MASSIMO FAGGIOLI. A Church within the Church. Behind the new integralism is the old intransigentism. (La Croix International, 9.1 2019)

“They build a Church within the Church … while making of their views a dogma. I am not defending myself against them, but against what I would call their schismatic spirit.” John Henry Newman on integralism.

At the 1867 universal exposition in Paris, the Papal State chose to be represented by a catacomb. It was a time when the papacy, which had already lost the majority of the Papal State and would also lose Rome in 1870, was apocalyptic about the future of the Church in the modern world.

At the same time, the Catholic laity were entering a new age of mobilization and engagement with that same world, with the encouragement of the Catholic hierarchy, which knew it had lost much of its direct influence on modern society.

Today, during Pope Francis’s pontificate, we see something like the opposite situation: a pope who preaches “the joy of the Gospel” and has little time for nostalgia, and a rising cohort of Catholic intellectuals (a minority in the Church but especially active in the United States) who are looking forward to the 19th century.

The debates in conservative and traditionalist circles in the English-speaking Church — and in the United States particularly — provide a stark contrast to this pontificate’s view of the relationship between the Church and the modern world.

Some rather musty theological isms are once again circulating. There is, for example, a new wave of ultramontanism that looks to an idealized conception of Rome for its points of reference. There is also a related resurgence of integralism, inspiring conferences at the University of Notre Dame and Harvard.

The new integralism takes a step beyond the more tentative Catholic post-liberalism, or the simple proclamation of the crisis of liberal Catholicism. Integralism is the attempt to imagine for the Catholic Church — but also for the world in which the Church lives — a future that rejects the “liberal” separation between temporal and spiritual power, and subordinates the former to the latter.

According to Sacramentum Mundi (Encyclopedia of Theology), integralism is “the tendency, more or less explicit, to apply standards and directives drawn from the faith to all the activity of the Church and its members in the world. It springs from the conviction that the basic and exclusive authority to direct the relationship between the world and the Church, between immanence and transcendence, is the doctrinal and pastoral authority of the Church.”

Here one can detect a subtle difference between the classic definition of integralism and its 21st-century variety. This new strain is focused almost exclusively on the political realm. In fact, what it resembles most is another phenomenon of 19th-century Catholic culture: intransigentism — the belief that any concession to, or accommodation with, the modern world endangers the faith.

Theological tradition

Unlike mere conservatism, which values elements of the past and seeks to preserve them, intransigentism rejects the modern outright and pre-emptively. This has consequences for the theological thinking of Catholics who today call themselves integralists, traditionalists and ultramontanists. For these Catholics, the past 60 years — and especially Vatican II — either do not matter at all or matter only if they can be interpreted as a confirmation of the Church’s past teaching.

This is, among other things, a misreading of what Pope Benedict XVI had to say about continuity. While he stressed the continuity of the Church itself as a single subject extended throughout history, that does not necessarily mean that all doctrine remains constant. Church documents that are key to understanding how the theological tradition works in the Catholic Church, especially the four constitutions of Vatican II, are not really part of the culture of this intransigent worldview. Typically, this theological culture reads the conciliar declaration on religious liberty, Dignitatis humanae, as if it were perfectly in accord with the church’s previous teaching on that topic.

The new intransigentism celebrates Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864) and its refusal to adapt to modern times. The Syllabus aimed its fire at four modern developments: the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the liberal state. Even then there were common roots between theological intransigentism, legitimism (sacral legitimacy of political power) and legal traditionalism (as opposed to constitutionalism). Today’s Catholic reactionaries would add one more target: Vatican II, understood as the church’s capitulation to modernity and the liberal order.

It is interesting how different the liberal Catholicism of the 19th century is from the liberal Catholicism of today, and how similar the Catholic intransigentism of the 19th century is to the intransigentism of today. Liberal Catholicism today is much more accepting of individualistic, bourgeois society than it was in the 19th century, when it had a more prophetic edge.

But intransigentism hasn’t really changed much in the past 150 years, especially when it comes to the question of the confessional state — a question on which the Church’s official teaching has changed during this period. It would be interesting to ask the proponents of this kind of Catholicism what they make of the plight of Catholics who have to live as minorities under integralistic non-Christian confessional regimes, and why those Catholics do not seem to be so afraid of liberalism.

Everyone interested in this subject should read what Yves Congar wrote about it in a famous appendix to his 1950 book True and False Reform in the Church. (Interestingly, Congar decided not to publish this appendix on “integralism and right-wing mentality” in the second edition of his book in 1969, and the same decision was made for the English translation published in 2011.)

Congar addressed the affinity of this kind of Catholicism for the political right, grounded in the dream of restoring a monarchical order, or at least an authoritarian one. Integralism and right-wing mentality converge in the tendency to condemn all that appeared after a certain date in history.

Congar listed eight elements that are typical of the integralist mentality: pessimism about human nature; belief in the need of strong authority; distrust of doctrinal development; an inclination to make sure Catholicism does not become too easy; an emphasis on dogmatic formulas over the subjective reality of faith; a preference for deductive reasoning over inductive reasoning; ecclesial authoritarianism; and the idea that the ecclesiology of the Church should be shaped not by the mystical dimension but by a rigid hierarchy.

Integralism, continues Congar, is not a heresy because it chooses orthodoxy and hierarchy. But Congar observed: “An exaggerated emphasis on orthodoxy can also be a way of leaving Catholicism.” And he added the words of John Henry Newman about integralism: “They build a Church within the Church … while making of their views a dogma. I am not defending myself against them, but against what I would call their schismatic spirit.”

* Massimo Faggioli is professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University in Pennsylvania in the United States. His most recent book is ‘Catholicism and Citizenship: Political Cultures of the Church in the Twenty-First Century’ (Liturgical Press, 2017).

La Croix International, Jan. 9 2019.


Massimo Faggioli is professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University.

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3 Responses to MASSIMO FAGGIOLI. A Church within the Church. Behind the new integralism is the old intransigentism. (La Croix International, 9.1 2019)

  1. Michael Flynn says:

    Thank you for the opportunity to read the true narrative of Massimo Faggioli and the comments. I see the issue of ” competence of episcopal conferences ” as relevant to the Catholic Church in Australia as we move to the Plenary Council in 2020 in Adelaide. I mean the legislative competence under the Code of Canon Law decreed by Pope John Paul II in 1983 and not the performance in fact of the Bishops as reported by the Royal Commission and the response. Pope Francis could, if we asked him and presented a serious text drafted by local canon lawyers and supported by our Bishops, decree in 2021 as Roman Pontiff personally that our episcopal conference made laws here.

  2. carey burke says:

    Massimo Faggioloi acquaints the reader with the new wave of Integralism and instransigentism favoured by a “rising cohort of catholic intellectuals” who envisage a church different to the Francis model. Unfortunately, Massimo’s preoccupation with canvassing 19th century antecedents leaves some recent elements unattended.

    Sixty years ago the Roman Catholic Church was wedded to a “perfect society” model of self understanding, affirmed by Pius XII in Mystici Corporis. It had refused to engage with the philosophical movements of the modern era and relied on a worn version of Thomism to express its beliefs. The Penny Catechism dispensed unqualified certainty to seven year olds as they approached their first experiences of Confession and Communion; discourse with Protestants was discouraged and reminders of their heretical status were frequent; the overseas missions were promoted as the one true hope of pagans; Adult Catholics showed their allegiance by attending Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and supporting the local fish and chip shop each Friday, while unbaptised infants lurched into limbo, unless they had the good fortune to have encountered a Catholic midwife.

    The ecclesial renovation which was Vatican II and its immediate aftermath challenged these and other understandings, modified many and catapulted some into the oblivion they deserved.

    A process which displeased a young Polish bishop who always voted no in preliminary ballots. The same process, belatedly, upset a young theologian who purged his liberal inclinations with a thesis that the present is best served by the constraints of the past. This duo, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, embarked on some old time integralism accompanied by regular outbreaks of intransigence – especially when any of the following were mentioned: liberation theology, Humanae Vitae, women in ministry and the competence of national episcopal conferences.

    With two popes running interference on Vatican II achievements for the next thirty three years, conservative intellectuals could afford to sit back and enjoy the ride. Their current resurgence is a tribute to Francis’ efforts to reignite the fires of reform and renewal. Bring on the debate!

  3. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Having read little J H Newman, I admit, I confess that I didn’t know there was a word for it: Integralism.
    This (‘church within a church’) stratagem has been used invidiously to take control of the dispersed, & fragmented policies of dispersed and fragmented Aboriginal Australia –
    they, the People, call it: ‘divide and conquer’. It is second-nature to second-rate bureaucracies.
    It is still working, to notorious effect, as we speak, in remote communities, if not elsewhere – &, probably, elsewhere.
    Thanks, as The People say, ‘for the Clue.” !

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