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Right-Wing Liberation Theology
Some final thoughts on integralism.
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Phil. 3:20)
In theory, the Vatican should have loved Charles Maurras (1868–1952). He was the greatest political philosopher France had produced in a hundred years, and he had only one agenda: to undo all the progress that had been inflicted upon France since the Revolution. That meant, first and foremost, restoring the French monarchy. But it also meant returning the Catholic Church to the center of French public life.
Christians across the Western world took Maurras as their champion. Cardinal Louis Billot, one of the most influential theologians of the century, was a staunch admirer. T. S. Eliot fell under his spell while studying at the Sorbonne. Years later, he still called the Frenchman “my Virgil.”
There was only one problem. Maurras was an atheist.
Usually we expect better from would-be theocrats. Yet. above all, Maurras was a nationalist. He believed (rightly) that the Catholic Church had made France great, and only the Church could make her great again. His support for the Church was purely pragmatic but also totally sincere.
Still, Pope Pius XI wouldn’t allow an atheist to serve as the political head of France’s Catholic community. In 1926, he placed Maurras’s works on the Index of Forbidden Books. The faithful were ordered to dissociate with his political party, Action Française, on pain of excommunication.
The papal censure was not well-received. Many French Catholics raged against Pius. Many others simply ignored him. Cardinal Billot resigned from the Sacred College in protest. Eliot wrote a sniffy letter to the Church Times defending Maurras:
He belongs to a generation for which religious belief never came into consideration. Almost alone of that generation, Maurras perceived the defects of that mentality; and without religious belief himself, and without the support of any constituted authority, took upon himself to aim at the recovery of that social order without which the Catholic Church cannot flourish. It is owing to the fact that he came to the same conclusion by different processes, that he has attracted so many devout Catholics to his cause.
Eliot’s view was probably shared by most orthodox Christians. Yet one Catholic intellectual not only accepted the Pope’s intervention, but was electrified by it. His name was Jacques Maritain (1882–1973).
Maurras had been a formative influence on Maritain, as he had on Eliot. Also like Eliot, Maurras had eagerly joined Action Française’s crusade against the modern world. Unlike Eliot, however, Maritain had come to see Maurras a symptom of modernity rather than its cure. Maritain referred to Maurras’s error by the (boring and unhelpful) name of political naturalism:
From the religious point of view, there is a danger of considering the Church in the supernumerary benefits she dispenses as being the strongest bulwark of social good rather than in her end and function and essential dignity which are to provide mankind with supernatural truth and the means to eternal salvation. . . .
Political naturalism violated a principle that Maritain referred to by the (equally boring and unhelpful) name of the primacy of the spiritual. He explained this primacy by quoting Our Lord: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
So, Maurras’s problem was not his atheism. It was, rather, his atheistical worldview: because he didn’t believe in an afterlife, he was only concerned with flourishing in this life. Maritain feared that, whatever his virtues, Maurras would infect French Catholics with his “this-worldly” worldview. The French Church would begin to see her own mission in political-natural rather than salvific-supernatural terms.
Yes: Maritain wanted to overthrow the Revolutionary order. He wanted the Church to enjoy pride of place in French society once again. But he argued that this was “an essentially spiritual work,” and could only be achieved my spiritual means:
The salvation of a Christian nation. . . necessitates the acknowledgment of the supernatural order and the employment of proportioned means, elevated in the use to which they are put by virtue from above. For the means must be proportioned to the end, a very simple axiom neglected nowadays by many who seek in the most intense natural activity the means of attaining an end involving the supernatural order. God is the leader of history; the common task is merely to prepare the way, each of us doing his duty to the best of his ability, in the first place by raising his mind and heart to the height of the whole truth.
Maritain was a second-rate thinker and third-rate stylist. On this point, though, he was absolutely right. After all, this is the paradox of Christendom. True, the Church has brought countless temporal benefits to Western society. But she did so only by teaching men to forget their own temporal good. C. S. Lewis put it better than Maritain:
If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven.
It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither.
Again, Maritain’s fear was that, under Maurras’s influence, the French Church would lose its otherworldliness. It would cease to fulfill its primary function, which is the salvation of souls; it would also fail in its secondary function, which is to reform the temporality. It would begin to aim at earth rather than Heaven, and so lose both. That would be a bitter irony indeed.
Now, let me warn you, dear reader. The rest of this newsletter is going to be about integralism. And I want to be clear about one thing: I’m not accusing the integralists of being crypto-atheists or “bad Christians” or anything like that. Judging from those I know personally, they’re much better Christians than I am.
Still, I think integralists fall into the same trap as Maurras and the “Action Française Catholics.” They seem to view the Church, first and foremost, as a political or social institution. Their primary emphasis is on her secondary role, which is reforming the temporality. And, by focusing on that second role, they will fulfill neither.
Of course, this isn’t their intention. I’m sure they’re not “political naturalists” by conviction, as Maurras was. They’re believing Catholics with rich inner lives, strong Christian friendships, etc. But as public figures, their priorities are as this-worldly as Maurras’s. That suggests that, like Maurras, their worldview—the very basic ways in which they perceive reality and value things—is deeply modern. Their ideology has been shaped fundamentally by the very liberal, “Enlightened” premises they reject.
Now, I’m not calling them crypto-liberals, either. I don’t think they’re duplicitous or malicious. I just think they’re wrong. Like all Westerners, they’ve been trained to treat natural phenomena as more “real” than supernatural phenomena. They’ve been raised to store up treasures on Earth, not in Heaven. They are what I call internalized materialists, and what some modern thinkers call disenchanted.
Now, I’m sure some of you are asking, “Why is Davis banging on about the integralists again? Is he jealous because they all have tenured professorships and think-tank fellowships, while he’s stuck writing a free newsletter on Substack?” Well, yes, a bit (though I like my free newsletter). But I also agree with Maritain about the dangers of political naturalism.
I believe we’re at a pivotal moment in Western history. In just the last few years, there has been an explosion of interest in orthodox Christianity, especially Catholicism. We could be in the first days of a great Christian renaissance. God is giving us that grace.
The question is, Will we use it? Are we taking this opportunity to bring more souls to Christ? Or are we just riding the fad to greater wealth, power, and fame? Will we respond to this moment as journalists, academics, and activists—or as Christians? What matters more to us: the Culture War or the Great Commission?
As Maritain points out, and as history makes all to clear, it’s easy to spoil a moment like this:
It would appear that we are on the threshold of an age when, all of the high hopes set upon nationalism and humanitarian optimism having been disappointed, the war between the angels will once more dominate history and the distress of mankind. This is what the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdiaeff calls a new Middle Age. It is most striking to consider from this point of view the ferment at work within the church. All her aspirations at the moment seemed to be strained towards a spiritual restoration of Christendom. The spirit of God is making her cry out with her whole heart in the hope of that holy task. We should be sorry for anyone who judged a movement of such divine origin according to the standards of politics, national conflicts, and worldly interests.
Yet even if we’re not on the verge of a Fourth Great Awakening, the integralists’ political naturalism—their failure to appreciate the primacy of the spiritual—is still a major failing. It’s yet another Trojan horse by which modern errors slip into the Church. It is liberalism wearing a nametag that says Illiberalism. It is a ruse, and not a very subtle one. Yet, somehow, our best minds are falling for it.
Some of you might still think I’m making too big a fuss about the integralists. One longtime reader, whose opinion I esteem highly, suggested that focus too much on my differences with the integralists. After all (he said), we both want to see the Church “envelop modern civilization.”
And that’s true! Still, I’m convinced that we should rebuild Christendom the same way it was built in the first place: by expanding the Christian church and spreading the Christian faith. As Maritain says, “A Christian political order in the world is not to be artificially constructed by diplomatic means; it is product of the spirit of faith.”
That was Maritain’s disagreement with Maurras. It’s also my disagreement with the integralists. And, clearly, it’s not just a difference of means. We’re disagreeing on what it means to be a Christian in the modern world.
That’s why I’m afraid to encourage the integralism. Like Charles Maurras, or Francisco Franco, or any twentieth-century adherent to “Political Catholicism,” I think they have the potential to do more harm than good. Because—once again—their priorities are fundamentally un-Christian.
Put it this way. In last Friday’s post, I talked about the role of government in the Christianization of the West. I conceded that the early Christian emperors and kings played an outsized role in spreading the Faith. Yet I also pointed out that, in the first millennium A.D., subjects were used to taking their religious cues from their sovereigns.
Early missionaries therefore focused on converting the sovereign; the sovereign would then help them convert his subjects. This was the easiest way to go about their mission, and remained so well into the second millennium. That’s why St. Francis of Assisi traveled to the Holy Land just to get himself arrested by the Saracens: he wanted to talk to the Sultan. Preaching to ordinary Muslims would have been much easier and infinitely safer. But if he could convert the Sultan, he could convert the whole world.
Some might call this “illiberal.” Yet by the standards of the day, it was profoundly democratic. Whenever the early Christians sought to Christianize a nation, they always did so by persuading the electorate. It just so happens that, in an absolute monarchy, the electorate is one man: the monarch.
We don’t hear about the Church Fathers trying to empower the masses. But we don’t hear about them trying to empower themselves, either. The first Christians weren’t like the first Muslims. St. Peter didn’t head up a band of violent fanatics the way Mohammed did. He didn’t charge around Europe beheading Roman governors and enslaving barbarian chiefs. He told his flock to “honor the king.” And when St. Paul talked about the “powers and principalities” of this world, he certainly wasn’t talking about his fellow bishops.
The first Christians just weren’t into politics. They didn’t even seem to have a preferred polity. They were more concerned about spreading the Faith. No, we Christians have never believed in a strict “wall of separation” between Church and State. Yet neither did the Church ever tried to subsume the State—to unite all political and religious authority within herself.
It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that we even see a uniquely Christian theory of statecraft begin to evolve among thinkers like John of Salisbury and Thomas Aquinas. By then, most of Europe’s kings had been converted, and they brought their kingdoms with them. Since the Church acknowledged those kings’ legitimacy, she had a duty to lay out general principles by which a Christian monarch could exercise his God-given power without endangering his soul.
Yet even these philosophers were building on a solid foundation of Augustinian anti-politics. They knew that, in the final analysis, the City of Man is of no importance when compared to the City of God. “For, as far as this life of mortals is concerned, which is spent and ended in a few days, what does it matter under whose government a dying man lives, if they who govern do not force him to impiety or iniquity?”
To be clear, I’m not saying that politics is unimportant. I’m saying that it’s relatively unimportant. For Christians living in Christian societies, it’s a low priority. For Christians living in non-Christian societies, it’s practically a non-issue. They have souls to save.
So integralism is, if nothing else, a huge exercise in arranging deck-chairs while the boat sinks. It doesn’t matter if their vision for society is valid. (Incidentally, I don’t think it is.) That’s not the point. The point is that their priorities are almost exactly wrong. For the integralists, “good government” not only becomes an end in itself: it becomes the ultimate end—in practice, if not in theory.
This is why I refer to integralism as right-wing liberation theology. Integralists treat the Church, first and foremost, as an instrument for social and economic reform. By placing this inordinate emphasis on this-worldly goods, they’ve already missed the whole point of Christianity—much like the so-called Christian Marxists of Latin America.
Really, it’s never a good sign when folks talk so much about religion and so little about God.
G. K. Chesterton warned that, “If the world grows too worldly, it can be rebuked by the Church; but if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be rebuked for worldliness by the world.”
This is why I make such a hubbub about integralism. When the lines between God and Mammon are clearly drawn, most Christians will make the right choice. The gravest danger comes from those who blur the lines, even (or especially) when they do so innocently.
Trying to look at this with the eyes of faith, we have to ask, “Will the integralists help more people to Heaven, or fewer?” Again, just going off the record of twentieth-century integralists like Maurras and Franco, the answer seems to be, “Fewer.” If the integralists prevail, three things will happen: (A) Church will become distracted from its supernatural mission, (B) Christians will succumb to worldliness, and (C) non-Christians will be put off by our hypocrisy.
I’ve been pretty clear about the methods I do think will help to expand the Church—things like intentional community, Christian education, street evangelism, the Corporal Works of Mercy, fasting, and prayer. But, as I pointed out in last week’s post, integralists are opposed to virtually all non-political methods. So, not only is integralism counter-productive: integralists are actively undermining those who are productive.
I’m not going to pretend that’s all fine just because, in the impossible future where they seize power, the integralists would ban porn and Sunday trading. Sure, those are good laws. I would support them. But no State, however righteous, can save souls. Only Jesus Christ can do that. And if we’re not saving souls, we’re wasting our time. And we have so little time to waste.