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Postliberalism, Integralism—What Does It All Mean? by Charles A. Coulombe

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Postliberalism, Integralism—What Does It All Mean?

"Blind Men and the Elephant," Meiji period (1868–1912), located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This netsuke (miniature sculpture originating in 17th century Japan) is a rendition of a Japanese allegory on truth and interpretation. A group of six blind men endeavor to describe an elephant, however their attempts are thwarted as none of them are able to describe the entire animal.

Against the background of unrest, unease, and governmental incompetence on both sides of the Atlantic to-day, a number of relatively new and seemingly allied “-isms” have made their appearance across the Western World. The summer of 2020, with its bizarre combination of dictatorial lockdowns for the law-abiding and license to burn, riot, and steal for those so inclined was a watershed moment for many. So too was the lockstep endorsement of these measures by the various ecclesiastical establishments—which included depriving their faithful of the Sacraments (a measure Catholics who still believe in their efficacy to be an intolerable act). While Her Majesty’s Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand governments made her subjects in those realms virtual prisoners, the electoral overthrow of President Trump—setting aside the question of its authenticity—signalled a triumphant return to power for the Democrats. These latter, having cheered on the rioters during the hot, hot summer of burning love mere months before, found a similar (if much smaller and far less destructive) outbreak on Capitol Hill to be an intolerable attack upon the very foundations of the American republic. Presumably the burned-out ruins and scores of lost lives in at least a dozen cities across the land were nothing in comparison. Meanwhile, the shrill orgy of attacks on the very foundations of Western culture and all those historical figures who have spread it around the World has continued to echo through learned societies, academia, media, and bureaucracy, all under the ironic name of ‘Woke.’ 

There was some welcome slight relief, of course, in the easing of the COVID restrictions perhaps best symbolised by the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations (even as those around her Coronation in 1953 presaged the end of wartime rationing in Britain). But of course, a new crisis broke out earlier this year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its unwelcome revelation that the one major ruler of a World Power who employed decent rhetoric was not above a quick snatch-and-grab. Alas, his fiercest opponents were also often the most furious wavers of the rainbow flag; whilst ordinary folk try to make sense of it all, innocent Ukrainians (and for that matter, Russians) continue to die.

In the face of all this, our certainties regarding Conservative and Liberal, Right and Left, and much else are up for grabs. Major corporations, once upon a time seen as bastions of Conservatism, or at least Anti-Socialism, have become the foremost apostles of Wokery in their advertising (save in the Near East, where the fat cats are all too aware it would destroy their bottom line). The less said about the current Pontificate in this case the better, although it might well have won the approval of Julius III. In the United States, the American Civil Religion, once a glue that all sides of the political spectrum held in common, has been reduced to a quarry of slogans for the Republican Party; their Woke opponents have turned on it like Unitarians renouncing Calvinism. Woke denunciation of the United States as the most evil nation in history is the flipside of American exceptionalism. Our Western European cousins have seen their various Christian Democratic parties jettison both Christianity and Democracy in order to become government employment providers; the British and Canadian Conservatives have undergone a similar transformation. In a word, voters (where votes have any meaning) everywhere outside Central Europe are offered just two choices: hard Woke and soft Woke.

So it is that the afore-mentioned alternatives have appeared to fill the ideological gap between disgusting and loathsome. It might well be argued that the current scene offers the reductio ad absurdam of a revolution that arguably began in 1517; having successively and successfully defeated altar, throne, and family, it has turned its sights on reality itself. So it is that various thinkers for various reasons have begun to try to mount a coherent response to—and defence against—this hideous strength. They are certainly united in their intelligence and good will. But they are separated by several things. Firstly, even as the revolution has had successive stages over the past six centuries, so too has its resistance: the Medieval Guelphs and Ghibellines would no doubt have united against Luther, even as he and St. Ignatius Loyola would have bonded against Robespierre. As each stage of revolt moved on, elements of it that had become “Conservative” by decades of custom often formed part of the resistance to the next revolution. Thus, while modern-day opponents of our current upheaval must mine the powerful historical deposit of counter-revolutionary thought for inspiration, that deposit is rife with contradictions: Catholic versus Protestant versus Orthodox; Monarchy versus Republic; centralism versus localism; free trade versus protection; and on and on.

Moreover, each of these counter-revolutionary thinkers analyses the situation from a different perspective; that is to say, each having different national origins, educations, careers, they have first experienced this world-historical horror in a setting peculiar to them, and in a context different to that of many of their colleagues. Some are theologians, others are academics of varying disciplines, still others are politicians, journalists, or economists. In trying to make sense of the current madness, it is easy for anyone to be like the blind men with the elephant: able to correctly describe the part of the animal they are actually touching, but hard-put to really grasp the entirety—and ready to argue with those who describe other parts.

So it that there have emerged some spirited, and occasionally nasty, disputes within their ranks. Because I know many and respect these folk, I am not going to identify the particular quarrels nor their proponents. But I shall list some of these good people, regardless of the sides they make take in particular internecine squabbles, and then go on to consider what the reasons for these quarrels may be. So here we go, in no particular order: Pater Edmund Waldstein, Adrian Vermeule, Patrick Deneen, Thomas Storck, Thomas Crean, Sohrab Ahmari, Larry Chapp, Alan Fimister, Conor Casey, Chad Pecknold, Josh Hammer, Gladden Pappin, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Gray, David Goodhart, Christophe Guilluy, Phillip Blond, Adrian Pabst, Aidan Nichols, Christophe Bouffin de Chosal, David Engels, John Millbank, and Matthew Crawford. There are of course many others. Doubtless some here listed would object to being placed here with this company. But, as I say, I know and like a number of them, and respect the rest. Nevertheless, let us proceed to see where they agree, and where they find grounds for disagreement.

The agreement is actually vast, and may be summarised in two words: Common Good. For all of these thinkers, the end of the State is NOT, as in Liberalism, simply to allow the greatest number to pursue whatever they wish with a minimum of murder and mayhem toward one another—essentially a negative role. Rather, to the State or more particularly to government, falls the task of assisting its citizens to achieve the highest mutual good—always keeping in mind that every job should be handed by the lowest possible level (such folk being generally very fond of subsidiarity). 

Here the question of what constitutes the Common Good becomes paramount. For most if not all of our thinkers, the Common Good includes not being slaughtered in the womb or the Old Age home; a decent standard of living connected on the one hand to good labour but also not permitting starvation in the streets; a general and uplifting standard of education, culture, and exposure to nature that allows the individual to reach his highest potential; stable families wherein such individuals may be nourished and formed; a network of intermediate bodies that not only assist the individual and the family in their respective quests for the good life, but also elevate the community as a whole; and government that provides sufficient internal and external security of various kinds to permit of these goals being accomplished. So far there is primarily both accord in the ranks and undying opposition to the current Woke elite. But there is disagreement on one important area, that of the highest good: the eternal salvation of the individual. 

The reasons for this dispute are historical. At the Last Supper, amongst other things (such as establishing the Mass and Priesthood), Christ united the Davidic Kingship to which He was heir with the Communio of the Church. This was something of which His earliest disciples were keenly aware. When such countries as Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia became majority Christian nations, their national identities as well as their Monarchies became bound up with their new Faith. This same connexion was established by Theodosius the Great over the whole Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380. From this time on, Roman Citizenship as well as membership in the Church was conferred by Baptism. The theory remained the same in that Empire’s succeeding Eastern and Western incarnations; in Constantinople as well as Aachen, Viscount Bryce’s words regarding the Holy Roman Empire were true: “…the Holy Roman Church and the Holy Roman Empire are one and the same thing seen from different sides; and Catholicism, the principle of the universal Christian society, is also Romanism…” This “universal Christian society,” the Res Publica Christiana, included not only all the Western Catholic Nations, but despite 1054, the Eastern Orthodox ones as well, as shown by the Crusades (the Schism would not become seeming implacable until 1462, at the behest of the triumphant Turkish Sultan).

What all of this meant for each of the polities (they were hardly modern states) in this assemblage was that the notion of the Common Good as earlier described, derived ultimately from Greek, Roman, Jewish, and Christian ideas, was capped by a perceived highest good. That was the duty of the temporal authorities to assist the Church in her spiritual mission of saving the souls of the faithful, who were themselves the only full citizens of the polity, which was itself the local temporal expression of Christendom. This is why the parish—from Ireland to Russia—was the lowest level of spiritual and temporal government alike, with responsibilities in both spheres. Moreover, as the Emperor, Kings, Dukes, Counts, and so on down to the bailiffs and manor lords were responsible for protecting the faithful from external threat, to them also fell the role of protecting their peoples from the internal contagion of heresy. This contagion was seen by most people during the ages of Faith to be as vile as Holocaust denial in our society to-day, and its persecution at least as popular among the majority. The denizens of every age find certain ideas—or denials of ideas—disgusting and dangerous.

With the Protestant revolt came a division. Now, large numbers of Christians in each realm were set against the majority, and essentially lost their citizenship. It might be pointed out that in Spain, Portugal, and the Italian States, where the Inquisition monitored not only heresy but morals, the bloody religious civil wars that convulsed France, Germany, and the British Isles were avoided. The latter conflicts, which unleashed horrors in the name of Faith, spawned a religious indifferentism; from this came the Enlightenment, and thence the French and other Revolutions, with their horrors in the name of Freedom, for which far more have died than the name of God. During the 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and Latin America, various groups of Catholics and Protestants resisted these progressive movements, and from these groups in turn developed different groups of what were just as variously called Conservatives, the Right, Legitimists, and Integralists.

The United States of America, however, were sui generis. Initially produced by a civil war among supporters and opponents of a Monarchy itself both Protestant and Liberal, they started their national life without the European/Latin American equivalent of Conservatism, etc. That highly elastic word came to mean what were called elsewhere called Liberals, while in time that latter terms came to mean folk who elsewhere would be Socialists. A common civic religion was invented which granted sacred status to the new country’s institutions, and in which all Americans could participate, while a second civil war created a partial alternative faith for Southerners. The common dogma of this religion was the “pursuit of liberty.” One remnant of the States’ European origins was a common moral consensus, which gave the national faith an anchor. This splintered in the 1960s, cutting the civil religion adrift, and in the end leading us to where we are.

Divisions among the sort of thinkers we have been describing tend to revolve around how each of them puts religion—and especially Catholicism—in relation to the Common Good; to what degree they hold to which adumbration of Liberalism; and what role the American experience plays in their worldviews. These are not small things. But in the interests of amity and sanity, I would like to point out three important facts to those concerned with such arguments. First, that the most hard-boiled proponents of a Catholic Confessional State are only too aware that the arrangement they consider ideal was itself the product of centuries of organic development in places where the overwhelming number of people had the Faith. Far from wanting to impose a kind of Catholic sharia upon an unwilling captive population, they are aware that what they want will take the same kind of evangelisation that the great apostles and missionaries of the Church’s first thousand years put forth. 

Secondly, for all that the American experiment was certainly riddled with Calvinism, Deism, Unitarianism, and Masonry from its inception, it also allowed Catholics the freedom to evangelise. It is our fault that we settled for respectability and getting two nominal members of our Church into the top government job. Had we American Catholics had the same love of country our ancestors had for theirs, we would have a very different situation to-day.

Beyond those considerations, however, I wish to offer a very practical note to consider from Viktor Orban. This is one of the 12 reasons he offered for his party’s success in Hungary:

Our opponents, the progressive liberals and neo-Marxists, have unlimited unity: they have one another’s backs. By contrast, we conservatives are capable of squabbling with one another over the smallest issue. And then we wonder at how our opponents corner us. We do indeed possess intellectual sophistication, and we care about intellectual nuance. But if we want to succeed in politics, we should never look at what we disagree on, but instead look for our common ground.

As it stands, our masters sacrifice our unborn to Moloch, destroy the innocence of those of our children who do survive, and enjoin the profanation of marriage. If our squabbles strengthen them, we are their unwitting partners, no matter how unwillingly.

Charles A. Coulombe is a columnist for the Catholic Herald. His most recent book is Blessed Charles of Austria: A Holy Emperor and His Legacy (TAN Books, 2020). It was reviewed in our Winter 2020/2021 print edition. He is also a Contributing Editor to The European Conservative.