The debate around Catholic integralism is strange. For many reasons the idea is impractical, improbable, and unlikely to change public policy or political philosophy in the United States or the West. Though, perhaps in Europe there is a bit more appetite for the vision that Catholic integralism presents. Americans, when it comes down to it, cannot make the conceptual jumps within their thinking or systems of government to accommodate the radically different view of the relationship between church and state that integralists advocate. That said, I still think we should engage in the discussion sincerely and humbly because the points that integralists raise are very important for Christians to wrestle with, especially evangelicals and Protestants more broadly. But currently both sides are mostly speaking past one another. Rather than taking each other’s strongest arguments, they often defeat straw men or completely dodge arguments. This does not advance the conversation so that learning and mutual edification may occur.
There is a group of Catholic intellectuals of varying stripes, though all are traditionalists, who have been broaching this question for some time. In various forums they have been launching a frontal attack on liberalism. The term liberalism, though it is of relatively recent vintage, is intended to capture the political ideas and forms of government that arose in the Anglosphere from England and America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that emphasized democracy, the Constitution (in America), individual rights, freedom, government structures to check tyranny, rule of law, etc. The term is too broad to be succinctly defined, but it’s basically a catchall for the American system of government and the ideology that has undergirded it.
The criticism of American democracy and its philosophical ideology is very old and, more often than not, very Catholic in inspiration. The most recent to be launched was by Patrick Deneen, a political philosopher at Notre Dame, who, though not an integralist, shares the critique leveled against American liberalism. Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society was a similar recent shot across the bow. Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, though not specifically religious, is a subtext and source of most of these criticisms, which are part of a larger body of right-of-center critiques of modernity, of which liberalism is a part.
In an essay in The Atlantic, Adrian Vermeule, a professor at Harvard Law School, lays out the Catholic case against the legal school of originalism and for a new approach that he calls “common good constitutionalism.” The philosophical heart of his common good approach is the “principles that government helps direct persons, associations, and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate.”
David French, who has taken his place as the foremost conservative opponent of integralism, responded to Vermeule’s essay, calling it “Christian authoritarianism.” Name-calling aside, French almost completely dodges the substance of Vermeule’s claims and makes a string of ad hominem attacks. He completely psychologizes Vermeule because he believes his claims are not worth taking seriously.
The greatest weakness of French’s approach is his failure to offer a theological defense for what is a resolutely theological proposal. If you are a Christian listening to French’s argument, you are left with little to no theological justification for liberalism. I think there is one, but French does not avail himself of it, nor does he address his integralist opponents’ theology. His argument is almost completely legal and practical (it works!), which in many respects I find persuasive. Political systems should be judged on outcomes. But there is no theology or much philosophy here, and Christians, at a minimum, should think theology matters, and perhaps at our best, should think it matters a lot. But no. French offers no theological argument that takes seriously Catholic arguments about the common good, out of which integralism grows. That does not seem like a strong position, but a weak one that refuses to address one’s opponent honestly and sincerely.
What is surprising to me is that David French seems to have little to no understanding of the intellectual history out of which this movement arises to be able to comprehend what Vermeule is saying, other than by calling it “authoritarian” or “fringe.” Many Protestants in Europe more or less accepted something like integralism for a very long time. They expressed it differently, but for all intents and purposes it was a coordination of the state with the church. Martin Luther, and especially John Calvin, were not civic republicans! The state church was invented by Protestants, and in some ways, it was more, not less, repressive. Just ask Catholics in England. America, even beyond the founding, had established state churches, which I’m sure French can speak about in greater detail than myself.
Furthermore, the criticism of modernity, out of which the recent integralist movement grows, is fueled in part by communitarian criticisms of liberalism, coming from the likes of philosophical giants like Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. I doubt Taylor would be very sympathetic to integralism, but at least he would be able to understand the coherence and force behind its arguments. French seems to have little taste or time for philosophy, but at a minimum he could try to understand the people he is criticizing. Maybe admit that you do not understand where they are coming from? It’s not like Thomas Aquinas is some fringe figure in the Catholic Church or Christian theology.
Even if one does not want to abandon the gains we have made as a society, it strikes me as quite naïve to not see the very big moral and social problems that the modern world, in all its wonders, has bequeathed to us. With each new technological development, we see an often-steep moral downside. There is a moral cost to pay for our way of thinking and the government we have. Some think the cost is worth it; others seem to think change, on some order, is necessary. Perhaps fundamental change. My question to Mr. French is this: Do any of the criticisms that Vermeule, Ahmari, Deneen, MacIntyre, or others make ring true to you? Though I may not agree with their solutions, their criticisms ring quite true, which is why I have such a hard time merely sloughing them off.
Many ideas are fringe until they are not, including the idea of republican self-rule. Not only is it disappointing that French mostly just stigmatizes his opponents, but he also does little to try to understand where his interlocutors are coming from. His posture is mostly one of dismissal. It shows little intellectual curiosity to find out what Vermeule is saying and why it has appeal.
What would be interesting is if both sides in this debate engaged one another substantively, rather than dismissively. What would a conservative politics look like that took to heart the criticisms that Vermeule was leveling, or of Sohrab Ahmari’s concerns about drag queens reading to our children in public libraries, or how contemporary liberalism invites us to embrace a view of the human person that is deeply impoverished and destructive? What would an account of classical liberalism look like that had a thicker view of community and social relations? How could the criticisms of contemporary liberalism be accommodated by French’s defense of the American founding? Perhaps they cannot. But we do not know unless we take one another more seriously.