Catholic Politics in the Modern World: Liberalism and Integralism

I. Introduction

The political and cultural discourse of today is marked by inflammatory rhetoric rooted in identity politics, defamation, and personal slandering. This modern discourse, especially in the United States, challenges John Courtney Murray’s ideal notion of a “civilized and civilizing” public argument through which a free society can flourish.[1]The political and cultural climate of today is essential for any Catholic to consider, as it has immediate implications on the Church’s wellbeing in the West. Today, there is a kind ofressourcementamong Catholics, but this ressourcement is not the same as the one that preceded the Second Vatican Council.[2]Indeed, it is a return to the pre-conciliar, Tridentine Church. For some Catholics, the pre-conciliar Church and her relation to politics can be an example for how the modern Church should approach politics today. This pre-conciliar model could be surmised by a simple proposition: “where possible, Catholicism should be confessed not only by private individuals but by the state, which should legally privilege and protect it as the true religion.”[3]However, this view is not necessarily mainstream, as many argue that the Second Vatican Council altered this pre-conciliar model and does not see it as befitting for the modern era.[4]For convenience, those who prefer the pre-conciliar model will be referred to as “integralists” while those who desire the post-conciliar approach will be referred to as “liberals” (in the classical sense).

An article published in First Things entitled “Against David French-ism” (May 2019) encapsulates the tension between the integralists and liberals. In the article, the Catholic journalist Sohrab Ahmari criticizes the classical liberal perspective of David French.[5]And although David French is not a Catholic himself, his views represent the views of many Catholic intellectuals. Ahmari’s primary attack on David French is his civil, “nice” approach to politics which, according to Ahmari, is meaningless in today’s political climate.[6]Those who despise Christian morality do not play by the traditional rules of civic discourse; instead, their approach to discourse is nothing but ad hominem and public manipulation.[7]Ahmari says French’s approach does not suffice to combat those who are uncivil. Ahmari suggests instead that the only way “to fight the culture war” is with “the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”[8]To the modern ear, this re-ordering of the public square comes across as fascist and authoritarian. But did Ahmari have a point? If public disagreement always descends into chaos, how can peace and justice be preserved? The culture must be ordered toward the highest good, otherwise man’s lower instincts become normative and corrupt civilization. This is indeed a difficult problem and one that penetrates to the very heart of Catholic political thought.

There is no doubt that the liberal ideals that helped found the modern Western world are being challenged. Furthermore, it is these liberal ideals that were largely endorsed by Vatican II and the post-conciliar Church. The challenges to democracy and liberalism today place tremendous pressure on the Church, and it demands returning to the original Vatican II documents to see with what resources the Church has provided the world to structure and form a just, equitable society. Today’s political climate demands a creative response from Catholics. The teaching of the Council Fathers, along with the popes, furnish a proper response to modern political culture. The response incorporates both integralism and liberalism: it holds true to the inherent dignity of the human person (liberalism), while also preserving the criticism of previous popes against liberalism (integralism). What brings liberalism and integralism together is the concept of integral human development. This development begins with the culture, and it ends in a politics ordered toward the common good. This proposition can be framed as “liberalismfor the sake of integralism.” To demonstrate this as a realistic, Catholic proposition, it is necessary to examine the pre-conciliar, nineteenth century Church (the integralist position), the conciliar Church (the liberal position), and how these two positions synthesize today.

II: The Integralist Position: The Church of the Nineteenth Century

The Roman papacy, especially after the Protestant Reformation, depended on pious, loyal monarchs throughout Europe to cultivate political conditions that would strengthen the Catholic Church.[9]But with the advent of the French Revolution, “the Church faced a wholly new social situation.”[10]The “former system of state churches slowly gave way to secular democracies that were at best indifferent and at worst hostile to religion.”[11]France lost so much of its political order that was rooted in the Catholic Church due to the Revolution, which meant the Church lost so much of its authority over secular affairs. The anti-clericalism that plagued France as a result of the Revolution caused the Church to be skeptical of any new political development that smelled of the Enlightenment philosophy that inspired the Revolution, and this attitude determined the course of the Catholic Church throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.[12]

To better understand why the Church was so worried about the rise of liberalism, it is necessary to define what exactly Enlightenment-inspired liberalism is. A great place to look is the father of modern liberalism: Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[13]Rousseau says, “Man is born free, and is everywhere in chains.”[14]What are these chains? They are everything: Church, morality, and even family.[15]Society itself is founded upon a free choice of individuals.[16]“Freedom,” in this sense, is essentially the freedom of choice in all things—it is freedom from being coerced. Now consider how Leo XIII defines freedom in his encyclical, Libertas Praestantissimum(1888). Leo XIII argues for freedom as it relates to the practice of virtue. Man’s intellect and will are what make him a free creature (man is the master of his own actions) and allow him to act virtuously.[17]Consequently, to sin or err is not freedom, but bondage, since “he [who sins] acts in opposition to reason, is moved by another, and is the victim of foreign misapprehensions.”[18]This is why human law ought to align herself with Magisterial teaching so that it may curb those things that impinge on the freedom of virtue, such as public proclamation of erroneous teaching or religion.[19]This approach to liberty is not freedom from(like Rousseau), but freedom forvirtue. A man who is vicious is not free because he cannot act according to reason; his base passions and desires are like chains that command him. If public law permitted its citizens to freely practice vice, it would no longer have free citizens, but enslaved ones. Therefore, many nineteenth century popes believed civic laws that prohibited heresy would be expedient for society if it truly wished to be free and virtuous.[20]

Leo XIII’s understanding of freedom reflects the thought of many other
nineteenth century popes, which is why the Church desired earthly rulers who are Catholic and loyal to the papacy, as this would create a culture where Catholicism could thrive and more souls be saved. Furthermore, in the temporal order, the Church was the sole guarantor of social peace and stability. This view is seen well in other pontificates, such as Popes Gregory XVI (Miari Vos), Pius XI (Quanta Cura, Syllabus of Errors), and Pius X (Pascendi Dominici Gregis).The idea that the Catholic Church, and more specifically the papacy, must be a direct influence over temporal, political affairs is articulated well by Joseph de Maistre, a lay Catholic who lived through the French Revolution and was one of its most vocal critics.[21]He says:

Wherever there prevails any other religion than the one Catholic faith, slavery maintains its ground; and wherever this religion falls into decay, the nation becomes, exactly in proportion, less susceptible of liberty in general.[22]

This view from Joseph de Maistre surmises well the Church’s own fear with the rise of liberalism and revolutions. True liberty, according to the Catholic Church, is obedience to God’s law, not license to do whatever one pleases.[23]Joseph de Maistre is a great figurehead for integralism, as he recognizes that nations that do not submit to the papacy cannot expect true justice or liberty.

III: Catholic Thought in Transition

Not all pre-conciliar popes were radically opposed to liberalism. Renewed political thought within the Catholic Church came through the pontificate of Leo XIII. Leo XIII may appear to be an odd figure, since he was “as opposed to Liberalism in all its forms as were his predecessors.”[24]Nevertheless, “he made decisions that mitigated some of their more extreme positions.”[25]For example, Leo teaches in Libertas Praetantissimum (1888)that so long as it does not harm the common good, the Church “does not forbid public authority to tolerate what is at variance with truth and justice, for the sake of avoiding some greater evil.”[26]So whereas prior pontificates mostly taught in absolute terms that tolerance of evil is prohibited because it would corrupt public morals,[27]Leo changes this perspective to see that tolerance of evil in society may be expedient for the maintenance of peace. The Church, Leo insists, must enjoy the exercise of her own liberty by “persuasion, exhortation and entreaty” so she may “fulfill the duty assigned to her by God.”[28]Leo XIII is offers a new strategy for politics. Instead of relying on a temporal authority (such as a king) to bring about a Catholic culture and politics, Leo says the Church needs to be the voice of reason and conscience to the nations of the world, especially those that prefer a liberal form of government. It is through exhortation and persuasion that the Church informs politics; it is not through the sword, coercion, or social privilege. While the Church was certainly not in full endorsement of liberalism, there is no doubt that Leo XIII blazed an important trail (especially when his other encyclical, Rerum Novarum, is considered).[29]

IV: The Liberal Position: Vatican II and the Post-Conciliar Church

The two documents from Vatican II that definitively shifted the Church’s approach to politics are Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes. Together, these documents articulate a Catholic form of liberalism; hence, they can rightly represent the “liberal” perspective, as opposed to the integralist perspective. For example, Dignitatis Humanae highlights how “Contemporary man is becoming increasingly conscious of the dignity of the human person.”[30]Acknowledging this new awareness, the Council Fathers affirm that the “human person has a right to religious freedom” which means they “should be immune from coercion.”[31]No one can be forced into religion, even Catholicism. Indeed, “Truth can impose itself on the mind of man only in virtue of its own truth, which wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.”[32]It is only “by personal assent that men must adhere to the truth they have discovered” and man cannot “act contrary to his conscience.”[33]All of these points are meant to accommodate a liberal, democratic culture—a culture that espouses freedom from as opposed to freedom for virtue. The Council Fathers recognize that true religious piety does not come through the external form of a Catholic state; true faith only comes through personal assent and obedience to conscience. So although individual consciences can be evil and use freedom for bad ends, the Church must protect individuals from coercive action on behalf of the state (freedom from), so long as the inaction of the state does not compromise the common good.[34]The change in the political paradigm from the nineteenth century cannot be clearer. Rather than aspiring for a Catholic king loyal to the papacy or civic laws that are in perfect concord with God’s law, the Council demonstrates how liberal principles such as religious liberty and freedom of conscience are fundamentally Christian, as they respect the dignity of the individual.

This new political paradigm is continued by the Council Fathers in Gaudium et Spes. For example, the Fathers speak of how “Through loyalty to conscience Christians are joined to other men in the search for truth and for the right solution to so many moral problems.”[35]The pluralism of modern society means that Christians must join in sincere dialogue with non-Christians and cultivate a spirit of civic discourse that pursues moral truth for the sake of the good ordering of society. This public discourse is possible because not everyone has to be a Catholic in order to live a civil life; non-Catholics can follow the dictates of their conscience and the natural law.[36]The Council Fathers affirm that freedom is the necessary prerequisite for cultivating a just society: it is “only in freedom that man can turn himself toward what is good.”[37]Therefore, it is only in an environment where free inquiry is protected that a dialogical process can occur with all men, and if Catholics believe the truth will always be God’s truth, they have nothing to fear from political dialogue with non-Catholics. All of these principles are based upon the Council’s teaching that there is a real autonomy in temporal affairs, because by “the very nature of creation, material being is endowed with its own stability, truth and excellence, its own order and laws.”[38]Human reason, unassisted by revelation, can order society prudently and make good laws. Therefore, one need not have a “Catholic state” to have just laws. The Church has an impact on political society not by “external power exercised” but through “effective living of faith and love.”[39]And this approach is what in fact makes the Church truly “universal”—“it is not committed to any one culture or to any political, economic or political system.”[40]

It would seem that the Church has entirely changed its approach to politics after Vatican II. Although the embrace of liberalism is truly a change in paradigm, it does not necessarily mean that all the teaching that preceded it is meaningless. Indeed, the Council fathers confess in Dignitatis Humanae that the Church “draws forth new things that are always in harmony with the old.”[41]Furthermore, they add that the new teaching “leaves intact the traditional Catholic teaching on the moral duty of individuals and societies towards the true religion and the one Church of Christ.”[42]But how exactly does this new teaching combine with the old in modern politics?

V: Catholic Politics Today and the Concept of the Integral

Some years have passed since Vatican II, and the world today is in a very new political climate. Liberalism—which the Council Fathers were quite optimistic about—appears to be failing in the public square. Unjust laws are made that are an offense to true human dignity. Religion is almost entirely excluded from the public square. Despite these hardships, the popes following Vatican II used the principles laid out in the Council to address modern political concerns, especially through the Catholic social thought of their encyclicals. One such topic that offers an excellent response to problems within liberalism is the concept of the “integral.” In Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers call for a human culture that will “develop the whole human person harmoniously and integrally.”[43]This integral development of the human person takes into account that man is not only a man of temporal concerns, but also that his ultimate meaning is rooted in his supernatural calling to beatitude. Therefore, a political order must be in place that facilitates the realization of man’s true calling.

The pontificates following Vatican II have elaborated on the concept of the integral. For example, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in his Caritas in Veritate (2009) calls for integral human development in love and truth.[44]This integral development applies to “both the natural plane and the supernatural plane,”[45]and when the supernatural is neglected, there exists a “dehumanized form of development.”[46]Therefore, it is incumbent upon all who are interested in authentic development to integrate the religious dimension of man into the social order. This view is also echoed by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ (2015). In his encyclical, Francis speaks of “integral ecology,” which means that social life is comprised of various “ecologies” that are interrelated—such as the environment, economy, and culture.[47]Furthermore, these ecologies are closely related to the “common good,” which allows “social groups and their individual members” to find fulfillment.[48]Francis continues to say that “society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good.”[49]Thus a key question arises that gets at the very heart of the political dilemma today: how exactly does the state promote the common good in a way that does not impinge upon an individual’s freedom to choose his or her “own good” according to the dictates of his or her own conscience? If personal freedom is the “common good,” then all that is left is will power and anarchy. If the state asserts a definitive good that is evil, then tyranny is the result. These are the tensions in a modern democratic context.

Benedict XVI suggests that the state does in fact have a concern for truth (reflected in its laws) which promotes the common good.[50]This does not mean the state must be a confessional Catholic state; it means, at the very least, that the state protects “ethical truth” which is “indispensable to democracy.”[51]“Freedom requires contents,” and without positive prescriptions towards the good (i.e., good laws), individual freedom “dissolves into thin air.”[52]The problem today is that the state does not furnish a prescription of what is good—what functions as “truth” and “goodness” in modern democracy is the “decision of the majority.”[53]A liberal society that exults personal freedom as the ultimate end of man is a sick society (the worry of the pre-conciliar Church). A state that tyrannically imposes religious obligations on people is a violation of an individual’s conscience (the worry of the post-conciliar Church).

What Vatican II offers politics is liberalism for the sake of integralism by articulating the idea of integral human development. True religious faith is a matter of personal conscience—it cannot be imposed by the state. If Catholics desire a state that allows Catholicism and her social principles to flourish, then Catholics need to admonish, instruct, and evangelize the public square. Furthermore, Catholics need to be engaged in public life as politicians, lawyers, and judges to promote Catholic social teaching for the sake of the common good. It is in this way that Catholicism is integrated into modern political life. Catholics ought to use the mechanisms and institutions of liberalism to rise to positions of political power and use that power to conform laws to Catholic teaching in so far as the laws harmonize with natural law, and are therefore acceptable to everyone in a pluralistic society. If the culture becomes Catholic, politics will become Catholic. Instead of the top-down model of the Tridentine Church (i.e., Catholic confessional state led by a monarch), Catholics must work from the bottom-up to convert the culture (liberalism) and rise to political influence (integralism). Returning to the abovementioned conflict between Ahmari and French, it is clear that they are both right in many ways. Catholics and religious conservatives need to work within a liberal framework (French’s position), and it is by working within the liberal framework that Catholics can order the public square according to the “Highest Good” (Ahmari’s position). It is impossible to return to the pre-conciliar model of Church politics. Vatican II offers the key to understanding how traditional Church teaching on politics can adapt to the modern world by safeguarding the role of religion and virtue for integral human development, while also respecting the inherent dignity of the individual by appealing to the conscience with truth instead of coercion.


[1]John Courtney Murray, S.J.,We Hold The Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition(New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 27.

[2]Robert Royal, A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century(San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015), 118.

[3]Thomas Pink, “In Defense of Catholic Integralism,” Public Discourse, August 12, 2018, accessed July 21, 2019,

[4]Robert T. Miller, “Integralism and Catholic Doctrine,” Public Discourse, July 15, 2018, accessed July 21, 2019,

[5]Sohrab Ahmari, “Against David French-ism,” First Things, May 29, 2019,accessed Jul 21 2019,




[9]Christopher Dawson, The Dividing of Christendom (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 208.

[10]Robert Royal, A Deeper Vision,21.


[12]Timothy W. O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 54.

[13]Christopher Dawson, “Civilization and Morals,” in Dynamics in World History (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2013), 49.

[14]Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract or Principals of Political Right,” in The Essential Rousseau(New York: Meridian Books, 1975), 8.

[15]Ibid., 9.


[17]Pope Leo XIII, “Libertas Praetantissimum,” trans. Paulist Press, in The Popes Against Modern Errors (Charlotte: TAN books, 1999), 84.

[18]Ibid., 85.

[19]Ibid., 89.

[20]Pope Leo XIII, “Diuturnum Illud,” in The Popes Against Modern Errors, trans. Paulist Press, 41.

[21]Thomas Garret Isham, Contra Mundum: Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition(Kettering: Angelico Press, 2017), 61.

[22]Joseph de Maistre, The Pope: Considered in His Relations With the Church, Temporal Sovereignties, Seperated Churches, and the Cause of Civilization(London: Forgotten Books, 2018), 241.

[23]Pope Leo XIII, “Libertas Praestantissimum,” in The Popes Against Modern Errors, 89.

[24]Timothy O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 62.


[26]Pope Leo XIII, “Libertas Paretantissimum,” in The Popes Against Modern Errors, 103.

[27]Pope Pius IX, “Quanta Cura,” in The Popes Against Modern Errors, 17.

[28]Pope Leo XIII, “Libertas Praetantissimum,” in The Popes Against Modern Errors, 104.

[29]Timothy O’Malley, What Happened at Vatican II, 63.

[30]“Dignitatis Humanae,” in Vatican Council II:The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, new revised edition, ed. Austin Flannery, OP, trans. Laurence Ryan (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014), 799.

[31]Ibid., 800.


[33]Ibid., 801.

[34]Ibid., 805.

[35]“Gaudium et Spes,” in Vatican Council II, trans. Ambrose McNicholl, OP, 916.

[36]“Nostra Aetate,” in Vatican Council II, trans. Father Killian, OCSO., 739.

[37]“Gaudium et Spes,” in Vatican Council II, 917.

[38]Ibid., 935.

[39]Ibid., 942.


[41]“Dignitatis Humanae,” in Vatican II, 799.

[42]Ibid., 800.

[43]Ibid., 960.

[44]Benedict XVI, “Caritas in Veritate,” in Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis, ed. David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, 3rd ed. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016), 534.

[45]Ibid., 538.

[46]Ibid., 534.

[47]Pope Francis, “Laudato Si’,” in Catholic Social Thought, 635.

[48]Ibid., 640.

[49]Ibid., 641.

[50]Benedict XVI, “Truth, Values, Power,” in Faith and Politics, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 134.


[52]Ibid., 132.

[53]Ibid., 135.


Ahmari, Sohrab. “Against David French-ism.” First Things.May 29, 2019. Accessed July 21 2019,

Benedict XVI. “Caritas in Veritate.” In Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis. Edited by David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon. 3rd edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016.

———.“Truth, Values, Power.” In Faith and Politics. Translated by Michael J. Miller. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018.

Dawson, Christopher. The Dividing of Christendom. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009.

———. “Civilization and Morals.” In Dynamics in World History. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2013.

“Dignitatis Humanae.” In Vatican Council II:The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. New revised edition. Edited by Austin Flannery, OP. Translated by Laurence Ryan. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014.

“Gaudium et Spes.” In Vatican Council II:The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. New revised edition. Edited by Austin Flannery, OP. Translated by Ambrose McNicholl, OP. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014.

Isham, Thomas Garret. Contra Mundum: Joseph de Maistre and the Birth of Tradition. Kettering: Angelico Press, 2017.

Leo XIII. “Libertas Praetantissimum.” In The Popes Against Modern Errors.Translated by Paulist Press. Charlotte: TAN books, 1999.

———. “Diuturnum Illud,” In The Popes Against Modern Errors. Translated by Paulist Press.

Maistre, de Joseph. The Pope: Considered in His Relations With the Church, Temporal Sovereignties, Seperated Churches, and the Cause of Civilization.London: Forgotten Books, 2018.

Miller, Robert T. “Integralism and Catholic Doctrine.” Public Discourse. July 15, 2018. Accessed July 21, 2019,

Murray, John Courtney, S.J. We Hold The Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005.

“Nostra Aetate.” InVatican Council II:The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents. New revised edition. Edited by Austin Flannery, OP. Translated by Father Killian, OCSO. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2014.

Pink, Thomas. “In Defense of Catholic Integralism.” Public Discourse. August 12, 2018. Accessed July 21, 2019,

Pius IX. “Quanta Cura.” In The Popes Against Modern Errors.Charlotte: TAN Books, 1999.

Pope Francis.“Laudato Si’.” In Catholic Social Thought: Encyclicals and Documents from Pope Leo XIII to Pope Francis. Edited by David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon. 3rd edition. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. “The Social Contract or Principals of Political Right.” In The Essential Rousseau. New York: Meridian Books, 1975.

Royal, Robert. A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s