Integralism Practical, Not Theoretical

Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist. suggests that political life can be “baptized” and thereby “included in the Church.” Although only persons can be baptized—not societies or political systems—one sees the analogical truth of this claim. Jesus is Lord, and he reigns not just over “spiritual” matters but over every aspect of life. In that respect, he is the original “integralist.” But we need to make sure that theories of integralism do not get in the way of the Christian politics our age needs.

The Christian tradition has long affirmed the doctrine of two powers, one political and ordered toward governance, the other spiritual and ordered toward worship. As the fourth-century theologian Ambrosiaster put it: “A king bears the image of God, a bishop the image of Christ.” The two powers have been interpreted in many ways throughout Christian history. They have always been understood as related—two swords brandished in the same cause, as Pope Boniface VIII observed. There have been endless arguments about how they are related. But they have always been distinguished.

The relation between the two swords is deeply contingent. History has shown that the mission of the Church and political life cannot be coordinated in a permanent way. Church under persecution, Church under Constantine, Church under Charlemagne, Church in schism, Church confronting secular revolution, Church in America, Church under Soviet domination, Church in China—in these and countless other situations, the faithful have used various and sometimes contradictory means to bring political life into a more fitting relation to the Church’s mission, at times tightening the bonds between them, at other times loosening.

Waldstein seems to believe that there exists a properly Christian regime, a regime that “gets it right.” The universal and juridically unified Catholic Church under the sovereignty of the pope constitutes a “spiritual empire” that can serve as the template for a civic empire that will dovetail with it in a properly subordinate way. In support of this vision, he quotes Lord Acton’s hyperbole about Christendom: the “same laws,” “one language,” and “a single potentate.” The notion of such unity would have puzzled medieval English jurists, the authors of French chanson de geste, and those who had to endure the Avignon papacy.

By my thinking, we need to step back from claims of this sort and grasp the true nature of the age between Christ’s ascension and his return in glory. Empire and nation, king and president, royal court and parliament, judge and jury, sheriff and bureaucrat: Divine providence has given us many instruments for discharging our political duties. None are dictated by divine revelation. All can and have been employed in the service of Christ, although always imperfectly.

Consider Waldstein’s citation of Charles De Koninck’s rhetorical question: “Is not society corrupted in its very root when those who have charge of the common good do not order it explicitly to God?” Quite right. And, as St. Augustine might have asked, “Where in this age can we find a society in which those in charge of the common good order it explicitly and actually to God?”

The great bishop of Hippo recognized that there are men whose love is properly ordered. But until Christ returns and assumes direct lordship, every society (including its leadership) is a mixture of those who seek God above all things, even at the expense of self, and those who care only for themselves, even to the point of contempt for God. This includes the historical reality of the Church.

So let us set aside the notion that integralism rests in determining the correct regime and setting it in just the right juridical relation to the Church’s supreme pontiff. Seeking such a theoretical construct is the mirror image of liberal theory’s conceit that its aims are guaranteed if we adopt the correct procedures.

Rather than a theory, let us approach integralism as a political practice that must be undertaken no matter the time and place in which Christ calls us to serve him. To this end I’d like to make some “integralist” observations for our time, and even some proposals.

Waldstein praises the virtues of the Habsburg Empire, and of empire more generally. His Austrian piety is noble. But I must note that in 2020 the only empire on offer in the West is the American one, for which European elites are sometimes reluctant but nevertheless pliable servants. Instead of dreaming of an Austrian Galicia, a Christian who favors empire and is concerned to “baptize” political life must think very practical thoughts about how to order the American empire, if not explicitly to God, then at least more so than obtains at present.

This first task is to neutralize the American empire’s attack on the Church, manifest in American-led efforts to universalize abortion, contraception, feminism, and LGBT ideology. This will not entail formulating genealogies of modernity or refutations of “liberalism.” Those are at best preparatory exercises, necessary (at least for some) to free our political imaginations. Christian politics requires reflection on policy and law.


In summer 2018, U. S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a new commission to analyze American human rights diplomacy. Although he did not put it in these terms, his aim was to combat enemies of the Church’s authority, who use the universal prestige of human rights to enshrine secular progressivism as the world’s obligatory moral doctrine. A practical integralist supports such efforts.

At present, U.S law allows for tax-free financing of globalized NGOs that serve as secular ideology’s missionaries, undermining the Church’s authority throughout the world. A practical integralist reflects on how to change American tax law to crimp funding for today’s global counter-magisterium. He reflects in the same way about government financing of international institutions.

A practical integralist should also seek to alter American society, and thus change the tenor of the American empire.


In the last decade, the monopoly of government schools has eroded. In some states, charter schools have adopted quasi-theological approaches closely tied to programs of religious education. Tax credit schemes allow state-subsidized scholarship funds to flow to religious schools. To a degree unimagined a generation ago, practical integralists have made headway. We need to build on their successes.

A practical integralist should plot to overturn the Supreme Court decisions from the 1960s that deemed school prayer unconstitutional. Doing so would allow for the reestablishment of ecumenical prayer for school children in jurisdictions where there is popular support for inculcating religious habits in the young. This would be a tremendous stride toward the ideal of ordering of civic life toward God.

At the same time, a practical integralist should scheme to de-fund the secular counter-magisterium. Universities in the United States are the many Vaticans of this counter-magisterium. Our aim should be to reduce public support for universities, tax their endowments, and use administrative means to impede their ability to corrupt the youth. Schools of Education are the Holy Office of the secular magisterium. We should seek to remove the requirement that teachers earn degrees in education.

I could go on, but it is enough for me to say I share Waldstein’s dismay over the godlessness of the modern West. He is correct to insist that in this time of waiting for Christ’s return, political life must seek fitting temporal ends, to be sure, but it must also raise our eyes up from worldly affairs and toward our eternal destiny.

But unlike Waldstein, I do not have a general theory of Christian politics. And like many critics of integralism, I worry that a theorized integralism, underwritten by authoritative dogma, can too easily become a theological self-therapy for coping with powerlessness that impedes concrete action within present realities.

I hold the venerable Catholic position of agnosticism with respect to political forms (a position perfected, not overturned, by Vatican II). Empires have their virtues. They often do a better job of managing diverse people than do modern nation-states. Monarchies allow for decisive action, and supreme authority vested in a single person can humanize political life, even if it invites tyrannical abuses. The modern bureaucratic-administrative state is able to draw upon expertise. Liberal democracies honor our equality before God and guard our freedom of assent to his call to discipleship. But each form has its drawbacks. None will characterize the Kingdom of God.

In this regard, unlike Yoram Hazony (who as a Jew thinks cogently but differently in this matter), I do not regard a nation-based politics as theologically mandatory. But it is odd for Waldstein to single out nationalism as tending toward totalitarianism and anti-Christianity. At present, meaningful movement toward an explicitly Christian politics in the West can be found almost entirely in “nationalist” countries such as Poland and Hungary. This is not an accident. The current empire is not Austrian. It is an American-sponsored empire of global capitalism, human rights, and ever-greater personal liberation. It is an empire that hungers for world domination.

In these circumstances—our circumstances—a practical integralist has two choices, and the Austrian empire is not among them. He can enter into “dialogue” with the oligarchs, bureaucrats, and academic mandarins of the actually existing secular empire, either seeking their patronage or hoping for their conversion. (Is this the choice being made by the Francis pontificate?) Or he can encourage opposition by buttressing dissenting polities in the West, the homeland of today’s secular empire. The most promising of these polities (in my estimation) are the Church and the nation-state. The former is the weaker partner. There is not a whisper of the Church Militant in Western Catholicism today. The Vatican has rewarded the European Union’s refusal to incorporate mention of God or Christianity in its constitution with undying loyalty. By contrast, the nation remains a vital polity of enduring potency, as the rising tide of populism indicates. Hungary stiff-armed the secular empire by dedicating its national life to St. Stephen.

Waldstein cites Leo XIII’s requirement that the state subordinate itself to true religion. He cites Pius X, who notes that true solidarity requires union in “love of God and His Son.” He invokes Benedict XVI’s observation that peace among nations requires a “transcendent vocation” given by God through his Son.

These strong affirmations (and I whole-heartedly agree with the latter two) make me wonder: What are Waldstein’s plans for bringing Austria into closer conformity with Catholic principles? What political steps (as opposed to missionary, evangelical steps) should be taken to encourage Austrians toward greater union in love of God and his Son? Would politicking for a constitutional measure allowing Austrian bishops to appeal to the pope to overturn Austrian legislation in the event that it contradicted the Church’s teaching promote greater union in the faith? Or would it have the opposite effect of dividing the country and deepening hostility? What about excommunicating Austrian politicians who refuse to accept the Church’s teaching authority? Would that advance the central aims of integralism—political subordination to Christ’s authority, civic union in faith, the nation’s acceptance of a transcendent vocation? Or would it empower secular opponents and undermine the Church’s work? These are questions a practical integralist must answer.

Waldstein is correct. For Christians there is no middle ground between acting politically with a view toward our supernatural end in Christ and doing so in accord with natural ends falsely prized as ultimate. We must always seek an “integralist politics.” But it must be a politics for today and tomorrow, not a theory for all times, which amounts to a politics for utopia.

R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things.

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