In the past few years there has been renewed interest in the relationship of church and state among religious conservatives. A Naked Public Square—a separation of religion from public life, of religiously informed morality from the law—is a non-starter. But should religious believers accept the ideal of an institutional separation between church and state? Does an institutional separation inevitably lead to a Naked Public Square? In the American context, is the separation of church and state to blame for the sidelining of religion in public life, and for the moral drift that gave us abortion on demand, the redefinition of marriage, and our transgender moment? Can religious “neutrality” ever be achieved, or will the state act on the basis of some comprehensive doctrine no matter what, in which case better for it to be acting firmly and directly on the basis of the truth? Is integralism—be it conservatively Catholic or progressively secular—inevitable?

Recent essays at Public Discourse have sought to think through some of these questions. This collection highlights several of the essays that deal specifically with the philosophical and theological questions surrounding the relationship of church and state, and the viewpoint that has come to call itself integralism. At PD this most recent round of discussion was launched by Joseph Trabbic, a professor of philosophy at Ave Maria University. In “The Catholic Church, the State, and Liberalism,” Trabbic argued that “a Catholic confessional state is the ideal, even if in most modern situations it’s not a practical possibility, and prudence would steer us away from it.” He went on to argue “that that teaching continues to be normative for Catholics” and “that the principled liberal demand for a separation of church and state remains in conflict with Catholicism.”

Trabbic’s essay inspired a round of discussion. First there was Chris Tollefsen’s essay “Can States “Confess” Religious Belief? Should They?” Tollefsen, the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina, considered the rightful authority of the state to promote the political common good and how this applied to the man’s religious flourishing. He concluded that a “confessing state exceeds the limits of its authority, either by acting to no good effect, or by acting contrary to good effect. Thus, the confessing state seems inappropriate as a matter not simply of prudence, but of principle.”

Next there was Robert Miller’s essay “Integralism and Catholic Doctrine.” Whereas Tollefsen argued the philosophical point about the state’s authority, Miller, a professor of law at the University of Iowa, argued on the basis of Catholic teaching. Miller reached a stark conclusion: “Catholics today are not required to believe in a Catholic confessional state. If anything, they are required to believe that everyone has a right under the natural law to religious freedom, that the state has no authority in religious matters, and that coercion of religious activity by the state is morally wrong. In short, integralism is contrary to Catholic doctrine.”

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Responding to both Tollefsen and Miller, Thomas Pink next weighed in with his essay “In Defense of Catholic Integralism.” Pink, a professor of philosophy at King’s College, London, explored both papal teaching and political philosophy on the authority of the state and argued that recent experience confirms the historic wisdom of integralism: “States that do not recognize both natural law and the transformation of law and public reason brought about by the raising of religion to a supernatural good will become confessors of false belief opposed to Christianity, and their great power will turn from supporting Christianity to opposing or even repressing it, especially in relation to its moral teaching.”

But what is the status of that historic teaching? Was it infallibly taught? And is it still taught today? Miller collaborated with systematic theologian Lawrence King, who wrote a dissertation on magisterial teaching, to author the next PD essay on these themes, “On Integralism, Religious Liberty, and the Authority of the Church: 19th Century Popes and 20th Century Popes Disagreed.” Here’s how they summarized their research:

on our view, a few nineteenth-century popes taught something as Catholic doctrine, and then Vatican II and all the post-conciliar popes taught something different, also as Catholic doctrine. This involves a change in the Church’s non-infallible teaching, which has happened more than once in the Church’s long history, and so creates no serious issue in the theology of the Church and its magisterium. One of us (Miller) thinks that the older teaching was false and the newer is one true; one of us (King) is uncertain where the truth lies, which is entirely permissible since Catholics are not absolutely bound to assent to matters of doctrina catholica and may disagree with them in appropriate cases.

Several months later, taking up a different thread in the discussion, Matthew Shadle explored Catholic teaching on religious liberty. In “Religious Freedom, the Church, and State Coercion,” Shadle, a professor of theology at Marymount University, concluded that “state coercion in matters of religious practice is a violation of the person’s inherent dynamism toward truth in freedom, unless that coercion is aimed at preventing conduct that violates the natural law (what [Dignitatis Humanae] calls ‘the just demands of public order’) rather than religious practice qua religious.” Shadle noted, however that this conclusion does not prevent the Church from “appealing to Christians’ consciences to shape public policy or even using the coercive means available to it for the same purpose (for example, withholding communion from politicians who steadfastly support abortion).” Nor does it absolve the state from its “obligation to create ‘conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life,’ as DH itself affirms.” What it does require, he concludes, “is the recognition that those favorable conditions must include religious freedom if they are to be consistent with human dignity.”

Notre Dame law professor Gerry Bradley next entered the discussion with an essay titled “Learning from Integralism.” Bradley argued that many arguments from integralists “include spot-on diagnoses of many pathologies affecting our political community” and that their “prescriptions—short of actually ‘establishing’ Catholicism—are often correct.” He argues, though, that instead of establishing Catholicism, political authority should promote what he called “natural religion”—the truths about God knowable by reason. And, Bradley argued, this is precisely what the American Founders did: “public authority could and should promote religion and partner with religious institutions for projects that are conducive to the common good, without coercion and without partiality toward any particular faith or sect.”

Responding to Shadle and Bradley, Thomas Pink contributed “Integralism, Political Philosophy, and the State.” Pink’s essay offers an account of what integralism is really all about. As he argues, integralism “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.” Of particular importance to Pink is highlighting a true metaphysics of reason, and thus of law. Doing so, Pink argues, highlights how “integralism 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.” It also shows “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.”

We offer these essays collected here to help you as you discern where the truth lies.