The concept of Catholic integralism divides opinion.
In the world of online Catholicism, one of the big ongoing debates of the moment is about integralism, which is the view that – as Wikipedia helpfully has it – “the Catholic Faith should be the basis of public law and public policy within civil society”.
Leading contemporary integralists, such as the Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule, argue for a political and legal regime in which the Catholic Faith is privileged and protected by the powers of the government and in which Catholic moral teaching forms the basis for law-making. This was the case in the later Roman Empire and throughout most of Europe until the Reformation, although integralism as a conscious political standpoint emerged only in parts of Catholic Europe during the nineteenth century, in reaction to the aggressively anti-clerical and secularising politics of the era.
The problem is that politics cannot avoid adjudicating metaphysical or ethical claims.
The debate about integralism is complex and contentious, and there are strong arguments both for and against it. One important truth highlighted by its supporters, such as Vermeule, is that secular liberalism, the dominant political theory in many Western countries, is a scam. (Secular liberalism emphasises the separation of the Church and the state.)
“Scam” is a strong word, so let me expand. The alleged basis of secularism is that we should have a level playing field between all religious claims and that no one religion should enjoy any legal privileges. For example, the British National Secular Society argues against Church of England prayers before the proceedings of Parliament and against public funding for NHS chaplains. The idea is not that the state should be anti-religion, or that it should prohibit religious practice, but that it should not promote any particular religion, whether through word or deed. As the First Amendment of the US Constitution puts it, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.
To refuse to take a position on whether Sunday should be treated as a special day is, inevitably, to take a position on whether Sunday should be a special day.
The problem is that politics cannot avoid adjudicating metaphysical or ethical claims, even if it doesn’t want to and even if it does so implicitly rather than explicitly. Take Sunday trading laws, which restrict the number of hours for which most shops can open on Sundays. Many secular liberals would say that it is not for the state to tell businesses when they can and can’t open, to tell people what days they can and can’t work (on the Sabbath), and therefore that the proper government position should be one of total neutrality on the question. But this is surely a kind of sophistry. To refuse to take a position on whether Sunday should be treated as a special day is, inevitably, to take a position on whether Sunday should be a special day. If my children ask me whether they can play football in the living room, and I say “I’m not sure, it’s up to you”, that is effectively a permission slip. Either football in the living room is permitted, or it is not. I cannot escape responsibility for permitting it by saying that I don’t mind either way.
The same applies to other areas, such as official attitudes to sexual activity among young people. For example, since the notorious Gillick ruling in 1985, UK law permits health professionals to prescribe contraceptives to girls under 16 without parental consent. This is sometimes defended on the grounds that it is not telling young people what to do, but simply making sure that they are “safe” and “informed”. But again, this is itself implicitly based on a viewpoint about the moral implications of sexual activity. The refusal to present moral judgments about sex is itself a moral judgment about sex.
Or consider abortion. The secular liberal will say that it is not for the state to say exactly when life begins, or to interfere in individual decision-making about this question, and that therefore the proper neutral position is the permissive one. In this way of thinking, the government is not pro-abortion but simply opting out of a position on abortion altogether. But again, permissiveness is not neutrality. If there is no rule against living-room football, then the head of the household is objectively in favour of living-room football.
The essential point is the one made by G. K. Chesterton a century ago, when he noted that all arguments are – in the final analysis – theological arguments. We cannot avoid taking stances on the ultimate questions in life, and it is useless to pretend that we can. As Catholics, let’s have the courage to stand not merely for individual choice or for an ephemeral “neutrality”, but for a full-fledged vision of what is really good for individuals and society.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.