The Truth About Integralism

Catholics who continue to insist that Vatican II ushered in a new springtime of rich fruits for the Church encounter embarrassing difficulties when it comes to assessing the pre-Vatican II Church of the early twentieth century. On the one hand, these orthodox Catholics who insist on uniformity and continuity cannot simply reject out of hand everything that came before Vatican II as the liberal-dissenting-progressives do; on the other hand, in order to maintain the proposition that Vatican II was necessary and has borne good fruit, they must find some sort of flaw or fault or deficiency with the pre-Conciliar Church that would justify the Council and its subsequent reforms. Thus, in an attempt to establish this via media, these Catholics have invented the dichotomy between a liberal modernism and a reactionary “integralism,” positing that the Church of Christ must steer a “middle course” between these two extremes. This middle course is represented by post-Conciliar Catholicism.

A Weigelian Dialectic

A prime example of this school of thought is Mr. George Weigel, who has consistently been trumpeting the rise of what he calls “evangelical Catholicism,” a movement he posits as a middle road between liberal progressivism and “restorationist” integralism. Never mind that all authentic Catholicism has always been evangelical! Weigel, taking the distinction between binding and customary traditions much too far, proposes that “What can be changed in the Church must be changed” and sees only a small core of fundamental teachings, aspects which he considers part of the Church’s “constitution” which should not be changed. The rest is up for grabs. [1] He mocks the pre-Vatican II doctrinal conservatism of such prelates as Cardinal Ottaviani, whom he uncharitably compares to former Obama HHS Director Kathleen Sebelius [2]. He scoffs at the idea that traditional Catholicism could have anything to offer the modern world, saying that “The challenge also won’t be met by Catholic traditionalists retreating into auto-constructed catacombs.” [3]

George Weigel

Central to Weigel’s thought is the presumption that Catholicism consists of two fundamental parts: a central core of eternal, non-changeable elements, which Weigel calls the Church’s “constitution,” and an outer core of practices, theories and cultural trappings which are time-bound and subject to change. Weigel creates a dichotomy between a liberal progressivism that seeks to change the Church’s fundamental “constitution” and a “neo-triumphalist restorationism,” which insists on strictly maintaining the outer core of the Church’s cultural trappings. Progressivism thus denies authority where it exists, while “restorationism” creates authority where it does not. The true Catholic, the “evangelical Catholic,” must walk the via media between these two extremes.

We, of course, do not deny that the Church’s tradition includes things both binding and non-binding; there is a hierarchy of truth, and not all teachings and practices are of the same authority. But what we do deny is that the central and the ephemeral, the necessary and the disposable, can be sorted out so neatly and with such ease. In fact, the whole tragedy of the post-Conciliar period consists of a vast underestimation of the degrees to which these “secondary” or ephemeral aspects of Catholicism (music, architecture, etc.) are actually deeply bound up with substance of the faith itself. Weigel, who states boldly that “What can be changed in the Church must be changed”, believes that what is central and what is secondary are so easily distinguished that one can partition them up with a fair degree of confidence. To use the tired cliché of “Big T” and Small T” tradition, for Weigel, the difference between the two is not a distinction but a chasm, into which “Small T” tradition can be discarded at will. Thus, in a dialectical movement back and forth between the poles of tradition and progressivism, the “evangelical Catholic” Church advances towards thew new synthesis of the “springtime of evangelization.”

What Weigel and the others of his kind have forgotten is that the Church is fundamentally understood as a Body, and in a Body, there is nothing extrinsic. Of course there are members of more or less centrality; a man can still live with no fingers, but he cannot live with no head. Yet, if we were to propose chopping all a man’s fingers off on the premise that they were “not necessary” for his survival, would we not be foolish to expect the fingerless man to do the same things he could before? And when we found, to our consternation, that the fingerless man could not write, play music, or do many of the things he was previously capable of before we chopped his members off, would we not be even more foolish to suggest the remedy was to further dismember him by chopping off his feet, ears, nose, and anything else not strictly “necessary” on the premise that what can be discarded in the Body ought to be? Yet this is precisely the folly Weigel and those who fail to understand the Church as a Body find themselves in.

The Origins of Integralism

During the pontificate of St. Pius X (1903-1914), that holy pontiff had waged unremitting war against the modernist heresy then raging within the Church. But, as opposed to today’s pontiffs who eschew any disciplinary action against heterodoxy, St. Pius X insisted on a thorough application of his teachings right down to the diocesan level. In speaking of Catholic professors and seminary directors, he wrote, “Anyone who in any way is found to be tainted with Modernism is to be excluded without compunction from these offices, whether of government or of teaching, and those who already occupy them are to be removed.” [4] The same holy pontiff also nullified doctorates obtained without courses in Scholastic theology [5], ordered the creation of special diocesan “Councils of Vigilance” to watch and report on the spread of Modernism within each diocese, [6], insisted on strict censorship of Catholic publications, and instructed bishops to employ priests suspected of Modernism “only in the lowest and obscurest offices” [7]. In other words, St. Pius X was not content to simply warn about the dangers of Modernism, but boldly wielded every tool at his disposal to extirpate this insidious heresy—and it was extirpated, for a time.

It was around this time that the term “integralism” was first used by French Catholics loyal to Pius X, who referred to themselves as “integral Catholics” (Catholiques integraux). The context was in reference to the debates about the relation between Church and State in the French Third Republic. In 1905 the Third Republic officially separated Church and State, doing away with many of the privileges of the Catholic Church and formally becoming a secular republic. This act itself was the climax of decades of anticlericalism in that country. The Catholiques integraux were loyal Catholics who protested at this severing of the State from the Church; they argued for a Catholicism that was integral —i.e., whole—which upheld the ancient tradition that, while the Church and State are two distinct spheres, the State must take its moral bearings from the direct or indirect influence of the Church. Those who advocated for the liberal concept of a secular State were rending the Church’s doctrine by negating her teaching on the proper relation between Church and State. It is not the purpose of this article to examine the Church’s teaching on this relation; it is sufficient to note that the Catholiques integraux protested against this separation and argued instead for a Catholicism that was embraced in its integrity—hence “integralists.”

Creating the Dichotomy

The shadow of Pius X hung heavy on the Church of the early 20th century. As long as those formed under Pius were in control, the theologians who sympathized with Modernism kept a low profile. The teachings of Bl. Pius IX and St. Pius X, enshrined in encyclicals and bolstered by the highest authority, could not simply be thrown out or denied. Ironically, however, the Modernists did manage to strike the dictates of Pius X with the same argument conservative Catholics would later use with reference to Vatican II: it wasn’t the teachings of Pius X that were problematic, but their implementation.

Thus, while the fundamental principles elucidated by Pius X were affirmed, it was argued that the Church had gone too far enforcing them, been too strict on the Modernists, and had thus been guilty of perpetuating a “fortress Church” mentality, which was unhelpful in modern circumstances. While maintaining the truths of the faith, the Church nevertheless needed to heed “the signs of the times” in recognizing that the manner in which the Church proposed its truths needed to be brought up to date. During the period immediately preceding Vatican II, “signs of the times” became a neo-Modernist code-phrase for “updating the Church.” By the 1950’s, the zealous and intransigent orthodoxy of St. Pius X was an embarrassment to the nouvelle theologie school of thought, whose influence was waxing in the decade leading up to Vatican II.

To return to the argument against the implementation of Pius X’s dictates: It became common in the 1940’s and 1950’s to attach the label “integralism” to those who favored the strict approach of Pius X and who still refused to accept the regime of pluralistic liberal democracy. Progressive Modernism was still acknowledged as heretical, but the nouvelle theologiens also began trotting out critiques of an “integralist” counter-reaction which allegedly went too far in the other direction and could not be a suitable response to the demands of modern man. The nouvelle theologiens thus labored to create a dichotomy between ultra-progressive liberalism and an ultra-reactionary integralism, the implication being that “authentic Catholicism” was somewhere between the two.

A classic example of this sort of argument can be found in Hans Urs von Balthasar, the poster-child of the nouvelle theologie. Balthasar saw progressivism and integralism as two aspects of the same problem. He wrote:

[The] program of Christian progressivism is curiously close to that of its opponent, Christian integralism….Both, ultimately, have reduced the problem of power between God and the world, between grace and nature, to a monistic form which is easy to handle and can be managed by men. [8]

As we have seen, Weigel and the neo-con Catholics today adopt the same position, assuming a dichotomy between integralism and progressivism, then positing a kind of via media between the two as the proper Catholic position. In reality, this via media allowed leeway for the nouvelle theologiens to teach separation of Church and State, the praiseworthiness of non-Christian religions, the primacy of religious experience over religious knowledge, the “hope” of an empty hell, the theory of the single source of Revelation, and all sorts of other novelties that had been rejected only years before.

Monsignor Fenton’s Rebuttal

By pushing a newly fabricated “center,” the whole edifice of Catholic thought was pushed towards progressivism. Those who were simply loyal Catholics in 1907 now found themselves attacked as fringe “integralists” in 1967; the ground had shifted under them. Cardinal Ratzinger, though a nouvelle theologien at the time, said he later experienced a similar phenomenon as the Church continued to drift into liberalism throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Commenting on this shifting ground in The Ratzinger Report (1985), Ratzinger famously declared “I did not change; they changed!” [9]

Ratzinger, of course, was one of the most eminent of the nouvelle theologie school, and the irony of one of the nouvelle theologiens complaining about the Church evolving when they themselves created the rupture that facilitated the evolution must be appreciated. But it gives us an insight into the plight of loyal Catholics of the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s who were increasingly marginalized by a resurgent Modernism which relentlessly portrayed them as part of a reactionary fringe and labeled them “integralists.”

Joseph Clifford Fenton (Author of Laying the Foundation)
Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton

One prelate who refused to fall for this tactic was the American Jesuit Msgr. Joseph Clifford Fenton. Fenton (d. 1969), a priest of the diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, was professor of fundamental dogmatic theology at the Catholic University of America and editor of the American Ecclesiastical Review for twenty years (1943–1963). He is considered one of the most outstanding American Catholic theologians of the 20th century, serving as a peritus for Cardinal Ottaviani at Vatican II. He was also Secretary of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an indomitable foe of Modernism. The pre-Conciliar popes heaped honors upon Msgr. Fenton: The Holy See named him a papal chamberlain (1951), a domestic prelate (1954), and a protonotary apostolic (1963). A recipient of the papal medal, Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice (1954), he belonged to the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy and served as a counselor to the Sacred Congregation of Seminaries and Universities (1950–67). He was also known for his virulent opposition to the teachings of John Courtney Murray, S.J. on the separation of Church and State.

Fenton was no lightweight, and he recognized the nouvelle theologie’s false dichotomy for what it was. Rejecting the notion of Modernism and integralism as two opposite extremes, he attempted to bring some sanity back to the discussion by noting that integralism was essentially just Catholicism:

“[The inattentive Catholic] might possibly come to the dangerously false conclusion that modernism and integralism, as we know them, are two contrary false doctrines, one, as it were to the left, and the other to the right, of genuine Catholic teaching. Nothing, of course, could be farther from the truth. Modernism, in the technical language of Catholic doctrine, is the name applied to the definite series of errors condemned in the decree Lamentabili sane exitu, the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis, and in the motu proprio Sacra antistitum. Pope Pius X spoke of Modernism as the “conglomeration of all heresies.”

Integralism, on the other hand, is essentially the teaching or the attitude of those who worked for the presentation of an integral Catholicism, of Catholic dogma set forth accurately and in its entirety. Most frequently the name of integralism was applied to the doctrine and the viewpoint of those Catholic writers who entered into controversy against the modernists during the first decade of the present century. Understood in this fashion, integralism was nothing else than the contradiction of heretical modernism. It was thus basically only the exposition of Catholic truth.” [10]

Thus, integralism is “basically only the exposition of Catholic truth.” In other words, integralism is a word describing Catholicism unified across all fields of human activity. It is Catholicism applied.

It was, of course, the progressives and neo-Modernists who first started using the term “integralist” in a pejorative sense. It is supremely ironic that it is today taken up by those who profess to champion the interests of the Church, such as George Weigel. They are utilizing a false dichotomy created by Modernist innovators who sought to disassociate the intellectual element of faith from the experiential, to embrace modern liberal pluralism, and to destroy the authority of the Church’s tradition. They did this by asserting that Pius X had gone too far in his persecution of Modernism, and labeled those who agreed with the Pian attacks on “the conglomeration of all heresies” as “integralists”, thus creating a false dichotomy of two extremes whilst positing a new via media. This via media was supposed to be the path of mainstream Catholicism, though in reality it was a via media the popes and saints of yesteryear would have considered dubious. Thus, the whole ground shifted under the feet of the faithful, and those who simply retained an integral approach to the faith became extremists while the progressive nouvelle theologie became mainstream.

It was a bait and switch, perhaps the greatest ever fostered upon the human race—a bait and switch so clever as to be diabolical.

[4] St. Pius X, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, 48 (1907)
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid., 55
[7] ibid., 40
[9] V. Messori and J. Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).
[10] “Two Currents in Contemporary Catholic Thought”, in American Ecclesiastical Review (1948), cited in Roberto de Mattei, The Second Vatican Council: The Unwritten Story, pg. 63-64

Phillip Campbell, “The Truth About Integralism,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, November 12, 2013. Available online at