The Symmetry Argument for Catholic Integralism


  • Kevin Vallier Bowling Green State University



Liberalism is taking a beating. Many regimes return to religious rationales for state authority. They increasingly oppose liberal institutions. This essay lays the groundwork for engaging these religious anti-liberalisms. In this essay, I assess the religious anti-liberalism known as Catholic integralism. This ancient doctrine challenged historic political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Surprisingly, it has recently resurfaced in some Catholic intellectual circles.

Integralists propose that governments exist to secure the common good: temporal and spiritual. God authorizes two powers to govern humankind. The state governs in matters temporal, the church in matters spiritual. When their missions intersect, the church is sovereign owing to its nobler purpose.

Contemporary Catholic political philosophy rejects integralism. But it remains overwhelmingly perfectionist: states exist to promote the authentic individual and common good. These natural law perfectionists say that states should promote natural goods: goods, such as health and friendship, that anyone can see as such through the use of reason. States should not promote supernatural goods: goods, such as faith and hope, that we only grasp through revelation. Catholic perfectionists treat natural and supernatural goods asymmetrically.

Integralists reject the asymmetry. God authorizes the church to promote supernatural goods, and the church may direct the state to advance its mission. On this basis, I argue that integralists can mount a powerful philosophical argument against standard natural law perfectionism—the symmetry argument. It claims that natural law perfectionists cannot justify their asymmetric treatment of goodness. Integralism, in contrast, treats the good symmetrically.