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Catholic Integralism's Project of Replacing Liberalism Is Doomed: A Conversation with Kevin Vallier
This radical ideology is theoretically incoherent and practically unworkable
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to ReImagining Liberty, a show about the emancipatory and cosmopolitan case for radical social, political, and economic freedom. I'm Aaron Ross Powell.
People have all kinds of reasons, none of them good for opposing liberalism. Recently, among intellectuals on the right, we've seen the re-emergence of a particular religious anti-liberalism that goes by the term integralism. It most often comes in a Catholic flavor, but you can find versions of it across pretty much every religious faith. Kevin Vallier, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowling Green State University, has a new book out that's the first to offer a thorough explanation and sustained critique of this new integralist ideology. It's called All the Kingdoms of the World.
It's my pleasure to bring Kevin on the show to talk about why so many religious intellectuals are attacking liberalism from within a religious framework and why they're wrong to do so. Let me very briefly mention that ReImagining Liberty is a listener-supported show. If you enjoy these discussions and want to get early access to new episodes, you can become a supporter by heading to reimaginingliberty.com. With that, let's get to my conversation with Kevin Vallier.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for flow and clarity.
Aaron Ross Powell: To the extent that this is possible after you have just written a whole book on the topic, can you give us the thumbnail sketch of what integralism is?
Kevin Vallier: Sure. First of all, you've got to take Catholicism for granted. Just understand this is going to be in Catholic terms. There's three conditions. The first is a very common position historically, which is that God ordains the secular, that is, non-religious power to promote the common good of the human community. Pretty standard. The second condition is also not uncommon, which is that God appoints the Church to govern the eternal common good or the spiritual common good of the baptized members of that community and, of course, preach the Gospel and try to convert the unbaptized members.
There's a third condition that's complex and hard to understand. The integralists reason in the following way, they say, okay, there are all these ways that Church and state could be related, but they're both ordained by God, they're both fundamentally good and so in cases of conflicts, how do we divide up which does what? Here's their basic view. This was articulated in detail historically, particularly in the 17th century by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. It's the idea that the pope and his bishops have what's called an indirect power or indirect sovereignty over the state.
The state has its own agricultural policy, its own health care policy, builds its own roads. Those are its divinely granted mandates, but if what it does starts to directly infringe on the Church, the Church can get the state to serve its purposes, to make its jurisdiction available for spiritual means. That would include things like communications policies. There could be restrictions on heretical books, the punishment of heretics/apostates. If someone's convicted of a crime within the religious legal code, that is the canon law, and they don't repent or whatever, they can be handed over to the secular arm for severe punishment.
It's also important to understand that this goes beyond what conservative Catholics typically want. Conservative Catholics will tell you, "We're not trying to force people to have religious goals. We're just imposing natural law." All of their arguments for banning abortion, banning same-sex marriage, that's all supposed to be based on reason itself. Integralism is going a step further. They're saying we're going to integrate the Church and the state in such a way that the Church can basically dictate or direct spiritual policy by the state. It's just a whole other level. It's not your ordinary Catholic view at all.
It's that indirect sovereignty. The way the integralists defend it is they just say, "Look, there's two parts of the common good, temporal, eternal. Which one is more important? The eternal. The state has a nobler end and so," here comes a fallacy," the Church should have sovereignty of the state because its end is nobler." Very few Catholics accept that line of reasoning today, but that's the line of reasoning.
“The way the integralists defend it is they just say, ‘Look, there's two parts of the common good, temporal, eternal. Which one is more important? The eternal. The state has a nobler end and so,’ here comes a fallacy, ‘the Church should have sovereignty of the state because its end is nobler.’ Very few Catholics accept that line of reasoning today.”
Aaron: There's a lot to unpack there, but let me ask quickly… you started by saying that you have to assume the truth of Catholicism is baked in. I want to address that objection up front. You might disagree with this, some of the listeners might disagree, but I'm fairly well convinced that Catholicism isn't true. For me, that's the immediate like, "Guys, your argument doesn't even get off the ground because this thing isn't true."
That's going to be the case for any particular—If you're a Muslim integralist, people can say I'm pretty sure Islam is not true, or if you're a Buddhist integralist, they can say I'm pretty sure Buddhism is not true. There aren't that many Buddhist integralists because it's weird. It was interesting, I had come across you'd written your definition of religion. By that, I don't think of Buddhism as a religion for a lot of reasons. Bracket all of that because that's not our topic for today.
How does an integralist respond to that kind of argument given that in most places like in the US Catholics are in a minority? Most people think that Catholicism is not the one true faith or they would be Catholics. Is that a genuine concern?
Kevin: Even within Catholic circles integralism is rejected. The reason I was interested in it is because it's taking shape among younger Catholics. There's a couple of reasons to, I think, address integralism beyond the question of Catholicism's truth or falsity, but I will say that integralism was only really possible after there was an apologetic army in favor of Catholicism in US philosophy and seminaries and so on. A lot of this modern apologetics was initiated by Pope Leo XIII about 150 years ago in reviving Aquinas, and so you get all of these really hardcore apologists making Thomistic arguments for God's existence, arguing then for Christianity, then arguing against Protestantism.
They do have arguments. Now, I know from your background and commitments most of that is going to be a non-starter, but for a number of people, it would be. They have arguments. They may not be successful, but they have arguments. Another reason I think to care about this is just that Catholics have a huge amount of influence in elite American politics. We have a Catholic president. Till recently we had a Catholic Speaker of the House. Five of the Supreme Court justices are Catholic. If you told an American that 120 years ago or 100 years ago, they would not have believed you.
On the right, Catholics have been influential for 70 years. William F. Buckley was Catholic. Russell Kirk was Catholic. You also have the influence in literary circles. Tolkien was Catholic. Very traditional Catholic. You have these Catholic influences at the head of the American intellectual right, and those differences matter. Gorsuch was a John Finnis student, and Finnis is one of the leading Catholic moral philosophers, maybe the leading Catholic moral philosopher in the world.
You want to understand a lot of where people are coming from ideologically, including in Supreme Court opinions, even if Catholicism doesn't come up. There's oftentimes a Catholic background about objective morality, natural law, and so on and so forth. Because of Catholic influence, it's important to understand these doctrines, whether they're successful from the inside, simply because they're going to affect our lives. The direction of American Catholic political thought in this country will affect you and it will affect me in time and already has.
“Because of Catholic influence [in America], it's important to understand these doctrines, whether they're successful from the inside, simply because they're going to affect our lives. The direction of American Catholic political thought in this country will affect you and it will affect me in time and already has.”
Aaron: How new then is this what we're now calling integralism? Obviously, the Catholic Church throughout its history has been involved in government and governance, sometimes to a much greater extent, sometimes to a lesser extent, but Catholicism and politics is not new. What is new about this current wave that you are writing this book in response to?
Kevin: The book tries to develop a framework for addressing other anti-liberalisms as well, but yes, it is primarily focused on integralism as my test case, so let me speak to this. What I do in Chapter Two is outline a lot of detail that actually there's a lot of historical precedent for integralism in Catholic history and Catholic theological practice, particularly in the medieval period. I draw here a lot on Mark Koyama's account of the economic history of persecution and church control. Here's roughly how it develops historically, and then I'll show you how the dogma evolved out of the history.
The Western Roman Empire collapses. The Eastern does not. Those differences still track, say, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy even today. The Western Empire collapses and the Catholic Church expands to take over a lot of state capacity in terms of legal services, welfare services. Dioceses are originally Roman imperial designations, Pontifex Maximus, originally named Caesar, and so you've got these very weak states and sometimes really no state at all, but you have the Church.
A lot of Catholic theologians walk around and say, "Oh, there's something providential about this." It must be the case the pope has some political authority, essentially reifying their practice. What happens is you get to the high Middle Ages, is some states are starting to coalesce, particularly the French State. What's interesting is that Catholics don't start burning heretics, really until the 11th, 12th, 13th centuries. They learn it from kings actually. Mark asks in his book on religion Persecution and Toleration, why did they start so late? What's going on? His argument is that effectively you get an equality of political power between the Church and these rising states, so they engage in policy bargains.
Saint Louis will carry out religious policy like he burns 20,000 Talmuds. This is early 13th century in France. He's King Louis IX of France. Then they'll legitimize his reign, let's say, saying, "Oh, God's behind him," or whatever. You have this kind of bargain. Then once the states get more powerful, they just ignore the pope, even if they're Catholic, or they just subordinate his influence. The Spanish Crown carried out the Inquisition. The Catholic Church didn't run the thing. Then once you have Protestantism, they'll just say “the pope's the Antichrist.” We're done entirely.
What you get is several centuries where integralism is the ideal. Things don't always work that way because you still have the kings telling the pope, "You and what army?" The answer to that case is, "I have one army." You have hundreds of years, including in Aquinas, where people are looking at this arrangement saying, "Here are some arguments for it. Here's why it's a good one." That starts to extend really from the 11th century until down into the Counter-Reformation. You've got roughly at least 500 years of history where integralism is the political ideal in the Church.
This really matters historically because when the new integralism got off the ground, particularly starting 10, 15 years ago, they could draw on all this rich intellectual history. They could draw on the history, the Church did a lot of this stuff, and they could draw on the theology. Look, Aquinas even seems to have supported this stuff in his little book on kingship, De Regno, if you read it in isolation from Summa.
You've got all of these figures, all of these really important influential theologians and philosophers that favor these arrangements. They can draw on these sophisticated arguments here to say, "Look, the Church was seeming to defend this position even with the 19th-century popes." There's even a case to be made that Pope Pius X whose pontificate ended 1914 was an integralist. This view being popular or at least supported or a minority view extends to the 20th century.
Now, of course, there are a variety of changes in the 20th century that made integralism completely verboten and totally outside of things because of the Second Vatican Council. After the council, basically, the remaining integralists mostly figure into a splinter group. The Society of Saint Pius X, SSPX. It was considered a total outlier view, even heretical for decades. Then we could start to tell the story of where the new movement came from, but that's the arc. That's the big story about why integralist arrangements developed institutionally in terms of economic history and why people looked around at those arrangements and said they're pretty good.
Aaron: That's a story, I guess, internal to Catholicism, to the Catholic experience and the history of the Catholic Church. I guess then it raises this question for the current integralist movement, which it seems like a combination of a handful of intellectuals, professors, those sorts, and then this very online young men-driven thing. It's happening at a time when illiberalism has been rising in a lot of places that aren't just within Catholic circles.
Kevin: It's a piece of this.
Aaron: With the current movement then, one way to ask this is like, which came first, the illiberalism or the Catholicism? Are these people who they are illiberal, they don't like liberalism and they are jury-rigging an explanation for that on, in this case, a set of religious beliefs, or were they Catholics who said in looking at it further, it turns out the Catholicism, and you'd say they're wrong about this, but it turns out the Catholicism points to illiberalism.
Kevin: There's a supply side of the story and a demand side of the story. The supply of the ideology is a number of British intellectuals, particularly a really excellent philosophical historian, Thomas Pink, starts working on the Second Vatican Council's teaching on religious liberty. 2008 or so, he starts to advance an alternative explanation that would allow for integralism in principle but sees it as no longer being Church policy.
You start to see this idea develop, it's taken over by a priest, Father Edmund Waldstein, who is well connected with a variety of Ivy League Catholic graduates that include actually a number of people that you know, but I don't know if I can mention them, not personally, but definitely heard of. Then they construct this American online community of integralists. It grows and changes, but the ideology is on offer. Early on, 2012, 2013, there's a whole bunch of leftwing integralists. They're the ones you may have heard of. Some of the Bernie Bro Catholics, in particular, were integralists.
Then Trump gets elected. The left and the right split over him. Left-integralism dies and it's all Trumpist stuff. Then they start to take their stage. It's like, "Look how intellectually sophisticated we are relative to the other factions in the new right." Then their power starts to grow online. There was the supply of the ideology that has this weird British and French origin story. The demand, in my view, is based on stuff that we talked about the last time we were talking on a podcast, which is I think falling trust and rising political polarization.
I think one of the things that happens when you grow up under those environments, the political psychology of it, it just produces radicalization because you just don't care what people who disagree with you think. You don't really think they're good people. You just think they're moral monsters. You also come to have very apocalyptic views about them and you also exaggerate the threat of them.
If you talk to young integralists, and I have, they think the left is the apocalypse today. They basically think that they're going to be completely written out of society, they're going to be completely low-status and their children will be too. Ultimately, actually that the left will start to attack the Church directly, even though as David French has pointed out, Christians have more religious liberty today as Christians than ever.
“If you talk to young integralists, and I have, they think the left is the apocalypse today. They basically think that they're going to be completely written out of society, they're going to be completely low-status and their children will be too. Ultimately, actually that the left will start to attack the Church directly, even though as David French has pointed out, Christians have more religious liberty today as Christians than ever.”
You've got these Catholic feeling excluded, feeling the other side is the devil or so on, and sometimes literally. Part of the reason for this, and this is just my hypothesis, is that many of the integralists have a really rich university education. In fact, I know one integralist who got his PhD in econ from George Mason. One of the things I think they find is that American Catholics were told for decades like, "Look, if we just play ball with the American experiment, we'll be accepted. We won't be excluded anymore."
That starts to really look true starting with JFK, but more and more and more with time, particularly because the American conservative elite is trying to be pro-Catholic. As the Protestant dominations split, people join the Catholic Church. They get accepted. Catholics get accepted. Then as the Republican Party became more and more and more anti-abortion and Catholic intellectuals sorted into the Republican Party more and more, because they weren't that way in the 20th century. Most of them Democrats for a long time. Then the LGBT movement.
Once Obergefell happens, you've got young Catholics growing up, they don't even remember the ruling, same-sex marriage is just part of their life, they think, "Oh man, I go to Harvard now. I can't even talk about my views because I'll be dismissed as a bigot." They actually think like, "Look, I'm socially excluded or socially lower or beneath," because they're in precisely that part of American society where that's true, even though it's not true in most of American society. I think their experience is shaped by their experience in the university system. There's a demand for illiberalism and there's a supply and they met.
Aaron: Is it true? My general sense is that a lot of the very online in particular integralists, but you also see this with some of the big intellectual names in it. Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule are converts. It seems like a lot of them are converts. Am I correct in seeing that as a strong or dominant strain among that? If so, what's--
Kevin: Among the Americans, yes, absolutely.
Aaron: What's going on there?
Kevin: There are all jokes with Cradle Catholics about the converts coming in and having all the zeal and being really annoying. Then after 10 years or 15 years or so, they calm down. The thing about the integralists is that it's like this on steroids. I'll speculate here, but I actually think there's evidence to this. Vermeule did an interview in First Things, the Christian periodical about five years ago. He heavily implies that the Virgin Mary had an impact on his conversion. He doesn't elaborate.
I actually think they think they're on a divine mission. It also explains why they've cut ties with so many former friends. I've interviewed so many people and talked to so many elite philosophers and elite law professors. They're like, "What's happened to my old friend Adrian? Can I even talk to him anymore?" Vermeule is a professor at Harvard Law School, and he's the child of two Harvard professors. This is just the elite of the elite. He's just blocking law professors left and right. He's just totally destroying his social network.
Why would anyone do that unless they really believe this stuff? I think for that and a number of other reasons, they engage in heavy evangelization behind the scenes. I know one Catholic philosopher that Vermeule was able to reach by PMs. I can't say who. A lot of shy integralists. I think they're totally committed. I think they totally believe that they're on a mission to destroy liberalism. That's, I think, a lot of what's going on. They're not just converts. They're converts who think they're on a mission.
I know that's scary, and I know that it's maybe shocking. It's not that shocking. They're all political sects that think they have a divine mission of some kind. I just think they're like this. Yes, it's a zeal of the convert, but it's like double.
Aaron: I want to get to your critiques of the philosophical arguments. Just on that point, does that change the way that those of us who are liberals, whether we are non-Catholic liberals or Catholic liberals, we're arguing for liberalism and against—Ideally, you want to persuade the illiberal integralist to give that up. Does that change that project if they see themselves as on a divine mission, they are basically zealots as opposed to normie, other philosophy professors who just are having arguments in journals?
Kevin: What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to show the people that haven't gone full-on zeal that the discussions that the American integralists have had are just extremely intellectually shallow. I think one of their pervasive features is intellectual impatience. They want the quick kill, the quick argument, the quick book, the quick tweet. I wrote the book in part, and I do let it get more analytic in some places, precisely because I want to show these young people we could have a much more serious and fulfilling, frankly, discussion about these things.
I think I can reach some of the Catholic law school students, but they're the ones who are the most likely to be on the mission. The seminarians, I think I may be able to reach some of them. I can certainly reach the philosophy students. I don't know how many I can reach. I'm not trying to dislodge their Catholicism at all. The idea was to provide internal criticisms of integralism. Also, in a very particular way, which is to criticize the ideal. To show, "Look, even if you think that we're really far from integralism or whatever, I want to show that the ideal is incorrect." I don't want to say like, "Oh, it's good in theory, bad in practice." That's not enough for me. I'm saying it's bad in theory.
Some people are going to say about the book, and even had a friend who said, "Well, why don't you talk more about how tyrannical they would be in practice?" I'm like, "I would rather talk about how tyrannical it would be as an ideal." If you don't go after the ideal, people will always say, "Oh, ideally, it would work like this." We learn this just from debates with socialists. I just didn't want to make that mistake. You go all non-ideal. You don't have every page. I want to show the ideal is wrong. I'm going to show it's wrong, even in theory. You take on the truth of Catholicism, you take on common dogmatic commitments.
All the arguments that I'm going to give are internal to Catholicism. I can try to walk through them.
Aaron: Sure. Yes.
Kevin: Okay. They follow a basic slogan. Integralism, you can't get there, you can't stay there, and it's unfair. That's a little tweet about it. Again, I'm trying something that'll stick.
Aaron: It's the impatient version.
Kevin: Yes. Here's the more patient version. The first argument you can't get there is the transition argument. The idea is that the problem with the ideal is it isn't action-guiding in the sense that it tells you anything about how to approach it. That's because it's so far away from any society is we just have no idea how to get there. Here is where I do the thing that will be most controversial, which is that I put together Vermeule's strategic writings and I show that they fit together as a transition plan that they call integration from within. That they'll talk about as a plan publicly, integration from within.
The plan, I think Vermeule is a theorist and proponent of the administrative state says, "Look, libertarians are wrong. You can't shrink the administrative state. It just doesn't work. They failed. It's big. We just got to take it over and use it for the right reasons." How do you do that? The first step is you create a community of a new elite. Deneen talks about this, replace the elite. You put them in positions of power in the administrative state, the judiciary in particular. You're never going to win an election, so don't even fool with that. Then they predict that liberalism will fall. They're 100% confident will fall. Then you got the people in power.
In the same way, the Soviet Union collapses, but it leaves the major bureaucracies, liberalism they think will collapse and it will leave open the major bureaucracies for colonization, essentially. Now, this is crazy. This is wild stuff. The fact that someone with the social science chops that Vermeule has is at this level, it's I think very illuminating, which is that to go through any of these steps it's just completely wild. Even if you were to take over the state, you've got to get the Church on board.
There's 5,600 Catholic bishops and none of them are integralists. It's a global church. You've got to convert a majority of them to elect an integralist pope. You've got to convince an integralist pope to have integralist policy. You'll have to take over a modern nation-state with all its complexity and diversity and pluralism, and then you've got to get them integrated. You've got to get them in the integration relation. What I say in the book is that Vermeule has to solve three of the greatest coordination problems in the history of the human race. That's how unlikely this thing is. Most people get that.
“Even if you were to take over the state, you've got to get the Church on board.
There's 5,600 Catholic bishops and none of them are integralists. It's a global church. You've got to convert a majority of them to elect an integralist pope. You've got to convince an integralist pope to have integralist policy. You'll have to take over a modern nation-state with all its complexity and diversity and pluralism, and then you've got to get them integrated. You've got to get them in the integration relation. What I say in the book is that Vermeule has to solve three of the greatest coordination problems in the history of the human race. That's how unlikely this thing is.”
I have two additional points to make when I establish that point. One is you could probably get to integralism by taking over a state if you're willing to violate Catholic moral teaching left, right, and center. You have to break a couple of eggs. That's just going to violate Catholic doctrine. It's not strictly the integralism you can't transition to, but you can't transition to it in a respectively Catholic way.
Then I draw a general lesson from this, which is that even the best theorist of these things, even the person that understands the workings of the state the absolute best has a plan that is vanishingly improbable, vanishingly improbable. That's just a weakness in the ideal, which is the ideal doesn't tell its practitioners how to approach it. That's argument number one. The ideal isn't action-guiding, so that's the transition argument.
Aaron: Let me ask a couple of questions about that. When they say they have this assumption that liberalism will collapse, what do they mean by that? What does that look like to them that liberalism has collapsed?
Kevin: I think they have in mind liberals as a group of—Vermeule points out. They're not really decadent. That liberals are ascetic fanatics. Basically, it's like when the Bolsheviks take over Russia. You take and build bureaucracies, and then there are the ideologues that suffuse those bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies might exist or survive for other reasons. Vermeule says, the military, the administrative state, it would survive the death of liberalism.
It's the liberals who lose power because they lose legitimacy in the populace. I think in many cases they are thinking about the fall of communism and the way that the communists got cleared out and then you brought in the non-communists because they were in the right place, or some of them converted to non-communism or whatever, once they saw the writing on the wall. That's what they're thinking.
Now, their story about why liberalism falls is really strange. Vermeule has a sizable article, it's not that long, that tries to tell the following story. Your listeners will know maybe a little bit about why Marx thought capitalism would fall. One of the things that happens though is the capitalist class faces a falling rate of return to profit. They become more and more and more desperate and engage in more and more exploitation as they find lower and lower profits. That ultimately accelerates the end of things along with some other factors.
Vermeule has a parallel theory about liberals. Like the capitalist only cares about profit, the liberal only cares about liberation. They start off with something understandable—end of slavery or whatever, women's suffrage, then they get to the trans issue. They're totally crazy on that or whatever. They're just going to keep going. They're never going to stop. They're ascetic fanatics, but eventually, the population will just be exhausted by being told that they're bigots who aren't on board with the next thing. Eventually, they're just going to stop tolerating it. The rate of return to liberation will fall and the fanatical liberals will discredit themselves, and then the right people have to be in place to move in.
Now, there's a thousand problems with this. That's the article. That's what it describes. I know.
Aaron: Part of this is, these dire warnings about if we have this sort of liberalization society will collapse. If we let gays marry, the family will be destroyed. If we let interracial marriage, it will destroy—we have had thousands of years of liberalizing society and the dire warnings. I guess I'm skeptical that the next thing will be the thing that causes people to give up on social liberalization.
I guess part of the reason I asked is it seems like for a lot of what we might call “trad” people, they define civilizational decline simply as civilization no longer conforming to their particular values. In the same way that I define the decline of music as the kids are no longer listening to the stuff I listened to in high school, but that's not actually an argument that music has declined, is an argument that tastes have shifted. That sounds like what you're describing—
Kevin: It really depends on this super weird theory about ideological dynamics. I talk about this in the chapter. It's like there's one ideological force, liberalism. It has its own internal logic and you don't have to theorize any of the opposition or the other forces, except most people aren't on board. Marxism did the same. They thought ultimately all these other ideologies were a manifestation of the superstructure of class oppression, so the socialists take over, it's inevitable all this other stuff will go away.
They haven't made the argument that liberalism and mainline conservatism are just superstructure stuff that will go away. The ultimate competitor ideologies, Vermeule doesn't really theorize how the competition of ideologies works. It's just, there's one big one. There's right and left wings of it. It's omnipotent and it will die of its own situation. This is just false. Ideological diversity is pretty natural. We've talked about it in the past. I think you can group them in the West in three groups. Conservatism, socialism, liberalism, and then there are lots of hybrids in between them.
Left and right liberalism are pretty different and they've competed against each other in a variety of respects. Any serious analysis about how to have civilizational level change, you've got to have a story about the competitor dynamics, the competitor ideologies. You look at cases of civilizational change, Ottoman conquest of the Byzantine Empire, for instance, or what was left of it. There's a lot of things that are done. A lot of it's just straight-up military defeat or the collapse of the military.
The integralists haven't theorized this at all, but I actually think we're seeing with the military, actually, the LGBT values taking really deep hold. You see integralists and stuff being like, "Oh, we're going to lose a war or whatever." When that's just false. Most of this is like, "These are pretty geeky kids that know how to send a missile out and they know how to innovate and make a better weapon." We're going to be strong for a while. They don't need to be 6 foot 4 and covered in muscle. It's just silly. We can have a totally LGBT-friendly military and they're not going to just be like, "You know what, we're just going to do whatever the dominant ideology is."
I also talk about this in the book. There's a model of the politics of what's called idiocracy, the rule of an ideology, and tries to map out what was similar between what the communists and the fascists did, and the Iranian Muslims did. What was similar? It's pretty fascinating. They all have their own troops, the SS, Brownshirts, Mujahideen, to scare the other branches of the military into submission. Those troops have to be completely ideologically brainwashed and devoted. Totally brainwashed and devoted. That's the only way it happens. That's the only way a major ideology actually takes over.
Then the book talks a lot about how it lasts a generation, but then nobody cares anymore because people just can't live like that, so you get all this corruption and internal decay and it just ultimately leads to collapse. If Nazis hadn't been defeated probably going to be around 30 years before nobody cares anymore. Not that that isn't horrible. The point is actual civilizational level or ideological level change is a big deal and there's a lot of bloodshed. You need very specific means that are completely incompatible with Catholic teaching. You can get to integralism but not in a Catholic way.
“Actual civilizational level or ideological level change is a big deal and there's a lot of bloodshed. You need very specific means that are completely incompatible with Catholic teaching. You can get to integralism but not in a Catholic way.”
There's this other complication that's huge, which is that it isn't just like communism in one country. You've got to get the Vatican on board, and they're half a world away. At any time the pope could say, "We don't like this. We're condemning it." They did it with the last major integralist movement, the Action Française in France. Almost 100 years ago Pope Pius XI condemned Action Française. That just delved it a body blow and ultimately died.
The current pope thinks integralism is a plague. He said that privately. They've got all this problem, which is not just taking over the state, but you've got this whole independent monitoring system that is becoming more progressive, by the way. Think about it. All those bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II and Benedict, they voted for Francis, most of them. Francis appointed so many bishops. They just think, "Oh, this is just fascism. We're not going to do anything with this."
The point is to show that the ideal is so far away the only way to get to it, even to conceive of getting to it, is oppression and bloodshed that every Catholic must reject. That argument is enough to get, I think, a lot of conservatives away from it because they may be skeptical of the enterprise of ideal theory. That may be enough for some people. I think it may very well be, but there's a response, which is that "Well, we may not know how to get to integralism, but it's still the best."
Aaron: I was thinking about that in the context of my anarchist friends who are under no illusions that we're going to instantiate anarchism, but it is still a moral imperative that we aim at.
Kevin: That's right. In libertarianism, it has an interesting structure where the thought is like, "Look, there's certain kinds of coercion that are always wrong. If there was a good theory of political authority, it would legitimize it, but there is no such good theory," and so there's just like a deontological moral fact, which is that states should go away. Catholicism is a good bit different in terms of being a good-centered, teleological theory and having a theory of political authority.
The grounds for having an ideal theory are really different. You have to reconcile with original sin, for instance. You just can't expect too much of an ideal period. There are disadvantages to Catholic ideal theory that libertarian ideal theory doesn't usually face. One of those is the problem of stability. This goes into the stability argument. Suppose we establish integralism and we have a society that's not just coercively Catholic. It respects the liberties of the unbaptized, and I say, let's grant that they're a minority just for the sake of argument, protects their religious freedom, but once you're baptized you're under the canonical legal system.
You can be tried for ecclesiastical crimes. Maybe if you don't agree with the Catholic Church anymore, you're not as culpable, or what have you, maybe. We're trying to imagine an integral society under what Rawls would call “favorable conditions.” Most people agree, most of the rules are integralist.
Then, of course, there's the effect, you'll think this is magic, but I mean grace. The Church has graced the state and that means that they're healed some so they can better know the natural law and follow it. Ultimately, and this is fascinating, integralists are opposed to a modus vivendi. They don't want to rule based on power. That's what liberalism does in their view, but lies about it. They want social stability to depend on the virtue of the public. It's actually Confucianism in this regard. It's very, very focused on the cultivation of internal characters. Stability is supposed to flow from that.
I think there's just a whole host of reasons to think that system is going to unravel of its own logic. I'll just give you one of my arguments, which is that integralism makes baptism expensive because once you're baptized, you come under all these legal liabilities. Now, if you baptize your child, they could be tried for apostasy or heresy when they're adults. If you don't baptize your child, you're scot-free. If you baptize your child in secret and the Church doesn't have a mass surveillance state, you're in pretty good shape.
“One of my arguments, which is that integralism makes baptism expensive because once you're baptized, you come under all these legal liabilities. Now, if you baptize your child, they could be tried for apostasy or heresy when they're adults. If you don't baptize your child, you're scot-free. If you baptize your child in secret and the Church doesn't have a mass surveillance state, you're in pretty good shape.”
Historically with integralism, you have all these peasants, they can't read, they're probably not even Catholic because they don't know what they believe. They've had no education. There's no mass communications. The numbers of people are very small. You're coordinating really a few thousand elites. That's your situation. There are so many sources of diversity. That's not Rawlsian reasonable pluralism. I don't talk about Rawls in the book, nothing about reasonable pluralism. I just say there's natural pluralism.
First of all, there's just factors that lead us to disagree that aren't fixed by dogma, so they're not part of revelation, and also there's unnatural pluralism. Just the fact that sin confuses people and leads to its own kinds of disagreements. There's a similarity with the Rawlsian destabilization story, but it's not about reasonable pluralism. It's about only factors of sources of pluralism that Catholics would acknowledge. The idea here is people say, "Look, integralism isn't dogma, but the integralist rulers are adding all these unnecessary legal restrictions. Why don't I defect in some way or avoid it or push for non-integralist leaders?" Depending on whether you have a democracy or a monarchy or not.
Because of the disincentives to have the integralist regime in terms of the additional set of penalties over the civil code that come from the canonical code, it's going to be a really serious issue because you're going to want to have practices that get around the cost but still get you the benefits. Because the cost can be so severe. Then if the regime commits to, "Oh no, we're only going to use modest punishments," then there's just way more defection. It's just really, really hard to avoid a pluralistic collapse.
What I say in the book is, "Look, the stability argument predicts that maybe Catholic regimes don't collapse, but integralist regimes will become soft establishmentarian regimes like France or Ireland or what have you." In fact, that's what happened. Every integralist regime or quasi-integralist regime moved in this direction, every last one that didn't become Protestant or communist or something. Internal to the ideal is a seed of its own destruction. That's the stability argument.
“What I say in the book is, ‘Look, the stability argument predicts that maybe Catholic regimes don't collapse, but integralist regimes will become soft establishmentarian regimes like France or Ireland or what have you.’ In fact, that's what happened. Every integralist regime or quasi-integralist regime moved in this direction, every last one that didn't become Protestant or communist or something. Internal to the ideal is a seed of its own destruction.”
Aaron: Sure, but one could wave a magic wand and assume away the workability problems of we probably can't get this into place in the first place. Even if we could, it would collapse or soften. It wouldn't maintain itself. If we could wave those away, are there still problems with this, I guess, from a doctrinal?
Kevin: From a moral perspective, yes. It's important though. The stability argument is partly part of dogma because there are teachings about natural law and it being natural to us and about its ability to lead us to act. The de-stability is a serious problem for Catholic social thought. That aside, let's talk about the pure moral problems. There's two ways to go at it from a perspective of equality that Catholics accept. One is this very non-ideal argument that if you have an integralist regime, religious minorities will be oppressed. That's just true. It's just manifestly true.
Everyone knows that is a problem. I just decided, "There are other people who made that argument. I'm going to focus on the ideal." What does the ideal require? This is super interesting. According to the integralist ideal, the unbaptized have very broad religious liberty. They have freedom of belief, they have freedom of worship, they have freedom of education, freedom of seminaries, freedom to disseminate their books. There's all kinds of religious freedoms that the unbaptized get. This is how the integralist reinterpreted Dignitatis Humanae, which is the Catholic Church saying we're on board with religious freedom, 1965 or so.
They just say, "No, actually it only applies to your right of religious freedom against the state and not the Church." The Church could reauthorize the state, grant the state its own power. You could have integralism in the future, but the coercion only applies to the baptized. It's dogma that you have to protect the religious liberties of the unbaptized. I grant, for the sake of argument, in the ideal, religious minorities are protected. In practice, that is not what happened, and is not what would happen. I know that.
Now here's something super interesting that comes up. You can't coerce the unbaptized on religious grounds at all, for any reason. This is a complete moral prohibition. You can coerce the baptized. The difference between whether religious coercion is unjust or just is one thing, whether they have a valid baptism or not. Then I say, let's grant everything the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches about baptism. No element of it can explain why religious coercion goes from unjust utterly, to just.
Why is it the case that someone unbaptized who's Jewish has a total right of religious freedom, but if they were baptized as an infant against the will of their parents in an emergency situation, that it would be totally just to coerce them? Never been Catholic, not raised Catholic at all. I just say, "Look, there's just no way to square that circle." Baptism does not serve as a moral transformer in that way. What ends up happening, and this is the interesting thing in the ideal, because in the non-ideal situation, it's those outside the Church that are going to be treated worse.
“Let's grant everything the Catholic Church dogmatically teaches about baptism. No element of it can explain why religious coercion goes from unjust utterly, to just.
Why is it the case that someone unbaptized who's Jewish has a total right of religious freedom, but if they were baptized as an infant against the will of their parents in an emergency situation, that it would be totally just to coerce them?”
In the ideal, it's the people inside the Church that are treated worse. Because they're subject to all this coercion merely in virtue of, say, an infant baptism. It's unjust to people on the inside. I've already had friends say, "Why don't you talk about the oppression of people on the outside?" I'm like, "Because, again, there is oppression, there's injustice, even in the ideal case." There's an intrinsic incoherence. They have to resolve why does baptism change religious coercion from unjust, that's dogma, to just, which the integralists think is probably dogma.
There's nothing in their writings that explains this. There is a passage in Aquinas about it that only makes sense if it's not infants. Because he talks about, "Look, baptism involves a vow." If you agree, yes, you can't force someone into a contract, but you can force them to keep it. That logic only applies to adults, and then as soon as it does, everyone can choose whether to become Catholic or not in an integralist state, and they won't. Because, good grief, there may be some pro-incentives, but they could become Eastern Orthodox and get the Eucharist. There's all these alternatives.
In any case, that's one of the central injustices. I have other arguments, but the problem is any other egalitarian doctrines, they're just going to say, "Beg the question." Because they're liberal ideas. I once had this argument, which is like, "Look, we already think equality applies to worldviews, at the very least, within Christians or between Jews and Christians. If we should treat different views, even true and false views equally, then integralism is false because it doesn't do that." It's called the Fairness Argument Against Integralism.
I didn't put it in the book because a lot of Catholics were like, "They would never accept the idea that equality applies to worldviews." It does. It obviously does. That's a good argument. I wrote it up. It's an article. You can read it. It begs the question against the integralists. The integralists would never accept the main premise. I think many of the common arguments against integralism, they have good responses to, or responses that maybe satisfy them, even if it doesn't really satisfy much of anyone else.
I wanted new arguments that granted them as much as possible, then still show the problem. Those are the issues. Transition, stability, justice. You can't get there, you can't stay there, it's unfair. I know it's cheese, but it helps. It's very important to understand that these folks are not conservatives, traditionally. They are for a radical ideal theory. They are much more accurately described as counter-revolutionaries.
They're favoring de Maistre over Burke, Carl Schmitt over Hayek. This is, "We're going to take the institutions established by liberalism and socialism and we're going to turn them to our own ends." This is the great danger of the American integralists because they're bringing the ideas of Viktor Orbán into the Republican Party. They're one of the ones who are most responsible for it.
“It's very important to understand that these folks are not conservatives, traditionally. They are for a radical ideal theory. They are much more accurately described as counter-revolutionaries.
They're favoring de Maistre over Burke, Carl Schmitt over Hayek. This is, ‘We're going to take the institutions established by liberalism and socialism and we're going to turn them to our own ends.’ This is the great danger of the American integralists because they're bringing the ideas of Viktor Orbán into the Republican Party. They're one of the ones who are most responsible for it.”
Aaron: Thank you for listening to ReImagining Liberty. If you like the show and want to support it, head to reimaginingliberty.com to learn more. You'll get early access to all my essays, as well as be able to join the ReImagining Liberty Discord community and book club. That's reimaginingliberty.com or look for the link in the show notes. Talk to you soon.
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