Volume > Issue > What Is Integralism?

What Is Integralism?


By Thomas Storck | September 2022
Thomas Storck, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, has written widely on Catholic social teaching, Catholic culture, and related topics for many years. He is the author, most recently, of Seeing the World with Catholic Eyes: A Conversation with Thomas Storck (2021), published by Arouca Press, which released a second edition of his book Foundations of a Catholic Political Order earlier this year. An archive of his writings can be found at thomasstorck.org.

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?

If it is true, as Leo wrote, that “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,” then clearly it is wrong to limit society’s concerns to purely this-worldly matters. Does this mean, then, that Catholics are to aim at some kind of authoritarian state that would impose a Catholic social order on an unwilling citizenry? I will deal with the particular situation of a Catholic country below, but what such a stance means today in our very pluralistic world is something different. Today, there is no homogeneous Catholic nation; we have no present hope of a government that recognizes its duties to God. But what we can work for is the idea that questions about religious and metaphysical truth are important, indeed, so important that discussion about them must be conducted at the level of the community as a whole. It is not enough to say, Worship at the church or temple of your choice, or As long as you go to some church, that’s fine. No, we must try to shape our national discourse so that religious and metaphysical questions come front and center. Not only is this required by our adherence to truth, but it is the only hope for a successful missionary apostolate in today’s world. If we have the faith once delivered to the saints, then let us not be ashamed of it, and let us not act as if any and every religion were equally true or equally acceptable to God.

The Christian social order has declined and faded over the past several centuries. What was behind that? The enemy of that social order was none other than liberalism. But here readers, especially American readers, must tread carefully, for usage of the term liberalism in the United States will simply confuse us. Liberalism, as I am using the term, indeed, as it is used in papal encyclicals and in most of the rest of the world, means the broad movement of revolt against Christian morality, originally Christian social morality, that arose in the 16th century. Liberalism claimed to free mankind from traditional restrictions that it saw as oppressive. It championed political and economic freedom, which was nothing but freedom for the wealthy to abolish the rights of the poor, steal their land and homes, and grow rich at the expense of society. Without denying the real abuses that existed under the old order, especially as it decayed and tottered toward its fall, the new kind of political and social life introduced by liberalism proved much worse for everyone — except for those clever and unscrupulous enough to take advantage of the new opportunities for moneymaking. As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Progress, in the sense of the progress that has progressed since the sixteenth century, has upon every matter persecuted the Common Man.”

Liberalism has evolved from its original concern with political and economic restrictions and now champions previously unheard-of evils, such as homosexuality and transgenderism. But we must recognize that all liberalism is fueled by the same animus: hatred of any restraints over individual conduct, whether in the realm of politics, economics, the family, or sexuality. Free love and free thought are simply the flipside of free trade and the free market.

It is also necessary to point out that in criticizing liberalism I am not espousing what is called conservatism, especially as the term is used in the United States. American conservatism is, at bottom, simply the liberalism of the 19th century, with its championing of free markets and the economy as a separate department of life, not integrated into and subordinate to political and social life as a whole. As I said above, such liberalism was the first enemy of the Christian social order, and the fact that many otherwise orthodox Catholics see nothing wrong with it is one of the saddest aspects of contemporary ecclesial life.

I have spoken of what integralism is. Let me speak briefly on what it is not. First, I suspect many readers think that integralist is simply another name for traditionalist, that is, those committed to the traditional Latin liturgy. This is not entirely true. Although the overlap between the two groups is considerable, there are traditionalists whose interest is limited to matters liturgical, and, on the other hand, integralists who would be content with a “reform of the reform” — with an injection of beauty, solemnity, and dignity into the Novus Ordo liturgy — without necessarily a full embrace of the 1962 missal. In any case, the interest of integralists is focused more on political and social matters, not primarily on the liturgy.

There is another point where it’s necessary to say what integralism is not. Integralism does not mean waiting for a strong man to come and save us, or plotting a coup d’état or even dreaming of one. However deficient today’s political regimes may be, they legitimately hold political power, and it would be a sin to revolt against them. The teaching of Our Lord, seconded by SS Peter and Paul in the New Testament, is clear that even the Roman state had received its authority from God Himself, despite the fact that it promoted and tolerated numerous evils and even persecuted the Church of God. At this point, integralism is not a program for political action but simply a means for Catholics to learn to think with the Church and to reject the intellectual errors that have long dominated the Western world and confused Catholics.

But what of the situation of an overwhelmingly Catholic nation? When I spoke of the state’s duties toward God and the true religion, I noted that in today’s pluralist world this does not mean the imposition of a Catholic regime on an unwilling populace. What, then, did Leo mean? He was discussing the case of a country in which the people and traditions were overwhelmingly Catholic. For such a nation, it has been a traditional part of the Church’s teaching that the government should actively promote the Catholic religion and, according to circumstances, restrict more or less the public activities of other religions, at least their proselytizing activities. This is to be done for the protection of the faith of individual Catholic citizens and to preserve a publicly Catholic cultural life.

In introducing this topic, I know I am running counter to the general opinion that Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty,” put an end, once and for all, to such notions. But this conclusion is far from certain. In the first place, the teaching of numerous popes, both before and after Leo XIII, provides a solid basis for thinking that the ordinary magisterium of the Church has infallibly endorsed the notion of a Catholic state. Overturning such teaching would be extraordinary and would open the way to claims that any and all previous teachings on matters of faith and morals could likewise be altered. However, the text of Dignitatis Humanae (DH) is not as clear as many seem to think. Let us examine it to see if the Council’s teaching can be harmonized with the Church’s previous utterances.

In the opening paragraph of DH, we read that it “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies toward the true religion and the one Church of Christ.” In other words, DH specifically states that it does not overturn the very teaching that it is widely held to have overturned. Of course, DH says much more than that, and it does announce a right to religious freedom in wide terms. But if we are to respect the constant teaching of the Church’s ordinary magisterium, without rejecting a document of an ecumenical council, then we must try to reconcile the two. My suggested solution is that if we advert to certain limits on religious freedom in the document’s text, we will see that it does not constitute such a sweeping announcement of religious liberty as many suppose. For in addition to its general statement about preserving the Church’s teaching that I quoted above, DH mentions “due limits” and the “just requirements of public order” (no. 2) as legitimate restrictions on religious liberty, as well as the crucial restriction that religious freedom, as is the case with any other freedom exercised in society, is bound by “the rights of others” and “the common good of all” (no. 7).

The solution I propose is that though human beings have a real right to religious liberty, the exercise of this right differs considerably in different kinds of political regimes. Therefore, the restrictions on religious freedom acknowledged in DH must be understood differently in a Catholic state as compared with a liberal state. In the former, the common good was always understood as including the maintenance of a Catholic cultural and social order, while the latter rightly permits religious freedom on a much wider scale, but even here it allows restrictions according to the requirements of public order.

Interestingly enough, this understanding of religious liberty appears to receive support in none other than the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The “due limits” which are inherent in [the exercise of religious liberty] must be determined for each social situation by political prudence, according to the requirements of the common good, and ratified by the civil authority in accordance with “legal principles which are in conformity with the objective moral order.” (no. 2109)

While the Catechism teaches that “the right to the exercise of freedom…must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order” (no. 1738; emphasis in original), it also repeats Leo XIII’s teaching that the “duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially” (no. 2105). Even more remarkably, the footnotes to these sections reference prior encyclicals that contain the very teaching supposedly overturned by DH, including Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei (1885) and Libertas (1888), Pius XI’s Quas Primas (1925), and even Pius IX’s Quanta Cura (1864), the encyclical that accompanied the Syllabus of Errors!

Thus, man’s right to religious freedom is real, but it is always subordinate to the demands of the common good, which necessarily differ from one social situation to another. Doubtless such an interpretation of DH will be novel for many readers, but if we are to respect the ordinary magisterium of the Church and not reject a document of an ecumenical council, we must see if we can reconcile the two. I think the solution I sketched here does full justice to both the Church’s traditional teaching and that of Vatican II. In any case, unless we are to embrace the notion that the Church can overturn one of her settled teachings on faith or morals, we must look for a way that allows us to harmonize what seem like problematic aspects of DH.

Before leaving this subject, I must address one particularly important point. The religious unity of a Catholic state is very important, and it exists, as I said, both to protect the faith of the individual believer and to preserve a publicly Catholic culture. This is why it can be legitimate to restrict the public exercise of non-Catholic religions. In the past, this sometimes went so far as to include the death penalty for unrepentant heretics. But that practice is unwarranted; it never received unanimous support or sanction in traditional Catholic teaching; it is by no means necessary for the protection of a Catholic nation; and it serves, in the long run, to discredit the Church and her teachings.

Although Catholics have grown accustomed to thinking and living within the liberal order over the past 300 years, there is growing awareness that our present political situation is not satisfactory. As the liberal order embraces more and more insanity, Catholics are stopping to ask whether there was something wrong with the liberal project from the outset. To view the trajectory of history as primarily a march toward greater and greater freedom has led inevitably to a rejection of moral norms that contradict the latest fashions. We cannot effectively oppose this insanity by appealing to the principles of liberalism, for those principles were always protean. What liberalism championed yesterday is not what it champions today and probably not what it will champion tomorrow. There is nothing solid to hold onto here.

But there is something solid to hold onto, and that is the teaching of Christ’s one Church, a teaching that Catholics must embrace wholly and wholeheartedly. Only in this way is there hope of evangelizing our fellow men at the beginning of the third millennium.


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