Integralism as Christian Default

The new Catholic integralists have caught fire on the internet and to some extent outside of it Their proposal is simple. What should the state do? Promote the full authentic human good. For the integralist, the full authentic good is as Catholicism describes. What distinguishes integralist states from other kinds of political order is that the state uses coercion to promote expressly Catholic ends, even in matters of faith. Religious coercion has some limits, but it can be used to punish heresy and apostasy, and to ensure that Catholicism is the religion of the state. (See Thomas Pink’s defense of the position.)

The integralist proposal disturbs many people (including Catholics) because integralists reject liberal freedom of religion and embraces religious coercion. Given the untoward implications of integralism, most familiar with the view set it aside on the basis of an argument like the following:

  1. If integralism is true, religious coercion is not wrong.
  2. But religious coercion is wrong.
  3. Therefore, integralism is false.

I don’t think integralism can be so easily dismissed. The reason is that integralism has a certain elegance and simplicity and even obviousness. It tells us that states should help people achieve their ultimate good. Besides feasibility worries, why wouldn’t this be the best thing for the state to do? Are non-integralists really asking the state to do less than the best? Doesn’t that just sound crazy when we state it openly?

What anti-integralists need is a satisfying explanation as to why integralism is axiologically false. The anti-integralist need to explain why integralism has the wrong conceptions of value, reasons, and practical rationality. The more time I spent with their position, the harder I find it is to articulate attractive alternatives approaches that are compatible with Christian belief. I now think integralism can only be answered with some fundamental revisions to standard theistic ethical theories, in particular natural law theory and divine command theory. We need a theistic deontology, but one where side-constraints are grounded in the divine nature (most natural rights theorists ground rights in the divine nature only obliquely).

I think I can convey the power of the integralist challenge by using an analogy with act-consequentialism in normative ethics (which holds that the right acts are those that maximize well-being). Integralism and act-consequentialism are simple, elegant theories with seemingly untoward implications, but they are so elegant that many theorists will adopt the view and simply accept the implications. And even good men will do so, like Peter Singer (a lead consequentialist) and Adrian Vermeule (a lead integralist).

As we know, the cost of act-consequentialism is having to sacrifice some for others. The cost of integralism is similar, though less nasty. The integralist must embrace religious coercion of the baptized (as punishment for apostasy or heresy), which the vast majority of reflective Christians today think is gravely unjust, including practically all leading Catholic theologians, bishops, cardinals, and most recent popes. The integralists insist the cost must be paid, and try to contain the costs by pointing to the differing moral intuitions of prominent Catholics in the past.

Act-consequentialism and integralism are plainly quite different normative theories. They are elegant approaches to ethics and political theory respectively because they make the good the sole normative master conception in a straightforward way. So much so, that one might even think that they’re the default normative theories.

I think that work on act-consequentialism has shown why it is axiologically mistaken. But I don’t think we yet have an account of why integralist axiology is mistaken if we take the truth of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, for granted.

Robert Nozick said of John Rawls that “political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory of explain why not.” Perhaps this is giving integralism too much credit, but I think that “Christian political theologians now must either work within an integralist framework or explain why not.” Christians need a satisfying explanation as to why the state should not promote the ultimate good, and after surveying the alternatives, I don’t think there’s a good candidate explanation yet.



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