How ought Catholics engage in politics?

2666545995 a6e0f2fe77 k Christ the King at St Etheldreda's, London. / Lawrence OP via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

As Catholics consider their engagement with the world, including politically, they should consider what kind of society should be built up, the authors of a recently-published manual of political philosophy have explained.

Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy, authored by Fr. Thomas Crean O.P., and Dr. Alan Fimister, discusses "the principles that define this world, how to structure society and that, if it's going to be done in an ideal way … [would be] the restoration of Christendom," according to the priest.

Fr. Crean is a friar of the Dominicans' English Province, while Fimister is assistant professor of theology at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver.

What is integralism

The term "integralism", the book notes at its beginning, denotes firstly "an uncompromising adherence to the Social Kingship of Christ, that is, an insistence upon the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ." Integralism is the belief that not only individuals, but society as well, has an obligation to the truth, both natural and revealed; as such it is opposed to the principle of liberalism.

In its 12 chapters, Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy discusses societies and the perfect society; the common good and authority; the family; servitude; the origin and scope of temporal authority; law; forms of polity; political economy; international relations; the two swords; and the two cities.

Fimister told CNA that "the book is about the community which is generated in order to accomplish the end proportionate to man's nature … so we're asking philosophical questions, not theological questions. But in order to coherently answer them, they have to be informed by the light of divine revelation. You can know they need to be informed by that light by reason alone."

Fr. Crean commented that "the Church has to be a lot stronger" before the temporal aspect of the city of God can be restored. "I think if everyone in the Church does their job, things get better, because God's grace is always on offer. And it is able to do now what it has done in the past."

Fimister noted that "things can change much more rapidly than one imagines … I agree that humanly speaking it doesn't look terribly likely, at least in the foreseeable future, but what is last in execution is first in intention. In the temporal order, we're trying to describe in a certain sense what's last in execution, but one can't perform coherent actions in the temporal order unless one realizes what one is ultimately trying to achieve."

The work is also meant to be an introduction to Catholic thought on political philosophy.

One of the impetuses for writing the book, for Fr. Crean, was his experience of teaching political philosophy, and wanting "to be able while teaching to recommend a book for such use."

Fimister said that "when I first started studying philosophy at university, there was a course that was compulsory called the history of philosophy, and it began with Rene Descartes, which is obviously preposterous, but it reflects the fact that in a certain sense, as Maritain observes, if what Descartes is doing is philosophy, then what Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Augustine, and St. Thomas and Boethius are doing, is not philosophy."

"If you're trying to work out what is Catholic political philosophy, you come up against a problem; say you were someone well inclined towards Catholicism or a Catholic studying undergraduate political philosophy, and you wanted to go to a place for seeing what Catholics think about these questions. One of the problems is that quite rightly these questions are considered in the light of the whole of divine revelation and sound metaphysics by the greatest Catholic writers, like St. Thomas, and so you can't really just pick up a book, you'd have to pick up some selected political writings book, which by its nature would be rather fragmentary."

"If you're not going to go there, then the obvious alternative is the City of God, which is dauntingly large – and of course every human being should read the City of God at least once in their lifetime … but nevertheless it's daunting and involves lots and lots of other questions."

Thus "there isn't really a go-to book on the subject, and I think that also means that as it's a very practical question in regard to where we're going, where we'd like to be going in the temporal order, for any citizen of any temporal state anywhere. I think it's also extremely useful for anyone who, as they should be doing, is thinking about fundamental political questions."

The necessity of revelation

As a philosophical text, Fr. Crean said, the book is "trying to articulate the principles that can be known by reason about how societies should be structured."

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But as political philosophy is a branch of moral philosophy, "which requires us to know the purpose of our life, which is something we know only by revelation," those philosophical principles are answered adequately only with the assistance of divine revelation.

Fimister reflected: "Because the last end is the first principle in practical reason, not only is the last end concretely only knowable by revelation, because we have a supernatural end … it's knowable by natural reason that you can't know by natural reason what the last end is unless God tells you. And so it's knowable by natural reason that an adequate moral philosophy could only exist if it were subordinated to divine revelation in any possible order of providence. So that's the theoretical scholastic aspect of integralism, integralism meaning that human thought should be subalterned to divine revelation." 

"But then obviously that itself implies the other meaning of integralism, which is that the organization of man as a political animal can only take place coherently when it is informed by the light of divine revelation. So that's why [the book] doesn't just discuss the initial question of the fact that political society needs to be informed by divine revelation, but also it discusses what that would then look like in the various aspects of political society."

Integralism: A Manual of Political Philosophy, Fimister said, examines "that community which is created by man's proportionate end. You can tell by natural reason there is an end proportionate to man's nature … because it's part of the nature of an intelligent creature that it needs to know its end for the sake of concrete moral action, and also the means by which the end is to be attained, you can know that God in his justice would not withhold, at least from an intelligent creature, the knowledge of that creature's end. So it's reasonable to assume that there will be a certain revelation in any given order of providence, by which intelligent creatures can discover what their end is. So that's why even to do moral philosophy, and therefore political philosophy … you have to subaltern your reasoning to divine revelation."

This understanding of integralism is not universally accepted within the Church today, and Fr. Crean speculated that its unpopularity is "because it brings the hostility of the world upon one."

Fimister reflected that "it's easy to fall into a mentality of not wanting to say things that make one's life uncomfortable in the house of secular liberalism, or draw attention to the fact that one doesn't approve the way this house is organized; and I think we've slumbered into that attitude more and more and more … we're more frightened of the Lenins and the Hitlers of this world, than we are of secular liberals, largely, although obviously our difficulties with secular liberalism are becoming more and more extreme."

He added that "the confusion over the interpretation of Dignitatis humanae has made people think that that might even be what we're supposed to do or think now, even though that isn't really what Dignitatis humanae means, and not not just for technical reasons."

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Religious freedom

Dignitatis humanae is the Second Vatican Council's declaration on religious freedom. It has been subject to widely differing interpretations, and its statements are among the biggest obstacles to the reconciliation of the Society of St. Pius X with the Church.

It was promulgated in 1965 by St. Paul VI, who was an admirer of the 20th century Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain.

"Dignitatis humanae is really a Maritainian document, and it's been misinterpreted as a classical liberal document, especially in the English speaking world, whereas it's not, really," Fimister stated.

"It's a Maritainian document, but it doesn't explicitly assert any of the erroneous positions Maritain holds, but is motivated by them … it doesn't assert them, but the prudential decisions that led to issuing a document that addresses that particular question in that particular way are probably motivated by some of Maritain's erroneous positions. But the document itself is only asserting a very narrow point, which is true, but which taken out of the context of all the other things the Church has taught on that subject, can easily be misunderstood as making a classical liberal point that it isn't making. And that's probably led people to start thinking that certain liberal assumptions are actually now, somehow now the teaching of the Church. Although the concept of something now being the teaching of the Church, whereas having previously not been, and in fact having been something incompatible with it, is obviously an absurd concept in the first place because it wouldn't mean that something was now true that wasn't true in the past, it would mean that Catholicism isn't true, and therefore we're all wasting our time discussing it."

He discussed Maritain's work The Things That Are Not Caesar's, the root of which he said "lies at the root of the whole thing. He came up with this theory … whereby you can have religiously neutral liberal states with a flourishing Church inside them."

Fimister noted that in his argument, Maritain is "in no way repudiating the fulness of the papal claims to dominion over the temporal order in the middle ages; he upholds all of those doctrines, and then comes up with a complicated and very subtle way to try and bypass them. And Paul VI was a huge fan of Maritain; I don't think he incorporates the erroneous parts of Maritain's position into Dignitatis humanae, but I think he was very impressed by Maritain's philosophy, and I think … it was the kind of arguments Maritain presents in that book which made Paul VI think a document of that nature was worth doing."

To promote a proper understanding of Dignitatis humanae, Fr. Crean urged that we must begin "by taking seriously what it says in the opening paragraph that it leaves intact the traditional teaching of the Church on the duty of men and states to the true religion and the Church of Christ. If people do take that seriously, which they have to, they'll want to know what that traditional teaching is. But very often that phrase seems to be just treated as a rhetorical gloss that was put in at the last moment, in order to get the document passed. And it was put in at the last moment to get the document passed, but it's not just a rhetorical gloss, it's a very important statement. Until people start taking that seriously, and understand that doctrines taught by the Church can't be contradictory to other doctrines previously taught by the Church, we're not going to get anywhere."

Fimister added: "When Paul VI inserts that clause about not contradicting what's been previously taught by the Church on this subject, he means it; he's not being disingenuous or duplicitous. As a Maritainian he really means that they don't" contradict that teaching.

"It's a pretty big bar to set, but in a sense we're trying to show a non-Maritainian solution to the problem posed by promulgated documents which are inspired by Maritain's ideas, but not ultimately teaching them," he stated.

Speaking again about Dignitatis humanae, Fimister recommended the thought of Thomas Pink, whom he said has shown "that the actual points taught by Dignitatis humanae are not irreconcilable, they are are very careful conceived so as not to be irreconcilable, with the previous tradition. And that allows one to, without perhaps stressing out constantly about the council and potential crises, as it were, go back with relief and joy to 2,000 years of Catholic wisdom on the proper organization of political society, which has been sort of sealed off from the generations after Vatican II because of this perception of rupture," which "is just a mistake."

"Whatever the prudence of phrasing things precisely in the way they were phrased, there isn't a rupture there, and I think Pink has been brilliant in showing that Paul VI really very much didn't want there to be a rupture there; it's not just that as it happened, he wanted a rupture but there wasn't one. He really didn't want there to be one."

One of the motives for writing their book, Fr. Crean said, "is this rift in the Church which de facto has been caused by Vatican II, and this abiding idea that things are different now, that Catholics shouldn't think now as they did in the past about political things. So it's a book which will be able to heal that wound in the Catholic mentality."

What to do in the present day

Turning to political engagement in the status quo, keeping in mind "what one is ultimately trying to achieve," Fimister reflected that "people easily fall into the idea of thinking that natural reason or natural law is somehow atheistic or agnostic, and they forget that the first requirement of the natural law and of natural reason is to worship God in the manner he has appointed."

He noted that in Longinqua, his 1895 encyclical on Catholicism in the United States, Leo XIII said "that the constitutional organization of the US is as it were not unreasonable in the context of the great religious plurality in the US, but our concrete action in a situation like that needs to be influenced, and is highly informed by, the fact that one realizes it's a provisional situation. And insofar as some kind of neutrality is reasonable in a society where Catholics are a minority, it has to be a theistic neutrality, not an agnostic neutrality. So it needs to be provisional and it needs to be theistic. That makes a big difference in how you view what you should and shouldn't be doing in the temporal order."

Speaking to the present-day situation, Fimister noted the importance of parental choice in education – which includes the use of funds for private education – while Fr. Crean commented that "people have to be ready to make gestures of defiance to unjust laws. I think it's very important that they be backed up by the hierarchy strongly when that happens."

"I was very sad to see how little resistance there has been to the attempt to get people to act as registars" for same-sex marriages, the priest noted.

He discussed Kim Davis, a former county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses after the US Supreme Court found that same-sex couples have the right to marry. She was briefly jailed.

"She should have been championed by all the bishops, for example," Fr. Crean said. "Individual people making heroic gestures, and then being strongly backed up by the bishops, that is the kind of thing that can have an important influence on the public mind, I think."

Fimister commented that Davis "was defended on the wrong grounds; she was defended by Catholics on the ground of religious freedom, but that was counterproductive because the fact that same-sex acts are contrary to the moral law, and that such activities are of no social benefit, and shouldn't be specially recognized and privileged by society and made equivalent to marriage, is something knowable by natural reason; and the fact that one shouldn't recognize laws which are contrary to the natural law is also something knowable by natural reason; and that therefore she was acting correctly and legally by ignoring a law that is contrary to the natural law is a very important point, and all of that was missed by people defending her on the basis of religious liberty, which is a ridiculous argument."

As a thought experiment, he offered the idea of someone from an ecclesial community associated with apartheid who believe interracial marriage to be intrinsically immoral.

If "you had some adherents of that who refused to issue marriage licenses to people of different ethnicities, it would be absurd to defend their right to do that on the grounds of religious liberty. So there's no way of bracketing the substantive point, and then crying about religious liberty; it's an irrelevant consideration."

International relations

In their work, Fr. Crean and Fimister write that "while it is fitting that there be some juridic order between temporal commonwealths, it is unnecessary and unwise to seek to constitute an international political society."

Fimister commented that there are three possibilities among international relations: a purely international organization; a supranational organization in which sovereignty is pooled; and an originally sovereign supranational jurisdiction.

The UN, he said, is meant to be a purely international organization "which recognizes the full sovereignty of its members, and is simply a context in which friendly relations and discussions between them can be facilitated. And such an order … doesn't assume that there's any kind of universal jurisdiction in the temporal order" over member states.

He cited the EU as an example of an organization with pooled sovereignty, "so that the member states of the EU are at root sovereign, but they have bestowed their sovereignty in certain designated areas upon the common institutions which they have created, as it were, in the international order by treaty, and those treaties then create a supranational bubble, as it were, in which sovereign powers which are borrowed from the member states are exercised by collective institutions."

"That can be more dangerous," he explained, "it can work, but it can be more dangerous, because it's further removed from the natural units of human society. One of the big criticisms of the European Union, which arose in the course of the debates in Britain about leaving it, the way it's often expressed by British politicians, is there's no European demos, there's no corresponding natural political community to the political community created by that pooled sovereignty, and consequently nobody is really holding that entity to account; there are institutions which in theory could hold it to account, but as there are no real people who correspond to those institutions, they are a bit nominal … so that's why that's a bit of a problem."

As for original supranational jurisdiction which is not delegated by member states, Fimister said that it "would have to be created by the Holy See, because on the natural level there isn't any natural sovereignty of a universal nature; that sovereignty comes about through man's recognition of the supernatural end and the authority of the Holy See, so to create that kind of universal default supranational jurisdiction would belong to the Holy See."

Their work concludes with a brief postscript on "what the Law does not tell you", reflecting on neighborhood and friendship: "Like the lawyer who questioned Christ, Aristotle, the model of natural reason, does not know who is neighbour is … Friendship with God, it would seem to the rationalist, is impossible."

It is in the revelation of God's offer of friendship to man, they write, that friendship is itself purified and Christ destroys the boundaries "erected by man's self-enclosed and fallen reason."