Christian Nationalism—A Catholic Integralist View

This is the third article in a five-part series on Christian Nationalism. Following are links to the other parts: One, Two, Four, Five.

Natural law, not liberalism, directs Man to his proper end.

What is known as Catholic integralism has its roots in the French counterrevolutionary movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whose members were called by their adversaries intégristes. This carried the same pejorative connotation as the word “fundamentalist,” used by some today to sneer at devout Christians. Properly understood, an integralist is someone who seeks to make Catholicism an integral part of a society—including its political system.

In their 2020 book, Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy, theologians Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister define integralism as “an insistence upon the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” Political rule, in this view, aims at directing man to his ultimate end. And since this end is eternal, temporal power must be subordinated to spiritual power.

This is the Social Kingship of Christ, taught by popes since Gelasius I in the fifth century and ultimately going back to apostolic teaching. As Boniface VIII’s dogmatic bull Unam Sanctam stated,

The spiritual power must institute the earthly one and judge it if it be not good; thus with the Church and the ecclesiastical power is fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah, ‘Behold, I have set thee today over nations and kings.’

Catholic philosopher Edward Feser holds the view that an orthodox understanding of Catholicism requires integralism, or that, as he puts it “a generic theism should be affirmed by the state and that government policy should be consistent with the principles of natural law.”

Contrary to the view that political questions can be divorced from religious ones, held by liberals, atheists, and some self-described realists, political philosophy is best understood as a branch of moral philosophy. That is because the goal of politics depends on what is good for man—and what is good for man unavoidably requires metaphysics to answer. Moreover, to call metaphysics “pointless,” as the realist political philosopher James Burnham did when critiquing Dante’s De Monarchia in The Machiavellians is itself a metaphysical position.

The crux of the debate over Christian nationalism is that modern political systems have deviated from natural law. This deviation is also the cause of the crisis of Western civilization.

Thomas Aquinas defined natural law as “the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” Since the eternal law is the full mind of God, man cannot know it entirely, but he alone of all creatures can rationally understand the eternal law as God’s ordering of the universe. From this eternal law, Aquinas wrote, all things derive their “inclinations to their proper acts and ends.” Natural law is man participating in eternal law “proportionately to the capacity of human nature.”

Man, the rational animal, can understand what is good for him and cooperate with God in achieving it. “The subject’s good and the glory of the Lord finally coincide,” philosopher Joseph Rickaby wrote, because “God wills to bind His creatures to certain lines of action, not arbitrary lines, but the natural lines of each creature’s being.”

The image of God in man is found in man’s intellect and free will. Because the will is rational only when free, these two faculties stand or fall together. They are the image of God in us and mean that our natural end is knowledge and virtue.

Natural law, then, is a necessary rule of action. As Aquinas explained, from natural law we derive first principles such as that “good is to be done and ensued, and evil is to be avoided.” Our nature as rational animals determines what is good for us. Without natural law, there is no basis for moral judgments. When Plato made sodomy illegal in his Laws, he did so not on the basis of revelation but because it is contrary to natural law.

Reasoning about natural law also tells us that society, and thus the state, is natural to man. Our rational nature requires the state because achieving our end—the pursuit of knowledge and virtue—requires ordered community. The philosophy of man thus points to political philosophy as a branch of moral philosophy. From birth, for example, man depends on the natural society of the family for his material
needs, his education, and his training in virtue. Only a beast or a god can live outside society, as Aristotle said, and the family as the smallest unit of social life extends to the village, the tribe, and ultimately the nation.

All the various societies man forms—familial, economic, political—thus involve many individuals striving in cooperation towards a common good that perfects them. Man doesn’t exist for the state; the state exists for man. But cooperation requires order, and therefore authority, since no society is possible without it. But at the mere mention of this word, “authority,” the modern mind balks because it is so “worm-eaten with Liberalism,” as T. S. Eliot put it in After Strange Gods.

Liberalism often confuses authority with tyranny. American Conservative Senior Editor Rod Dreher, for example, remarked that “flawed as liberalism is, I am not eager to give it up entirely” and that integralism should not be “tolerated by people who cherish liberty—their own, or that of others.”

What Dreher means by liberalism here is liberty understood as autonomy. According to John Kekes in Against Liberalism, autonomy is the “inner citadel for whose protection all the liberal battles are waged.” And as Joseph Raz explained in The Morality of Freedom, “A person is autonomous if he can become the author of his own life,” and authority is perceived as a threat to that desire.

At the mere mention of this word, “authority,” the modern mind balks because it is so “worm-eaten with Liberalism,” as T. S. Eliot put it in After Strange Gods.

Liberty, then, means making your own meaning. The idea that people ought to be at liberty to make their own meaning assumes that they can make their own good. Liberalism thus claims neutrality and attempts to justify rights without an agreed-upon conception of the good. But as Michael Sandel asked in his review of John Rawls’ 1993 book Political Liberalism, “Why should we not base the principles of justice that govern the basic structure of society on our best understanding of the highest human ends?”

This is the deepest point of disagreement between world views based in liberalism and those based in natural law.Under natural law, rights are merely the moral means to attain the ends determined by human nature. Those who hold this view understand justice based on their understanding of human ends. For example, there can be no right to an abortion because abortion conflicts with natural law and the common good.

Indeed, the idea of innate individual rights is misleading at its core because rights are, in fact, communal: since society is natural to man, our rights are the duties of others. Parents have the right to procreate and educate their children, for example, because that is what natural law requires for the common good. Rights, then, are limited and fundamentally concern relationships of justice. But this is in contrast to the liberal conception of individual rights as, in principle, unlimited and detached from the common good: the “right” to contraception or to pornography, for example.

For liberalism, there is no common good—in fact, no summum bonum (“highest good”) at all. Following Hobbes and Rousseau and stemming from the French Revolution, liberal political philosophy regards all societies as voluntary, even the society of the family. Society, in this view, is not natural to man. It is merely a contract made by sovereign individuals to maximize their liberty without regard for natural law (having the liberty to practice sodomy or Satanism, for example). Pope Leo XIII condemned this philosophy in his encyclical letter Humanum Genus for teaching that “the source of all rights and civil duties is either in the multitude or in the governing authority when this is constituted according to the latest doctrines” and that “the State should be without God.”

So someone like Dreher fears integralism because he thinks it threatens the sovereignty of the people: “As broken-down and beaten-up as liberalism is,” he asks, “do we really want to trade it for a system that says government does not depend on the consent of the governed?”

This fear is based on a misunderstanding. Integralism holds that political power in general comes from God and is grounded in natural law. As the American bishops wrote to their flock in their “Pastoral Letter of 1919,” the power of the state “is not created by human agreement.” Since society is natural to man and requires government, man can’t choose not to be ruled. But how he is ruled can involve his consent: integralism doesn’t dictate a particular regime.

Without natural law, however, political power under liberalism—the will of sovereign individuals as the ultimate authority—leads to the “right” to gay marriage or to gender reassignment. As Leo XIII explained in his encyclical Libertas, first “the real distinction between good and evil is destroyed.” And then “the law determining what it is right to do and avoid doing is at the mercy of a majority.” Losing “the empire of God over man and civil society” means the loss of “that true liberty which alone is worthy of man.”

Thus there can be no civilization without natural law, which is rational action according to “the natural lines” of human nature. And since, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Ten Commandments “contains a privileged expression of the natural law,” there can be no civilization without Christianity. Fearing God and keeping His commandments is “man’s all,” as the Scriptures say.

Those who think that race makes culture, on the other hand, must confront the tragic state of whites living without the Social Kingship of Christ; that is to say, without the state doing its moral duty toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.

In Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, Benedict XV thus wisely warned “the Princes and Rulers of peoples” against seeking to “divorce the teaching of the Gospel and of the Church from the ruling of a country and from the public education of the young.” Since the state has the purpose of directing man to his ultimate end, it is obligated to recognize and profess religion. And that is why Catholicism must not be a private matter and why Leo XIII said in his encyclical Immortale Dei that it is “a public crime to act as though there were no God.” Hence Christianity has never maintained a separation between Church and state, only a distinction.

The popular will is not necessarily the same thing as the common good. Nor is liberty the same thing as freedom. Man can no more make his own meaning than he can make his own multiplication table. Historian Christopher Dawson, perhaps the greatest student of the relationship between religion and culture, wrote:

If the State’s become too totalitarian, it’s because the average Christian hasn’t been totalitarian enough. He’s acquiesced in the secularization of life; he’s allowed his own aims to be divided and his religion to become a sectarian affair—cut off from his real interests and life.

Supposed neutrality regarding religion is always, in fact, hostility to it, but there is no converse danger of totalitarian integralism. Such a concept would violate the principle of subsidiarity, according to which higher temporal authorities must not take to themselves tasks that lower ones can accomplish. An integralist state that subsumed the family, for instance, or any number of other small-scale societies, would be a grave evil.

Integralism would not justify, for example, taking a child from his parents to be baptized: no Christian temporal power may compel baptism. Nor would it mean intolerance towards Protestant sects or even non-Christian religions. Through the Middle Ages, for example, the popes, as civil rulers of the Papal States, tolerated and protected Judaism and Jewish worship. The same freedom of worship would apply in America to members of non-Catholic sects. And even if America were to become majority Catholic in the future, freedom of worship would continue to be granted to non-Catholics. Only the spreading of false doctrine to Catholics would be suppressed.

There is no converse danger of totalitarian integralism. Such a concept would violate the principle of subsidiarity according to which higher temporal authorities must not take to themselves tasks that lower ones can accomplish. An integralist state that subsumed the family, for instance, or any number of other small-scale societies, would be a grave evil.

Even without a Catholic majority, however, all religious practices contrary to natural law would be suppressed; likewise, schools would have no right to teach anything contrary to natural law in matters of morality. Integralism recognizes that limitless tolerance is the Trojan horse of nihilism, and the integralist state would mean going beyond merely giving church property exemption from taxation or providing chaplains for the armed forces. The Fourteenth Amendment, for example, may need to be repealed, unless its current interpretation preventing making abortion and gay marriage illegal at the federal level are overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Both abortion and gay marriage are contrary to natural law and do grave damage to the institution of the family. Similarly, no-fault divorce and the distribution of pornography would be bannable by an integralist state.

Integralism does not, however, mean that all vices ought to be suppressed through human law but only, as Aquinas said,

the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained.

This line of thought is not incompatible with America’s beginnings. From 1791 to 1947, eight of the original 13 states had official Christian State establishments, and the other five were supposed to. Moreover, the First Amendment made it illegal for Congress to disestablish Christianity, and the general police powers deriving from the Tenth Amendment encompassed morality. Not until Everson v. Board of Education, in 1947, did this environment change: the Constitution, in other words, was originally an integralist document.

Reason shows that the state is natural to man and must direct him to his final end; the state therefore has a moral duty to profess and promote religion, and it must profess and promote only the true religion. A particular state might dispute the claim of the Catholic Church to be the one true religion, but if that claim is accepted, integralism follows.

Dreher claims that integralism is “utterly unrealistic in a post-Christian world,” but it’s at least more realistic than the continuation of liberalism. Confronted by the failure of liberalism in its modern, woke progressive iteration, liberals tend to cling to “classical liberalism.” As Augustine said, we want what we love to be the truth. But that doesn’t make it true. Classical liberals can’t draw a line in the sand against woke progressivism because they themselves are standing on the quicksand of liberalism. Given its emphasis on autonomy and its deviation from the principles of natural law, classic liberalism was the slippery slope to the modern morass. Rome, too, the glory of the ancient world, fell into demonic depravity due to its own disregard for natural law.

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