Deneen, Munoz, Pappin, and Vermeule Debate Catholicism and the American Experiment

To close the Center for Ethics and Culture’s 19th Annual Fall Conference, five men took the stage at McKenna Hall to debate whether or not Catholicism and liberalism are still compatible—or if they ever were. The conversation, presided over by Professor Carter Snead to a packed house, was entitled, “Higher Powers: Catholicism and the American Project.”

This event was the latest in the increasingly heated and pronounced debate over integralism. Loosely defined, integralism represents the desire to reorder man towards his ultimate goal (according to the Catholic faith) by political ends. It is the movement to end the subjugation of the Church to politics; statecraft becomes soulcraft.

The four professors, Patrick Deneen (Notre Dame), Vincent Phillip Muñoz (Notre Dame), Gladden Pappin (University of Dallas), and Adrian Vermeule (Harvard Law) engaged in a friendly but charged debate, which Prof. Muñoz joked was a “Catholic steel cage match.”

As an audience member, I was struck by two important things. First, this debate served as a model for charitable discourse over a highly charged topic—an example both the theological and political worlds need right now. Second, the fight over the future of liberalism, exemplified by Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, is reaching the boiling point.

In recent history, one political party praised the structures handed down to us by the Founders while the other sought to abandon them (the Right and Left, respectively). Today, it seems as though both parties have lost faith in our institutions. The conservative Catholics who once believed in preserving them have turned against the whole project: if the liberalism of our Founding Fathers either brought us to this point (Deneen’s argument) or the rejection of that liberalism is the source of our present situation (Muñoz’s argument), Snead summarized, “it seems like everybody agrees that there’s a problem… there’s a kind of aggressive secularism that seeks to drive religious people from the public square.” To put succinctly, American liberalism was an experiment, and now it has either failed or disappeared.

Each professor offered a different remedy.

Deneen prescribed localism (but was unclear whether or not this accompanies or denies liberalism) and said that Americans today place the national idea over the Catholic idea. As he has argued elsewhere, the roots of the failed liberalism of today lie in its premises: though it claims neutrality by separating church and state, liberalism’s focus on individual rights and radical autonomy has led to the vices of modernity. Subsidiarity and a focus on fostering small, local communities will hopefully allow Catholics to pursue both the common and highest goods. Liberalism, according to Deneen, is the root cause of average American Catholics placing state above Church.

Vermeule and Pappin, defending integralism, agreed with Deneen’s diagnosis of modernity, but pushed beyond, arguing that the communities Deneen strives to foster can only exist in America as long as the government will allow, and that same government seems to be allowing less and less these days. If the Catholic way of life is under fire, they say, we should turn to integralism; rather than retreating, we ought to take positions in Washington and work to transform government from within. Catholics must populate and seize governmental institutions to bring about our vision of the human good. Vermeule’s models include Old Testament figures like Mordechai and Esther, who worked within the bounds of their political roles for the common good.

The integralists argue that the political must always remain secondary to the ecclesiastical; all Catholics must recognize that the ideal state is the one which directs man towards the true good–an integrally Catholic state.

Muñoz called for a defence of original American liberalism as presented in our founding documents, claiming that Deenen et. al. misunderstand the American Founders and their view of liberty. According to Muñoz, the Founders understood that human equality, grounded in our creation by a divine source, “is a claim about political authority.” Since no man is born with a right to rule, coercive authority should be established by consent. The authority of this state, created by the consent of the governed, is limited; questions of religious belief and practice are of a higher nature, and therefore outside the authority of the state. “This is why liberalism broadly conceived is an experiment. The liberal question is whether free people can maintain sufficient virtue not only to preserve their freedom, but deserve their freedom,” he said. In other words, Muñoz argued that we need to reinvigorate religion outside the bounds of government to cultivate a virtuous citizenry, and return government to the scope originally conceived by its founders.

Deneen and Vermeule both referenced Orestes Brownson’s famous letter to Isaac Hecker, which encapsulates the integralism debate well: “Catholics as well as others imbibe the spirit of the country, imbibe from infancy the spirit of independence, freedom from all restraint, unbounded license. So far are we from converting the country, we cannot hold our own… How many Catholics can you find born and brought up in the country that do in reality hold the Church to be higher than the people, or who do not consider her voice authoritative only when it coincides with that of the people? These considerations make me feel that the whole influence of democratic ideas and tendencies is directly antagonistic to Catholicity. … I have heretofore wished to effect a harmony of the American and the Catholic idea, but I believe such harmony impracticable except by sacrificing the Catholic idea to the National.”

It is imperative that as this debate rages on, interlocutors never lose sight of the practical ramifications of political theory; lives and souls are at stake, and history tells us of the bloody results of religious conflict. The questions posed by Brownson remain unanswered today, and I pray that as we strive for truth, we never lose sight of the common good of all—Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile.

Though the conversation on Saturday night remained cordial, it gave the haunting impression that this dispute is just beginning and will have consequences that are bound to exceed our current political imagination.

Soren Hansen, a senior, is a proud member of the Program of Liberal Studies and a recent convert to the Church. She is also pursuing a minor in Constitutional Studies. She can be reached at