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A Book Review… A Very New Book About A Very Old Idea

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Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy by Thomas Crean and Alan Fimister. Editiones Scholasticae, 2020; paperback, 290 pages. Available at

One of Moliere’s characters — a certain M. Jourdain — is at once stunned and delighted to learn that he has spoken prose all his life. Practicing Catholics, similarly, should be stunned and delighted to learn that, by the grace of God, we have been integralists all our lives. In Christian Prayer, a volume used by many who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, there is a brief, but beautiful and meaningful, petition: “Form our lives in [Thy] truth, our hearts in [Thy] love” (p. 617).
Integralism, as the cover of this new volume tells us, “is the application to the temporal, political order of the full implications of the revelation of man’s supernatural end in Christ and of the divinely established means by which it is to be attained.” Isn’t that what our personal moral lives are all about as Catholics?
(Please read Catechism of the Catholic Church, nn. 1888, 2044, and 2105 as background to this review. It isn’t often that an article comes with “assigned reading”!)
The co-authors of Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy are Fr. Thomas Crean, who is a friar of the English Province of the Order of Preachers (Dominicans), and Alan P. Fimister, who teaches at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. They are at pains both to explain what Integralism is, and what it is not. We Catholics are called to form ourselves in and through Christ the King, trying to make Him Lord of everything we think and say and do. There is no element or aspect of our lives, we hope, in which we seal off the call of Christ, relegating Him to second or third-class interest.
That includes, of course, business. And sex. And entertainment. And politics.
Integralism correctly teaches us that we must not segregate Christ and His Church into hermetically sealed domains, one marked “sacred,” and the other marked “secular.” Civil and canon law “should work in concord, while safeguarding the superior rights of the Church: since heavenly beatitude is a greater good than earthly happiness, the temporal power must cede to the spiritual where the latter judges that its goal would otherwise be impeded” (p. 218).
The separation of church and state is, in the common view, a fundamental constitutional principle. Or is it in the Declaration of Independence? Actually, that “principle” is explicitly in neither document, and as Crean and Fimister repeatedly remind us, that idea is condemned in and by traditional Church teaching.
The book offers a very substantial wellspring of references, citations, and corroborative material to expand and anchor their assertions. For example, they quote St. Thomas: “Since Pentecost,…all temporal rulers must be subject to the authority of the Catholic Church” (p. 78). To cordon off politics from Catholic moral philosophy is not only undesirable but evil.

An Empirical Observation

Briefly consider two matters:
First, if, and to the extent that, eternal truth is locked away from personal, political, and public life, debauchery will fill its place. They quote Pope Leo XIII: “When Christian institutions and morality decline, the main foundation of human society goes together with them” (p. 104n).
Is this not an altogether empirical observation, given, especially, the last fifty or sixty years? Pope Benedict XV taught in 1914: “Sad experience proves that human authority fails where religion is set aside” (p. 106n). The religion which the liberal order must “set aside” — that is, extirpate — is the Catholic faith, which teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of God, to whom we turn for meaning and destiny.
By contrast, liberalism’s “break with the past,” says Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed, “was founded on a false anthropology.” Our secularized society worships the image in the mirror and seeks to divinize our appetites and urges. That is why Crean and Fimister write that “secularisation [sic] is death” (pp. 217, 73). The civil order, once separated from the Church, will become an intransigent, and tyrannical, enemy of the Church (p. 270).
Second, the Church must fruitfully teach all her children, for “Education belongs pre-eminently to the Church, by reason of a double title in the supernatural order, conferred exclusively upon her by God Himself,” wrote Pope Pius XI (pp. 20n, 51). As our secular society redefines life and marriage and sex, and as nihilism is in the very air we breathe, who will transmit the culture liberals abhor, and who will imbue Catholics with the full truth and beauty and goodness which is the heart of the faith which comes to us from the apostles?
Where (and from whom?) are we to learn, at this time and in this place, that the Catholic Church is the true faith? that the family is the “necessary society” (p. 61); that “unashamed sodomy” marks the time of the antichrist (p. 141); that war can be just (p. 209); that the idea of rights can be dangerously distorted (p. 37); that respect for custom is critical and that easily changed laws are perilous (p. 135); that socialism is a “pernicious error” (p. 195); that a global political authority is “unnecessary and unwise” (p. 215); that capital punishment is permissible (252); that conflict will be with us until the Parousia (p. 259; Job 7:1)?
Where are we to learn these, and many other, concepts if and when the Church itself is invaded by “the smoke of Satan,” a worldly spirit which is the sworn enemy of the things and thoughts of Catholic life (cf. 1 John 2:15)? “The temporal polity,” they write, “must be continuously checked by the spiritual power lest it follow its fallen tendency to rejoin the [rapacious] city of man” (p. 263).
They write that “teachers of scandalous life [must] be removed,” (p. 52), but then came Bostock vs. Clayton County: As Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his dissent, this ruling has potential for extensive (and unforeseen) consequences — for sports and, much more importantly, for churches, and for schools. Will Catholic schools be able to determine their own faculties? Or will the Leviathan — the gargantuan government — dictate programs, policies, and personnel? We have exactly backwards:
We hope and pray and work for the civil order to be guarded and guided and governed by the truths of the Catholic faith (CCC, nn. 2244-2246). Crean and Fimister are clear, however, that they seek no theocracy. It’s virtue that we must cultivate (cf. Prov. 14:33, 29:18), returning us, by the way, to the need for moral clarity in our Catholic schools, colleges, and seminaries.
We need — so very much! — wise leaders (p. 160), and wisdom means, preeminently, a filial fear of God (Prov. 9:10; Psalm 111:10). They quote from Sirach: “What manner of man the ruler of a city is, such as are they that dwell therein” (10:2; pp. 248, 254). From which soi-disant Catholic college today are we to expect our wise leaders? The Church as mother and teacher (pace the one-time reservation of William F. Buckley, Jr.), yes; the Church as temporal ruler, no. Such political power is neither the proper goal nor the principal purpose of the Church.
Although the Pope may exercise the temporal sword, he may do so only in the case of “necessity,” where it is “morally certain that otherwise grave harm would be done to souls” (p. 230).
The authors do not quote Pope St. Pius X, in E Supremi (1903), but I take his adjuration — “You see, then, Venerable Brethren, the duty that has been imposed alike upon Us and upon you of bringing back to the discipline of the Church human society, now estranged from the wisdom of Christ; the Church will then subject it to Christ, and Christ to God [9]” — to be consistent with their chief thesis. There is, too, the plain good sense of the Psalm: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (118:9; 146:3).
Integralism should enjoy a warm reception by a large audience. It won’t. It will be generally regarded by Catholic readers, unfairly and incorrectly, as outdated (when, in fact, it is timely and timeless); as “triumphalist” (when, in fact, it is consonant with Vatican II, which tells us “The Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth” [Dignitatis Humanae, n. 14]); and as authoritarian (when, in fact, it accurately celebrates Christ’s Church as divinely authoritative).

Worth The Effort

This is not to suggest that there will not be difficulties with this text. Crean and Fimister robustly assert that in formally Catholic societies, idolaters and atheists — as well as all the unbaptized, heretics, and schismatics — must be barred from the legislature and from key executive and judicial posts (p. 117). What, though, of our current herd of self-professed Catholic political leaders (who might beneficially consult Isaiah 9:16 and James 4:4)?
It may be that those who superciliously define themselves as being among us may well be the worst apostates (Matt. 10:36). Yet who has the courage to expose them and to excommunicate them? How do our bishops understand “a Catholic in good standing”? How do we understand a bishop “in good standing”? By what he says? What he does? Whom he honors? How much he tolerates?
The adoption of this text in secular or “public” colleges is very doubtful — but one suspects that will be true, as well, of Catholic institutions where it should be intelligently read, discussed, debated, and written about in countless student papers.
I hope I can be forgiven for questioning whether there will be many such politics, philosophy, and theology academic departments eager to learn or to relearn, and then impart, traditional Catholic teaching — even at the time of Bostock.
That Integralism, as both principle and book, may be hard to understand — given our half-century of neo-pagan socialization; our catechetical and theological ignorance; and our widespread admiration of the gods of autonomy, hedonism, and nihilism — hardly means it isn’t very well worth the effort. Contemporary Catholic education must help to sanitize our society by disinfecting the moral and mental plagues of the day.
One must point out, too, that the book, in places, needs decoding. Consider: “Insufficient therefore is the opinion that no action should be forbidden which is not contrary to the will of some other citizen, a doctrine which would permit usury, sodomy, and necromancy” (p. 109). I do not quarrel with the point of the sentence — only with its obscure style. The ordinary college sophomore will struggle to “decode” that. The book requires an authoritative guide, which, however, is what good teachers are.
They close their admirable text by pointing out that Pope Paul VI, reading that Vatican II was leaving intact “the traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion,” judged, they write, “that the growth of secularism had become so great by his time that Catholic temporal rulers would not succeed in subjecting their power to Christ and the Church in the formal and explicit way that had formerly constituted Christendom, and he declined to ask them to do so” (p. 273).
Crean and Fimister do not ask this question, but St. Peter did, and so must we: If we do not go to Christ and to His Church for truth and meaning, “Lord, to whom would we go?” (John 6:68). May our lives by formed by His truth and our hearts by His love.

  • + + (Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun, and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
    (Deacon Toner has contributed numerous commentaries to The Wanderer. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte, N.C.)
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