By Thomas Storck. Excerpt. | September 2022.
A specter is haunting the Catholic world — the specter of integralism. The most opposed groups — both Catholic conservatives and Catholic liberals, as well as some less informed Catholic traditionalists — unite in opposition to and even fear of it. But what, exactly, is integralism, and what can be said on its behalf?
Integralism is essentially nothing but adherence to all the teachings of the Catholic Church on faith and morals, something which, as Catholics, we are always obliged to do. Specifically, integralism is distinguished by three chief points: (1) adherence to the Church’s teaching on the social order and, in particular, to the restatement of that teaching by Pope Leo XIII in the late 19th century; (2) recognition that religion is not merely a private matter, and so discourse about God, good and evil, and the ultimate purpose of human life needs to take place at the level of society itself; and (3) as a result of the first two points, opposition to liberalism in all its forms. Each of these points needs considerable explanation.
The moral teaching of the Catholic Church is not limited to personal morality, still less to matters of sexual morality. Her teaching deals with the entire range of human life, both personal and social. Hence, it includes political and economic matters. It is no secret, however, that many Catholics are not comfortable with this. Even if they accept the Church’s authority on matters of individual morality, many are apt to think that the Church really has nothing to say on political matters, especially economics. Such an attitude is not new, but it has gotten much worse since the Second Vatican Council. But to deny the Church’s authority in such matters is a distortion of Catholic teaching, for the Church speaks authoritatively on political and social matters: the economy, war and peace, and so on. Too often, Catholics have come to regard such subjects as foreign to the Church’s magisterium and simply accept whatever the culture around them offers. This is true of both conservative and liberal Catholics, and it has been the case too often for well over a hundred years of Catholic life in this nation, as the Americanist controversy of the 1890s showed so clearly.
Leo XIII, who ascended to the papal throne in 1878, faced a deteriorating situation throughout the Catholic world. The temporal power of the popes over central Italy had been lost in 1870; unbelief was on the rise everywhere; the Catholic masses were losing their religious fervor in large numbers; and the international community increasingly saw the papacy as irrelevant. An important part of Leo’s response to this was to restate the chief points of Catholic doctrine for his contemporaries and, in particular, to restate the Church’s doctrine on the social order, which he did in a series of remarkable encyclicals over the course of his long reign.
Many people, both Catholics and non-Catholics, assumed that the Church’s relationship with the social order was one of unreflective and stupid support for the rule of monarchs, which, even in Leo’s time, clearly had seen its day. But Leo’s policy was not one of foolish adherence to a vanishing political order. On the specific question of forms of government, he stated more than once that it was of no concern to the Church whether a government was monarchical or democratic or anything else, so long as it governed on behalf of the common good and recognized God’s law. Leo XIII penetrated to the essentials of things, not to contingent policies from the past that were no longer applicable to the modern world.
Leo emphasized that the political order, as with the family or the individual person, is a creation of God and, therefore, has duties to God, including publicly acknowledging and worshiping Him. He pointed out how irrational it is to limit the teaching of God’s Church to merely the personal or familial level. If individuals are bound by the law of God, how is it that when joined into a group — a group of any kind — they are exempt from that law? It is illogical to think that just because men are joined into political societies that therefore they could leave their religious beliefs at home. Leo wrote in Immortale Dei (1885):
The State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion. Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. (no. 6)
But it was not just the state itself with which Leo was concerned. He recognized that the entire social order must be subordinated to God and, in its own way, lead us to God. The economy, for example, is not a separate and autonomous department of social life, ruled by its own quasi-mechanical laws and free from any but the most vestigial elements of morality. No, the economy is an essential aspect of human social life and must work in harmony with man’s true end, which is union with God. This does not mean that economics is to be reduced to a series of exhortations or sermons; rather, it is to be subordinated to human well-being as a whole. This is what the medieval social order endeavored to do by means of its many institutions and rules orienting economic activity toward the common good, in particular, the craft guilds, which tried to secure justice for all involved in economic life. In fact, the emancipation of the economy from Christian morality beginning in the 16th century was probably the chief engine of the secularization that by the 19th century had destroyed the Christian social order that had been built up so painstakingly over more than a thousand years.
A key point in the secularizing of what was once Christendom has been the relegation of discourse about good and evil to the private sphere.
The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, whose influence over American political thought has been overwhelming, makes this explicit. The state, and hence society, he believed, is concerned only with liberty and property, while religion is a concern solely of the individual.
“This Lockean doctrine was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been a staple of American jurisprudence. But why is it wrong? Is it not a good thing to remove religious disputes from the public sphere and let each person believe what he wants?
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