Perhaps no term in modern Catholic political discourse is so poorly understood—deliberately or innocently—as “integralism.” The term is bandied about without second thought both by scornful opponents who deride it as “Catholic sharia law” and by wishful utopians who define it as nothing more or less than whatever vaguely traditional throne-and-altar political project they personally happen to espouse at the moment. It is true that the word, which only entered the mainstream traditional conversation with gusto in the last few years, still lacks an immediately recognizable, broadly agreed-upon definition. Indeed, even the use of the word itself is not universally accepted as the best to describe this political system, but it does happen to be the word mostly used by most writers most of the time, and so it is with the term “integralism” that we must begin our investigation of what, exactly, this Catholic political philosophy entails. What follows is my humble attempt at a synthesis, a summary, of work laid out in greater detail elsewhere by far greater minds. The work of compiling a definitive, comprehensive political manifesto belongs to a greater pen than mine.
Because integralism has as many doppelgangers, impostors, and strawmen as it does genuine faces, it seems prudent to take a “compare and contrast” approach. This essay will attempt to explain what integralism is and, just as importantly, given the polemics surrounding it, what it is not, all the while maintaining the caveat that this can only be a starting point. By keeping to broad strokes and fundamentals, I also hope to avoid the peripheral debates on issues where integralist thinkers can vary greatly. This essay is an invitation to an immense and rich integralist literature, some selected highlights of which will be provided at the end.
Integralism is the Social Kingship of Christ…
Integralism seeks to unite or integrate the natural, earthly end of man (most properly cared for by the state) and the supernatural, divine end of man (most properly cared for by the Church). To the integralist, Church and state are like body and soul. They are unique, distinguishable, and serve different roles, but share a common purpose and aim. For both Church and state, the summum bonum is the salvation of souls, each in their own capacity. This is an alliance of ends, not a fusing of institutions: at no point does Church or state absorb or usurp the other. Think of the relationship rather as that between a helmsman and a navigator. Both are vital for the functioning of a ship. The helmsman steers the ship, but without the guidance of a navigator he can only ever hope to sail aimlessly through open waters. Likewise, it is the state that, endowed with temporal power, physically steers the ship of society, setting laws and punishing vice. It is the Church as navigator, with her hand not on the wheel but on the telescope, sextant, and map, who provides man and the state the why and whither of the sailing. At all times, the helmsman and navigator must act in harmony, lest the ship be lost.
At the heart of the integralist project is the Social Kingship of Christ, a doctrine stated clearly by pre-Vatican II popes but lost in the miasma of the post-conciliar era (despite the “integralist” caveat given at Vatican II). In essence, this is a call for Christ’s reign to be proclaimed not only by all creatures individually, but also by all creation, corporately and in toto. If man is called to know, love, and serve God, how can his every endeavor and enterprise not also be called to this end? Is a man to worship God only at church, or in every sinew of his being and every aspect of his life? It falls to Leo XIII to state in Immortale Dei,
The State, constituted as it is, is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion…men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are (6).
The failure to translate the kingship of Christ to the material world, to opt instead to reserve it to a personal, spiritual domain, is a Protestant or Manichaean fallacy that denies the transformative power of grace upon nature. In the Incarnation, grace infuses and sanctifies all aspects of creation and of man’s life. Everything in the material world and everything in human society can and should be dedicated to the Lord, Who is the origin and telos of all creation. We perceive this even now, in vestigial form, when we christen a ship or bless an Easter basket. It follows that the state is bound, no less than the Church, no less than the family, no less than man, no less than creation, to explicitly affirm the Kingship of Christ, to defend the rights and prerogatives of the Church He founded, and to propagate her truths and confound errors that would lead men away from her.
…but not Catholic theocracy.
Any talk of integrating Church and state can only sound alarm bells for the Liberal, who accepts as axiomatic “religious liberty” and the “separation of Church and state” (both understood in an Americanist, Liberal sense). The specter of a Catholic theocracy is summoned. Clear distinctions need to be made. It must first be understood that under an integralist state, there would be no forced conversion, no mass killings of heretics. Similarly, no confessional state is envisioned; no one is advocating for clerics to hold public office or for direct rule of the state by the Church (theocracy). Just as laymen have no right to interfere with the appointment of bishops, the election of popes, etc., so too the Church is not to dominate in processes most properly belonging to the state—by attempting to directly set trade policy, for instance. The Church is instead a moral guide whose members, baptized and properly catechized, naturally tend to explicitly and consciously manifest her social teachings when they serve as statesmen (and in every other profession, from trash collector to judge, for that matter).
But what is the position of the non-Catholic in a state where public policy is consciously informed by Catholic teaching? This depends. In a nation where Catholicism is a minority, integralists caution the prudence of religious tolerance—permitting other religions to exist as a concession, but still officially endorsing and promoting only the Catholic faith. In a country that is majority Catholic, the state must be correspondingly bolder. Public non-Catholic proselytization and new construction of non-Catholic religious buildings cannot be allowed, and religious tests for public office would follow. This is because a logically consistent state could not forbid such harms to the body as murder and rape without also outlawing the harm to the soul (far more serious in magnitude) that heresy represents. Similarly, anti-blasphemy laws would be necessary, for the rights of God always supersede the rights of man.
In any circumstance, the natural law must always be a guiding principle, and no state, regardless of the religious makeup of its populace, can ignore it. Consequently, all states must bring an immediate end to evils that cry out to heaven for vengeance: abortion, contraception, pornography, usury, etc.
Integralism is postliberal…
Liberalism, properly defined, is the polar opposite of integralism. It is also, woefully, the philosophy that governs nearly every aspect of our common life. Its fundamental principles are lauded and defended by virtually all Western politicians, on the left and on the right. Liberal attitudes have infected our Church, our relationships, our economy, and our very ability to conceive of ourselves properly. Patrick Deneen, in his masterful work Why Liberalism Failed, identifies the two key pillars of liberalism: “1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”
Permeating Western society is the idea that something is right or good simply because I desire it, and no one has the right to stop me from pursuing my own subjective goals, so long as I do no harm to others (usually defined quite narrowly). The idea of an objective and universal moral code, whether natural law or the revealed truths of the Faith, is discarded as a relic, an oppressive force that stifles human liberty.
Liberty in this understanding supplants and then becomes God.
Along with the moral code, social hierarchies, and relationships of legitimate authority, the idea of things having objective natures in themselves is cast into the dustbin of history. In short, anything that originates from any point outside raw human will must necessarily be a limitation on human freedom. On the political left, the issue of gender presents itself as the most obvious contemporary example of this. My gender is my choice, and no one—not the government, not the Church, and certainly not “nature” can tell me anything about it.
But liberalism also manifests itself in economic matters, and here we must turn an accusing finger to the political right.
Unrestrained capitalism (in practice, virtually all extant forms of capitalism) rests on identical logic as gender ideology. My money is mine, and no one—not the government, not the Church, and certainly not the cry of the poor—can tell me what to do with it. Money for the right, like gender for the left, is for my own private gain and happiness and has no greater meaning beyond that. Integralism, being postliberal, seeks to turn away from all varieties of Liberalism, on both the left and the right.
…but not “Conservative.”
At least in American political discourse, the term “liberal” is commonly misused to refer narrowly to the political Left, which is a deficient understanding of the term. The contemporary “liberal-conservative” divide is a Potemkin village, and there is more that unites these two sides than divides them, appearances notwithstanding. Even the name “conservative” reveals the movement’s hand: it has no positive program, nothing to offer, just a slow-rolling of left Liberalism. As Deneen says in a recent article,
As the illness [left Liberalism] progressed, “conservatism” would embrace the less diseased position that appeared ‘healthier’ in comparison to liberalism’s further metastization. Positive promotion of marriage and the family gave way to opposition to divorce, gave way to opposition to homosexual marriage, gave way to opposition to transgender ideology, gave way to hearty defenses of religious liberty. Within a generation, expect conservatives to apologize for the bigotry that once led them to endorse even wan versions of religious liberty.
Here is summed up the entire problem of “conservatism:” it conserves nothing, it defends nothing, it stops nothing. It is a finger raised politely in concern as the Liberal bulldozer steams on, it is a strongly-worded editorial in the newspaper, it is sometimes (as with Trumpism) a rabid raging at the storms around us—but it is not a solution.
Conservatism is not worth the time of the integralist or the Catholic. It nothing more than right Liberalism, just as bad as left Liberalism (but more deceptive!).
As opposed to being conservative, integralism is restorative. We do not seek to slow down, to win small victories here, to place all hope on the Supreme Court there, to play on Liberalism’s turf and under Liberalism’s rules of a morally neutral state, near-unlimited freedom of speech, or functional religious indifferentism. Integralism seeks a total break with the Enlightenment, Protestant, Freemasonic founding of the entire Western political order (the principles of both 1789 and 1776) and a restoration of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Our vision of the political order is not a pathetic nostalgia for some dubious, ephemeral conception of the alleged golden age of the 1950s. We scorn the limitedness of “Make America Great Again.” We know that only by returning to the principles and structures of Christendom can we hope to bring about the social kingship of Christ and true human happiness. Yes, we are going to anger the left when we outlaw abortion and other social evils. But just as strongly, the true integralist will be the enemy of the conservatives when he comes for their mindless accumulation of wealth, their usury, their fractional reserve banking, their diabolical stock market, and their war on the poor. All must give way to Christ.
Links in this article earn affiliate income for OnePeterFive.
Photo by Mark Boss on Unsplash
 “Religious freedom, in turn, which men demand as necessary to fulfill their duty to worship God, has to do with immunity from coercion in civil society. Therefore it leaves untouched [integram] traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ” (Dignitatis Humanae, 1). De Mallerais comments on Archbishop Lefebvre’s opposition to the declaration notwithstanding his later signing of the document: “The clauses included in Dignitatis Humanae on ‘the true religion’ or the ‘just limits’ of religious liberty made it just about possible to interpret the eleven lines that strictly speaking were the declaration (no. 2) in a Catholic manner, even if that was not the obvious meaning of the text, as the rest of the document makes clear.” The Biography of Marcel Lefebvre (Angelus Press: 2004), 312.
 Editor’s Note: the historical companion to this truth is undoubtedly John C. Rao’s Black Legends and the Light of the World: the War of Words with the Incarnate Word.
 Note the very important difference between religious liberty—which has been condemned by the Church and which considers all religions to be on an equal footing under the law, as if man had an innate right to choose error—and religious tolerance, which acknowledges the imperfect reality of society and, while not encouraging error and stemming its growth, chooses prudently not to force a resolution of the issue under current circumstances. For more on religious liberty, see D.C. Schindler’s foundational work The Politics of the Real, where he argues convincingly that separation of Church and state is, in very principle, simply impossible.
 A distinction has always been made in the Catholic tradition between public and private heretics. The Church has never attempted to punish someone for a privately held belief. It is the public manifestation of heresy—the attempt to lead others into error—that is an assault on the peace and must not be allowed. Hence the much-maligned “burning of heretics” only ever encompassed notorious and unrepentant public heretics. Canonized saints, including educated Renaissance men like St Thomas More, strongly defended the practice. If murderers are worthy of the death penalty, then why not the heresiarchs whose harm is so much greater in its effects?
 Patrick Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (Yale University Press, 2018), 31.
 There is insufficient space here to launch a robust defense of Catholic economic teaching, as taught by pre- and post-conciliar Popes and based on Gospel principles. For a fuller examination of the issue, the author recommend the podcast series Good Money, a creation of New Polity (www.newpolity.com). This podcast profoundly changed the author’s approach to money and the way he structures his finances.