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Games intellectuals play

Three questions for the new Catholic integralists.

(Andrew Neel/Unsplash.com)

Shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s cabinet met for the first time, Vice President Lyndon Johnson waxed enthusiastic about the best and the brightest to his mentor, Speaker Sam Rayburn. They were all so brilliant, LBJ raved, especially “the fellow from Ford with the Stacomb on his hair” (Robert McNamara). Mr. Sam paused (perhaps taking a contemplative sip of bourbon-and-branch) and then replied, “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

That gem of political wisdom came to mind while I was pondering one of the strangest phenomena in this season of many discontents: the emergence of a new “Catholic integralism” that (in the words of an advocate) promotes the notion that “the state should recognize Catholicism as true and unite with the Church as body to her soul.” The proponents of a confessionally Catholic state as the optimum form of government are small in number. But they’ve demonstrated an impressive ability to rile up the debate about the current American political situation, and about Catholic social doctrine generally, so a few questions are in order.

Question #1: Haven’t we seen this, or something like it, before? European Catholic intellectuals’ dismay over their continent’s cultural and social disarray after World War I led some of them to flirt (and worse) with various forms of authoritarian rule in which the Church partnered with the state. Some found in Italian Fascism a rough but serviceable form of the social doctrine of Pope Pius XI (before being caught off-guard by Pius XI’s condemnation of Mussolini’s thuggery in the 1931 encyclical Non abbiamo bisogno). In 1933, a priest from the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach described the ascendant National Socialist German Workers Party as the “realization” of the Body of Christ in the secular world. Emmanuel Mounier, a prominent French thinker and activist, first found a complement to his rejection of modernity in the right-wing statism of Marshal Petain’s Vichy regime, before pivoting 180 degrees after World War II and trying to forge a Catholic alliance with Stalinist communism. Living in the rarified air of high-altitude abstraction, the new integralists seem uninterested in this history. Nevertheless, such fiascos are important cautionary tales for any Catholic thinker who imagines that the moral and cultural crisis of the West is going to be resolved by the Catholic Church allying itself with state power or by the state endorsing the Nicene Creed.

Question #2. Has Pope Leo XIII been swapped out for Hegel?  There are many, many disturbing things about American culture, society, and politics today; in some quarters, “I Did It My Way” has displaced “America the Beautiful” as an alternative national anthem. But to suggest (as some integralists seem tempted to do) that the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision imposing same-sex “marriage” on the country was gestated in the womb of the Declaration of Independence is ahistorical nonsense. There is a complex causal chain leading to Obergefell and it doesn’t run back to “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” To suggest that it does – and that Catholic social doctrine provides the key to understanding Obergefell’s alleged inevitability – is to replace Leo XIII’s interpretation of St. Thomas Aquinas with G.W.F. Hegel’s historical determinism in the foundations of the Church’s social teaching.

Question #3. Where did John Paul II and Benedict XVI go?  As I explained in The Irony of Modern Catholic HistoryJohn Paul and Benedict offered acute analyses of the crisis of the West without falling into an authoritarian trap in their prescriptions. Emphasizing the crucial importance to democracy of a vibrant, truth-based, public moral culture, they correctly diagnosed the deepest causes of today’s political distortions and dysfunctions. Teaching that the Church’s public role is to shape that public moral culture by forming citizens who live in the truth, they set Catholic social doctrine in the context of the New Evangelization and defended the Church’s liberty to be itself. Stressing the theological incompetence of the state, they helped strengthen the barriers to any new form of authoritarianism, left or right.

The more sober of the new integralists admit that they’re not offering a practical program for here-and-now. What’s the project, then? Would it be uncharitable to suggest that this might be a game played by Catholic intellectuals who, so to speak, never ran for sheriff – a game that, however unintentionally, is complicating the Church’s public witness by misrepresenting Catholic social doctrine?


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About George Weigel 308 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

12 Comments

  1. “Well, Lyndon, you may be right and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

    *********

    Thank you so much for that quote. I’d totally agree with Mr. Sam.
    Years ago our sheriff used to participate in the annual Labor Day parade. He rode on a float right next to a moonshine still that he’d previously confiscated. He’d come from a rough & ready past before his conversion to Christ & law & order. He probably had some personal experience with bootleg whisky and /or its makers.

    That gave him real, hands on understanding about the folks he dealt with in our community. And I imagine some compassion. Something you can’t learn just from a college course in criminal law.

  2. There are so many groups out there posing as “legitimate Catholics” that we would need an old fashioned encyclopedia to catalog all of them, add new books every few years to add the new groups and/or reveal those groups that just went underground and/or changed to a new name and advocacy. They lurk in every Catholic comments forum and pretend to represent the Church, which is why mainstream media choose them and then make them easy-to-beat-and-ridicule targets.

    Catholic “integralists”, like the Protestant “Dominionists”, may think they are doing “God’s Work” but they do the exact opposite. During His earthly ministry, JESUS clearly refused the exaltation as a worldly king and political leader (John 6:15). He told Pilate face-to-face: “Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world”, (John 18:36). He did not come to patch up this rotten, sinful world and keep it forever (giving that all that sin undeserved authenticity) but to totally replace it with the New Jerusalem of Heaven.

    Catholic “Integralists” and Protestant “Dominionists” all account for the same nonsense, consciously or unconciously, intentionally or unintentionally, as they ridicule the TRUE Message of JESUS Christ, the Incarnate Living God. They play right into Satan’s hands as useful fools to discredit the Church as just another political force or a political religion just like Islam, lowering Catholicism down, down, down to their level. Human Intellectualism is easy to manipulate, corrupt and control, Divine Wisdom is not. Let’s all ask for holy intelligence saturated with Total Holy Wisdom DAILY!!

    • The Church wasn’t founded at Vatican II by Paul VI. The social kingship of Christ as taught by Pius XI in Quas Primas and previous Popes is still very much Church teaching and always will be.

      • Agreed!! Very well said. Just in the same way that this New Age Homosexual Modernism that infects everything today also did not invent sex, science, technology, serving the poor, etc., etc. They have to believe and promote themselves as “absolute pioneers” because they only have sin, corruption and tyranny to offer.

        We have to stay TRUE to those Holy Roots that connect directly to Our Lord and Savior JESUS Christ, even if our Catholic World appears to totally collapse or actually does: “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea”, (Psalm 46:2). We are redeemed by the ONE that not even death could defeat!! If the worst of the worst happens, we will be back with JESUS and be more than conquerors with HIM!! (Romans 8:37).

  3. You’ve got to love it when the social order is collapsing and we are likely undergoing the great apostasy and George thinks those dastardly traditionalists are the problem. They have this pernicious idea that the current Magisterium can’t just disregard the tradition and teachings of all their predecessors if they fancy it. George you have precisely two thoughts that you have made a career out of restating, 1) John Paul II is the answer to any and every problem or question 2) America is the greatest nation in history and everyone needs to emulate it’s institutions, enlightment ideology and economic model

    • Except that Mr. Weigel says, perhaps presciently, “Nevertheless, such fiascos are important cautionary tales for any Catholic thinker who imagines that the moral and cultural crisis of the West is going to be resolved by the Catholic Church allying itself with state power or by the state endorsing the Nicene Creed.”

      “Allying itself with state power”? Perhaps a global and “[mutant] Catholic integralism”?

      What is the risk, now, of a re-focused eco-Church, first tongue-tied on “the moral and cultural crisis of the West” that Weigel notes, and then additionally unable to distinguish itself (that is, to be what it is) within likely new-world-order partnerships? The latter galvanized by pandemics and other terrestrial threats, real or imagined?

      The “new paradigm” Church—-not a frontal makeover, but a more Fabian kind of “apostasy” (your term)? Real concern over possible population triage at the peripheries, tooled-up as post-Galileo respect for eco-science, and bluntly focused by unavoidable zero-base budgeting (COVID-19 financial fallout). What goes silently in the night; what in the Vatican slips under the bus—-never explicitly denied, but no longer affirmed?

      To leaven or not to leaven, that ever remains the question.

  4. All one needs to do is remember the two Catholic Diem Brothers of South Vietnam and the fate they received at the hands of LBJ,McNamara,and a host of other American “Best and Brightest” of the 1960’s.Sheriff? Mr Sam should have said “Dog Catcher”.

    • Having read your Poole article (a good read, thank you), I still call attention to Weigel’s overly-compressed wording at one point: “Nevertheless, such fiascos are important cautionary tales for any Catholic thinker who imagines that the moral and cultural crisis of the West is going to be resolved by the Catholic Church ALLYING ITSELF WITH STATE POWER or by the state endorsing the Nicene Creed.”

      IF Catholics rejected the Vatican drift as a chaplaincy for “true world political authority” (Weigel’s “‘state’ power”?), as in Laudato Si, n. 175; and
      IF the moral theology of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) were proposed as the universal and baked-in Natural Law (taught because true, not true only because taught by the Church); and
      IF clueless Vaticanista ghost writers at least knew the difference between world “governance” (subsidiarity and solidarity always together) and a world “government” or (centralized?) political authority (here also recalling Bishop Sorondo’s worse-than-naive genuflection to China as “the best implementer” of CST!)—

      THEN, what would this proposition look like? The metastasized drift into a syncretic “pluralism” of religions could at least be avoided.

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