“Nations will be reminded by the annual celebration of this feast that not only private individuals but also rulers and princes are bound to give public honor and obedience to Christ. It will call to their minds the thought of the last judgment, wherein Christ, who has been cast out of public life, despised, neglected and ignored, will most severely avenge these insults; for his kingly dignity demands that the State should take account of the commandments of God and of Christian principles, both in making laws and in administering justice, and also in providing for the young a sound moral education.” –Pope Pius XI establishing the Feast of Christ the King, 1925
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I am of the opinion that it is the responsibility of prominent laymen, rather than parochial clergymen, to comment publicly upon the significance of electoral politics, especially insofar as such politics impacts the faith and morals of a nation. So, while clergymen should stay out of electoral politics, well-formed laymen should be at the forefront of promoting virtuous candidates for political office.
However, it is clear to me that many lay Catholics experience spiritual dilemmas resulting from the intensity of those political elections which pose the greatest challenges to the Natural Law and the Apostolic Tradition. These spiritual dilemmas, as described by many parishioners, can even have the effect of leading even the most resolute Catholics to question the omnipotence of God and the efficacy of God’s Church. With this pastoral reality in mind, I offer below my own reflections on politics, doing so more as a pastor of souls than as a normal political commentator. Specifically, let’s take a look at Liberalism, Integralism and evangelization.
In his 2018 book Why Liberalism Failed, University of Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen argues that the Liberal state is unable to sustain itself, due to the fact that by being true to itself, it cannot commit to any particular tradition of moral inquiry, and, therefore, such a state eventually sees its citizens collapse into an individualism that is so destructive to the human person that our human nature, as persons in relation, will inevitably drive us to rebel against the very constitutional order we imagine we prefer.
To be clear, the term “Liberal” is used here in its philosophical sense to refer to a constitutional order which protects the rights of individuals, specifically, the rights to “life, liberty and property”, and is philosophically opposed to Conservatism, which prefers either rule by landed aristocracy, or rule by an imperial bureaucracy. In the USA, both the Republican and Democratic parties are philosophically Liberal, emphasizing competing aspects of Liberalism, although modern electoral polemics have altered the term in the popular imagination.
An online journal called “The Josias”, edited by both a Cistercian monk and a layman, claims the most fitting political goal of Christians is the reconstitution of states in conformity not only with the Natural Law, but also with the Apostolic Tradition. Such a state is called a “confessing state”, and its supporting theology is called “Integralism”. Even in modern times, many states have officially, though always imperfectly, exemplified Integralism, including, for a time, the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, the various Italian kingdoms, and other smaller states (e.g. Malta, Liechtenstein and Monaco). Integralism has received considerable attention recently, especially after Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule took up the cause.
Integralism seems like a foreign concept to us in 21st century America, and it certainly is, but not so much as we think. Most American Catholics are “practical Integralists”, as becomes clear when we hear the laments of many parents and grandparents in the USA and throughout the West whose children and grandchildren have largely left the Church. In an Integralist society where Catholicism is the “default” faith, Catholics need only bear children in order to ensure future generations of Catholics, because the Integralist culture, created by the confessing state, prompts every level and lever of society to promote the official Faith. Most American Catholics are the product of immigration or migration from Integralist nations and regions—either Integralist states as such, or dependent nations and regions whose social leaders maintained effectively Integralist societies (e.g. British Ireland, pre-1960’s Quebec and pre-1960’s Catholic “ghettoes” in several US cities). This Integralism has not been part of the American Catholic experience for several decades now, but American Catholics have not yet been conditioned to pass on the Faith in novel but effective ways (to be clear, novelty has been alive and well in US Catholicism since the mid ‘60’s, but its effectiveness at passing on the Faith stands in question).
So, if Liberalism has failed—and there are plenty of moral indicators to support the claim that moral life in our Liberal republic is indeed failing—then Integralism becomes an attractive solution to stop the moral bleeding. More importantly, the salvation of souls is at stake, so a failed political philosophy, if that’s what Liberalism is, must be replaced as soon as possible, even with Integralism, so the argument goes.
Speaking as an American citizen and as a parish pastor, it seems to me that Liberalism has not failed, nor is Integralism the solution to our political or cultural ills. It is undeniable that Christian influence in the West is in decline, and has been for decades now. But I would argue that the only problem with Liberalism is the reluctance of Catholics to take seriously the mission of evangelization. Christ’s last words on Earth contain the fundamental mission of every Christian: evangelization. “Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.”
If Jesus meant what He said, and if we are serious about doing whatever He commands us, then we should be working to fulfill this mission of evangelization. An evangelized nation will produce an evangelized state, even if the state is not constitutionally founded upon the precepts of the Gospel, that is, even if the state is Liberal.
Catholic couples who evangelize will quickly discover how little they know about the Faith, a realization which promptly drives them to find out more about the Faith so they can share what they learn with others. I’ve found that I learn more from teaching than I do from being a student. Parents who evangelize will have children who witness the evangelical faith of their parents, and so, over the years, will come to know the friends, neighbors and coworkers of their parents who accept the invitation to convert to Catholicism. This dual witness of their parents and their parents’ converts will greatly strengthen the Catholic Faith of the children, who’ll grow up to continue the evangelical tradition of their parents.
Couple by couple, parent by parent, neighbor by neighbor, personal evangelization extends the reign of Christ the King into the minds and hearts of citizens, and into the legislative assemblies, the halls of justice and the executive mansions.
What about the dangers of proselytism? Pope Francis speaks frequently against “proselytism”, which should not be confused with evangelization, whether in evangelization’s original form, or in its ecumenical form. It’s not clear to me where all of these adults forced against their will to join the Catholic Church are, but the pope is concerned about it, so we must avoid doing it. But what is proselytism, and how does it differ from evangelization?
I’ll try to explain, using a 2007 Vatican document that treats the subject. “The Christian spirit has always been animated by a passion to lead all humanity to Christ in the Church. The incorporation of new members into the Church is not the expansion of a power-group, but rather entrance into the network of friendship with Christ which connects heaven and earth, different continents and ages.” (“Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization”, 9)
Also, “the Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, to which they tend as a universal and indistinct communion of all those who seek God, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God.” (Doctrinal Note, 9)
Further, “every free movement of the human heart towards God and towards his kingdom cannot but by its very nature lead to Christ and be oriented towards entrance into his Church, the efficacious sign of that Kingdom. The Church, therefore, is the bearer of the presence of God and thus the instrument of the true humanization of man and the world. The growth of the Church in history, which results from missionary activity, is at the service of the presence of God through his Kingdom: one cannot in fact ‘detach the Kingdom from the Church’.” (Doctrinal Note, 9)
Practically speaking, this means that “everywhere and always, each Catholic has the right and the duty to give the witness and the full proclamation of his faith. With non-Catholic Christians, Catholics must enter into a respectful dialogue of charity and truth, a dialogue which is not only an exchange of ideas, but also of gifts, in order that the fullness of the means of salvation can be offered to one’s partners in dialogue. In this way, they are led to an ever deeper conversion to Christ.” This dialogue, which we call “ecumenism” in its formal application, “does not remove the right or take away the responsibility of proclaiming in fullness the Catholic faith to other Christians, who freely wish to receive it”. (Doctrinal Note, 12)
This perspective naturally requires the avoidance of any undue pressure: “in spreading religious faith and introducing religious practices, everyone should refrain at all times from any kind of action which might seem to suggest coercion or dishonest or improper persuasion [proselytism], especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. The witness to the truth does not seek to impose anything by force, neither by coercive action nor by tactics incompatible with the Gospel.” (Doctrinal Note 12)
In conclusion, the Liberal political philosophy upon which the United States of America was founded remains the best guarantee of freedom for those Christians who accept Christ’s command to evangelize. And, there’s no need to take the lazy way out by promoting the reconstitution of ours or any other nation as an Integralist state. If we all leave Integralism behind and embrace Liberalism, we can then get to work evangelizing our friends, neighbors and coworkers in the secular sphere, knowing we have the highly influential power of God on our side as we do so. Together, we’ll extend the reign of Christ on Earth.
Now, go, and proclaim the Catholic truth to everyone you know!
Solemnity of Christ the King