In 1866, when Pope Pius IX’s secretary of state learned that the Habsburgs had lost the Battle of Sadowa, he exclaimed “Casca il mondo!” – the world is collapsing. “Good God,” he cried out as he struck his face, “what is to become of us?” For decades, the popes had positioned themselves as the spiritual support of European powers challenged by revolution. The defeat of the Habsburgs cast the Church’s very survival into doubt.

Today, threats as varied as Corbyn, Putin, ISIS and Trump have left the leaders of the liberal order – based on open borders, free trade and secular pluralism – feeling embattled. On the night of Donald Trump’s election, Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the US, tweeted, “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible. A world is collapsing before our eyes.” Florian Philippot, the impish adviser to Marine Le Pen, retorted: “Their world is collapsing. Ours is being built.” Once again, the pontiff was put forward as the bulwark of teetering powers. Fr Antonio Spadaro, a close adviser to Pope Francis, tweeted, “Who’s the world’s moral leader in this moment? Who leads the way? A voice emerges and continues to emerge.”

The men surrounding Francis see him as an indispensable support of a uniquely just political system. In a series of speeches on Europe, Francis has embraced that role, arguing that with the formation of the European Union, Europe finally “found its true self”. Europe had always had “a dynamic and multicultural identity”, but only since World War II has that identity been embodied in societies “free of ideological conflicts, with equal room for the native and the immigrant, for believers and non-believers”.

Francis stresses diversity over identity, dialogue over agreement. (“If there is one word that we should never tire of repeating, it is this: dialogue.”) For all else the men share, this is a view opposed to that of Benedict XVI, who called on Europeans to “embrace our own heritage of the sacred” and warned that “multiculturalism, which is so passionately promoted, can sometimes amount to an abandonment and denial, a flight from one’s own things”. Benedict XVI saw the Church and the liberal order standing in a deeply ambivalent relationship. If Francis is more optimistic that they can partner, it is perhaps because he desires both a liberal Church and a liberal politics – each ratifying the other in a kind of inverted integralism.

Integralism was the system in which church and state collaborated to secure man’s peace on this world and salvation in the next. Joseph de Maistre defended it with a formula binding pope to king: “No public morals nor national character without religion, no European religion without Christianity, no true Christianity without Catholicism, no Catholicism without the Pope, no Pope without the supremacy that belongs to him.” Essential to this arrangement was the idea that the state must be subordinate to the Church.

Today a new kind of integralism operates, in which the Church is subordinated to the state as the two conspire to uphold liberal values. If one were to update de Maistre’s syllogism, it would go something like: No cheap consumer goods or avoidance of genocide without liberalism, no liberalism without true Christianity, no true Christianity without an undogmatic Church, no undogmatic Church without a liberalising Pope, no liberalising Pope without freedom from tradition and accountability to the age.

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