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Can Catholic Integralism Be Good in Theory but Bad in Practice?

Reprinted with permission.

If you want to boil this essay down into one question for the soft integralist, it is this: You say you don’t want integralism now, but if not now, when? Answering that question is harder than you think.

In my recent book, All the Kingdoms of the World, I engage in an extended critique of the new Catholic integralism. In discussions since the book was published, a number of integralists have told me that they’re happy to hold that integralism is good in theory but bad in practice. Philosopher Edward Feser calls this soft integralism

This essay explains why soft integralism doesn’t work. By its very nature, integralism is not the kind of political ideal that can separate theory and practice. Committed integralists cannot defend their view by cordoning it off from the real world.

I enter the discussion with two assumptions. First, I treat integralism as a theory of ideal church–state relations; I’m avoiding more expansive uses of the term, such as designating as integralist all regimes that promote spiritual goods. Second, I assume integralism is correct only if it works in theory.

Soft Integralism and Ideal Theory

What is soft integralism? Here’s how Feser defines it: 

What we might call soft integralism is the view that, though in theory the state may and ideally should favor the Church, in practice, this is extremely unlikely ever to work out very well. Politics and culture, on this view, are always too messy for the ideal to be anywhere close to realizable. Hence, for the soft integralist, functionally, the Church is better off keeping integralism on the shelf indefinitely as a dead letter (and perhaps should never have tried to implement it even in the past). It’s a doctrine that is only of theoretical interest and too hazardous to apply in practice. 

Let’s interpret Feser’s theory–practice distinction in line with Church history. Between Pope Pius IX and Vatican II, some theologians distinguished between thesis and hypothesis. The thesis articulates a political ideal, one that works well under highly favorable circumstances. By contrast, a hypothesis asks how the ideal will function in real-world circumstances. In this case, the “hypothesis” means, quite literally, “below” the thesis.

To adopt soft integralism is to adopt integralism as the thesis, that is, as the best and most just regime. But, for the soft integralist, integralist institutions will almost always be profoundly flawed hypotheses. Indeed, they will be so flawed we shouldn’t fight for integralism at all. To vindicate soft integralism, then, we need some idea of when integralism is best, even if it is seldom best. For instance, is integralism best only when everyone is Catholic? And how pious must these Catholics be?

Let’s now distinguish two ways a thesis can differ from a hypothesis. First, they can vary in altitude. Imagine a mountain where altitude measures the justice of a social world. The integralist thesis is the mountaintop. Our hypotheses are at the ground level. As we climb the mountain, we travel from unjust social worlds like ours to highly just integralist social worlds.

Second, thesis and hypothesis have variable distances. Here the question is how many social worlds we must traverse to reach the thesis. A distant ideal implies that many social worlds stand between the ideal and our social world. A close ideal implies that few social worlds stand between the ideal and our social world.

With these concepts in mind, consider three problems with soft integralism.

Soft Integralism’s Coherence Problem

Marxism is false. But Marxist ideal theory is coherent. In the Marxist’s view, there’s nothing inside people that blocks the realization of social perfection. If a society can get its institutions right, says the Marxist, it can get its people right. Humans are malleable. So we can improve humans so much that we can secure a radical ideal. Hence, Marxist social worlds claim to reach high into the skies of justice. And we understand that claim.

But integralism is an ideal for a fallen world, so even the best social worlds contain much ignorance and bad behavior, no matter how good the institutions are within them. In short, the integralist ideal has a lower altitude than Marxism. For the integralist, practice and theory are thus closer together than in other political ideals.

Now, to the first problem for soft integralism. Integralism recognizes the Fall, meaning the ideal is not a sinless world. The ideal itself contains sin and corruption. But that means difficulties in practice will bubble up into the theory. Practical problems become theoretical problems.

Here’s a historical example of the practical problems that can plague integralist theory. Many quasi-integralist orders succumbed to Islam, Protestantism, or secularism. But those who remained Catholic all reduced their level of coercive religious establishment. One reason is the persistence of non-Catholic communities. Attempts at suppression were too costly as matters of law and justice. Maintaining religious uniformity was not worth it. The economic costs were high, but the moral costs were even higher. Suppression required violence, oppression, and war.

In Chapter 5 of All the Kingdoms of the World, I argue that these pluralist problems plague the ideal. The consequence? Even the integralist thesis is likely to degrade into more moderate forms of the coercive establishment of a state religion, which makes the ideal unstable.

The integralist ideal is thus vulnerable to persistent decay. Once we reach the top of the integralist hill of justice, some force internal to the ideal will force us down it. The ideal itself undoes our hard political work to reach it.

I do not argue that integralism will fail in every social world. Instead, I say that integralism is only ideal for a narrow range of social worlds. It is probably the set of social worlds composed entirely of devout, obedient Catholics. Few social worlds are like that, if there are any at all.

This shortage of social worlds raises a coherence problem. If an ideal only works for a small set of social worlds, does it remain an ideal? To admit that the ideal rarely works seems to give away the game. Integralism is not the best transhistorical regime. That was Jacques Maritain’s position. (And the right one.)

Soft Integralism’s Knowledge Problem

The second problem with soft integralism is that because it applies to a distant social world, it is impossible to determine whether it will ever be the best and most just regime.

The philosopher Gerald F. Gaus has argued that we don’t know how distant ideals will work. Ideal theories face an insuperable epistemic problem. We should reduce our confidence that our ideals will work as billed:

Those confident that they know the “simple and logical” workings of ideal mass societies should, perhaps, reflect on the surprising intractability of social norms in small-scale societies in the face of concerted, well thought out, and well-funded interventions by the United Nations and other agencies. While there have been some notable and important successes in altering specific norms such as female genital cutting in some locations, in other places these interventions have not met with success, and sometimes initial success has faded as targeted norms were readopted.

Integralist states will face related problems with other local social norms. The Reformation produced new norms in Protestant populations, even within Catholic states, such as norms that forbade religious art in churches. Catholic states struggled to limit the proliferation of pared-down Protestant houses of worship and local iconoclasms.

International institutions have yet to end the maiming of women. In the same way, quasi-integralist states shipwrecked against local Protestantism.

My point is not that integralism will face challenges. Of course it will. The problem is that we don’t know how to get to nearby social worlds. If traversing social worlds is that hard, what do we know about distant social worlds? Maybe not much.

If we set off for the ideal, we may be disappointed when we arrive.

Soft Integralism’s Choice Problem

If soft integralism is feasible, integralism is both low altitude and socially distant. Hard to reach, and shabby once we reach it.

Distant ideals raise a third problem for soft integralism. By soft integralist assumption, we must traverse many social worlds to reach integralism. But the farther the ideal, the greater the chance we will face rugged terrain. Imagine the chain of social worlds between our hypothesis and the integralist thesis. For all we know, the chain may contain many low-justice social worlds, such that reaching the most just social worlds requires passing through highly unjust ones. Reaching high levels of justice requires sinking into lower levels of justice.

We might get lucky and find a flat landscape with minimal variations in justice. Or, better yet, we might be pleasantly surprised to find a gently inclining landscape.

Or we face a severe problem. Suppose we find a nice bluff to stand on. The bluff is much more just than the surrounding social worlds, which gives us reason to climb it. But once we climb the bluff, we’re stuck there even if we detect a superior ideal in the distance, for we cannot undermine justice now to get more justice later. The hilltop tempts us with a terrible choice (Gaus called this The Choice). Do we abandon full justice to settle on the moderately just bluff? Or do we permit (or commit) injustice to reach the mountain in the distance?

Advocates of other ideals might be willing to make society less just to eventually make it more just. Catholicism, by contrast, is morally stringent. Our pursuit of justice cannot involve committing injustice. Indeed, Catholicism might not permit allowing nearby injustice. We cannot trade off justice now to get more justice later.

Notice how this impacts the role of the integralist citizen. Ordinarily, the integralist might see herself as obligated to reach integralism. But if we’re stuck on a hill, we can only reach integralism by committing or allowing injustice. And so, our obligation to stop injustice conflicts with our responsibility to pursue integralism. Hill-based obligations trump integralist obligations. We may not do evil so that good may come.

Feser’s soft integralist might nod in agreement. After all, the soft integralist can “shelve” integralism, as Feser puts it. The soft integralist has no problem if he cannot reach the ideal.

I find this an odd way to talk. An ideal is the best, after all. How can the soft integralist not feel a tug in that direction? Won’t he long to traverse even rugged terrain?

This point is plain as a matter of justice. If we identify the most just social world and then deliberately settle for less justice, that looks like a moral failure. How can we give up on justice?

If the soft integralist feels no tug toward ideal justice, he no longer counts as an integralist. He no longer treats integralism as an ideal in effect. Once the soft integralist shrugs, he has become a Maritainian (as I argue below).

That is, unless the magisterium can come to the rescue.

Can Magisterial Teaching Save Soft Integralism?

Integralists must choose between modest, local improvements in justice and much larger, distant improvements. But Catholic moral teaching bars allowing injustice to reach complete justice.

Consider two famous integralist proof texts: Quanta Cura and Immortale Dei. Integralists believe both documents are magisterially taught and cast doubt on any form of liberalism. Indeed, QC may define liberalism as heresy. But neither specifies a form of Catholic establishment, only that we need to adopt some form of it (under still underspecified conditions).

Consider Catholic states A and B. A is a full-blown integralist state. B, by contrast, resembles twentieth-century Ireland—a social world with considerable establishment but not much religious coercion of the baptized. QC and ID do not tell us whether A is more just than B. And that makes perfect sense, given their purpose. The popes sought to teach Catholics which regimes are unacceptable and evil. They’re, at best, defining ideals by negation.

So dogma does not prove that integralism is more just (high altitude) than other establishmentarian regimes. And QC and ID have no bearing at all on distance problems. They only tell us that liberal regimes are low-altitude. Neither document mentions transition challenges. 

Magisterial teaching, at best, tells us that integralism is (a) the highest altitude regime somewhere in (b) a massive set of social worlds. And it doesn’t even tell us that. That’s not what QC or ID was meant to accomplish.

Jacques Maritain’s Alternative

Soft integralism has three problems: coherence, knowledge, and choice.

So, let’s look at a nearby alternative—the view Jacques Maritain takes in Man and the State. Maritain did not reject QC or ID but saw them as highly underspecified. In response, he argued that integralist regimes fit the “sacral age” but not our “secular age.” For Maritain, there is no transhistorical Catholic ideal. The justice of all earthly regimes is relative to history. I suspect that’s what all popes from Pope Paul VI forward believed (Paul VI was, after all, a Maritain disciple.). I think it is the dominant position among theologically orthodox Catholic theologians.

If we follow Maritain, we concede that integralism is not the most just regime, even in theory. My three problems evaporate.

That sounds like a big deal, but is it? I’m unsure. Practically, I suspect Maritainians and soft integralists will make similar real-world recommendations. Maritain became a social optimist, but his theory doesn’t entail his optimism, so one could be a pessimistic Maritainian. If so, soft integralists and Maritainians will fight similar political battles.

The chief advantage of Maritain’s view is that it is simpler. The Maritainian can ignore distant ideals. The core question for Catholic social thought becomes how to improve existing societies given certain principles of justice. Catholic scholar Russell Hittinger identifies these principles as dignity, the common good, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

Maritain or Bust

Soft integralists have a choice. On one hand, they can abandon integralism for Maritain’s position. But, of course, that is to abandon integralism.

On the other hand, they can adopt stronger grades of integralism, which hold that integralism is likely to work and that transition is manageable. But harder integralisms face the problems I raise in All the Kingdoms of the World.

If you want to boil this essay down into one question for the soft integralist, it is this: You say you don’t want integralism now, but if not now, when? Answering that question is harder than you think.

Kevin Vallier

Kevin Vallier is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, where he directs their program in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and Law. Vallier’s interests lie primarily in political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy, politi… READ MORE

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