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Over the past few years, Catholic integralism has gone from a curious fringe of the American Right to a subject of some interest among more mainstream conservative publications. American Affairs published Adrian Vermeule’s integralist critique of Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, and First Things published Gladden Pappin’s review of Helen Rosenblatt’s The Lost History of Liberalism, as well as Fr. Romanus Cessario’s defense of the Vatican kidnapping of the Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, in his review of Mortara’s memoir. Other integralists, like Patrick Smith and Pater Edmund Waldstein, have published for First Things,with them and others appearing in The Plough, University Bookman, Church Life Journal, and other such publications. William Morgan and Matthew Walther successfully raised funds to start The Lamp, which promises to be a kind of Triumph redivivus, although its release is presently delayed. Publications like Providence and The Chronicle of Higher Education have written pieces observing the return of integralism, with City Journal even publishing a full-page portrait of Vermeule. As writers, academics and, in Waldstein’s case, a Cistersian monk, they are formed not by republican associations but by the top-down administration that defines religious and academic life. So formed, they revolt against the constant, low-level disorder typical of constitutional democracies. Rather than enter the fray to persuade citizens, they instead wish to put their citizens under control a Catholic administrative state that degrades free association of citizens into the solemn submission of subjects to their spiritual and temporal superiors.

With success comes criticism. My response, “Why Integralism Is an Ideology of Despair,” was published here and received some notice, but others have since addressed the arguments of integralism. Before my piece was the long debate at Public Discourse, there was an essay by Richard Reinsch in National Review. Soon after, I chaired a packed roundtable on the subject at the 2019 meeting of the American Political Science Association. In National Affairs, Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson defended liberalism in the same issue with Dan Burns. These pieces illustrated liberalism as a practice or as separate from the kinds of liberalism that the Church had condemned during the nineteenth century. Timothy Troutner in Church Life Journal observed that the ideological nature of integralism is merely the mirror image of the liberalism to which Waldstein responded, oddly, that regimes should be constructed in the same manner as monasteries. The most comprehensive and most damning is also the most recent, Michael Hanby’s recent contribution in First Things. Hanby, no friend of liberalism, found integralism to be part of “the mystical disaster of modernity that reduces Christianity from a mystique to a politique,” that is, one that degrades Catholic social teaching, ironically, into Hobbesian project.

The debate has been rich and fruitful, but I remain less interested in why integralism is wrong (though it certainly is) than in why integralism has gained any purchase in America at all. I begin my essay picking up from where Hanby left off—treating integralism not as the teaching of the Church (which it is not) but as a reactionary ideology, adding that this ideology is more aesthetically than dogmatically Catholic.

Integralism and Fascism

The average conservative reader has heard for decades of the fascism inherent in the American conservative movement. Many of these charges were defamatory and ideologically motivated, but in the case of integralism, its connection to fascism is undeniable. Integralism emerged during the years in between the First and Second World Wars in majority Catholic countries. Middle class Catholics feared either secularizing forces of liberal governments or outright violence from socialist forces. Because they could not support liberal or socialist parties, Catholics felt cornered. Consequently, they often opted for reactionary “integralist” parties that promised some version of restored throne and altar politics and either became or made common cause with fascism. To name a few, there was the alliance between integralist Carlists and fascist Felangists in Spain, the National Integralism of Charles Maurras and his Action Francaise party in France, the Plinio Salgado’s Brazilian Integralist Action support for Estada Novo of Getulio Vargas, and what Loathar Hoebelt called the “embarrassment of options” for Catholics seeking fascist parties backing Engleburt Dollfuss in Austria. While the implementation of Catholic social teaching was the high-minded goal for some, just as important was the desire to oppose the enemies of the Church: communists, Freemasons, and Jews.

American Catholics do not have a history of embracing integralism because they were never a majority and, within a generation, had broken with the old ties to ancestral monarchies they left behind in favor the promises of the New World. However, during the interwar years, many American Catholics supported the popular radio priest Fr. Charles Coughlin, even when, by 1934, he had descended into an anti-Semitic quasi-fascism that would probably be too populist for his contemporaries in Europe. Thirty years later, under the influence of Spanish Felangism, L. Brent Bozell started Triumph magazine. In response to libertine disorder of American culture during the late 1960s and 1970s, the comrades at Triumph were revolted by the compromises and failures of movement conservatism and sought, in Franco’s Spain, an authoritarian imposition of Catholic dogma that would coerce the disobedient to obey divine authority mediated by the Church and state. Where freedom had failed, force would prevail. Over the course of its publication Triumph regarded Spain as the best regime and its leader, Francisco Franco, as the best ruler. Bozell and others eventually turned anti-American over the Vietnam War and the 1973 verdict in Roe v. Wade. The magazine ran from 1966 until 1977, after which many of its core contributors founded Christendom College.

Coughlin is long dead, and Triumph was a small operation almost no American Catholics today will have heard of. Why would some Catholic intellectuals today look back to a period in which European Catholicism allied itself with dictatorships? After all, these dictatorships, such as Vargas’, stabbed integralists in the back. Others, like Franco and Antonia de Oliveira Salazar of Portugal, plainly and cynically manipulated Catholics to bolster their support until their death, after which the Church in both countries entered steep, nearly terminal decline. As Alexis de Tocqueville predicted, direct political imposition of Church dogma only degrades the reputation of both the state and Church, a finding confirmed in the work of Anthony Gill.

Integralism and General Ideas of the Democratic Age

Neo-integralists celebrate reactionary political thought and authoritarianism because they are too democratic. Such a position might seem, at first, quite ridiculous. After all, neo-integralism is premised on fully empowering executive administration to construct a confessional state premised on an authentically Catholic vision of natural law. The ancient examples are the Hapsburgs, the Hohenstaufens, and King St. Louis IX, and the modern include Salazar, Franco, and Dollfuss—the so-called “good fascists.” What all have in common is the effort to unify the teachings of the Church state administration to the point of “integrating” the Church and state without much or any direct influence from the people. How could this be too democratic?

The answer is not in the ideology of neo-integralism or the ideal regime they envision but in the defects of living in a democratic age. As Alexis de Tocqueville explained, democratic peoples tend to reduce political problems to “general ideas,” or what we call ideological constructs. For example, Vermeule, whose recent article attacking originalism has kicked up a fuss, looks back to the thought of Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt and a reactionary reading of St. John Henry Newman as the ideology for the “Empire of Our Lady of Guadalupe” in North America. These constructs are a substitution for experience of self-government. Tocqueville argues that democracies are not premised on self-government or liberty; rather, they are premised on equality of conditions, by which Tocqueville means either equality under the law or equality under administrative despotism like the kind Vermeule recommends. Either are democratic, but only the first is desirable. As he says in the Old Regime, by the French Revolution, the Third Estate was convinced of their equality to their betters, but the centralized administration of the Bourbons had long deprived the Third Estate (or even the old aristocracy) of any experience in exercising liberty for the purpose of self-government. Like the neo-integralists today, the liberal philosophes of the French Revolution believed that governing would be easy because they had the right general ideas for ruling. When their time came to rule their general ideas had no correlation to good government because they were utterly ignorant of and unwilling to recognize how statecraft required compromise and consensus. To compensate, they used the centralized administration of the old regime to engage in supremely violent follies.

Tocqueville was no less worried about other nations entering the democratic age. He saw the United Kingdom of his time had preserved much of its aristocratic traditions, hence affording that nation an estate capable of resisting the worst of the democratic desire for equality. America, however, had no such aristocracy, yet this nation too had resisted the excesses of democracy. American experience in self-government had long trained Americans to prefer the liberty to form civic associations to serve the common good. These associations rendered the state superfluous in most cases, as ordinary citizens handled their own affairs, thus making it more capable in the areas where government action is most vital. Moreover, Americans participated in local government, where most of the important day-to-day decisions were made. As a result, Americans tended to speak like they were always at a public hearing. He bemusedly recounts how the American “does not know how to converse, but he discusses; he does not discourse, but he holds forth. He always speaks to you as to an assembly; and if happens by chance to become heated, he will say ‘sirs’ in addressing his interlocutor.”

American Catholic clergy were similarly affected. Tocqueville transcribes a speech from a Catholic priest who speaks not from the altar or the pulpit but in front of yet another civic association, this time of American Catholic citizens, to whom he pronounced that God had “sustained the sacred rights of… national independence” and therefore did “not permit despotism to come to deform thy work to maintain inequality on the earth” but rather permitted “us always to be the most religious people as well as the most free.” Catholic clergy had developed the habits and language of self-government in a way that warded off airy general ideas; they had no need for them simply because, over years of self-government, they knew better.

I have never found out who this priest was, but Tocqueville says it was in one of America’s largest cities. I have always wondered if that city was Philadelphia, where then Father John Hughes was then serving in the Diocese of Philadelphia, which one could certainly describe as one of America’s largest cities. The example of Hughes is one that helps illustrate how American Catholics had learned well the habits of self-government that had disciplined them against ever adhering to the general ideas that reduce politics to ideological constructs.

During the “School Crisis” of 1840-1842, the now Bishop “Dagger” John Hughes of the Diocese of New York held meetings in the basement of St. James Catholic Church in Manhattan where a large crowd of the mostly Irish faithful awaited. Hughes had found an unlikely and very sincere ally in Protestant Whig, William Seward. Seward had promised to support legislation that would provide direct government allocations to fund the operation of Catholic schools. The Common Council of New York City had been responsible for distributing state funding to charity schools, and these schools were almost entirely operated by the large network of churches in the city. The Common Council, however, were non-sectarian. After a Baptist church had sought to instruct students in Baptist beliefs, the Common Council sought to impose a non-sectarian condition on schools, since they grew concerned that other denominations would ask for state money to teach religious instruction. Hughes had directly challenged the Council to provide money and would insist that his schools instruct the largely poor and dislocated Irish in their ancestral faith; moreover, he insisted that other churches had the same right to do so. As he said at his night-time meetings in the church basements and at the Common Council hearings, the people of his congregations were citizens, too, and should not have their formation in the faith tampered with by distant bureaucrats. Sadly, Hughes lost the fight with the Common Council, but he also earned the support of his flock by building up in them republican institutions and habits.

He was not alone. Historically, most American bishops have been of Irish descent, even though there were large congregations of German, French-Canadians, and Cajun Catholics during the early nineteenth century. By 1900, the Mexicans, African Americans, Poles, Slovaks, Czechs, Lithuanians, and Italians introduced even more ethnic tensions. To manage these, American prelates spent a great deal of time with their priests and congregations, which meant they traveled extensively and often on a budget because of how poor their Sees could be. While Hughes had been wrong on slavery, a generation later Archbishop John Ireland challenged American Catholics to atone for the sins of the past and work toward racial justice, and he experienced the kind of blow back one would expect. No bishop likes the laity to resist obedience, but he understood the need to persist in defending the faith and its application to public life—often in response to hostile letters, newspaper articles, or even hecklers. Indeed, as John Loughery remarks, Hughes fought with Catholic convert Orestes Brownson over the latter’s publication of a Catholic magazine critical of Catholic clergy, astonishingly enough, for not doing enough to instruct Irish immigrants about proper instruction in “citizenship, civility, and their religious duties.”

Unlike many of their European counterparts, American shepherds smelled of their sheep. They shared their hardships and showed the kind of leadership that the declining Old World laity often admired. In 1892 Ireland toured France to give several speeches, many in the French Catholic press celebrated him—except the reactionaries who feared and hated a Catholic bishop (and an Irish one at that) extolling the virtues of republican government. Tocqueville noted that the American Catholic priests:

…have divided the intellectual world into two parts: in one, they have left revealed dogmas, and they submit to them without discussing them; in the other, they have placed political truth, and they think that God has abandoned it to the free inquires of men. Thus Catholics in the United States are at once the most submissive of the faithful and the most independent of citizens.

It is worth noting that one of the conditions that so fostered the development of republican virtue was relative poverty and numerical minority. Had American Catholics been “wealthy and predominant,” Tocqueville observed, they would have adopted republican virtue “perhaps with less eagerness,” a point that bears on the origins of integralism in Europe.

American Catholics, as Tocqueville observed them, possessed the republican virtue necessary for preserving liberty in contravention to the democratic tendency toward equality even under despotism. Much of this stemmed from the rough and tumble of diocesan life in which the American Church hierarchy learned how to interact with political parties, elected officials, business officials, lay leaders, and ordinary parishioners, but ordinary Catholics also served on juries, established civil society institutions, or simply kept their neighborly obligations. In other words, American Catholics possessed and often exemplified republican virtue. As Adam White has argued, integralists like Vermeule necessarily conspire against virtue. In White’s own words:

I see the regrettable result of the loss of republican virtues — the capacity for compromise, for goodwill, and for a belief that our representative government ought to translate our passions into public reason. A citizenry impatient with the compromise and deliberation of Congress, a citizenry that instead demands the uncompromising immediacy of administration, is something different: to borrow a line from Alasdair McIntyre, law’s abnegation is what we have “after Republican virtue.”

What kind of Catholicism makes virtue an enemy of the state?

Authoritarianism and the Sublime Historical Experience

Tocqueville does not give much credit to a deep knowledge of speculative theology or philosophy or spending one’s time cooped at home reading radical pamphlets, yet these are the things that much of neo-integralists spend their time doing in their 21st century equivalents. Other than Vermeule, Pappin, and Waldstein, integralists largely keep to personal blogs and Twitter accounts. They cobble together memes. The result is the continuous stream of abbreviated manifestos on The Josias or lengthy Twitter threads describing abstract schemes nominally grounded in Catholic social teaching but more often than not implicit apologies for political dictatorships the benefits of which are always in the future or the past and described from the loftiest of vantages. Repeatedly committing the fallacy of reification, they posit “Liberalism” as a general idea that opposes their grand plans. As Sam Goldman has made clear, ideologies do not possess agency, and, given the central role of Charles Maurras to the development of integralism, it is not difficult to guess what some integralists really mean by the term.

Where did this all come from? As an article in The Guardian explained, the turn toward this kind of faux-traditionalism is largely online and reflects a longing for the royal aesthetic of old European monarchies that stems from the frustrations young men experience with modern democratic life. They find in integralism old heroes to worship. When a young man reads the heroic account of Louis IX in Andrew Willard Jones’ Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, he has what Matthew Schmitz has called “the longing for lost worlds” and what philosopher Frank Ankersmit calls “the sublime historical experience.” Ankersmit is worth quoting at length from his eponymous book:

Historical experience involves, in the first place, a Gestalt-switch from a timeless present into a world consisting of things past and present. This gives us the discovery of the past as a reality that has somehow “broken” off from the timeless present. This is “the moment of loss.” But at the same time historical experience aims at the recovery of the past by transcending again the barriers between past and present. And this could be characterized as “the moment of desire or of love.” All of historical writing is to be situated in the space enclosed by these complementary movements of discovery (loss) and the recovery of the past (love) that constitute together the realm of historical experience… The sublimity of historical experience originated from this paradoxical union of the feelings of loss and love, that is, of the combination of pain and pleasure in how we relate to the past [emphasis in original].

No wonder, then, did William Morgan experience reading Before Church and State and express, as he does in the title of his review of the book, “Everything We Knew Was Wrong,” and in the sentiments that the loss of the 13th century French sacramental kingdom causes pain but the love for it “might find an echo or premonition in the increasingly decentralized world of the Internet.” The hope was that the Internet might serve the old role of “networks of friends, made manifest in the acts of counsel and aid,” meaning that those who are most likely to long for alternatives will seek each other out on social media to form virtual friendship networks that one finds among integralists in a web of blogs, Twitter accounts, and group chats.

There is also a longing for a government like those of old—one that unilaterally decides to impose the natural law onto a corrupt people. Only just recently, a priest on Twitter posted a picture of Dollfuss and Thomas Jefferson, proclaiming that only one of the two had founded a regime grounded on Catholic social teaching. Dollfuss was an exponent of “Austrofascism,” or a form of corporatism loosely based on Catholic social teaching and currently promoted by Pappin. He opposed Adolf Hitler but had hopes to preserve Austrian independence with a guarantee from Mussolini before Nazi agents assassinated him, prompting this same priest to regard Dollfuss as a “martyr.” Even more ominous, in a conversation I had on a Thomism Facebook group, a contributor pronounced, “The Communion of Saints really do all wear jack boots and Sigma [the symbol of Brazilian integralism] armbands. They burned heretics, and they seized Jewish kids. That’s Catholicism.” When I, among others, inquired whether denying Jews religious conscience rights was anti-Semitic, the same person responded by invoking Vermeule’s synthesis of reactionary Catholicism and Schmittian decisionism:

No one of good will should take these “racism”-type charges seriously… It is a charge living in an utterly different moral world, a world which should not get a scrap of acknowledgment. If it isn’t obvious how misguided and self-defeated that is, at least experience should have taught us. Seeing past the liberal moral frame and asserting the old one—and accepting the friend-enemy distinction as applied to the [C]hurch—is the biggest challenge facing Josias-type integralists today.

The response should give us pause, as the contributor wrongly interprets rights of conscience as “liberalism” and regards the advocates for rights of conscience as enemies of the Church. Presumably, then, are the Jews who these advocates seek to defend. The links between integralism and fascism remain as strong as ever.

In the end, this is all integralism really is. It is an internet aesthetic of mostly young men alienated from the public life and consumed with the libido dominandi. In the absence of those institutions that had once made America a place of deep faith and committed to liberty, these young men have had recourse to the Internet and attach themselves to the sublime historical experience of sacramental kingship, Iberian Felangism, or straight-up fascism supported by the general ideas purveyed by Vermeule and the like. The only alternative is for the Church to train and appoint new bishops committed to participating in public life with their congregations and raising them up in the republican virtue that so defined American Catholicism.

I have been blessed to experience this kind of Catholicism many times in my life, though my favorite was in a small parish in central Virginia. At the baptism of our first child, the entire parish threw us a huge party, and one parishioner gave us an envelope stuffed with cash. When we had to move, another parishioner, who drove a UPS truck for a living, backed the moving truck right up to the front of our house. He and his two high-school aged sons, who worked in the nearby lumber yard, managed to fill the truck up in an hour, prayed with us, and gave this soft-handed professor some tips for handling turns. So, perhaps, the young neo-integralists should put down their worn copies of Considerations on France, stop tweeting gleefully about Victor Orbán’s recent efforts to become dictator of Hungary, and see if any of their neighbors need help during this time of trouble.