Rorate Caeli

Conservative Fragility: Integralism on Review

I had been hoping to find time to write a detailed review of the excellent new book Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy by Fr. Thomas Crean, O.P., and Alan Fimister, published by Editiones Scholasticae. It is a compact, well-written, deftly argued, and remarkably comprehensive manual presenting, without embarrassment or attenuation, the traditional political philosophy of the Roman Catholic Church, with the social kingship of Jesus Christ, Lord of heaven and earth, at its core, and Christendom as its natural flowering and exemplar. Twelve chapters discuss: 1. Societies and the perfect society; 2. The common good and authority; 3. The family; 4. Servitude; 5. Temporal authority (1): its origin; 6. Temporal authority (2): its scope; 7. Law; 8. Forms of policy; 9. Political economy; 10. International relations; 11. The two swords; 12. The two cities.

As it happened, however, it took a frustrating and yet revealing review of it at Commonweal, “The New Integralists,” to move me to take up my pen. I think it will become apparent, by my response, that I consider Crean and Fimister’s work not only important but decisive for our times; it is a great step forward in the conversations and decisions that must take place.


Notre Dame theology doctoral student Timothy Troutner has officially sounded the alarm at the “resurgence” of integralism, which he laughably considers the greatest threat to the Catholic Church at the present moment. Would that it were! My prayer is that it may yet become the greatest threat, not of course to the Catholic Church per se, but to the humiliated simulacrum of that Church that we all too frequently encounter in its leaders and adherents.


Troutner frequently and indolently draws on a well of respectable suspicion of “right-wing” movements, counting on readers to be horrified along with him. Every few sentences he reminds us that the integralists say shocking and horrifying things about minorities, women, and sex that ought to disqualify them immediately from any serious consideration. And judging from the lack of serious consideration in the review, it seems that Troutner’s words are not merely informative but performative. As a result, the “review,” if such it may be called, ends up sounding more like a New York Times editorial by a writer who, five years later, still refuses to try to understand Trump supporters.


Our anti-integralist critic is a narrative-driven fellow and an historicist who urges us to dig deeper into history. But everywhere we dig, we’ll find integralism of one sort or another, until we reach recent times, which are too shallow for digging. He says, on the one hand, that the “Constantinian experiment” shouldn’t be dismissed, but on the other hand, that religious liberty is an unquestionable human right. I don’t see how one can hold both of these positions. Either the Church was wickedly perverse from the fourth century on, and the whole tradition is vitiated—or we have to reexamine our modern dogmas. For Troutner, modernity has definitively won; relitigating the Enlightenment is not even on the table as a speculative option.


So far from walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, Troutner refuses to give integralism the basic courtesy of recognizing it for what it is obviously is: a coherent body of thought, deriving from natural and supernatural principles. He does not address the system’s philosophical underpinnings, namely, an account of man as a social-political animal, nor does he seem aware of the central dominating influence of the Laval School (especially Charles De Koninck) and its robust account of the common good. These profound philosophical and theological foundations have been excluded or ignored in the postconciliar period; the integralists are trying to reclaim them and reinvigorate them. It seems that the only thing the opposition can do is whine and wring their hands that they might have to give up the super-dogma of religious liberty and its native environment of Americanism.


It will be illuminating to consider for a moment the University of Notre Dame, itself a microcosm of the whole problem to which the new integralists are responding. Notre Dame theologians—the five or so orthodox ones—can sit there defending the establishment while countless thousands of students go through their entire ND schooling without any Catholic formation. It is a place where traditionalists have no voice among professors or student groups, and liberals have always run wild. Has ND’s postconciliar period been a “springtime”? The only reminder of Catholicism are the pretty buildings. Against this backdrop, appealing to a never-realized new consensus of theologians (where is it, exactly?) erodes the establishment’s credibility. The magical third way will not materialize, because there will be too little of the compromise Church left after successive waves of modernist colonization. Thundering ivory-tower condemnations of integralism only further discredit the comfortable but vapid establishment, making any rapprochement between neo-cons and Catholics recede further from the realm of possibility.


Where else, except among the integralists, is anyone grappling with the preconciliar tradition in a sustained and serious way, rather than rearranging deckchairs while the barque of Peter lurches toward shipwreck? One will look through Troutner’s hyperventilating review in vain for any reflection on, or even acknowledgment of, what the Francis papacy is doing to the Church, or how the unopposed proliferation of intraecclesial LGBTQ jihadis are corrupting our moral sense, or how U.N.-style human rights are in fact dissolving human communities and their intrinsic goods.


Troutner finds even the genre of Crean and Fimister’s book—that, namely, of a scholastic manual—to be a disguised threat. Surely, only someone longing to burn heretics and reestablish misogyny would dare to choose a manual format! Yet might it not, more prosaically, be a reaction against the sprawling emptiness of postconciliar discourse, which speaks much and says little? In the flood of “reflections” on “social teaching,” little or no coherent teaching has emerged, little or no engagement of hard questions, little or no admission that there are serious contradictions between a past consensus and the present battery of opinions, which are casually treated as unquestionable dogmas. In such circumstances, nothing could be better than choosing a more methodical rational approach, which avoids the vanity of “declarations” on this or that subject, usually descending to self-congratulations. The postconciliar period has little to offer in the way of genre for substantive reflections on human nature, society, governance, and law. As observant Thomists, Crean and Fimister have chosen both the form and the matter that befit the end or final cause in view.


The low quality of Troutner’s review may be seen in his dismissal of the concept of the husband having a “right” over his wife’s body, which he portrays as little better than sex slavery. Yet the notion that by the marriage contract each spouse (it’s a two-way street) gives the other a right to his or her body for marital union is as old as the hills and as universal as Catholicism. It would behoove a reviewer of a book like this to know some canon law and sacramental theology. Those who revere Christendom also know that spouses in olden times would refrain from the use of marriage during penitential seasons, and that some even chose to live together in perfect continence. This shows a level of equality and a striving for sanctity barely conceivable to modern Catholics.


In her review at Catholic World Report, Dr. Derya M. Little, a convert from Islam to Catholicism, gives us a calmer, more sympathetic assessment. It would seem that this Catholic woman, a scholar and writer, did not find herself mortally offended by Crean and Fimister; she found the book invigorating. John Ehrett’s review, “Reuniting Church and State,” at the Claremont Review of Books, while critical of the content, also expresses admiration for its consistency, clarity, and, yes, integrity. Troutner, meanwhile, writes it off as reactionary nostalgia, which is entirely to miss the point. Crean and Fimister are seeking the truth about human society and a political order that leads to human flourishing in Christ, rather than an inhuman society and an anti-political disorder that leads to human degradation and damnation. That is no matter of reactionary nostalgia. If anything, it would seem that those who cling to Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes are very much more in danger of nostalgia these days than those who have judged recent decades to be an unfortunate period of amnesia or madness out of which the Church is slowly emerging.


Those who wish to invoke Louis Bouyer against traditionalism owe him the courtesy of acknowledging his pro-traditionalist sentiments or sympathies, which are clear in his 1978 essay “The Catholic Church in Crisis” and in his Memoirs, wherein he relates the dishonesty and incompetence at the heart of the liturgical reform. Those who wish to cringe at the suggestion that the Church possesses coercive authority might want to study the scholarly work of Dr. Thomas Pink, who has demonstrated that the Church herself has taught this truth definitively. They who feign or perhaps even feel shock that anyone could question the social contract theory that derives the authority of rulers from the consent of the governed most definitely need to enroll in the school of Pope Leo XIII, learning from Diuturnum Illud and Immortale Dei (among other encyclicals) why this theory is contrary to reason and revelation alike, as that pope repeatedly and solemnly teaches, in harmony with his predecessors and successors. Lastly, whoever thinks that Pope Francis can cancel out the unanimous traditional acceptance of the death penalty as a legitimate punishment inflicted by the State would do well to study anew the actual teaching of Pastor Aeternus and the limits of papal authority. In short: a regimen of intellectual exercise is prescribed.

In the end, and to adapt a grossly modern expression, I cannot help seeing in Troutner’s condescension a “conservative fragility” still uncomprehending of the cracks and fissures in the “orthodox” center, still unwilling to break with the elements of liberalism it incoherently holds on to. It is a fragility that lashes out against its natural allies while giving a pass to the liberals who hold the real power and who no longer hide their intention to sink the ship of the Church. It has never been more true to say, of the establishment so well represented by Notre Dame and by Timothy Troutner: “the center cannot hold.” Indeed, it seems the center cannot even write a decent book review.