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The Paradoxes of Postmodern Integralism

“Adam is believed to have remarked to Eve: My dear, we live in an age of transition,” William Inge famously quipped. Although perhaps a less dramatic one, American political Catholicism is in an age of transition, as well. One sign of this is the increasing public voice of alternatives to the progressive and neoconservative perspectives that have dominated Catholic political discussions for the past three decades. Early last year, the Catholic political philosopher Patrick Deneen outlined the debate between neoconservative Catholics, comfortable with core American liberal values, and what he dubs “radical” Catholics, who hold that “liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism.” Deneen points to the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre and the theologian David L. Schindler as important influences, and one could add the Protestant theologians Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, as well; William T. Cavanaugh and Michael Baxter are among the best-known representatives. Now, in a thoughtful essay at Front Porch Republic, Gabriel Sanchez has proposed a revived integralism as another viable option for politically-engaged Catholics.

Historically, integralism was 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. Although most precisely used to describe the church’s initial intellectual response to the Modernist crisis early in the twentieth century, “integralism” can also describe much larger tendencies in the church of the time. Politically, integral Catholicism rejected the two main options associated with modernity, liberalism and socialism, including such freedoms as religious liberty and freedom of the press. Integralism also proposed the restoration of an established role for the church in society, believing that the banishment of God from public life was the source of social ills. Integralists also tended to support authoritarian forms of government, believing that the breakdown of respect for authority and social hierarchies was a sign of social decay. Socially, integralism was embodied in what we today call the Catholic “sub-culture,” the array of associations and movements that allowed Catholics in much of Europe and even the United States to live most of their lives immunized from secular modernity. And lastly, but importantly, early Catholic social teaching arose out of integralism’s ambition to remake the social order. Integralism, although already being surpassed by other tendencies as early as the 1940s, was swept away by the Second Vatican Council, persisting, until recently, in schismatic groups like the Society of St. Pius X and along the traditionalist fringes of the church.

In his essay, Sanchez points to a growing number of Catholic intellectuals advocating for something like an integralist perspective relevant for American Catholic life today, and Sanchez himself writes for The Josias, a blog advocating for integralist views. He rightly notes that what links the radical Catholics with these new integralists is their “illiberalism,” that is, their skepticism that authentic Catholicism can truly be consistently lived out while also remaining true to core American liberal values. For those who in the past found a way to tolerate or accommodate American consumerism and imperialism, the apparent hostility of the U.S. government toward the Catholic Church manifest in the contraceptive mandate associated with the Affordable Care Act and increasing tensions over same-sex marriage have made this skepticism attractive to a growing number of Catholics. Even George Weigel, long an advocate for the compatibility of Catholicism and American values, has more recently expressed profound pessimism about Catholicism’s continuing influence in American public life. Weigel, of course, is far from embracing integralism, but it is easy to see how in such an atmosphere of pessimism, integralism could seem an attractive option (after all, integralism originally emerged in response to liberal hostility to the church, such as the Kulturkampf in Prussia). Ecclesially, the embrace of more traditionalist forms of practice by a significant number of Catholics, a trend reinforced by the dis-ease of some Catholics toward the pontificate of Pope Francis, also provides fertile ground for a revived integralism.

Although the return to an apparently more robust, cohesive, even aggressive form of Catholicism might have appeal, a revived integralism will inevitably be, in important respects, postmodern, and therefore quite different from the earlier movement it seeks to emulate. Of course, I do not mean that it will embrace some form of postmodern philosophy, but rather that by necessity it will take shape in, and be shaped by, the postmodern condition in which we live. This is certainly true of any form of Catholicism today, but in the case of integralism I believe this condition will leave it unable to make a lasting impact on either the church or American society, although it does not preclude it garnering a significant following. This is true for at least the following two reasons.

1. Revived integralism will be an individual lifestyle choice.

Besides being a reaction to liberal hostility toward the Catholic Church, more broadly speaking, in its origins integralism was a reaction to the dismantling of the traditional social order, in which the church played an integrating role, through the process of secularization. Through the sub-culture, integralism tried to re-create this traditional order, to the extent possible, in the midst of a secular society. Even then, however, integralism was both anti-modern and modern. As the theologian Joseph Komonchak has noted, although seeking to restore the lost order, integral Catholicism had to do so as one competitor among many in the “marketplace of meaning and value.” As the philosopher Charles Taylor makes clear in his A Secular Age, pre-modern faith performed its integrating role precisely because it was a given, an unchosen, shared framework of meaning; integralism, by way of contrast, depended on the voluntary participation of Catholics in Catholic associations, both spiritual and temporal, making faith a matter of choice (the historian Martin Conway makes this point in his Catholic Politics in Europe, 1918-1945).

The importance of choice has only grown in the decades since. As the sociologist Anthony Giddens, among others, has claimed, a central fact of social life in late modernity, or postmodernity, is that we are expected, or even required, to fashion our own identity, to create a lifestyle through our individual choices. Even the option to adopt more traditional ways of living, including traditional religious practices, remains a lifestyle choice. Absent the Catholic sub-culture of the early twentieth century, the practice of integral Catholicism in home and social life would be no different. Of course, contemporary integralists could establish their own lifestyle enclaves, even something as extensive as Ave Maria, Florida, but again, these would remain voluntary associations, dependent on the self-fashioning and physical mobility characteristic of our time. There is nothing wrong with this imperative toward self-fashioning, rightly understood; the problem with integralism is that, in its vision for social life, it rejects the very social conditions that have made possible the lifestyle pluralism on which its revival would depend.

2. Revived integralism lacks the support of the episcopal hierarchy.

Integralism went hand in hand with the centralization of authority in the Catholic Church most famously associated with the proclamation of the doctrine of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council. Integralism was promoted by Pope St. Pius X, to some degree resisted by his successor Benedict XV, but then again embraced by Pius XI and Pius XII. Indeed, this support from the top down was practically necessary for integralism, advocating as it did for the strict adherence to the pronouncements of the pope, and, absent the given, shared framework of pre-modern faith, the authoritative guidance of the ordained priesthood in all aspects of Catholic life.

Since Vatican II, however, the popes have decisively abandoned integralism. Even though Pope St. John Paul II oversaw centralizing tendencies in the church and a crackdown on dissenting theology, he was nevertheless a pope of Vatican II who in significant ways repudiated integralism. The current pope, Francis, certainly demonstrates no sympathies for integralism. The same is by and large true of the worldwide episcopacy. A handful of Latin American bishops do demonstrate integralist tendencies, and although they may wield influence in their individual dioceses, they have been decisively marginalized in the broader church, for example, at the Latin American bishops’ conference in Aparecida in 2007.

This puts a revived integralism in a likely insuperable position. Apart from the practical difficulties of bringing their ideals to fruition without hierarchical support, contemporary integralists face the problem of advocating for a maximal stance toward papal and hierarchical authority at a time when they are in tension with, if not outright opposition to, the pastoral and theological lines of that very authority. In response to Modernism in the early twentieth century, integralism adopted an ahistorical attitude toward magisterial authority and tradition, admitting very little room for contextualization or doctrinal evolution. Yet today’s integralism has little choice but to recognize itself as one voice among many in the church, privileging one strand of tradition above others, seeking to influence a magisterium whose teaching must evolve if contemporary integralism is to gain greater purchase on Catholic life.

Much more could be said, but I think it is clear that integralism as it exists today is in important respects quite different from the integralism of the early twentieth century. Inevitably shaped by its context, it is a postmodern integralism. As a theologian with one foot in the “radical” camp, and one in the “liberal,” broadly construed, I view the increasing influence of integralism with some concern. But I also believe that integralism’s likely inability to provide an adequate account for the conditions of its own existence in the postmodern context, as outlined above, puts it at a significant disadvantage compared to these other theological perspectives.

2 thoughts on “The Paradoxes of Postmodern Integralism

  1. It’s a pet peeve, but–could someone show me a place in Yoder’s writings where he critiques liberalism as incompatible with Christianity?

  2. Beyond the irony of (1) as stated, it seems problematic as well that any integralism won’t be state-supported (in the imaginable future). This is what seems problematic to me about Milbank’s project: it leaves the individual nothing to do; there is little or no ethic for the meantime. What is necessary is a rather complete system, and to achieve this, you need to have the sort of authority that can kill. You can’t simply have something like a Christian ethic of forgiving, lending, etc., that will eventually leaven society.

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