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The Concept of the “Integral” in Catholic Social Thought

Looking through the tradition of modern Catholic social thought, it is remarkable how central the term “integral” is to that tradition, usually used in conjunction with another key term: humanism, development, ecology. Despite the important place the term has in the tradition, there is no explanation of its meaning in official Catholic social teaching, and no principle that encapsulates its significance. In this post, I want to trace the usage of the term “integral” in Catholic social thought, to get a sense of why it is so important to that tradition. The term “integral” repeatedly emerges in the tradition to convey a sense of wholeness, of stitching back together things that have been fragmented or torn apart. This quest for wholeness is central to the Catholic social tradition.

The first significant appearance of the term “integral” in the Catholic social tradition is the phenomenon of integralism. Integralism was the broad movement within Catholicism at the turn of the twentieth century that, in response to the secularization of Western Europe and the displacement of the church from its traditional position of authority, sought the “reconquest” of society for the church. Integralism was an attempt to restore the sacred order of the pre-modern era through the establishment of clerical authority over social life. For the integralists, the “integral” meant the restoration of the unity between the temporal and the spiritual that had been sundered by secularization and modernity, but also the restoration of order and unity within society that had been lost by the displacement of the unifying role of religion and the church.

It is significant that the term “integral” continued to be used even by those Catholics who were strongly opposed to the integralists. For example, the philosopher Maurice Blondel and the theologian Henri de Lubac both believed that they, and not their intellectual adversaries, were the real “integralists,” since they insisted that the human desire for union with God is intrinsic or integral to human nature, rather than extrinsic as the neoscholastic theology associated with integralism claimed. The philosopher Jacques Maritain claimed in his 1936 book Integral Humanism that an authentic humanism must recognize that the human person is a transcendent being in need of a relationship with God for fulfillment. He contrasted this with false humanisms that deny the reality of God. Yet a significant portion of the book is also devoted to challenging integralism, what he calls the “Christendom” model of social life, for trying to impose a Christian order on society rather than respecting the freedom of the person in the spiritual domain.

In his 1968 encyclical Populorum Progressio, Paul VI does not use the word “integral,” but he does cite Maritain’s book Integral Humanism. He does so in defense of the idea of a “full-bodied” or “true humanism” that is “open to the values of the spirit and to God who is their source” (42). Paul VI’s intent here is to promote a vision of human development that is not limited to economic growth or technological advancement, but rather takes into consideration the ethical and spiritual dimensions of humankind. Paul VI does begin to use the term “integral development in his 1971 apostolic letter Octogesima Adveniens (31, 52). He also warns against the dangers of reductionism, of allowing any one partial scientific or theoretical account of the human person to stand in for the whole, since “the whole picture and the full meaning will escape it” (40). He therefore promotes a vision of the wholeness of the human person, an integrated view that includes not just the material and the spiritual, but diverse scientific perspectives, as well.

In his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI adopts the term “integral human development.” Here the term has much the same meaning as Paul VI’s “full-bodied humanism” or later “integral development.” Benedict XVI insists that human development must take into consideration the whole person, both material and spiritual (11).

Finally, in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis introduces the concept of “integral ecology” (137). This concept seeks to link together different aspects of life, what Francis calls “environmental ecology,” “social and economic ecology,” “cultural ecology,” and “the ecology of everyday life.” The encyclical proposes that these different ecologies are interlinked systems. Francis is concerned with the fragmentation of modern life, the inability to see the connections between the natural world and social life, but also between economic policy and culture, and so on. In the encyclical he insists that this fragmentation is a spiritual problem at root, and therefore faith and spirituality offer the solution of an integrated vision that can restore wholeness to creation and human social life.

The quest for wholeness represented by the term “integral” runs through the modern tradition of Catholic social thought, a unifying thread amidst quite different perspectives. It signifies a concern not just with secularization, the alienation of modern society from God and our own spiritual dimension, but also with fragmentation, the lack of a unifying vision that makes sense of the different aspects of modern life. This thread, this quest for wholeness, has never been explicitly developed in Catholic social teaching, however, although one might consider Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ to have done so. Therefore, it is worth pointing attention to this thread so that it can be further examined and developed.

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