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The U.S. Church, the Secular World and the Temptation to “Integrism”

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 January 2013

Paul Lakeland
Fairfield University


Recent activity among the American Catholic bishops in the social and political arena shows in some cases at least a tendency towards the “heresy” of integrism as defined by Karl Rahner, namely, the inclination to see the ethical teaching of the Church as a blueprint or template for secular society. This article surveys some examples of this tendency. It argues for a vision of the secular world as independent and grace-filled. The constructive proposal towards which this article moves, which is an effort to place the Church's ethical outlook on the secular world in the space between integrism and esotericism, is worked out in dialogue with Rahner, Archbishop Charles Chaput, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Professor James Davison Hunter.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2011

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1 On the occasion of receiving the St. Benedict Award (1 April 2005). The full text in English is available at

2 Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, has his own form of a dialectical reading of the Enlightenment that goes back as far as Hegel and has its classic treatment in the work of the Frankfurt school.

3 This same distinction between a form of radical secularity that rejects any sense of transcendence and one that is more amenable to dialogue with normative traditions runs throughout Taylor, Charles's A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2007)Google Scholar, though his fairly liberal conclusions are not likely to be much support to Pope Benedict's position on issues such as sexual identity or sexual freedom. For an example of the kind of dialogue Cardinal Ratzinger was imagining see his encounter with Habermas, Jürgen in their The Dialectics of Secularization: On Reason and Religion, ed. Schuller, Florian, trans. McNeil, Brian (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2007)Google Scholar.

4 Of course, while Pope Benedict is principally concerned with the shape of Europe, the same struggles are being fought out across the world, including the difficulty of constructively interacting with the many-headed hydra of globalization.

5 The choice of focus upon the American context is not motivated by any sense that the U.S. Church's concerns ought to drive the global Church's agenda, but stems rather from a methodological commitment to an inductive ecclesiology in which reflection on the nature of the Church should begin in the concrete, in particular local churches. The present author's inductive approach to ecclesiology has been worked out at some length in Church: Living Communion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009), esp. 1–65Google Scholar. All such locally constructed theologies contribute to the larger picture that, at the global level, needs to be a synthesis of those inductive approaches and not, as too often happens, a deductively-constructed blueprint that ignores and consequently does not benefit from the example of local situations. Is it not possible, for example, that the European situation that so exercises Pope Benedict could benefit from the example of the Asian churches that have always been minority traditions in their own cultures?

6 Rahner's discussion of integrism and the opposing tendency, esotericism, is clearest in his article “Church and World” in Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology, ed. Rahner, Karl et al. , 6 vols. (New York: Herder and Herder, 1968), 1: 346–57Google Scholar. On integrism in particular he has much more to say in a variety of places, especially in Theological Investigations, vols. 10 and 12 (New York: Seabury, 1973, 1974)Google Scholar.

7 Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) [= GS]; see especially section 44.

9 Similarly inflexible statements are numerous, including those of Bishop Robert Carlson of Sioux Falls, SD, who wrote in August 2004 that “you cannot vote for a politician who is pro-abortion when you have a choice and remain a Catholic in good standing,” (, and the bishops of Atlanta, Charleston and Charlotte who wrote the same month that “Catholics serving in public life espousing positions contrary to the teaching of the Church on the sanctity and inviolability of human life, especially those running for or elected to public office, are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in any Catholic church within our jurisdictions” (

11 Figures from a Pew Forum poll are available in summary form at They suggest that as of April 2009 many Catholics (and others) were unaware of the controversy. Of those who were aware a sizable majority supported Notre Dame's decision, though those who attended mass more frequently were more likely to be opposed.

15 In fact it seems that there was considerable obtuseness in the response of the bishops to the efforts to persuade them that the Obama plan would not lead to federal funding for abortion, and their opposition has in some measure continued. The extent of the episcopal misunderstandings of the legislation is explored by Jose, Timothy Stoltzfus in his article “Episcopal Oversight,” Commonweal, June 4, 2010, 89Google Scholar.

19 A brief discussion of the article can be found at the Catholic News Service site, For the full text of the article, see “La Riforma Sanitaria Negli Stati Uniti,” La Civilta Cattolica 3839 (June 2010): 423528Google Scholar.

20 Concrete examples abound. When there is only imperfect or even minimal assent of the Catholic community to the teaching of its own Church leaders, the prophetic element of both is cast into doubt. Currently, Church teachings on birth control, the mandatory celibacy of the clergy, same-sex marriage and the process by which pastors and bishops are selected, among many other issues, fall into this category. For a discussion of the relationship between ineffectual teaching and imperfect assent see my Church: Living Communion, 79–80. For a searching examination of more deep-seated theological issues of tradition, see Thiel, John, Senses of Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000)Google Scholar. For a thorough discussion of the relationship between magisterial teaching, the “sense of the faithful” and questions of reception, see Rush, Ormond, The Eyes of Faith: The Sense of the Faithful and the Church's Reception of Revelation (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

21 “Concerning Our Assent to the Church as She Exists in the Concrete,” Theological Investigations, vol. 12: Confrontations, trans. Bourke, David (New York: Seabury, 1974), 143Google Scholar.

22 Ibid., 145.

23 Ibid., 146.

24 “Sacrifice, Law and the Catholic Faith: is secularity really the enemy?”, The Tablet Lecture, December 2006, available at Scholar

25 Ibid., 9–11.

26 Ibid., 11.

27 The full text of his speech is available at view.cfm?recnum=9262. In most respects it summarizes and reprises positions laid out in much more detail in his book Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008)Google Scholar.

28 On Kennedy, as “the first Baptist president” see Render Unto Caesar, 133–37Google Scholar.

29 It is a pedagogical truism that poor teachers blame their students while good teachers look for another way to enlighten the classroom darkness.

30 Render Unto Caesar, 185–86.

31 Ibid., 187.

32 Ibid., 190 (emphasis in the original).

33 Rahner discusses this critical idea in a number of places. He first addresses it head-on in “The Theological Concept of Concupiscentia,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 1, God, Christ, Mary, and Grace, trans. Ernst, Cornelius (Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1961), 347–82Google Scholar. A very helpful summary of its meaning and implications can be found in his essay “The Faith of the Christian and the Doctrine of the Church,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 14: Ecclesiology, Questions in the Church, The Church in the World, trans. Bourke, David (New York: Seabury, 1976), 2446Google Scholar, esp. 34–36. It is more extensively applied to the Church/world relationship in “Theological Reflections on the Problem of Secularization,” in Theological Investigations, vol. 10: Writings of 1965–1967, trans. Bourke, David (New York: Seabury, 1977), 318–48)Google Scholar. For reasons of space we prescind here from the technical discussion of concupiscentia (Begierlichkeit) laid out in the first reference above; it has been both challenged and estimated in many subsequent discussions. See especially Kenny, J.P., “The Problem of Concupiscence: A Recent Theory of Professor Karl Rahner,” The Australian Catholic Record (Sidney) 29 (1952): 290304Google Scholar and 30 (1953): 23–32; Ferrugia, Mario, “Karl Rahner on Concupiscence: between Aquinas and Heidegger,” Gregorianum 86 (2005): 330–56Google Scholar.

34 “The Faith of the Christian and the Doctrine of the Church,” 35.

35 Ibid., 36.

36 Sacramentum Mundi, 1: 349–50Google Scholar.

37 “Theological Reflections on the Problem of Secularization,” 330.

38 This distinction is similar to that employed by Cardinal Ratzinger in his address, “On Europe's Crisis of Culture” (see n. 1 above).

39 “Secularism, Faith and Freedom.” The full text can be found at the Archbishop of Canterbury's own website,

41 The bishops did not themselves refer to these core teachings as “non-negotiables,” as is often implied in discussing them. But they are clear that opposition to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, as well as opposition to same-sex marriage, are among the fundamental ethical issues and the pillars of their political vision for American society. See Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States,

42 Pope Benedict's views on dialogue are more restrictive. At times he sees interreligious dialogue to be impossible, since the different religions cannot be open to changing their fundamental faith-convictions. However, dialogue with philosophy over the nature and possibility of transcendental principles is both possible and necessary. See, for example, Ratzinger, Cardinal's 1996 address on “Relativism: The Central Problem for Faith Today,” Scholar

43 To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)Google Scholar. Hunter, long known for his writings on the “culture wars,” is the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. His website contains useful short summaries of the argument of the book, chapter by chapter (

44 To Change the World, 103.

45 Ibid., 104.

46 Ibid., 107.

47 Ibid., 109.

48 Ibid., 175.

49 GS 1, in The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery, OP (Northport, NY: Costello, 1987), 903Google Scholar.

50 To Change the World, 285.

51 Unsigned editorial, Horizons 37/1 (Spring 2010): 6.

52 To Change the World, 191.

53 See GS 44.

55 To Change the World, 281.

57 Congar, Yves, Lay People in the Church: A Study for a Theology of Laity, trans. Attwater, Donalt (Westminster, MD: Newman, 1965), 368Google Scholar. See also Augustine, , Tractates on the Gospel of John 51Google Scholar, n.13, and Aquinas, Thomas, Summa theologiae III, q. 72Google Scholar.

58 Lay People in the Church, 366.

59 This phrase from the writings of Simone Weil identifies one of the principal reasons why she, for all her faith, resisted baptism. “What frightens me,” she wrote, “is the Church as a social structure” See Waiting for God, trans. Cruafurd, Emma (New York: Putnam, 1951), 5254Google Scholar.

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