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In the face of the failures of their political traditions to grapple with the problems of our time, American Catholics are willing to try almost anything. And indeed they have, oscillating between positions as extreme as the pious retreat from demonic power of The Benedict Option of Rod Dreher and the authoritarian embrace of power of the new integralists. In his new book, All the Kingdoms of the World¸ Kevin Vallier engages with Catholic integralists, but he opens a bigger question: Is there such a thing as a Catholic politics?

All the Kingdoms of the Worldby Kevin Vallier

Oxford University Press
320p $30

Vallier positions himself as a political liberal trying to come to grips with integralism—in other words, as someone committed in principle to something like the liberal distinction between religion and politics grappling with a system of thought that rejects that separation. (The website The Josias, which describes itself as “a manual of Catholic Integralism,”explicitly grounds the central conclusion of integralism, that “the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power,” in terms of “rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life.”) He offers an example of the rich fruits to be had from sympathetic, charitable engagement with a body of thought with which one disagrees.

Integralists have particular reason to be grateful to him. In giving the benefit of the doubt to the integralists, Vallier has made a strong case for them, identifying areas where they need to buttress their arguments. Tellingly, while internet trolls have denigrated Vallier and his project, some thoughtful thinkers associated with integralism have already engaged this book charitably and profitably, most notably Thomas Pink.

Vallier’s fellow political liberals are also in his debt. Since the end of the Cold War, it has become common for pundits to remind each other that “religion is back.” But Vallier does more than repeat this mantra. He has taken the next logical step: entering into the world of religious thinkers who do not take liberalism as a given. Rather than dismissing the integralists as unreasonable, marginal or ideological, he offers an account of integralism as not only cogent but responsive to the desires and aspirations of a wide variety of people today. He builds up integralism not to tear down liberalism but to prepare liberals for the challenges ahead. He urges them not to be complacent about that future.

But the book was perhaps most highly anticipated by a third group of readers: Christians who are fully committed neither to integralism nor liberalism. Where does it leave them?

This is where Vallier has the fewest answers. His message to them runs something like this: Integralism represents a faithful rendering of the Catholic tradition on politics, but it is no longer available to us today. He suggests they take up a hybrid model of integralism and the Benedict Option, a localist integration from below that is friendly to liberalism. This option will not be particularly attractive to many, and one wonders if he leaves them where they started: liberalism as the only game left in town, vulnerable to its next would-be successor.

Vallier knows that integralism is at least in part a response to a popular fear and hunger that liberalism has not fully succeeded in satisfying, which is why his book does so much more than “unmask” the integralists. The book might sound an alarm for Christians whose ideological commitments to liberalism render the allure of integralism opaque.

Catholic readers of All the Kingdoms might disagree on a crucial question: Does Vallier overstate the warrant for integralism in the Catholic tradition? I believe he does, but I also recognize an answer to that question hinges on a host of other controverted themes: the nature of the church; the possibility of doctrinal development and change; the nature of tradition; the nature of politics and practical reason; the correct interpretation of “Dignitatis Humanae”; and of course, the nature and trajectory of modernity, liberalism and democracy.

But this tradition has been woefully neglected for some time. Is there such a thing as Christian political theology? Supporters of integralism certainly think so. Its Christian critics who champion a liberal alternative often do, too. But the evidence is mixed.

Many Christians act as though the Gospel offers a full program for political life. Others see it as apolitical—if not anti-political. The third, most interesting camp sees Athens and Jerusalem in a dialogue through Rome. Pope Benedict XVI, for instance, saw a Christian theology of politics as a mutual, critical dialogue between faith and reason. Among other things, that mutual dialogue helps faith to see through reason that much of what it takes as unchanging principles are, in fact, contingent states of affairs, because politics itself is contingent. And faith helps reason to see its tendency for hubris, to recognize the need for humility in fashioning social arrangements.

In this view, the Gospel has profound implications for our common life here and now, and leads us into ever-fruitful dialogue between faith and reason. But it does not offer any instant recipes for politics, much less a long list of immutable principles—the traditions around political thought are invaluable, but much of what we thought was sacrosanct simply is not. There is no “political theology” in the sense of a systemic program readily applied to politics. Neither a tightly unified system nor a laundry list of unrelated items, the tradition of Catholic political philosophy, like Catholic thought in general, is grounded in deep truths that we tend to forget, distort and clumsily reclaim, leading us to oscillate between polar oppositions.

It is here that meaningful inquiry into politics really begins for Christians. While I appreciate Vallier’s modest proposal for a reconceived Benedict Option, what we need is something at once more modest and more ambitious: something that will not seek to distill a political program from the Gospel but will take the breadth and depth of human experience, both active and contemplative, in the light of faith and reason. It will have to find room to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the person, truth, reason and community, both political and ecclesial—even if such themes do not always sell books or win votes. It must also continue the task of reckoning where it finds itself, following rare lights like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor. In short, it will have to wrestle with the dynamics of being in and not of the world, and living in a particular time and place even as we are called to a faith in a God who is Lord of the universe.

Thanks to Vallier’s thoughtful work, integralism looks a great deal like a system to be dropped onto politics, not unlike naïve strains of social contract theory or Marxism. It is, to be sure, a retrieval of aspects of Catholic tradition that reminds us of how little most of us know of that tradition. But, like too many forms of political Catholicism, it plays into pathologies of modern reason in its claims that practical reason can speak with the certitude and universality of theoretical reason, as though politics were geometry. It is not.

As a student of the late James Schall, S.J., I like subtitles. Vallier’s is On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism. But integralism does not turn out to be such a radical alternative.

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