Adrian Vermeule, left, a legal scholar from Harvard University, and Kevin Vallier, philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University. Vermeule photo from Wikipedia, Vallier from Bowling Green State University

Two sides of integralism, never shall they meet

  • November 4, 2023

On Oct. 26, two American professors on opposite ends of a buzzy political philosophy called “Catholic integralism” gave lectures to separate, eager audiences at McGill University. Though the men are more than primed for a public sparring, Montreal didn’t prove to be a site for Adrian Vermeule and Kevin Vallier to meet in the ring.

Vermeule is a legal scholar, the Ralph S. Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard Law School. A convert to Catholicism in 2016, he has since become perhaps the most public of the public intellectuals associated with integralism.

Integralism is an idea, if not yet a movement, that has found favour with a certain stratum of Catholic youth. It argues that as Church and State should both be ordered to the common good, and that as the highest of those ranked goods is the salvation of souls, the Church has the authority to direct the government in spiritual matters. Church and State should be integrated in the aims and methods of governance of its citizens — in both physical and spiritual matters.

In broad terms, integralism stands in opposition to small-l liberalism, the idea that the State exists for the protection of individual rights.

In a 2023 article, Vermeule wrote, “The only intellectual movement on the American scene that is genuinely political is so-called integralism or, as I think a more accurate term, political Catholicism.”

In the last couple of years, in a shift first marked by a 2020 article published in The Atlantic, Vermeule has merged his basic argument for integralism with that for what he has termed “common good constitutionalism”

Publishing a book of that title in 2022, it was also the title and topic of his lecture on Oct. 26, given at the invitation of the Runnymede Society and hosted at the Newman Centre of McGill.

Vermeule’s “common good constitutionalism” is sketched out in opposition to the theory and practice of “originalism,” the notion that constitutional meaning was fixed at the enactment of the (American) Constitution.

“Such an approach — one might call it ‘common-good constitutionalism’ — should be based on the principles that government helps direct persons, associations and society generally toward the common good, and that strong rule in the interest of attaining the common good is entirely legitimate,” Vermeule wrote in The Atlantic.

Earlier in the day, a stone’s throw away from Newman at the Graduate Studies building, Vallier, addressed a group of political science and philosophy students and colleagues. The lecture was part of a series sponsored by the Research Group on Constitutional Studies. Charles Taylor, the lauded Montreal philosopher and author of The Secular Age, was present for the event.

Vallier is a philosophy professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and the author of a new book, commissioned by Oxford University Press, All the Kingdoms of the World: On Radical Religious Alternatives to Liberalism.

After a note-less, historical overview of the trajectory of integralism, what he called the “the life, death and resurrection of an idea,” Vallier tendered three critiques, pithily summed up as, “you can’t get there, you can’t stay there, and it’s unfair.”

Calling integralism an illiberal notion that is “bad in theory and worse in practice,” Vallier argued firstly that “one cannot transition from a modern democratic state to integralism without violating Catholic moral teaching.” Secondly, “even given favourable conditions, integralism will collapse.” And finally, Vallier asserted that “integralism unjustly coerces the baptized, even in the ideal.”

This last point is the flipside of a common criticism of integralism that predicts it would become theocratic in practice but is consistent with Vermeule’s own 2018 admission that the Catholic “State would exercise coercion over baptized citizens in a manner different from non-baptized citizens.”

Apart from an off-hand reference made by Vallier to “a well-known professor from Harvard,” the two men did not acknowledge each other in their respective lectures. The term “integralism” was hardly mentioned by Vermeule, whereas Vallier spoke with a good deal of excitement about the foment elicited by the discussions and debate around the idea, saying, “There is a lot of energy in the young for political theology.”

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