This essay is part of our series on the relationship between Church and State. See the full collection of related articles here. 

There has been renewed interest among Catholics in the magisterial teaching that the state should recognize Catholicism as true and unite with the church as body to her soul. This is now called integralism, a term I shall use simply for what is implied by this specific teaching on the proper ordering of church and state. I shall not use the term to endorse any particular political regime, nor every action taken by the church. In this essay I offer a general account of what integralism is about—it is not a “conservative” version of Ronald Dworkin (it is philosophically more radical), nor is it immediately a practical program for here and now (any such program is a further question), but involves a rejection of the metaphysical foundations of most current legal and political philosophy.

The renewed interest in integralism should be no surprise, given the teaching’s history and doctrinal force, going back long before the nineteenth-century popes to include not only predecessors such as saints Gregory the Great and Leo the Great, but general councils such as Lateran IV, Constance and Trent. But does the truth of integralism really matter? After all, modern states clearly are not united to the church as body to soul, nor likely to be. They present themselves as committedly secular, and this secularity is linked to another characteristic frequently invoked: their liberalism.

It may be tempting to dismiss integralism as irrelevant because it seems to have nothing to do with current political reality, or as worse than just irrelevant—as malignly so because it is peculiarly illiberal. I shall suggest that the proper ordering of church and state must matter to Catholics not only as direct magisterial teaching but because that teaching is built on a metaphysics of the self that is binding on Catholic belief. Leaving aside doctrinal requirements for Catholics, this metaphysics should matter to non-Catholics too because it delivers a more realistic view of how states actually function—including states that are secular—than do models currently dominant in political and legal philosophy.

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A just state conforms to standards of reason. No wonder then that verbal appeal to the reasonable is so characteristic of contemporary political philosophy, especially among those who defend what is called “political liberalism.” But political liberalism’s appeal to reason is mere terminology. It is Catholic integralism that actually respects reason in its theory of the state, by taking seriously the metaphysics of reason.

Law and the Metaphysics of Reason

Integralism is not the claim that church–state union is possible here and now, but an account of why the proper functioning of states requires it. That is because integralism is an account of how all states operate, how they can go wrong, and what is needed for them to function well. The modern state may indeed be fated to be secular. Integralism still models how a secular state will work, including all the bad things that might then happen.

Integralism is a form of natural law theory as it develops in ways required by Catholic teaching on grace and nature. We must then begin with the theory of law. A central function of law is to direct those people subject to it and to move them to follow its directives. Any theory of law must explain how this direction works: through some exercise of power. Power is the capacity to produce or prevent outcomes. An everyday example is ordinary causation: a brick hurled at a window exercises a capacity to produce an outcome, that the window breaks. Legal directives likewise can operate to produce the outcome that they are followed. Any theory of law must then explain by what power law moves those it governs to follow its directives.

Modern legal philosophy does not now give this question about power the attention it deserves. There is, though, one clear assumption that is now general: that the power involved is just ordinary causation. A directive is communicated by the state so as to interact causally with a psychological motivation in the citizen—such as a desire to do what is legally required. Law is viewed as directing the voluntary—what is subject to our desire or choice. This is the model at work in H.L.A. Hart’s idea of law as a fair choosing system. The state then is a mechanism of restraint and coordination, channeling the causal force of human desire toward voluntary actions and outcomes that are mutually advantageous.

For the natural law tradition, by contrast, law operates not through ordinary causation alone but primarily through a different form of power: the power of reason. The natural law tradition treats reason exactly as it is understood in commonsense ethics—as involving a power of justifications to move us to form beliefs and motivations that are justified. If we are reasonable, it is the quality of the justification offered that will move. This capacity to move us implies power, but in normative form. The function of the state, then, is not simply to ensure that we perform certain voluntary actions as opposed to others. It is to facilitate the operation of the force of reason on us, especially as this concerns the flourishing of a political community.

The flourishing of a community depends on what its citizens believe and how they are motivated. The state should therefore use the law to teach, not only by prohibiting theft and threatening it with punishments, but by directing our attention to the justifications for not stealing, so that those justifications move us to realize that theft is wrong. The law should produce shared attitudes on which the flourishing of the whole community depends. No healthy community can depend on mere fear of sanction to prevent theft. The law must foster a basic respect for property among the citizens it governs.

Integralism sees state direction and coercion as concerned not simply with external conformity to regulations, but with securing ethical consensus to the extent that the well-being of a community requires it. That is not because integralism is peculiarly illiberal, but because it is realistic about the state. Using directives and threats of sanction to secure ethical consensus is a feature of any political community, and involves not only the state itself but other institutions of civil society, such as universities and schools, that support and are supported by the state itself.

A venerable rallying point for those who identify themselves as “liberal” is opposition to anything that savors of the coercive regulation of belief, and Locke in particular has been canonized as pioneering such opposition. But this canonization is studiedly naïve about what states really do. Bernard Williams once loftily disparaged the project of a state coercion of belief as “essentially fruitless, because the forces of the state cannot reach a person’s centre of conviction.” But the state and its allied institutions within civil society have always operated on citizens through “reaching their center of conviction”—in our day by eradicating community-damaging forms of racism and the like. Certain areas of communal life require reasonable consensus, and so, whether or not it is as reasonable as it should be, a consensus will be politically produced, including if need be by some form or other of suppression.

Not so long ago I was a guest at a philosophical colleague’s inaugural lecture at another British university. Sitting at dinner next to a faculty head, I asked what would happen in that university if a moral philosopher proposed a course there on the ethics of the family, debating justifications for and against various conceivable forms of family structure. Then, having as fairly as possible addressed the alternatives, the philosopher would argumentatively recommend the unique moral acceptability of heterosexual marriage as a form of sexual union. The faculty head looked at me with great alarm. “Oh no, you couldn’t do that,” he replied, “we’d have to shut you down.”

Political communities, no matter how ostensibly liberal they proclaim themselves to be, may well not prove that tolerant for any length of time of genuine pluralism of opinion about the morality of family structure. In many contemporary universities, it is no easier now publicly to defend marriage as traditionally conceived than once it would have been publicly to defend same-sex marriage. The modern western state may refrain from law overtly addressing belief itself (though holocaust-denial laws now come close) but in reality the political elite will cooperate with its colleagues within civil society to foster and enforce a community of substantive ethical belief. This is normal political functioning, even within a “liberal” culture. The question then becomes which consensus will be enforced.

Linked to its realism about what states actually do, Catholic integralism still takes the metaphysics of law seriously. In particular, it is realist about the power of reason to move us. If the state has a distinctive authority, this is not because the state is something we as individuals put together simply as a protection-and-coordination agency. States arise in human life because we flourish socially, and because political institutions play an essential role in enabling reason to move us, facilitating our capacity to understand and respond to the bonum commune, the good of a community.

Nature and Grace, Church and State, and Religious Freedom

But though reason has the power to move us, that power can be obstructed, sometimes in ways that involve the very things that were supposed to enable it to operate. Bad arguments, bad political and legal structures, and bad laws themselves can all obscure justifications and stop us from being moved by them. Any metaphysics of reason as generally capable of moving us has to explain how this can happen and what can remedy the problem. It must explain not only how the power of reason moves us, but how it can also fail to do so.

Here Catholic integralism develops the natural law tradition in terms of a revealed theology. An account of humanity as fallen and of the possibility of redemption functions as part of such an explanation. Grace is the supernatural analogue of reason at the level of nature. Like natural reason, grace involves a power to move us to form attitudes to the true and the good as supernaturally revealed, and to take us to an end transcending nature: the vision of God in heaven. Yet grace also operates to repair nature damaged by the Fall and to restore our responsiveness to justifications naturally available to us. No wonder the scholastics could refer to grace as “a higher reason.”

Integralism’s proper ordering of church and state is an account, magisterially taught over many centuries, of what is required at the political level both to facilitate the mission of the church to take us to our supernatural end and to repair our responsiveness to reason at the level of a political community. A very basic implication of church–state union is that the state recognize that Christianity is true and that religion serves an end that transcends the sphere of natural happiness falling under the native authority of the state.

Integralism further involves a conception of the church as an authority over religion that replaces the state. The church is a sovereign potestas, with the authority to make laws and enforce these through punishments, just as is the state. Its authority is based not on natural law as is the state’s, but on the revealed law of Christ. Any interpretation of Dignitatis Humanae that denies this conception of the church as potestas over religion runs directly against the interpretation of that declaration given officially at Vatican II by the commission that drafted it. (For more on this, see my “Dignitatis Humanae: continuity after Leo XIII”.)

Matthew Shadle alleges against me that “DH does not treat the question of religious freedom as primarily a matter of jurisdiction, of who does and does not have the authority to use coercion in religious matters.” He must then explain this relatio or interpretive declaration by the drafting commission from September 1965, in the session just before the final vote, stating very explicitly the opposite. There the drafting commission declares that DH depends precisely on the fact that (as integralism teaches) there is indeed a coercive jurisdiction over religion, and that it belongs to the church and not the state:

For the schema [the declaration’s pre-vote draft] rests on the traditional doctrine of a distinction between two orders of human life, that is sacred and profane, civil and religious. In modern times Leo XIII has wonderfully expounded and developed this doctrine, teaching more clearly than ever before that there are two societies, and so two legal orders, and two coercive authorities (potestates), each divinely established but in a different way, that is by natural law and by the positive law of Christ. As the nature of religious liberty rests on this distinction of orders, so the distinction provides a means to preserving it against the confusions which history has frequently produced.

The state coercion of religion condemned by Dignitatis Humanae as inconsistent with human nature and dignity is so not simply as an exercise of power over religion, but as an exercise of power lacking jurisdiction.

The Secular State

It is tempting to suppose that there are two quite different kinds of state: an integralist state that prioritizes the good of the community, and a liberal state that fosters the autonomy of the individual. But perhaps the better view is that there simply exist states that serve the common good in a way that involves enforcing an ethical consensus. What might change is not the fundamental nature of the state in this respect, but how well this function is delivered and how well the nature of the state is understood by its own community. For integralism, in particular, these two things must indeed be related, insofar as a central function of the state is to facilitate the citizen-community’s understanding of its own good and how this is to be furthered. Where states are working defectively, ideologies are likely to arise that are highly detached from what states are really about. Modern political liberalism with its emphasis on autonomy may be one case. But there have been many others.

The regime of the United States was not fully approved of by Leo XIII. As he wrote in Longinqua, the lack of Catholic establishment should not be celebrated:

It would be very erroneous to draw the conclusion that in America is to be sought the type of the most desirable status of the church, or that it would be universally lawful or expedient for state and church to be, as in America, dissevered and divorced. . . . [The church] would bring forth more abundant fruits if, in addition to liberty, she enjoyed the favour of the laws and the patronage of the public authority.

But Leo XIII still approved of the American republic as at least granting the church liberty.

The American regime has often been cited against integralism as illustrating the benefits of church–state separation. But increasingly its current condition, with widespread civil legislation against natural law, is now being cited in integralism’s favour as illustrating the ills of political secularization. Perhaps this is because this regime’s history provides a complex halfway house.

Gerard Bradley, in his Public Discourse essay “Learning from Integralism,” uses America to oppose a specifically Catholic integralism. Bradley does allow that a healthy political community requires a religious establishment, but insists that this be restricted to rational monotheism, “natural religion,” and not extend to “sectarian,” community-dividing revelation. He argues that America once involved just such a revelation-neutral “natural” religious establishment. Any benefit from revealed Christianity came through the commitment of citizens as individuals, not through the recognition of specifically Christian truth in civil law.

We might doubt this, for commitment to Christianity arguably did extend to civil law. The commitment may have been imperfect in its source, a broad Protestantism, and in many of its political effects. Certainly, it involved no formal political recognition that Christianity was true. What then did it involve? Besides any respect for natural law itself, it involved something that is not a matter of natural law or reason, but of Christian revelation: respect in law for the status of religion as a genuine good, but one transcending state authority.

Religion under natural law is a distinctive good, the worship of God by a human community. But nothing in simple reason establishes religion so understood as a good transcending state authority. It is a communal good and susceptible of communal regulation, which is why the Catholic tradition has always insisted on there being some legal authority to govern it. Why then should the state not regulate religion for specifically religious ends, in the interest of the community, to privilege good religion over bad or no religion at all?

Reason does very plausibly support rights to liberty in matters of religion, as it does rights to liberty in relation to other important goods such movement. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the view that religion transcends state authority is certainly not the claim that people have rights to liberty in matters of religion as they have rights to liberty of movement. We have a very significant right to liberty of movement, but the good of movement certainly does not transcend state authority, which still regulates it through road and transport laws. By contrast, the claim that religion is a good that transcends state authority prevents the state from directing religion as it directs movement.

This view of religion as beyond the native regulatory competence of the state is a specifically Christian view, reflecting the raising of religion by Christ to a supernatural end above the level of nature governed by the state. That is why this view of religion is not only championed in Dignitatis Humanae but was taught before by Leo XIII in Immortale Dei, just as the Vatican II relatio insists. If this view of religion as a good transcending state authority has been widely shared within the American political community and respected in its laws and constitution, that may have been exactly because that community was once dominated by Christians living without an agreed church as understood in Catholicism, but willing to do something that integralism also requires: to base civil law on this matter of Christian revelation about religion.

With the waning of Christianity as a political force, this commitment to treating religion as a good transcending state authority can no longer be relied on. Post-Christian political philosophy increasingly calls for religion to be treated very differently, as no longer constitutionally distinctive in this way (for an argument that religion does not deserve special constitutional status, see Cecile Laborde’s Liberalism’s Religion). This is because, far from treating religion as a state-transcendent good, secular philosophy does not now treat religion as a distinctive good at all.

The philosophy that now celebrates the allegedly liberal state is liberty-respecting only superficially. Its real root lies in a highly naturalistic metaphysics. True, political liberalism proclaims that its account of justice is political, not metaphysical. But this neutrality about metaphysics is just as fictional as is its view of what states actually do. In fact, the so-called political liberalism of today emerged from early modern controversy about metaphysics—centrally about the nature of reason and its power to move us (for more on this see my Self-Determination and Ethics).

One of this liberalism’s important ancestors was Thomas Hobbes, who had no belief in any power of reason to move us. Like the non-rational animals, the only force that moved us into action was ordinary causation in material nature immediately operating on and through our desires. The state’s only function would then be to channel this force, where needed by threatening sanctions that were undesired. And so we arrive at the fictive conception of the state that Bernard Williams assumed: as incapable of regulating attitudes that are not voluntary, such as belief, and merely supplying restraint and coordination at the point of voluntary actions. Catholics certainly cannot adopt this metaphysical skepticism about the power of reason and the state’s essential role in its communication, any more than they can be metaphysically skeptical about the higher power of grace and the church’s essential role in its communication.