Volume > Issue > Integralism Weighed in the Balance

Integralism Weighed in the Balance

All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism

By Kevin Vallier

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Pages: 320

Price: $29

Review Author: Preston R. Simpson

Preston R. Simpson, M.D., is a retired pathologist who lives in Plano, Texas.

Modern integralism is a philosophy born of frustration and arrogance. That seems the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from Kevin Vallier’s detailed study in All the Kingdoms of the World. The frustration is understandable and is shared by many thoughtful and concerned Christians, including many readers of this publication. The arrogance — well, that is the result of sinful human nature and its inevitable desire for control. The book’s subtitle, On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism, is broad, but the vast majority of the book deals with Catholic integralism in the United States in the 21st century. The concluding chapter deals briefly with Chinese Confucian integralists and Sunni Muslim integralists. This latter overview is instructive to those of us unfamiliar with these cultures, but in contrast to the Catholic variety, we are unlikely to encounter these thinkers in daily life.

Definitions of integralism are quite varied. Vallier offers a definition of Catholic integralism but concedes that numerous scholars helped him formulate it. For purposes of simplicity, I take it to mean the integration of a particular religious tradition with society as a whole, including its civil laws and governance. For these reasons, it is anti-liberal, where liberalism is taken to mean the Western notions of individual freedom, especially freedom of conscience and separation of church and state, that have developed gradually and haltingly since the Enlightenment.

According to Vallier, Catholic integralism is mostly an American phenomenon. It is also, within its Catholic limits, a diverse philosophy, with various proponents unable to agree on definitions, tactics, and goals. They are also unable to agree on some Catholic teachings regarding freedom of conscience. In particular, there is disagreement about the interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae (DH), Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (1965). In Vallier’s words, “The standard reading of DH claims to revive the early church teaching about free faith.” To many integralists, however, it seems to contradict earlier Church teachings, notably Pope Pius IX’s encyclical Quanta Cura (1864) and its appendix, the Syllabus of Errors, and Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Immortale Dei (1885), as well as a canon from the Council of Trent. Most integralists, in an effort to be faithful to the Church, devise various theological contortions to make all these documents agree with one another. Some Catholic scholars hold that later documents can “reform” earlier ones. But there is no agreement on which, if any, earlier documents are dogmatic and, therefore, cannot be reformed. Thus, all later ones must somehow be consistent with earlier ones no matter how different they appear on the surface.

Of course, non-Catholics might view this confusion with amusement, but they probably should take a closer look. A blurb on the book’s dust jacket reads, “Many liberals will find these [integralist] doctrines frightening and strange but of enduring interest.” Indeed. Canon XIV of the seventh session of the Council of Trent seems to say that any baptized person who declines to reaffirm his baptismal vows is subject to civil penalties. To a classical liberal, even a Christian one, the notion that modern scholars might take this seriously would make his hair stand on end. According to Catholic teaching, Protestant baptisms are valid and, therefore, would subject recipients to Church discipline at the hands of the state in some conceptions of an integralist society. Yet in another conundrum, Vallier notes that canon law since 1983 has “placed Protestants beyond ecclesiastical penalties. Church officials cannot prosecute Protestants for canonical crimes despite their valid baptisms. The church must change this canon” if integralists are to rule. To most Americans, including, one suspects, most Catholics, the idea of the state collaborating with a church — any church — to enforce church discipline is horrifying. Not to mention the fact that many Catholics who wield political power in the United States today openly defy the Church in many areas.

Vallier includes extensive analysis of ways in which Catholic integralists justify Church discipline over members. The Sacrament of Baptism provides a popular potential lever to exert control. There are debates about whether the vow professed at baptism is enforceable, with many claiming it is. But, of course, for most parishioners, the vow was made for them as infants. Is that enforceable? Oddly, no mention is made of enforcing wedding vows.

A significant portion of the book is taken up with analyses of how political integralists (as opposed to theorists) propose to take power, what underlying societal conditions would be necessary, what form of government would be best, what to do with the unbaptized (Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, et al.), which members to enfranchise, and other problems, all of tremendous practical significance.

Undoubtedly, integralist thinkers have various underlying motives, but one strongly suspects that the major one is the moral degeneration of modern Western society. They tend to blame liberalism for these ills and, as an antecedent, the Protestant Reformation, which fractured and weakened the Catholic Church. They look back, although mostly in vain, for an earlier functioning integralist society prior to that world-shattering 16th-century event. Vallier points out, however, that there has never been a lasting, stable, conflict-free Catholic state. Some longingly ponder the reign of French king St. Louis IX (r. 1226-1270), for example, but Vallier notes that “even as pious a ruler as Saint Louis IX persecuted Jews, burning all available copies of the Talmud.” And throughout medieval history there has been conflict between popes and secular rulers. Vallier again: “Saint Louis IX was perhaps in submission to Clement IV, but it is hard to find any other monarchs who treated popes as their legitimate constitutional superiors.”

I and many other Protestants understand devout Catholics’ frustration over the immorality tolerated in our society and the rejection of Christian norms, not to mention the injuries gladly and deliberately inflicted on unborn children and children momentarily conflicted about their sexuality. I share those concerns. But the idea that any significant fraction of Americans would seriously think the answer is a Catholic-run state is ludicrous. It has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. That is why it was rejected long ago. Intolerance and corruption in Catholic-run states led ultimately to the Reformation and to the complete rejection of the Church by the equally intolerant French revolutionaries. Even today, there is financial corruption in the Vatican, and the priestly sex-abuse scandal is fresh in everyone’s mind.

Rule by elites, Catholic or otherwise, is inherently unstable and is a prelude to tyranny. The aphorisms of two Catholic thinkers come to mind. Paul Johnson, in Intellectuals, cautioned us never to let intellectuals near the levers of power. And William F. Buckley Jr. humorously but aptly noted that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University.

We are all controlled by sin, but the collective wisdom of the people, though it has its problems, is, in the long run, well governed by checks and balances and is superior to the rule of self-appointed elites. Vallier sums it up: “Liberalism and Christianity might harmonize, but liberalism and integralism cannot.”


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