Catholic Integralism, Pervasive Putinism and the Assault on Democracy

The unholy marriage between postliberal theology and legal conservatism accounts for one reason that the animating spirit of today’s ‘integralism’ has been so resilient. Its exponents have shown Americans that they will not let something as insignificant as democracy stand in their way of transforming America, even if it means belabouring the political theology of the Middle Ages and forthrightly endorsing a conception of the state that some would call totalitarian.

For far-right Catholics and moderates alike, it should not be surprising if their vision of the future shines a promising light on integralism. Catholic integralists fundamentally reject the liberal political order and seek to reassert the sacred power of Church authority into the social order as a means of uniting the temporal and spiritual domains of humankind. Some integralists are vehemently anti-globalist, reject religious and ethnic pluralism and multiculturalism, and desire to place strict limits on immigration. Yet all integralists seek to reorder church-state relations in the form of a theocracy ruled by the universal Catholic Church under which all politics must be submitted for judgement. All political authority is to be subordinate to the Papacy. The universal human community, which is ordered by the Universal Catholic Church, represents a higher good than does any nation-state. Subordination of the nation-state to this higher good is mandatory. Electing leaders by democratic voting is seen as an outmoded, hidebound civic practice that only gets in the way of true Christian justice (despite the best efforts of Republican voting restrictions, jurisdiction stripping, and gerrymandering). True justice begins with the creation of a confessional Catholic state, one that exceeds the call for the creation of a virtuous citizenry, or a deeply held theistic faith, or living each day the truth of biblical morality. With integralism, the state is the living truth and manifestation of the law of Christ. In their apparent yearning for moral unity, pagan empires were viewed as a preparation for the coming of the true empire of God. But the means whereby the Church compelled pagans and heretics to embrace the true faith were not exactly Christ-like.

Integralists oppose the proponents of liberal globalism in order to bring divine love and virtue to the table of justice. With integralism, temporal powers are beseeched to submit themselves to the Church in order to establish a unified juridical community that is known by the name Christendom. Integralists claim that Christ was opposed to the rationalist universalism of the French Revolution, on one side of the divide, and equally opposed to the romantic, neopagan nationalism of Hitler’s Third Reich, on the other. Hence we must look beyond the failures of the French Revolution and the Third Reich to integralism, which seeks to ‘preserve and perfect human bonds by ordering the temporal common good explicitly to the eternal common good.’ And so the story goes.

In their attacks on liberal, technocratic globalism, integralists desire to go beyond the populist nationalism of many Trump supporters because the common good must be explicitly ordered to God in order ‘to preserve the common goods of smaller communities such as nations, tribes and families, because it can see how they tend to the final good. But the modern secular state (whether national or imperial), not being ordered to the true common good of human beings, will inevitably enter into competition with the goods of smaller communities. It has an inevitable tendency to set itself up as an idol, to which everything else is sacrificed.’ Only the Church can restore unity to the human race – otherwise, human history will be opened up to idolatrous totalitarianism.

The assumption here is that the founders of the European Union were inspired by the teachings of Pius XII and sought to achieve a new Christendom. It failed because it lacked explicit ordination to God. It failed to subordinate itself to the spiritual authority of the Church. And the same criticism can be levelled at the founding architects of the United States. There was a world-historical missed opportunity to be ordered ‘to the most universal common good of human life’ and to be led through the travails of history by the fulsomeness of divine love and Christian charity. But, of course, the integralists are not giving up the ship.

There was a time in history when the Catholic Church did operate as if it were a state, and that wasn’t a very good time for indigenous peoples in the Americas, as you will recall from your ‘woke’ history teacher who shared with you the 1513 Requerimiento which demanded indigenous groups accept Spanish rule and The Papal Bull ‘Inter Caetera,’ issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, authorising the Doctrine of Discovery, which allowed the lands of non-Christians to be seized. Integralists, to this day, reject the religious neutrality of civic power. But, fortunately, they aren’t at the moment demanding to seize more indigenous lands or forcing First Nations peoples into residential schools. They would, however, like Catholics to rule the world. Thomas Pink was emboldened enough to make the following pronouncement:

The state should be Catholic, or at least broadly Christian, not because the state is a believer to be saved as an individual is, but because political authority has been divinely established to confess public reason in the service of a genuinely common good. This is only possible if the state recognises both natural law and the transformation of law and public reason brought about by the raising of religion to a supernatural good. No genuinely non-Christian state can be relied upon to recognise either of these things. States that do not recognise them will become confessors of false belief opposed to Christianity, and their great power will turn from supporting Christianity to opposing or even repressing it, especially in relation to its moral teaching. As the rapid movement of many western states from genuine support to increasing enmity toward Christianity illustrates, there is no stable middle way.

Kevin Augustyn sums up integralism as follows: it

differs from Catholic doctrine in the post-Vatican II era, however, by insisting that it is essential Catholic teaching that the Church and state should not be separated. Rather, integralism holds that, since natural good is ordered to supernatural good and the common good to eternal life, the state should recognise the Catholic Church as the sole legitimate spiritual authority. Further, the state, through its subordination to the Church, should act as its arm in the temporal sphere to promote and establish the Catholic vision of the common good and submit to the authority of the Church in areas where the spiritual and the temporal overlap.

So here you have it, Catholic integralism in a nutshell: There exists two divinely established societies, one ruled by natural law and the other by ‘the positive law of Christ.’ Secular law is grounded in a naturalistic metaphysics and is firmly poised against religion. It, therefore, cannot be allowed to stand up to the supernatural truth of Christian theism. Religion must be recognised as a supernatural good, and, therefore, Christian truth must be recognised in civil law. The status of religion transcends state authority, and, therefore, religion – articulated as representing the common good – should exist beyond the naive regulatory competence of the state. The ‘heavenly sovereignty’ of the mighty Church is to function very much like a conservative manifestation of Lenin’s idea of a vanguard party, only a party that trucks with putatively revealed truth and whose proprietary expanse extends both to the heavenly firmament and the profane aggregate of rocks and oceans we call Earth. But, first, it must be made clear that ‘Catholicism should be confessed not only by private individuals but by the state, which should legally privilege and protect it as the true religion,’ So, the courts had better get ready to formulate a theory of jurisprudence that gives the increasingly plucky religious right the ability to impose with unremitting vigour its vision of the good on the American people.

This kind of thinking – malignly vanguardist to the core – opens the floodgates to illiberalism, as we have already seen. Integralists argue that we need to get back to the metaphysical foundations of political philosophy grounded in the metaphysics of reason which is required by any just state to achieve its proper functioning.

What Integralism Lacks

But it is the interhuman summons to justice that escapes their purview. Integralism is founded not on Cartesian rationality but on a metaphysics of the self, tethered together to Catholic belief by some sacred thread. Secular reasoning pales in comparison because it appeals to reason in name only – it is not grounded in natural law that permits binding to a system of belief. It is anchored in modern legal philosophy that is inadequate to the task of explaining the workings of power and its psychological motivations and why its outcomes are supremely justified over all others. Integralism seeks to outmanoeuvre liberalism’s rule of law that shapes and is shaped by the causal force of human desire, a law that compels us to perform certain voluntary actions – a type of social control that operates through ordinary causation in material nature. It does so by appealing to our carnal instinctual desires that need to be channelled and, if necessary, sanctioned by force. Here the state is conceived as woefully incapable of regulating attitudes that are not voluntary. Integralism, according to Pink, is more interested in laws that motivate members of the polis to action by the quality of their justifications, presumably enhanced by a pristine metaphysical revelatory power. Integralists argue that both the authority of the state and the Church are divinely established, each based on the law of God either by the natural law of God or the revealed law of God. The common good comes down to how humanity responds to justifications for its actions. This brings up a provocative question: Do human beings respond to the common good out of fear of punishment according to the ‘naïve authority’ of the state, or do they respond out of the ‘higher reason’ manifested by divine grace?

Integralists claim to be most interested in having people act via the force of supernaturally powered reason rather than either Cartesian rationality or the dialectical assaults of Hegelian Marxists. The integralist is, therefore, supremely interested in what people believe and how they are motivated. We are told that law under integralism has pedagogical dimensions: it must foster respect for the law and shared attitudes which will help the community flourish by creating a ‘reasonable consensus’ that favours ‘the common good.’ Law in liberal societies does not address Christian belief as such, according to Pink, who is most concerned about the nature of the consensus produced in the modern Western state for the good of the community. What makes the Catholic integralist hopeful is revealed theology coupled with the natural law tradition. But is it simply a marriage of convenience? No non-Christian state can be tolerated since it cannot be relied upon to recognise natural law or understand how natural law and reason can be transformed by approaching religion as a supernatural good. Redemption and grace figure prominently in integralism as grace functions in the formation of attitudes that are supernaturally revealed in a bountiful vision of God. The Church should replace the state and operate instead on the revealed law of Christ. There are two types of states, according to the integralist – ‘an integralist state that prioritises the good of the community, and a liberal state that fosters the autonomy of the individual.’ Pink writes that ‘a central function of the state is to facilitate the citizen-community’s understanding of its own good and how this is to be furthered.’ Religion, in this sense, is not that which is required from natural law, that is, from created things, but now requires baptism and other sacraments. Pink follows the teachings of Leo XIII, who believed that the Church and state could exist in harmony as long as Church and state agree to be seen as two divinely instituted legal orders based on either the revealed law of God or the natural law of God. But the state itself must be ‘to some degree Christian in its confession’; otherwise, it will not recognise religion as a supernatural good, and that opens the door for interference in the Church by the state.

Dangers of Integralism

The great danger here is that the Church will be called to legislate not only for the state through punishments, but as the surrogate state, since it considers itself wholly transcendent and beyond the state, as revealed in the law of the New Covenant. And as such would remain at war with dechristianised liberalism and today’s sexually libertarian cultural agenda. For the integralist, the state must become the servant of the Church, acting upon the authority of the Church in matters of religion. But how widely will ‘religion’ be defined? And how will it be defined? In whose interests will it be defined? In the interests of all those willing to be part of a political community? But driven by what kind of politics? What, if any, magisterial overreach will occur? Will it mix in MAGA politics, such as when former presidents enjoy a jovial dinner with notorious neo-Nazis and anti-Semites? And can the fusion of religion and politics so broadly defined serve the common good for all?

Integralists agree that the Church plays a fundamental pedagogical role in the manner of public school teachers who are bold enough to believe that they represent the common good and, as such, possess a coercive authority that exceeds that of the state precisely because their form of coercion has a teaching function – what Pink calls a form of ‘legal coercion’ directed at the perfection of a self-governing community. Here divine grace is presumed to keep our reason from becoming corrupted, from being vastly out of kilter, with the power and prescience to regulate itself, something like the Chicago School’s envisioned capitalist marketplace. (Even virtuous Catholics in charge of the capitalist marketplace cannot resolve the problem of its exploitation and alienation, as Marx duly explained, since capitalism’s hierarchical, antidemocratic metabolism works through a logic of domination and leads to the extraction of surplus labour). Apparently, we need no less an authority than divine revelation to save humanity, or civilisation will be lost. The integralist Church speaks on behalf of such a revelation. If the state continues to regulate religion rather than religion regulating the state, then the anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism of some liberals will inevitably befoul the message, placing humanity in grave peril. So, argue the integralists. Of course, those crying foul the loudest are likely to be leftovers from the Reagan coalition or Newt’s Contract with America and not well pleased with the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, ‘Dignitatis Humanae.’ Whereas this declaration was seen as an evangelical mission that exists ‘to propose, not impose,’ conservative Catholics within the Church hierarchy are seeking a new vision where imposition is back on the table. Catholics are now called upon to impose their faith vertically, that is, from the top down, on Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Secular American culture is a popular breeding ground that spawns contrapuntal views among young, outspoken, tongue-wagging conservative Catholics, with integralism becoming a popular choice.

Integralists posit that the common good cannot be arrived at through elections (even the valid ones that are claimed to have been ‘stolen’) or through democratic means as decisions affecting the polis must be made by responsible and legitimate authorities – the Catholic Church in aggregate represented by its earthy and divine lawmakers. I can imagine how the conversations might go: Billy, don’t listen to your teachers. Look to the Church for answers to the rot in American culture, such as immigration, multiculturalism and free trade – not to critical race theory! Rid the culture of feminists, trans activists and socialists! Report your teachers, your friends and your family if you suspect they might be part of a communist cell. If your son or daughter brings home a syllabus that contains the words ‘critical pedagogy,’ then report that immediately to a representative from Turning Point and have them put on the Professor Watchlist. Force teachers to take loyalty oaths to the Church and to the nation! Religious freedom – well, forget it.

If I had my way, I’d make them wear conical hats just like the Chinese forced the intellectuals to do during the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, along with conservative Christianity comes the smashmouth partisanship of the New Right, which has infected the Catholic Church as much as it has Protestant evangelical churches, and this includes strands of conservative nationalism that appeal to lickspittles of Trumpian stripe, including the kind that believe Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity all go to hell. And I’m not just referring to those Christians who clog dance with Tennessee snake handlers in the hills of Appalachia, or who attend church services to see Paula White utter charismatic gibberish, or congregants from Kenneth Copeland’s ministry who bust their gut listening to Pastor Copeland laugh supernaturally at the mere mention of Biden winning the presidency (I have heard a similar laughter by Umbandistas possessed by the Yoruba divinity Eshu in terreiros all across Brazil).

The freedom of religion associated with classical liberalism’s rule of law and ideological pluralism must not be vanquished by an imperious religious triumphalism eager to unveil a new Christendom repurposed to guarantee future Republican election victories. Kevin Augustyn argues,

[T]his logic leads some integralists to a totalitarian vision that justifies such things as the disenfranchisement of women, Jews, atheists and indeed all non-Catholics; the persecution of heretics and sexual minorities; the kidnapping of secretly baptised children; and the abolition of religious toleration even for other Christians. But this vision is a distortion of the Gospel, drawing conclusions that misrepresent the Catholic tradition by forgetting that Jesus’ ‘kingdom is not of this world’ (John 18:36), that he refused the devil’s temptation of seizing worldly authority (Matthew 4:8) and that the ‘one thing necessary’ (Luke 10:42) is to sit at the feet of Jesus to learn his ways.

If grace is the supernatural analogue of kindness and compassion at the level of nature, and, in this sense, represents a form of higher reason that can help us to shape the common good, then what grace tells us about the common good may have great merit, but too many evangelicals see grace as a gift only given to fundamentalists and haughtily condemn woke liberals as undeserving since they do not accept the supernatural transcendence of the Church to rule over the state for the reason of the common good.

Postliberals believe that, instead of protecting individual freedom, the government should aim to promote the ‘common good’ or ‘highest good’: to create a citizenry where people live good lives as defined by scripture and religious doctrine, where morality can be legislated by higher levels of reasoning such as that afforded by grace. In the realm of electoral politics, it is believed that conservatives are less likely to triumph in a country so tainted by cultural degeneracy; therefore, it is better to abandon the doctrine that government should liberate people to pursue their own visions of the good life. Liberalism, they argue, will only promote a dissolute anarchism, complacency, disorder and an irresponsible individualism. So, the answer to all of this effrontery to God is to promote the formation of a Catholic state as a foundational constitutional principle.

Eric Levitz sounds a warning about the danger that Catholic integralist law professors pose to democracy when he writes:

But Catholic integralist law professors aren’t the only faction within the conservative movement who’ve come to see their cause as incommensurate with democracy. Nativists regard the combination of our expansionary immigration regime and universal suffrage as a slow-motion coup. Libertarian billionaires have long regarded mass democracy as a threat to the higher good of inviolable property rights. And the broader Christian right doesn’t need to look at Gallup polls to know its cause is becoming more minoritarian by the year. The party that represents these constituencies does not forthrightly endorse the political domination of hostile subjects. But it does seek to subordinate democracy to its vision of the common good through voting restrictions, jurisdiction stripping, and gerrymandering. In fact, just yesterday, the Republican Speaker of Georgia’s House of Representatives argued that allowing voters to cast ballots by mail would be ‘extremely devastating to Republicans and conservatives in Georgia’ because it ‘will certainly drive up turnout.’

Integralism seems to brush against the grain of one of the key tenets of Catholic social thought known as the principle of subsidiarity. This principle holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organisation. Subsidiarity is all about decentralisation, which conservative Catholic thought conscripts as a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom against modern centralised statist bureaucracies. Democracy is viewed as a product primarily of local institutions and self-reliance. Consolidation is not a term that fares well under this lexical category of democracy since it is perceived to be ‘a weapon of tyranny’ used against ‘the friend of liberty’ that is particularism. Decentralisation applies to all human institutions and should likewise apply to Church bureaucracy, despite the best intentions of its most powerful bureaucrats. The concept of subsidiarity is often advocated to keep the government from intervening in the capitalist marketplace (state intervention in the economy would be perceived as too communist) and to oppose the welfare state. Integralism is all about Church centralisation, bureaucratisation and establishing a panoptic vertical hierarchy intervening in the workings of the state, a measure that would appear to contradict gristle and bone the very principle of subsidiarity.

One can only wonder where faith resides in all of this, if faith is what I suspect it to be: true hope. To hope is to be unshaken in faith – and faith is to be exercised in belief that the world is remediable. But should this hope collectively reside in a religious state? Faith is soteriology, and Jose Miranda argues that ‘a soteriology that can be understood without hope has no reason for existing.’

Should we put our faith in integralism, in papal infallibility? We can’t conclusively surmount the dilemma of the role of the Church and state because we can’t peer into the future. But we know what type of state coercion the far right has in store for us. The kind that is mercilessly patriarchal, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-union, and the list goes on. The attack on social justice by Christian nationalists, integralists, and fundamentalist Christian white power advocates fails to recognise that the glory of God means that the justice of God that has already come to dwell on our earth. That the eschaton has arrived. That glory is a kingdom that has been brought to earth. It has arrived. The eschaton has to do with our relationship to justice. For the integralists and the theocrats, justice is held to be perpetually in the future; it surprises only with sameness and its repeatability. It remains smothered in dogma and doctrine. It is both present and future. What binds together hope and justice is love. The law and the prophets are synthesised in the formula, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself,’ as well as in the formula, ‘Whatever you want others to do to you, do this to them.’

Catholic integralists would do well to imagine that justice has to do with the irreducibility of God as otherness. We can’t convert this relationship to some kind of theme, as much as we would like to. Levinas (quoted in Miranda’s Marx and the Bible) notes that the ‘impossibility of total reflection must not be posited negatively as the finitude and imperfection of a knowing subject which prevent it from reaching complete truth, but rather as the surplus of the social relation, where the subjectivity remains in the face of….’

But this irreducible otherness, this ‘traumatism of astonishment’ is maintained only in the appeal of our neighbour who cries for justice. Without this cry, we have an imagined God, not the real God. What Miranda is saying is that what is real cannot be at our disposal. We can’t discover it. It does not depend on our subjectivity. Miranda is telling us that the cry of the poor is not commensurate with the forces and objects of this world; it is heterogeneous to this world. Its transcendence is precisely what enables us and the whole world to be judged. Our relationship to God does not have the structure of formal logic and serves as the moral imperative of justice, an imperative that cannot be objectified. This should be clear to Christians. If we claim God while prescinding from the realisation of justice, then we are simply worshipping an idol. And an authoritarian one at that. An idol hidden in the miasma of a futuristic illusion. If we wish to become seeds of a future world, we need to address the problem of injustice in the here and now. This goal can only be impeded by an integralism that cuts off the conditions of possibility for the realisation of justice – freedom of religion. All we are left with is dogmatism.

Theories of jurisprudence that allow the religious right to impose its vision of the good on the American people is not the way forward. The Church should not be using the state for its own ends. Individuals should be granted the freedom to pursue their own conceptions of the good, although, admittedly, there will be conflicts over which conceptions are corrupting of the public good, which constitute and/or facilitate the most fundamental moral imperatives and which constitute inviolable human rights.

Hans Urs von Balthasar’s critique of integralism reflects some of my own sentiments, especially when Balthasar writes the following in “Integralismus”:

The integralists hold that reality can be captured in abstract, static, and immutable concepts so that one has only to act with a view to a correct conceptualisation to act rightly… For [the integralists], revelation is primarily a system of doctrinal concepts that, by definition, cannot be found anywhere in the human world and can, therefore, only be handed down from above by a hierarchical Church authority to a purely passive laity. According to Blondel, this rationalistic extrinsicist approach leads to the corruption of the Christian message into a ‘law of fear and coercion,’ rather than the soul-liberating law of love that it ought to be.… The logic of integralism is relentless: the clear conceptual distinction between an enclosed realm of nature and equally closed-off realm of the supernatural, which rules from on high, demands from the representatives of the latter that ‘they identify themselves with the truth of the revelation, or rather that they identify the truth of revelation with themselves, so that they finally come to a human theocracy, which they are always denying, but always practising.’ Since the temporal arm is no longer available for this rule, they substitute for it with an intra-ecclesial reign of might; the whole Church is said to be in ‘a state of siege,’ and since the ideal subject is the blindly obedient one, all who refuse complete submission are to be driven out of the Church.

There are Catholic publications today that post articles that absolutely drip with integralist commentary. Consider the article written by Joan Frawley Desmond praising the repugnant right-wing activist Christopher Rufo. Rufo is the type of activist who would love to cosy up to autocrats like Trump and administer Catholic justice, Steve Bannon style.

Here is how he has been described by Zack Beauchamp:

Last year, he declared his intention ‘to clean house in America: remove the attorney general, lay siege to the universities, abolish the teachers’ unions, and overturn the school boards’ (all through legal means, Rufo later clarified). He has argued that ‘reform around the edges is not enough’ to protect America from the progressive ‘revolution,’ and that conservatives should embrace a ‘defund the left’ political strategy in which they ‘strangle new identity programs in red tape’ and ‘accelerate the student loan Ponzi scheme [and] make universities partially responsible for defaults.’

If Rufo is now the darling of the Catholic right, then we are closer to integralism than we might suspect. In which case, we would do well to turn to the liberation theologians for some advice and counsel. And maybe we would learn that Marx is on the side of the Biblical authors.

What would be helpful to the cause of justice – Catholic or otherwise – would entail a radical reorganisation of society that shifts from dependency on a vertical division of labour commanded by capitalists – a reorganisation in which workers themselves consciously control production in a profoundly democratic way. That would be a start. And another important step would be to follow in the footsteps of the theologians of liberation who understand that the gospel cannot be fulfilled by top-down mandated and legislated morality but by taking to heart a reading of the gospel from below, by reading the Bible from the perspective of the class, race, and gender status of the oppressed. This means providing categories of analysis, systems of intelligibility, and modes of understanding that fit the contexts of the exegete’s lifeworld. It also means engaging in practical struggle alongside our less fortunate brothers and sisters, praxis being one of the concrete suppositions of liberation theology, a praxis guided by the heart.

The government should give liberty to religion just as religion should give liberty to the people. Leonardo Boff points out that the monachal conception of power has deeply marked the Catholic Church and ‘how it arranges the distribution of power among its members.’ The Church has become weighted with pre-trinitarian or non-trinitarian monotheism. A great deal of power is being concentrated in a single person. Such persons are unlikely to act with the people or out of the people, preferring to act for the people, leading them to underestimate the intelligence of the people and their experience of faith, giving rise to authoritarianism matched by subservience. He writes that ‘[t]here is a shift from a church-as-communion-of-believers, all equal and sharing responsibility, to a church-as-society, with unequal distribution of functions and tasks.’ If we understand that justice and life are to be achieved in the now of history – we can understand why the Church keeps the eschaton perpetually in the future. It is because they are trapped between the presence of injustice and the expectation of justice. It is to deny that the kingdom has already arrived.

I grew up an admirer of Father Gregory Baum, a German-born Canadian priest (born to a Jewish mother and Protestant father in Berlin) and Catholic theologian for his work on ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and openness to Non-Christian Religions. He taught theology at the University of Toronto. He was an advocate for social justice, liberation theology, and what came to be known as ‘the preferential option for the poor,’ as well as a contributor to the Decree on Ecumenism, which began the ecumenical movement after Vatican II. He eventually left the Augustinian Order. Well-thumbed copies of his journal, The Ecumenist, could always be found stuffed into my rucksack, which became my second skin during my university years. Baum’s opinions in favour of ordaining women and gay marriage were not popular at the time, nor are they popular today. I often wonder what he would make of today’s integralists, but I have a good educated guess.

Traditionalist Catholics drawn to integralism can betray an uncanny attraction to Vladimir Putin, whom they depict in heroic terms. In Italy, he is known as a ‘defender of Christians from the threats of Islam’ and a ‘defender of tradition against the darkness of chaos.’ In fact, Putinism is now in the political majority in Italy. Robert Sirico writes:

In the traditionalist Catholic cultural environment, Putin is exceedingly popular. Traditionalist Catholic priest Curzio Nitoglia defines Putin as the katechon, holding on against the ‘forces of subversion,’ i.e., the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Putin’s speech at the Valdai Forum of 2013, in which he stressed Christian values against the secularism and materialism of the West, is one of the most popular speeches of recent times among Italian Catholics. It was published by the online newspaper Imola Oggi with the title, ‘A Putin Speech to be Carved in Stone.’ It then went viral on Catholic blogs.

This is disturbing in light of the fact that

Putin is not a Catholic, and he was not even a Christian. He’s now a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, although he became notorious as a former KGB officer during the time when one of the KGB’s top missions was to crush religion in the Soviet Union and in its satellite regimes. Putin never expressed remorse about his past. Despite this, Putin is generally seen by the pro-Russian press as the main promoter of the rebirth of Christian values.

Overlooked are Putin’s more controversial policies, such as the repression of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and the blasphemy law that declares insults to a person’s religious beliefs a federal crime punishable by up to three years in jail.

In the United States, Putinism can be found among the illiberal national conservatives in the federal government, who admire Putin’s ardent traditionalism, his anti-LGBTQ stance, and his criticism of Western liberal values. A Republican victory in 2024 could seriously jeopardise government assistance for Ukraine. Even the far-left ‘tankies’ and ‘campists’ in the United States are quick to defend Putin’s war in Ukraine because of Ukraine’s support by US imperial power (sometimes a lingering nostalgia for Stalin can be read between the lines). I am not arguing that the United States should be immune to criticism (especially given the fact that I have spent 35 years criticising US foreign and domestic policy). But being critical of the US should not lead to ideological blindness when it comes to Putin. These days it is necessary to juggle and chew gum at the same time.

The real existential arc of history is the indomitable path of hope that pervades human life and anticipates that justice is forthcoming. It is a hope that cuts through the integralist’s steel-cast vision of an all-encompassing Catholic universe. Hope is not something that can be delegated by committee, taught by coercion, affirmed by theological speculation, spoken into being by incantations or guided by doctrinal proclamations. Hope rises up from below, from the transformations that take place when men and women forge bonds of love and solidarity in the pursuit of justice and discover their religious faith not in some religious ordinances or in ‘ink stains that are dried upon some line,’ but in compassion and forgiveness that comes with a teachable heart.

Share this article on Social Media

Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Catholic Integralism, Pervasive Putinism and the Assault on Democracy. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.