Overcoming Integralism With More Liberalism Misses the Mark

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Overcoming Integralism With More Liberalism Misses the Mark
Overcoming Integralism With More Liberalism Misses the Mark

The world of Catholic “Integralism” must be a terrifying place to live. It represents a coercive state indirectly subordinate to the Church that restricts the freedom of its citizens. Hence, it is doomed to fail.

Such might be the dire conclusions of Kevin Vallier’s All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism. The book analyzes the resurgence of the recent schools of Catholic integralist thought that highlights the role of the Church in society. His mission is to prevent this terrifying scenario from happening.

Trying to Be Objective

The text is written in the best of liberal prose. The author tries hard to appear value-neutral and entirely objective. He prides himself on presenting his case fairly, thoroughly and civilly. He even admits the allure of the integralist message before showing its utter impracticality.

Ultimately, he presents a working framework where everyone can live together and return to a reasonable liberal-dominated peace. With such a framework in place (and integralists properly ghettoized in microstates), he can then claim his mission accomplished.

Oranges and Liberal Apples

However, his approach is not compelling for those familiar with the issue. The problem is that his assessment judges what was long considered traditional Catholic social teaching using liberalism as his prism. Indeed, through this prism, any truly Catholic viewpoint will always fail miserably and vice versa.

This apples-and-oranges error makes the whole narrative convoluted and rambling. Much of the book is a detailed refutation of neo-integralists’ plans inside a liberal society. He calculates the percentage of those who must agree with implementing such plans, transitions and other minutiae. He even authorizes readers to skip the over-technical sections that employ graphs and formulae (y2=gx-px2 determines how coercion affects the percentage of moral citizens).

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Of course, any transition to an integralist system will inevitably fail inside the present liberal framework. Indeed, some modern schools of Integralism suffer from the same defect of trying to force themselves into this framework with a strongman option.

Thus, the only way to make sense of the book is to think outside Dr. Vallier’s liberal straitjacket. Then, the book becomes clearer.

The Errors of Integralism

The book’s target is not the new schools of Integralism or their plans. His target is Christendom, where Church and State performed separate functions but were united in their pursuit of the common good and the sanctification of souls.

The contradictions and real practical problems of the modern integralist schools serve as a pretext to attack a political vision that corresponds to the traditional social teachings of the Church about the union of the two polities.

Thus, the author condemns anyone who defends an anti-liberal confessional state where the Church could exert indirect coercive influence over the State, no matter which epoch.

Projecting Integralism Backwards

This general criticism is found in his peculiar habit of calling someone something that postdates the person. Most would think it strange, for example, if someone would call Plato an existentialist, given the philosophy’s nineteenth-century Kierkegaardian origins. The label might be forgiven if done figuratively.

Likewise, Integralism is a nineteenth-century invention that drew from elements of the Catholic past. It arose as a reaction to liberalism—another nineteenth-century invention.

Yet the author insists on labeling and criticizing figures like Constantine, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Louis IX of France, theologian Francisco Suarez, Saint Robert Bellarmine, and others as true integralists. This is done in earnest as if there were some historical integralist conspiracy to push forward a yet-to-be-conceived future philosophical agenda. Indeed, he curiously presents no thirteenth-century or earlier liberals.

Thus, “integralist” becomes a label that can be applied to any pre-modern figure, philosopher, statesman or saint who dares to defy a liberalism that didn’t exist during their lifetime.

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Lest anyone think that the label is reserved for Catholics, the author stretches the comparison to include Islamic and Confucian fundamentalists. He concludes that these also do not fit inside the liberal framework he so vigorously defends.

With little ceremony, the associate professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University declares that the Doctors of the Church, famous theologians, learned saints and Scholastic writers are wrong. They are to be replaced with Enlightenment figures like Hobbes, Locke, Hume and Rousseau. Liberal Catholic authors like Jesuit father John Courtney Murray are also recommended.

A Clash of Mentalities

The first step toward understanding the battle around Integralism is not to see it as a political controversy. It is best seen as a violent clash of two mentalities, liberal and Catholic.

Springing from the Enlightenment, liberalism was always a voluntarist experiment. Its focus is the gratification of the will over the intellect. All liberal thinkers clearly state this motive from which liberalism’s individualism, liberty and equality derive. Indeed, Hume famously wrote, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”1

Simply expressed, the essence of liberalism is the right to think, feel and do everything the unrestrained passions demand. As long as one does not hurt others, people can do, think and sin as they wish. It may have other nuances, but this supreme quest for personal gratification represents liberalism’s core.

The liberal mentality holds that high ideals, religions, morals, universals and traditions are not needed because those things restrain people’s wills. It is up to individuals if they want to have these restraints, but they are unnecessary. It’s their choice. The greatest sin is coercion.

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God—or perhaps better gods—can be made in the image and likeness of individuals. Reduced to mere choices, the gods—the more, the better—can take their places in the vast pantheon of liberalism.

What unites liberalism is its agreement to disagree about everything. Inside this framework, people affirm their right to determine their own truths and errors without interference. They dismiss any universal claims—like those of the Catholic Church—that must never be officially validated.

In such a vision, notes philosopher Alasdair McIntyre, the social world is “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment.”2

Portraying a Militarized Church

This mentality leads to Dr. Vallier’s inability to understand the Catholic position. In a voluntarist society, liberals cannot believe that there might be unity in thought or even that it might be desirable. They (and perhaps some integralists) believe the only way to move souls to unity is by exercising control, power and coercion, not by proposing a truth to be loved.

Thus, the non-Catholic author imagines that integralists see the Catholic Church as “a spiritual military.” He imagines the pope as a general who “leads the church’s spiritual soldiers by directing councils, cardinals, bishops, priests and the laity.”

This liberal prism leads to a militarized vision of the Church. Liberals cannot imagine a Holy Mother Church headed by a Holy Father and laity seen as children in a family-like relationship of dependence, charity and harmony. They cannot envision the action of the Holy Spirit that moves and unites wills heavenward.

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This voluntarist mentality informs the core of Dr. Vallier’s arguments and mathematical formulae.

That is why the author sees an integralist society working only inside tiny non-liberal charter cities, which reflect his self-interest dogmas and require little coercion.

The Catholic Mentality

The Catholic mentality consists of reason proposing to the will the object of its love. Its objective is truth, not multiple errors; harmony, not fragmented individualism.

The Catholic soul seeks out the resplendent universals in the good, true and beautiful that reflect God’s majesty. Within the well-ordered soul, the intellect illuminates the will and tempers the unruly passions. This quest for truth and, ultimately, for God has a tremendously unitive effect upon souls and society. It invites the soul to ponder and wonder about the order of the universe.

The rational pursuit of an objective truth is exponentially augmented by the practice of charity and the action of grace. Without charity,” writes Catholic author William Thomas Gaughan, “all of the finest regulations made by well-intentioned men in the interests of the common good come to nothing.”3

Saint Antoninus of Florence, a Scholastic writer like those Dr. Vallier criticizes, taught that charity regulates the affections and will of man. Gaughan continues by noting the saint’s affirmation that charity “binds men together in a brotherhood that is a true and perfect oneness. The entrance of charity into the social order makes it possible for men to be self-sacrificing in favor of the common good. Charity helps us love our neighbor as ourselves. It recalls to mind our common origin, our redemption by Christ, our sanctification through the Holy Spirit.”

Indeed, the more cohesive a society, the less coercive its rules are. The greater the love of God, the greater the social union.

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Christendom possessed an impressive unity centered on Christ. Like all things human and fallen, it was not (nor ever will be) perfect. However, this Catholic explanation fits the historical narrative much better than the author’s liberal script of power politics. It also explains how a Church in crisis still manages to unite 1.375 billion people inside a liberal society that encourages individualistic fragmenting.

Catholic society is contrary to Hobbes’ voluntarist association, which he defined as a “sand heap” of individuals, each guided by self-interest and kept in order by a strong coercive rule of law—Leviathan.

Two Opposing Mentalities

Thus, these opposing mentalities represent two completely different worldviews.

On one side, liberalism represents a relativistic world that does not recognize one true God, an objective truth, a defined nature, a notion of sin or any universal final end. This is leading to ever more radical and intolerant expressions of narcissism and society’s frenetic intemperance.

The Catholic side represents the contrary. It recognizes a metaphysical world, a defined yet fallen nature and a supernatural life found in Christ, the Way, Truth and the Light. The Church proposes meaning and purpose to souls in this life and hope in the next. Anti-liberal Catholics find increasing incompatibility with ever greater manifestation of sin and decay.

Church and State

This clash of mentalities is nothing new. The Church and the world have always been at odds. The accusation that the Church is oppressive and harmful to individual liberty and the State has always circulated in various forms throughout history.

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The beneficent action of the Church upon the State is described by Saint Augustine, who comments: “Let those who say that the teachings of Christ are harmful to the State find armies with soldiers who live up to the standards of the teachings of Jesus. Let them provide governors, husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, kings, judges, taxpayers and tax collectors who can compare to those who take Christian teachings to heart. Then let them dare to say that such teaching is contrary to the welfare of the State! Indeed, under no circumstances can they fail to realize that this teaching is the greatest safeguard of the State when faithfully observed.”4

It is unclear why the author fears this indirect influence of the Church’s authority that produces these results or why he considers it a source of harm.

Liberalism Is Crumbling

The book contains a denial of the crisis inside liberalism. The roar of his broadside against Integralism conceals a liberalism that is crumbling.

He provides the greatest proof by highlighting the extreme polarization of America and the world. The success of liberalism is measured by its ability to be a system that makes doing whatever you want possible by getting everyone to agree to get along.

This system of agreeing to disagree is not working. Today’s liberals do not want to address the legitimate concerns of the integralists and other malcontents. They cannot control those to their left that are canceling those who disagree with their radical views.

However, Dr. Vallier’s solution calls for more liberalism.

A Disappointing Third Way

In the end, he proposes a return to liberalism as a disappointing third way between the radical excesses of socialism and the stagnation of Burkean conservatism—both nineteenth-century inventions.

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Throughout the modern period, liberalism has acted like a glue that kept these two small extremes together without fighting as they drift slowly leftward. He proposes reconstructing the consensus.

He invites the integralists to Benedict-option themselves into irrelevance by scattering into an archipelago of tiny microstates resembling apartheid tribal homelands. “Entrants would agree to follow canon law or leave.”

The more moderate institutional liberals would be asked to tolerate these isolated enclaves and cooperate with conservatives in matters where they share values. The more radical social or progressive liberals must respect conservatives and slow down their march toward things like LGBTQ+ “rights.” Perhaps this can all be sealed with a gentle(person)’s agreement to be nicer to one another. However, he provides no enforcement mechanisms.

A Return to Christian Order

What is the real solution? Perhaps it would be best to get out of the nineteenth-century quagmire of modern ideologies and bizarre philosophies, which frame the debate and have brought the world to its present state of upheaval and crisis.

These relics of modernity’s flight from God are exhausted and no longer represent today’s reality. It is time to change the voluntarist paradigm. Certainty must replace doubt.

Hence, there needs to be a refreshing return to the wellspring of Christendom’s organic Christian society. Christendom was not a papal plan or a post-Roman conspiracy to power. It was born of the natural development of peoples’ customs, governing structures and qualities oriented by Holy Mother Church. From its unity was born an immense variety of organic solutions that addressed man’s physical and spiritual needs.

From the wound of Christ’s side came the Church, whose influence allowed Christians to live in transformative union, grace and charity.

It is time to abandon the liberal charade that society must function as if God does not exist. Instead, the world must again turn to God, to Saint Augustine’s “beauty so ancient and so new,” that will bring peace to today’s restless hearts.


  1. Quote from his A Treatise of Human Nature (1738).
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 25.
  3. William Thomas Gaughan, Social Theories of Saint Antoninus from His Summa Theologica (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1950), 104.
  4. (“Epist. 138 ad Marcellinum,” [Chap. 2, no. 15]) in Opera Omnia, vol. 2, in J.P. Migne, Patrologia Latina, col. 532).

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