“Integralism” is a term used by some in Catholic circles to reject the liberal political order and to name a preferred political order that reintegrates politics with the church, much as the temporal and eternal ends are integrated in any human being. Integralism, then, seeks a political articulation of the relationship between man’s natural and supernatural ends. In the anti-clericalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, integralism sought the restoration of the social order by means of the reassertion of the church and sacred power as a response to the displacement of the church from its position of authority.

According to the integralist, when the church has access to political power, that exercise of power should be used to guide man to his final end. Politics serves the full man, man understood “integrally,” as a unity of the temporal and spiritual. Failure to serve man in this fullness is a political failure. Put in more contemporary political terms, integralists reject the idea of a state neutral about man’s good and believe the state should care for the true religion. They judge Rawls’ “fact of pluralism” a symptom of social disunity and therefore a political problem, not a neutral social datum around which to structure politics. Governments can claim no agnosticism about the good because in their activity they are to be guided by the teachings of the church; liberal claims of agnosticism are declarations by liberal states of their hostility to the truth, and by extension their hostility to the church.

Not all Catholic critics of liberalism are integralist, but all integralists are critics of liberalism. Integralists often lament not only the separation of “church and state,” but also related social symptoms of disunity, like religious and ethnic pluralism and societal moral incoherence. Integralists can thus at times appear nostalgic, looking back at some time or place marked by greater religious and ethnic uniformity and greater moral cohesion, for instance in France or Spain before their anti-clerical periods. Like liberalism itself, variations on the theme of integralism exist, making integralism hard to pin down. Harder still is describing an integralist vision of international order, which is this short essay’s task, as much contemporary integralism has concerned itself with domestic reordering of church-state relations back to a theocratic form that held, for instance, in France in the centuries prior to the revolution in 1789. But for integralism to be taken seriously as an alternative to liberal politics, we need to imagine its possible contributions to questions of international political order.

If integralism entails the reintegration of political and ecclesial institutions, and if integralism builds on the integration of human ends such that the temporal is subordinate to the eternal, then we conclude that an integralist state would entail the subordination of temporal to ecclesial authority. That means both sources of authority would look to the other for guidance and for the execution of certain policies. The church, for instance, would look to temporal authority to help enforce laws conducive to domestic unity and to the good of the church itself; and the state would look to the church for help inculcating political virtues in its citizens and for guidance in its identification of good ends of political activity. But the state would follow the church’s lead in morality, and politics is, of course, a moral enterprise ordered toward the common good of the members of the state. The state would put itself—and its power of coercion—at the service of the church.

The Catholic church is a universal church, one that claims members from various states and peoples and which claims universal jurisdiction. The church claims everyone and everything is within its jurisdiction; no one is exempt from its missionary field. The church’s universal aspirations are expressed in the institutions of the papacy and ecumenical councils and this missionary emphasis. For the integralist, Catholic universalism includes political claims, stemming from the conviction that above the particular nations and states exists a universal common good, toward which all politics must be ordered, including the politics of individual states.

The church’s universal posture might point the integralist in two quite different though related directions, directions that have historical and theological roots and political implications. The “nationalist-isolationist” direction emphasizes the church’s missionary aspect and deemphasizes the international political implications of the church’s universal claims. This posture focuses on the domestic unity of the state, the conversion of its citizens and national culture, and the freedom of the church (libertas ecclesiae). Such a state would deeply care about its own moral health (in other words, the relationship of itself to the church’s universal missionary activity) but care less about “foreign relations,” except for those relationships of political power with the pope and the church of Rome (expressed historically in concordats between Catholic states and the Vatican). The focus would be internal and would include attention to the disordering effects of other religious faiths and the arts and media, including books and film. The coercive power of the state would be employed to minimize these disordering influences. The fate of other states and peoples would be less a political concern than a narrow missionary one. The result of the nationalist-isolationist posture would be indifference to the international order, perhaps even a lawlessness of competing states, such as prevailed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A second and opposite posture might find Christian universalism expressing itself imperially, seeing the missionary impulse requiring political expression in a form beyond the state. States are one among many historical forms of human political organization, and to regard them as a special political form would be a mistake. From the integralist perspective, the universal common good requires a higher political form, a political authority mirroring but subordinate to the papacy. That universal political authority could be, and has been, expressed as “empire.” Empire diminishes the standing of nations in at least two ways. First, because “nations” are themselves welcome to enter the universal communion—“go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19-20)—as ways of classifying people, “nation” is revealed as a mere context of the missionary commission and nothing more. Second, nations (and related, states) become insufficient political forms to the unity of the human community revealed in Christ. The higher good of the universal human community limits and subordinates the good of any nation or state. “Nationalism” and even “patriotism” become suspect from this perspective. From the perspective of that higher political good, they are exposed as symptomatic of political disunity. The mere possibility of empire qualifies and repudiates claims motivated by national goods. Indeed, in its most fulsome version, the imperial form asserts the relevant “sociological” fact is not pluralism, but the “fact of international unity;” states resistant to the imperial posture oppose the fact that nations and states by nature yearn toward moral and juridical unity. In history, the fulsome version expressed itself in a crusading mentality, wherein the name of a more universal good, coercive power was employed for evangelization, as in Latin America and Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Empire today is found in internationalist and globalist visions of world order and opposed by realist politics.

Regardless of the direction of the integralist posture, historically the integralist pursuit of social unity and its derivative close relationship of church and state has posed difficulties to members of other faith communities, including Jews and other Christians. Both postures can be sources of confusion and even fear, both for Christians and for non-Christian members of any state. I’m not certain whether these two postures would be exclusive of each other or would vacillate between them based on circumstances faced by an integralist polity. Those who regard integralism a serious alternative to liberal politics must reflect on the domestic and international implications and the historical record of integral politics. That they have not yet described a contemporary vision of an integralist vision of international order speaks to the seriousness of their proposal.

Joseph E. Capizzi is Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He teaches in the areas of social and political theology, with special interests in issues in peace and war, citizenship, political authority, and Augustinian theology. His latest book is Politics, Justice, and War: Christian Governance and the Ethics of Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Photo Credit: Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V on horseback under a canopy, by Jacopo Ligozzi, circa 1580. Source: Wikimedia Commons.