Is Integralism Catholic Sharia? A Question and Answer Catechism

By John Zmirak Published on June 4, 2018

Last week I burned some bridges by writing tough but constructive criticism about the orthodox Catholic subculture. I pointed to some trends that seem to run in parallel, reinforcing each other. I’ve seen some angry feedback, so I know that I touched a nerve. No, I didn’t say that all or even most of the grads of small Catholic colleges are:

  • Rejecting American freedom in favor of fantasies about a Catholic theocracy.
  • Embracing collectivist economic views which they falsely infer from Catholic social teaching.
  • Disdaining well-paying work that might support families, because they insist on careers in the arts, the Church, or education.
  • Emerging deep in debt, marrying spouses with equal debt.
  • Having children nine months and five minutes apart kids on public assistance (Medicaid, food stamps, WIC). And
  • Claiming that as their “right” using Humanae Vitae and poorly understood Catholic social teaching about a “just wage” as pretexts.

But some do. You know who you are.

Like Muslims in Paris

What alarms me about the nexus of all these pathologies? How much it mirrors Muslim immigrant enclaves in Western Europe. There, people unsuited (or unwilling) to take part in the modern economy lean on their sense of theological “otherness.” Of superiority, in fact. They see the public benefits that the “infidels” provide them as their due. Some even call it “jizya,” the tribute Muslims demand of non-believers whom they’ve conquered. I’ve heard or read Catholics say something quite similar of America. That non-Catholics not as “open to life” ought to pay taxes to feed, medicate, and educate the kids of Catholics who are.

Because the Muslim analogy is what awoke me to this problem, I focused on Integralism. That’s a newly fashionable but ill-defined school of thought in some Catholic circles. It rejects the Anglo-American tradition of freedom and focus on individual rights. Integralists follow Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen. They dismiss all that as “Liberalism.” They reduce the American founders to mere parrots of John Locke. And John Locke turns out to be a thin fig leaf for Thomas Hobbes. Hence the ACLU and Planned Parenthood prove to be right about the Constitution, and Justice Scalia dead wrong.

America was hopeless from its founding, so we’re exempted from duties as active citizens. Instead we should focus on creating an alternate program that’s based explicitly on Catholicism. Once all we see around us has collapsed into heaps of rubble, then we can think about implementing it. But we’re off the hook for now, and free to indulge our fantasies. 

Following the responses to my piece, I’ve seen some questions that ought to be answered. Not everyone is clear on what exactly “Integralism” means. Or why we can reject it without surrendering to contemporary secularism, wrapping our altars in rainbow flags.

If you enjoy these questions and answers, please check out my book-length response to a wide array of Catholic queries, CatechismThe Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism.

An FAQ on Integralism and Liberalism

Q: Isn’t the Liberalism that’s threatening Christians with prison or ruin for rejecting same-sex marriage evil? Don’t you as a Christian, much less a Catholic, reject all that?

A: It is evil, but it isn’t Liberalism. At least not in the Classical sense of that word, as America’s founders or most of its patriotic Christians would recognize it. What you’re speaking of is Progressivism. Its roots lie not in the Magna Carta, Richard Hooker or even John Locke. Instead, it draws on Rousseau, Marx and Freud. It doesn’t just want to leave adults free to follow their consciences. No, it wants to reshape those consciences, and train people’s children to escape their parents’ churches. Its notion of “freedom” isn’t “free of state coercion.” Rather it’s “free of negative influences, free from unpleasant experiences.” It’s a nanny-state view of the world. It sees citizens as shrubberies, and social elites as the gardeners with shears.

Q: What of the “Liberalism” that the European Union claims to stand for, when it tries to undermine popular elections and governments, from Italy to Poland?

A: Again, Progressives have hijacked the word. A Classical Liberal would leave citizens free to own guns for self-protection. To home-school or otherwise school his children. To vote on the best immigration policy for his country, and expect his rulers to implement it. Citizens would stay free to associate as they liked, even if some chose exclusive clubs. They’d be free to speak, even if it hurt someone’s widdle feelings. Or criticized his intolerant religion. Or pointed out that his “gender transition” was a sign of mental illness.

Q: What do you say to that argument that even Anglo-American freedom was bound to end up like this?

A: That it’s plainly wrong. Our version of Christian Liberalism, as the founders saw it, depended on the morality of the people. Even on their religiosity, specifically their Christianity. And their respect for Natural Law. Washington, Adams, even Jefferson explicitly said so. An originalist judge reading the Constitution would see that, and not use the document to saw off the limb on which it rested. Without self-control, liberty is impossible, as Edmund Burke warned us.

We’ve been the victim of false, willfully dishonest readings of our Constitution. Go back to the Supreme Court’s attack on school prayer. Then forward to Roe v. Wade, Griswold v. Connecticut, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and Obergefell v. Hodge. In each case, the court majorities perverted the language of American liberty to promote Progressive goals. It’s not our job to pretend that they were honestly reading our Constitution.

We’ve been the victim of false, willfully dishonest readings of our Constitution. Go back to the Supreme Court’s attack on school prayer. Then forward to Roe v. Wade, Griswold v. Connecticut, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, and Obergefell v. Hodge. In each case, the court majority tortured the language of American liberty to promote Progressive goals. It’s not our job to pretend that they were honestly reading our Constitution. Then to reject it as a result. People do a great job of perverting the Bible too, when it suits them. That doesn’t mean we burn it.

Q: Why do you support an absolute separation of church and state, when you see what it has led to?

A: First of all, I don’t. We never had that in America before the 1960s. What we had was a tolerant, de facto Protestant country. It wisely avoided picking sides in the fight among the churches, and relied on people to make positive law based on Natural Law. That’s the code of ethics any honest person could in theory deduce for himself. But only provided he accepted a few core premises. The key ones? That reality is intelligible, that God exists, and that man is more than an animal.

Accept those, and we have the tools to argue fruitfully about every moral question. Reject them, and we aren’t opponents having an argument, but enemies fighting for power. Even John Locke accepted Natural Law, though some say in a truncated form. (That’s an issue for scholars to hash out. It really doesn’t matter. Locke wasn’t our Muhammad and we need not do what he said.)

There’s nothing wrong with a tolerant confessional State for a Catholic country where the people overwhelmingly want it. Vatican II doesn’t oppose that and neither do I. There are several examples of such tolerant states, such as 19th century Austria, and Poland for most of its history.

The Law Writ on the Human Heart

Q: So you think Natural law is the only proper basis for legislation? Not the Bible, or the teachings of the Church?

A: Exactly. It’s quite demanding enough. The central case that the popes make against abortion, pornography, divorce, even contraception, is based on Natural Law. When our society accepted all those ills, it wasn’t rejecting the Vatican or even Christianity. It was rejecting reason itself. And blowing up the foundations on which our experiment in ordered liberty rested. No wonder people are going crazy now, with daydreams of theocracy.

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Q: But Divine Revelation is a higher authority than reason. Why shouldn’t it guide us?

A: Because not everyone has access to it. Yes, Revelation was made publicly, and we should announce it to the world. But whether or not someone accepts it, believes it? That depends entirely on the mystery of divine Grace. You can’t reason out Christianity on your own, as you can philosophical questions. It’s a gift that comes from a Person. Neither you nor I know whether or not a given person has yet received that grace. We can’t know. He might not even know himself. It’s between him and God.

So it’s wrong for us to make laws that coerce people to act in ways they can only sincerely act if they’ve gotten that grace, and accepted faith. That’s why the Church never forced people to convert. Why popes condemned the forced baptism of Jews. We were acting in the spirit of Jesus’ own words on the subject: “And if any one will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.” (Matt. 10:14)

If the Church starts using coercion, doesn’t it become part of the State? Or a rival mini-state?

Q: Hasn’t the Catholic Church in the past cooperated with the government in coercing baptized Christians? Don’t authoritative Church documents grant the Church, and the State, the power to silence heretics, by force if necessary?

A: Vatican II renounced that power. It said that both Divine Revelation and Natural Law demanded religious freedom. It said that “within due limits,” people must be permitted to act alone, and in groups, following their conscience. The Catholic Catechism says the same thing.

Did Vatican II Have a Secret, Esoteric Doctrine?

Q: But what are those due limits?

A: That’s something for us to argue about. It’s well short of permitting human sacrifice, or polygamy, or other acts that violate the Natural Law. But to say that “due limits” would let us go back to outlawing Protestant churches (as Franco did, citing previous Church teaching)…. What would that make of the Council’s own words? Of every statement by subsequent popes defending religious freedom? Wouldn’t we see them as rank deceptions? If the Church secretly reserved the right to persecute anyone whose parents baptized him, unless he repeated Catholic orthodoxy? Vatican II would be exposed as Muslim style Taqiya, concealing Catholic sharia.

Q: Hasn’t Catholic scholar Thomas Pink argued that the Church simply denied the State the right to use coercion? But it left a loophole to use coercion itself?

A: Yes, he argued that. There are several key reasons why that doesn’t make sense. From a Catholic perspective, it’s completely unsupported by anything any pope has said since the Council. Pope John Paul II explicitly apologized, on behalf of the Church, for abuses of fellow Christians’ religious freedom. No pope has agreed with Pink. In fact, no bishop of any diocese anywhere in the world has endorsed his argument, or anything like it, in 50 years since Vatican II. If Pink is right, then the Church has been teaching a grossly misleading account of religious freedom for my entire lifetime, with no dissenters in good standing. Why should we trust it? Even Archbishop Lefebvre never made this argument. He bluntly claimed that Vatican II had taught heresy. That raises plenty of problems of its own, of course.

Let’s leave that aside. If the Church starts using coercion, doesn’t it become part of the State? Or a rival mini-state? Since Pope Gelasius, we’ve clearly distinguished between the “spiritual sword” the Church wields, and the “temporal sword” of the State. This would collapse them. Into a quite literal theocracy. In the dictionary sense of the term.

Q: So you’re saying that there’s a change between what the Church did from AD 400 or so, and sometimes supported with documents from councils and popes, and what it has taught since Vatican II?

A: That’s obvious, but this is a change in practice, not in infallible doctrine. We need to deal with that change, and perhaps prune back — as I’ve argued elsewhere — our notion of how far the Magisterium extends.

There is zero evidence, zero, that the Apostles or any Church father before Constantine argued for the Church to use force against Christian dissenters. That means it’s not part of the sacred, oral Tradition they got from Jesus. (Unless it was a Gnostic-style secret.) There’s nothing whatsoever in the New Testament that supports it. That’s why medieval popes who wanted to persecute were reduced to claiming that they’d inherited the authority of Moses to police the creed of the Hebrews. So that popes could cite Old Testament passages to justify religious coercion.

So when we see papal or council documents defending the right to persecute, they are not passing on divine Revelation. They are making Natural Law arguments. They are saying that reason tells us the true religion should prevail in its purest form. This serves the Common Good. So the State should serve the Common Good by suppressing errors, and silencing heretics.

There’s just one problem there: The Natural Law won’t show you WHICH religion is true. That requires the free gift of divine Grace to each human soul. Nor will reason alone prove conclusively the claims of one Christian church over another. So Natural Law’s authority ends here. It has to throw up its hands, leave people to argue these questions freely, and trust God to sort it out. Of course, the Church can expel people, strip them of the authority to preach, excommunicate them. But violent coercion? That’s the sword of the State. And Vatican II said explicitly that the State has no business here.

Thomas Pink wrote that the papal or council statements which made these natural law arguments were teaching infallibly the Church’s right to compel the baptized on doctrine. Oxford scholar John Finnis disagrees. (You read their exchange in this pricey, scholarly book.)

Strong Integralists need to to account for this: Five popes in a row, not one of whom read Vatican II as they did. (John Paul I died before saying much.) Neither Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, nor Francis has deviated from the teaching of Vatican II. Not one has asserted the supposed loophole giving the Church theocratic authority. No bishop of any diocese does today. In fact, Benedict XVI wouldn’t accept reunion with Lefebvre’s split-off bishops unless they conceded his reading of Vatican II, which defends religious freedom with no theocratic loophole.

How About an FDA for Religion?

Q: But aren’t you saving souls for all eternity by preventing people from teaching heresy? We don’t let drug companies sell medicines that are toxic, or even ineffective. If you won’t say that for religion, aren’t you saying it’s less important? Or at least implying that?

A: We have rational, objective tests for safety and efficacy of medicine. Since these questions of Revelation exceed the bounds of natural law, argument can’t resolve them. We solve them within the Church by deferring to authority. But that authority is precisely what Christian dissenters contest, either who it is (the pope?) or what it says (how to read the bible). Again, it’s a question, even from a strictly Catholic point of view, of whether God gave someone the Grace to believe our Faith. Or not. We don’t know, and have no right to use force against people in our ignorance.

If we agree with Vatican II that both Revelation and Natural Law demand religious freedom, then we see that stripping it from people is evil. We can’t do evil in order to accomplish good. If we were willing to do that, we might as well drown every child at his baptism. We’d be stuffing heaven with saints.

Nor is it clear, even from a Catholic perspective, that using force to turn sincere Protestants into insincere nominal Catholics is spiritually beneficial. Not to them, and not to us. We have long lists of martyr saints. Not so many inquisitors.

Q: But why do you insist on referring to Integralism as Catholic “sharia”?

A: Because the analogy is, alas, precise. In each case, you’ve got people claiming the religious authority to go beyond the dictates of reason. Based on their own beliefs, which they can’t prove to you rationally. Which even they don’t know if God has given you the Grace to accept. Proposing to make laws backed by the pistols and prisons of the State, enforcing beliefs you can only decide in the quiet of your conscience. And now, after Vatican II ruled out the State suppressing heresy, some want the Church to use force to do it. That theocratic collapse of the two swords into one is particularly Islamic.

Freedom Backfires. But So Does Tyranny.

Q: Doesn’t accepting the principles of Liberalism lead to secularism, and the abandonment of Natural Law?

A: Certainly that has happened in many places. But is it the fault of Liberalism? What happened in countries where Integralism held sway? The Spain of the Inquisition? The France of Louis XIV which took Protestant children away from their parents? Each one saw violent anti-Christian revolutions that ended in brutal civil wars. In each case, Catholic restorations gave way to anti-clerical governments. Secularists pointed to (and exaggerated) the abuses of the Integralists as weapons against all Christians. Poland never persecuted Protestants. Is it worse off today than Spain? Or better? As Protestant scholar Rodney Stark argues, the Church in Latin America didn’t really get around to catechizing the common people until spurred by Protestant competition. Now Catholic life there, while not a monopoly, is much more vibrant.

In a system where clergymen get special privileges and the Church wields undue power, power hungry people want to become priests and bishops. Ordinary people who end up in such roles are subject to great temptations, since power corrupts. Look at Ireland, where even though religious freedom reigned, priests, bishops, and religious were almost above the law. The abuses they inflicted on innocent children, the resentment they provoked with their privileges, led to this horrible backlash. Now abortion will be legal in only the Catholic part of Ireland. Just think about that.

Nor are modern Integralists exempt from such temptations. The Society of St. John was founded on Integralist principles. Its goal was to build “Catholic cities” that lived in separation from our failing secular culture. I won’t recount the sordid tale of how that order was dissolved after sex abuse complaints. Or how its partisans covered up for the guilty. You can go read it here if you have the stomach for it. But some of the worst people in that cover-up (take note of the names) were loud advocates of Integralism.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that advocates of Integralism support any such abuses. My point is that Integralism can’t escape fallen human nature, and, if anything, is more likely to cultivate some of the vices it supporters hope to avoid.

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