I have been trying to figure out what to make of the political theory called integralism, and would appreciate hearing your reflections. Although it presents itself as distinctively Catholic, most Catholics seem to be against it, and people who invoke Thomas Aquinas seem to be found on both sides, as illustrated by this piece. On these seas, I’m a babe in a basket.
This is not the first time I’ve taken this question, but I’ll try to answer more fully this time. Although integralists seem to propose a relationship between Church and State that puts the Church in the drivers’ seat, precisely what they want is less clear than you might think. Making the matter even harder to talk about is the fact that various writers associate integralism with all sorts of different propositions, for example about the purpose of law, the nature of the common good, and the apportionment of power among the branches of the government. I would say that integralists and their allies are very right about some of these matters and very wrong about others. Let’s break out some of the questions and address them one at a time.
1. Whether there is such a thing as religious neutrality. No. Whether implicitly or explicitly, every political order revolves around certain views of the goods, including the ultimate goods, and repudiates others. The integralists are right about that.
2. Whether the impossibility of religious neutrality implies that we should have a confessional state. We should ardently pray for the State to be friendly and cooperative to the Church. It would be wonderful if its rulers themselves adhered to the faith, though this means less than one might think because one can never know whether they mean it. However, the whole notion of a confessional state is usually misunderstood. In a sense, the Declaration of Independence already proposes a confession of faith -- it appeals to the laws of nature and nature's God, views Him in a way Christians can accept (even though they consider it incomplete), and presupposes a high view of the person whom He made. But although the Declaration’s confession is declared, it is not enforced. By contrast, although modern liberalism pretends to have no confession of faith, it vigorously imposes one, and the one it imposes is profoundly at odds with the one Christians profess. One confession is declared but not enforced; the other is enforced but not declared.
3. Whether the law should encourage the virtues. Of course. Barring tyranny and incompetence, what else does law ever do?
4. Whether the law should encourage them by every means. Certainly not; there are limits. The reason for these limits is not that we suspend judgment about the virtues, but that we judge that overreaching undermines the virtues. For example, the law can forbid acts of hatred, such as murder, but it cannot forbid hatred as such, which is an invisible movement of the heart that the law cannot detect. Another illustration is that the law should not demand too much, too fast, of persons imperfect in virtue, or else wicked men may break out into yet greater evils. Quoting Proverbs, St. Thomas drives home the point by remarking that "he who bloweth his nose too violently draweth forth blood."
5. Whether the law should encourage "private" virtues. Some opponents of integralism have urged this point of view against its defenders, but the question is poorly framed, because every virtue has public consequences. For example, we may say that marital faithfulness is private, but family instability hurts everyone, and a statesman who cannot keep his vows to his wife certainly cannot be trusted to keep his promises to the citizens. On the other hand, the critics would be right to say that not all acts of virtue have public consequences, and the law should concern itself only with those acts that do. Honesty: Should the law require that a teenager be honest in her diary? No. Should it require that a witness not perjure himself? Yes. Courage: Should the law require timid persons to stand up to boors? No. Should it require soldiers not to desert their posts? Yes. Wittiness: Should the law require citizens never to tell unfunny jokes? No. Should it require them never to tell libelous ones? Yes. You see where this is going.
6. Whether the law should encourage not only the ordinary virtues, such as justice and temperance, but also the spiritual virtues, such as charity and faith. It can't. Ordinary virtues are acquired by the moral sweat of doing the right things until they become habitual, and the law can certainly call upon us to do the right things. However, integralists need to remember that although not without the cooperation of the will, spiritual virtues are infused by the Holy Spirit, and the law can do nothing to instill them. What it can do is honor them – and, as I said earlier, be friendly and cooperative to the Church, where the real spiritual action is going on.
7. Whether the law should promote the common good. Of course it should; law is a public institution. Some critics have faulted integralists for saying so, but there has been a lot of loose talk on all sides about the common good, and promoting the common good has sometimes been viewed as though it were in competition with protecting individuals and their rights. No, it is only at odds with the liberal notion of what it means to protect them. Properly understood, the common good includes ensuring that individuals have the legal powers to conduct their own proper affairs, for instance to make fundamental decisions about the education of their children.
8. In the name of the common good, should the law absorb or take under its wing those less encompassing forms of association, such as the family, which make their own proper contributions to the common good? Of course not. The State should respect subsidiarity, the principle that less encompassing forms of association should be honored and allowed to do their work. These forms of association do not exist for the state; rather it exists for them.
9. Should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a strong judiciary? No. Some integralists seem to think so, but the making of laws, and the adjudication of cases according to the laws, should not be combined in the same hands.
10. Then should the primary decisions about the common good be put in the hands of a far-reaching and powerful executive? Some integralists seem to take this view too, but I think it is wrong; the executive should cooperate with the legislature rather than taking its place. One can certainly imagine a country in which the people have become too corrupt to choose wise lawmakers, so that the job falls to a king instead. However, that is a desperate recourse, not an ideal. Moreover, the making of a plethora of laws by a maze of executive agencies, whether or not called a royal bureaucracy, ultimately destroys the rule of law itself, because the rules become too complex and mysterious to be known, understood, or even obeyed.
One more point. I hope no one on any side thinks the State should enforce the faith upon persons outside herself. “Human salvation is procured not by force,” Isidore says, “but by persuasion and gentleness," and this is the Church’s doctrine too. She does have the authority to teach the moral law that all men of good will accept, however cloudy their understanding of it may be. But she has never claimed to be able to make detailed, authoritative prudential judgments within the envelope of this moral law. Whatever opinions, even good opinions, a Pope may have about the best refrigerator gasses, or whether to drinking straws should be paper or plastic, such things are beyond the Church’s competence. For that we have human institutions.