their extremes. Does the integralist think the State should force baptisms through the threat of government-sanctioned violence? Does the libertarian think Drag Queen Story Hour should be allowed in our local libraries? How much of the State’s monopoly on violence will the integralist support? How libertine will the libertarian go? The extreme of integralism is a totalitarian Church; the extreme of libertarianism is anarchy. Neither should be particularly appealing for Catholics. 

Yet each side has its advocates in the Catholic world because, in moderated forms, each option addresses a real issue: the modern State is too secular, and it is too massive.  

One practical way forward is what I’ll call “natural law libertarianism.” According to natural law libertarianism, the role of the State is merely to prevent violations of the natural law. If something requires divine revelation to know and understand (such as the need for baptism), then it’s not the role of the State to enforce it. But if it’s part of natural law (such as the sanctity of life or marriage as a union between a man and a woman), then the State has a role in enforcing it. Anything beyond enforcing violations of the natural law (funding the arts, printing money, etc.) is outside the purview of the State. 

Such a system focuses mostly on combating the “Massive” part of the “Massive Secular State,” but by encouraging and defending the natural law, it prevents the most extreme, anti-Catholic forms of the “Secular” part. 

At a time when Catholicism is on the wane, it’s a pipe dream to think that we’ll magically convert the State, and even if we did, would we want the likes of Cardinal Gregory and Cardinal Cupich to be influencing public policy?

Note, however, that I’m not claiming that natural law libertarianism is the Catholic option or a “Catholic third way;” there is no such thing. It’s simply one possible solution to the real threat of the MSS. When it comes to political solutions, the Church gives principles to follow, not plans to implement. It’s up to the laity to determine the best way to implement those principles, and both integralists and Catholic libertarians are free to argue that their way is the best way today.

The debate between integralists and Catholic libertarians is one that should be encouraged in Catholic circles. Although I’m clearly much closer to the libertarian end of this spectrum, I’ve been happy to publish articles here at Crisis that advocate for an integralist viewpoint (see here and here, for example). Again, it’s not a matter of trying to find the mythical “Catholic political system,” but instead engaging in healthy debate as to the best means to fight the Massive Secular State. 

All reasonable Catholics agree that the Massive Secular State is a problem that needs to be addressed. The question becomes: In our work to overcome the MSS, do we focus on minimizing the Massive, or Catholicizing the Secular?

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

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Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. His most recent book Deadly Indifference (May 2021) examines the rise of religious indifference and how it has led the Church to lose her missionary zeal.

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