I point the reader to a fascinating exchange. Bishop Robert Barron had been confronted by a group of laymen pleading for some kind of leadership against the ghouls burning cities, smashing altars, and desecrating statues of our heroes. The most notable of these was St. Juniper Serra, whose work within what was to become Barron’s archdiocese of Los Angeles seemed to demand special defense.
Bishop Barron shot back. Yes, American bishops like “Dagger John” Hughes once threatened violence if Catholic worship were threatened. But that was the pre-conciliar Church. If the laity thinks that modern bishops were charged with protecting the material well-being of their flock and their temples, they are sadly mistaken. Said the bishop:
The immediate area of concern for bishops and priests is the Church, that is to say, the community of the baptized. Now the laity, by virtue of their baptism, are also priests, prophets, and kings (Lumen Gentium, 31)—but their sanctifying, teaching, and governing work is directed, not so much inwardly to the Church, but outwardly to the world. For the Vatican II fathers, the proper arena of the laity is the saeculum (the secular order), and their task is the Christification [sic?] of that realm. They are charged to take the teaching, direction, and sanctification that they have received from the priests and bishops and then go forth, equipped to transform the world and thereby find their own path to holiness.
In other words, the Second Vatican Council raised the dignity of the laity, raised it so high that the erstwhile leadership roles of the clergy are no longer necessary. The American Catholic now finds himself in the position of the peasant gloriously liberated from feudal obligations and free to pursue his own course or starve. What better proof that the Second Vatican Council was the French Revolution deified? You have been glorified ye laity—and now you’re on your own.
It is important to realize that this is the political environment the so-called integralists spring from. For all its claims to returning to tradition, to a proper allocation of power between Church and state, integralism is largely a liberal project. The integralists have done much good in resurrecting a bulk of Catholic Social Teaching, especially Thomas Crean, Alan Fimister, and much of the work at the Josias. But moral theology aside, integralism is a liberal project, one that makes sense only after the premises of liberalism have been accepted.
Take a second to reflect on the lunacy of the present state of affairs. In relative mediocrities like Amy Coney Barrett and Marco “Foam Party” Rubio, integralists are pushing for a politics and jurisprudence untethered to things like precedent and the plain meaning of words, and adopting a “common good” approach, however they choose to define that. Non-Catholics are understandably perturbed by this. A vast majority of Catholics don’t take Catholic teaching seriously. Now unelected jurists are expected to eschew what the Constitution has said for 230 years in place of what the Vatican has averred for the past five. If such slipshod reasoning is truly political Catholicism, then one must concede the Know-Nothings had a point.
But the problem with integralism is deeper than this. The problem is that, in their focus on secular government, they inadvertently concede defeat to the liberalism they claim to hate. Their obsession with the written Constitution (or more precisely, the 20th Century Court’s version of the Constitution) and their ignorance of the history and makeup of the polity and nation—that is, our actual constitution—lead to unfounded criticisms and undesirable solutions.
It is true that the clergy have no direct role to play under the Federal Constitution. But no one until the 20th Century thought the paper Constitution’s silence on this issue meant the church should have no role in statecraft. The Constitution gives no priority to clergy. But why did it need to? The clergy had the potential for power everywhere else. The Constitution prohibited a nationally established church, but direct clergy participation was allowed at least in theory until the bogus doctrine of “incorporation” in the 20th Century.
Nor was the Federal Government ever supposed to be free from all effects of the church. Tocqueville notes that the church/state separation was not because the American people wanted their politics free of faith, but because they wanted their faith free of politics. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” claptrap was in response to formal recognition within state government; but even he could not suggest that the church should be without influence in the government. The written Constitution does not mention the Deity. But the constitution (small-c) of the country always envisioned a role for the church. The fact that the church in question was not the Catholic Church is a question of conversion, not of politics.
We see, then, how the Church should interact with the government. By exercising their legitimate and God-given role of regulating the sacraments, the clergy can constrain the bounds of moral and political actions. American politics is flush with Catholics, and has been for generations. So long as these politicians wish to remain in communion with the Church, and palatable to their Catholic constituents, they must remain in good standing. They must, in other words, adhere broadly to Catholic moral teaching.
This relationship is broadly similar to the relation between Church and state during the middle ages. For although the medieval clergy had more direct power over the secular governments, its greatest authority was its immutable one, and came from the regulation of the sacraments. The sacraments tie even a lowly thing like a king to a force higher than himself; he can abjure them, but everyone in heaven and earth knows it will be better if he doesn’t. This is manifestly the Church interfering with a political issue—as she should—without having any formal role in the government. The Church by her authority amongst her subjects is able to affect the polity, yet even the most rabid Jeffersonian cannot object to the Church exercising her authority over her members.
I don’t claim that this system was ideal—nothing beneath the sun is—but it differs in kind from the Masonic bogeyman envisioned by so many modern political Catholics. A large part of this is because of the modern perversion of the American system, and that throughout the 20th Century, the actual constitution became occluded by the paper one. The Federal Constitution was not always the ideological document it is today; the First Amendment did not enshrine “free speech” and “religious liberty” as a principle, only with regards to the Federal Government, and the states could do and did what they wanted. Moreover, the totalitarian aspects of the document—the notion that all our rights flow “through” the Constitution rather than from Nature’s God—is a creation of the 20th Century Court.
There is much to be condemned in the Court’s modern Constitution, but there is nothing particularly Catholic about such condemnation; one does not need scholastic philosophy to recognize blatant tyranny. Those integralists most fervent in hacking at America from her very roots are those least able to recognize the terrible state we actually face.
Both the liberal and the integralist claim individual rights and liberty are at the heart of the liberal project. They are both wrong. The actual goal of liberal change is centralization, of putting power into fewer and fewer hands, especially those of managerial experts and the technical elite. The forces of “democratization” never arise from a love of Demos, but because the old privileges afforded to lord and bishop stand in the way of centralizing power. Liberal rights are perhaps best seen as a kind of booby prize granted by centralizing usurpers. The English Bill of Rights arose when Parliament usurped the real powers of the throne; the American Bill of Rights arose when the Federal Government threatened to strip sovereignty from the states.
The old understanding of liberty, exemplified by John C. Calhoun, understood that liberty is preserved by dividing power, not in paper rights. Justice Scalia did too; he was one of the few modern jurists who knew our liberties are better protected by the text of the Constitution than those pesky amendments. Countervailing powers are necessary in any complex civilized society if that society is to enjoy even a semblance of freedom. In a nation like ours, lacking titles and any proper aristocracy, the special benefits conferred to the states and certain electoral groups stood in for the traditional rights and privileges acknowledged by all sound statecraft. Lincoln’s War and triumph ended any real attempts at maintaining that complex constitutional system of states’ rights; unitary government under a single all-powerful state was to be the norm.
And the most stinging condemnation of the integralist is that he accepts the unitary state. He adores it, in fact, because it seems an ample means to enforce Catholic doctrine on the state. He is monomaniacal. He confuses the absolute monarchies of old with the totalitarian state of our own day. He wants to reconcile Church and state, not understanding that there has always been tension between church and state, and given our fallen nature, there always should be. The secular ruler is tasked with the protection and cultivation of property; the ecclesial ruler is tasked with making sure property is not everything. One can give the secular ruler control over religion, but this must disintegrate into totalitarianism. A state without the countervailing power called a Church cannot be free.
The integralist’s goal is to reinvigorate the political; the ecclesiastical he does not concern himself with. He wants the state Catholic; he is rather indifferent as to whether the Church is. The bishops appear as moral guides, but those moral guides are not expected to act within the functions of their office. Non-Catholic politicians are expected to adhere to Catholic teaching, but it isn’t clear that Catholic bishops adhere to Catholic teaching. It is a fundamentally liberal notion of statecraft—simply pasting a particular ideology on top of the existing social order and hoping for success.
And this is the crux of the matter: The true goal of an interested Catholic should not be establishing a formally Catholic state; it is no less impossible than converting the nation. The difference is that the latter goal is noble and the former is merely self-aggrandizing. One might complain about the very notion of popular sovereignty, but the fact is that if America could be converted, it would be ruled by a Catholic sovereign. Many complain about America’s secular Constitution when what they should complain about is her secularized people. Were the American people Catholic, the nation would be.
But conversion would require a Church willing to convert men. And the institutional Church has no interest in doing this, or any of its other functions. The bishops have absconded from their duties under the American constitution, and their proper roles anywhere on earth. The Church does not want to be a countervailing power. Integralism would be irrelevant if the clergy would do their jobs. This was all the result of the Second Vatican Council. The Council liberated the laity from overbearing bishops. Catholics are in the position now of the freed peasants begging their former lords for a pittance. Bishop Robert Barron could chastise the laity for “putting way too much onus on the clergy and not nearly enough on themselves.” This is all to say: The bishops will keep taking your money, your saints and altars will continue to burn, and Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi will keep receiving communion.
For all talk of the “common good” and return to tradition, integralism is a politics of despair. It relies on usurpation, not conversion. But conversion is what was, is, and every shall be necessary for any aspiring Christian polity. And the failure of conversion lies almost solely with the institutional Church. The Catholic Church has a place in the American polity, a place she fought for through brave and loyal Americans. The Church doesn’t need a novel role in US politics; it needs to reclaim her former role not of running the state, but of providing a countervailing institution to moderate and guide it.
And yet we are only a few months distant from nearly every US bishop blindly acquiescing to shuttering their churches based on Coronadoom. The bishops have appointed themselves the long role of ministering the sacraments, but they found in their self-imposed emasculation they could not even do this. They have manifestly failed in the ecclesiastical sphere, but they have failed in the politic sphere as well. The most bloodthirsty Know-Nothing could not have imposed a harsher sentence than the American Church imposed on herself. How appropriate, then, that the liberties of every American are disappearing as quickly as Catholics in the pews.
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