In American traditionalist circles, it is becoming fashionable to blame “ultramontanism” for all the ills affecting Catholicism today. Supposedly, Pope Francis is imposing a revolutionary agenda on the Church because of the actions of ultramontanes during the First Vatican Council. Detractors admit that ultramontanes turned traditional Church teaching on papal infallibility and universal jurisdiction into dogma. They go on to falsely claim, though, that ultramontanes corrupted the faithful’s obedience to the pope into obsequiousness, having enveloped his person in an aura of exaggerated venerability. This development supposedly resulted in centralization and consequent abuse of power in the Church. To avoid ultramontane-fostered “papolatry,” some authors suggest rethinking the papacy in terms of the first millennium, before Saint Gregory VII, concerning the appointment of bishops and the exercise of the pope’s magisterial power.1
This accusation recently appeared in the article by Stuart Chessman titled “Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death,” first published on the blog of The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny in four parts,2 and later as a single text on the Rorate Caeli blog.3
According to the author, a “spirit of Vatican I” led people to interpret that Council’s dogmatic definitions far beyond the limits imposed by their text. That inaugurated an “ultramontane regime” in which “all authority in matters of the faith, organization and liturgy was centralized in the Vatican,” and “obedience to ecclesiastical authority was elevated to a central position in the Catholic faith” with a corresponding decrease in episcopal authority. A bishop of the anti-infallibilist minority current ironically commented, “I went in a bishop and came out a sacristan.”
The Lateran Treaty and the creation of the Vatican State, as well as new communication technologies, allegedly increased the importance of this “ultramontane” element in the life of the Church. That had some advantages—“a great uniformity of belief and practice was achieved”—but also serious drawbacks, primarily the bureaucratization of the Church and its inevitable consequence: mediocre manager-bishops who ceased to be “spiritual leaders” capable of converting the world. This “defensive strategy,” “aimed at block-like unity, centralized control, and absolute subordination to superiors,” resulted in “a revival of progressive Catholicism.” The latter would have originated “as [a feeling of] frustration with the timid ‘bourgeois’ nature of ultramontanist Catholic witness and the Church’s excessive conformity to this world,” and as a reaction to “restrictions on Catholic discourse.”
As per Mr. Chessman’s narrative, “ultramontanism” later allied with “internal progressive forces” that materialized at the Second Vatican Council. He goes so far as to state, “The management of the Council and its subsequent implementation were truly the greatest triumph of ultramontanism.” The revolutionary changes imposed by Paul VI met little resistance because “the customs and traditions of the Church had likely lost their grip on much of the Catholic world through the ultramontane understanding of obedience to authority and adherence to legal rules as the source of their legitimacy.”
Due to the growth of the progressive current—the story continues—ultramontanists failed to consolidate the authority of the Roman Pontiff in the aftermath of Vatican II and particularly after the rejection of Humanae vitae. However, John Paul II undertook a “neo-ultramontane revival” that emphasized papal infallibility and transformed the pope into a “kind of worldwide spiritual advocate.” Domestically, however, and particularly under Benedict XVI, “the Vatican increasingly functioned as a mere administrative center,” taking the bureaucratization of the Church even further and transforming it into a “cesspool of careerism, incompetence, and financial corruption.”
Pope Francis’s election entailed “a recommitment to the progressive agenda of the 1960s along with a radical revival of ultramontane authoritarianism.” Using “the language and techniques of ultramontanism,” the Argentine pope “sets up Church unity and the inviolability of the Council as absolute values” to silence and oppress traditionalists. Hence, “truly the regime of Francis can be called totalitarian ultramontanism!”
In short, for such traditionalist circles, all the evils the Church now suffers result from ultramontanists, whose great mistake was to have sought “to achieve spiritual objectives through the application of organizational techniques.” Paradoxically, Ultramontanism ultimately achieved the opposite of its goal: “A set of policies that was supposed to secure the doctrine of the Church from internal enemies and preserve her independence from secular control has instead facilitated the greatest crisis of belief in the Church’s history along with her most abject subjection to the ‘temporal power’—not that of monarchs as in the past, but of the media, banks, NGOs, universities and, increasingly, ‘democratic’ governments (including China!).”
From the above, one could almost say that the Church’s “mysterious process of self-demolition” due to the infiltration of the “smoke of Satan,” of which Paul VI spoke, originated, developed, and attained its apex thanks to Ultramontanism, the new synthesis of all evils! What could be the way out of this crisis? The author says “the way out of the ultramontane/progressive dead end” requires an anti-ultramontane traditionalism because it does not stand “on the authority of the clergy” but “on the individual commitment of the laity” to the “fullness of Catholic tradition,” with due respect to “the freedom of conscience of the individual believer.”
However, Mr. Chessman’s intellectual construction suffers from two major defects. First, he attributes the origin of the current crisis of Faith to purely natural factors—the way papal power is structured and exercised. The truth is that it stemmed from a moral and religious crisis that escalated throughout the West since the Renaissance and Protestantism, as Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira sharply analyzed in Revolution and Counter-Revolution.4 Second, Mr. Chessman’s theory is unhistorical.
In recent articles, I have briefly dealt with the error that consists in attributing to the ultramontane current and a so-called “spirit of Vatican I” the expansion of the pope’s magisterial and disciplinary authority beyond the limits set by the dogmatic constitution Pastor Aeternus. In the first article,5 I showed how the top representative of Ultramontanism, Cardinal Louis-Edouard Pie, had a perfectly balanced and non-absolutist concept of the papal monarchy and was a great supporter of provincial plenary councils. In the second article,6 I showed that Pope Leo XIII—orthodox in doctrine but liberal in policy—was the one who began demanding that lay Catholics adhere to his “Ralliement” unconditionally, supporting France’s republican and Masonic regime.
I showed that the ones who applauded the imposition of unconditional obedience in political matters were representatives of the liberal current who had opposed the dogmatic definitions of Vatican I. One of those liberal prelates, Cardinal Lavigerie, went so far as to state, “The only rule of salvation and life in the Church is to be with the pope, with the living pope. Whoever he may be.” I further showed that the representatives of Ultramontanism were the ones who resisted that abusive extension of papal authority and obedience beyond their defined limits. They were so keenly aware of those limits that, still in the 19th century, one of them raised the question of the theological possibility of a heretical pope.
Saint Pius X was an ultramontane pope and a great admirer of Cardinal Pie. The French prelate’s writings inspired him to choose “instaurare omnia in Christo” as the motto of his pontificate. True, Saint Pius X demanded full obedience in matters of Faith and was very firm in denouncing and repressing heresy. He excommunicated modernist leaders and imposed the anti-modernist oath. However, he never abused papal authority nor sought to impose uniform thinking in matters where Catholics are entitled to form a personal opinion. He even excused the Scotton brothers, owners of an anti-modernist newspaper, for their zeal opposing Cardinal Ferrari, the archbishop of Milan. He said they employed excessive language because “to defend themselves, they are using the same weapons with which they were struck.”7
To the applause of the liberal current, non-ultramontane popes subsequently required the faithful to obey their agenda of strict appeasement of revolutionary political powers. That started with Benedict XV. In his first encyclical (Ad beatissimi apostolorum), he silenced those who defended unreserved adherence to Church teachings and their validity in society, labeling them “integrists.” He did so “to quell dissension and strife of any kind among Catholics and prevent new ones from arising, so all may be united in thought and action.”
To achieve that, everyone had to align with the Holy See:
Whenever legitimate authority has once given a clear command, let no one transgress that command, because it does not happen to commend itself to him; but let each one subject his own opinion to the authority of him who is his superior, and obey him as a matter of conscience. Again, let no private individual, whether in books or in the press, or in public speeches, take upon himself the position of an authoritative teacher in the Church. All know to whom the teaching authority of the Church has been given by God: he, then, possesses a perfect right to speak as he wishes and when he thinks it opportune. The duty of others is to hearken to him reverently when he speaks and to carry out what he says.8
Divergent opinions were allowed in matters other than Faith and Morals such as lay Catholic political action or journalistic approach to Modernism, provided that the pope has not given his own: “As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline – in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See – there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion.”9 A practical application of this restriction on the debate was placing the newspaper owned by the Scotton brothers, whose freedom of opinion Saint Pius X had defended, under the strict control of the bishop of Vicenza.10
His successor, Pius XI—who belonged to the same non-ultramontane current—went so far as to excommunicate the subscribers of the monarchist newspaper Action Française because of its director Charles Maurras’s agnostic opinions.11 (It would be as if Pope Francis excommunicated Breitbart or Fox News readers for supporting anti-immigration policies.) He even removed the cardinal’s hat from the Jesuit Louis Billot, one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, for having expressed opposition to that measure.12
The same non-ultramontane Pius XI approved the Agreement between Mexico’s liberal bishops and Masonic government negotiated by the US ambassador, which pressured the Cristeros to lay down their arms. As is well known, the government failed to honor the Agreement, executed thousands of Catholic fighters and upheld most of its anticlerical laws.13
Within the Church, Pius XI centralized the lay apostolate worldwide into Catholic Action, an organization infiltrated by liberal and secular leanings. He gave it preeminence over all the traditional and autonomous lay apostolate movements such as Third Orders, Marian Sodalities, and the Apostleship of Prayer.
Pope Pius XII was a figure full of contrasts. Before making Father Augustin Bea, S.J. (later created a cardinal) his confessor, he held a traditional position close to that of the heirs of Ultramontanism. He condemned emerging progressive errors, particularly in the Liturgy. Later, inspired by Fr. Bea and helped by then-Father Bugnini, the same Pius XII revolutionized Holy Week’s liturgical rites and allowed the use of the historical-critical method (of Protestant origin) for biblical studies.
The one who warned about the danger of an “instrumentalization” of the Magisterium was no anti-ultramontane liberal but a leading figure of the Roman school (the stronghold of what remained of Ultramontanism in academia). In an article published in L’Osservatore Romano on February 10, 1942, Msgr. Pietro Parente denounced “the strange identification of Tradition (source of Revelation) with the living Magisterium of the Church (custodian and interpreter of the Divine Word).”14 If Tradition and Magisterium are the same, then Tradition ceases being the unchanging deposit of the Faith and varies according to the teaching of the reigning pope.
All this proves that blaming Ultramontanism for the errors of identifying Tradition with the living Magisterium and imposing uniform thinking in non-dogmatic matters is historically flawed. It was the liberal-progressive current that did it. Contrary to what Mr. Chessman says, those who claimed to be the heirs of Ultramontanism resisted the attempts to force them to accept the pope’s liberal policy of the extended hand to the world throughout that period.
The centralism and authoritarianism now blamed on Ultramontanism were not a fruit of Vatican I or its so-called “spirit.” They were the fruit of Liberalism infiltrated in the Church. As Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira explains, “Liberalism is not interested in freedom for what is good. It is solely interested in freedom for evil. When in power, it easily, and even joyfully, restricts the freedom of the good as much as possible. But in many ways, it protects, favors, and promotes freedom for evil.”15
Just as liberals denounced “the Bastille” before the French Revolution but imposed the Terror once in power, Catholic liberals and modernists denounced the supposed authoritarianism of Blessed Pius IX and Saint Pius X. However, as soon as they seized the highest positions in the Church, they imposed rigid obedience to their world-embracing agenda even in strictly political affairs not involving matters of Faith and Morals.
Another of Mr. Chessman’s historical inaccuracies is the supposed alliance between Ultramontanism and progressivism at the Second Vatican Council. Giuseppe Angelo Roncalli was no ultramontane but a sympathizer of Modernism in his youth. When opening the conciliar assembly, John XXIII excoriated the “prophets of doom,” meaning the ultramontanes. All of that Council’s historians reckon there was a clash between the progressive and conservative minorities, with the former gradually having managed to pull the vast moderate majority to its side. The handful of prelates with ultramontane spirit, gathered in the Coetus Internationalis Patrum, were the ones who worked the most to include traditional truths opposed to modernist novelties in the Council’s texts.
Blessed Pius IX must have turned in his grave as Vatican II approved the introduction of a ‘dual’ supreme authority in the Church, implicit in the theory of collegiality. How can anyone pretend that “the management of the Council and its subsequent implementation were truly the greatest triumph of Ultramontanism”?
There is no doubt that the pontificate of John Paul II was a first attempt to give the Council’s novelties a moderate interpretation along the lines of what was later dubbed a “hermeneutic of continuity.” His supporters defended this moderate position mainly by appealing to the Roman pontiff’s celebrity media image (Fr. Chad Ripperger called it “magisterialism”16). However, it makes no sense to characterize this moderate offensive as an “ultramontane revival.” John Paul II is the author of Ut unum sint. This encyclical intended “to find a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” by seeking to meet “the ecumenical aspirations of the majority of the Christian communities.”17 This ambition was precisely the opposite of what the ultramontanes achieved at the First Vatican Council: the dogma of the pope’s primacy of jurisdiction—which heretical and schismatic Christian communities reject.
One of the errors in Mr. Chessman’s article—as mentioned—is to attribute the origin of the current crisis of Faith to a purely natural factor—the bureaucratic and centralized exercise of papal authority. The growing centralization of papal power in the hands of non-ultramontane and even anti-ultramontane popes (Leo XIII, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and the conciliar popes) is not the reason why the crisis of Faith worsened in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century. The crisis stemmed from and was aggravated by the penetration of the world’s putrefying liberal miasmas into the Catholic Church. Modernity’s mentality was born of the anti-Christian Revolution and started dominating the West’s cultural, intellectual, and political life from the Renaissance onward. The Church was pressured to adapt to the new emerging world, mainly from the nineteenth century. “It is not a matter of choosing between the principles of 1789 and the dogmas of the Catholic religion,” exclaimed Duke Albert de Broglie, one of the leaders of the liberal Catholic bloc, “but to purify principles with dogmas and make both walk side by side. It is not a question of confronting each other in a duel but of making peace.”18
Such infiltration of revolutionary errors in the Church reached its climax with Modernism, which professes that the dogmas of Faith must adapt to humanity’s evolving religious experience and that worship should evolve according to each era’s uses and customs. Pius IX and Saint Pius X issued explicit condemnations against any attempt to reconcile the Church with modern errors. They urged Catholics to courageously confront what Saint Pius X called “the synthesis of all heresies.” This opposition made them models of an ultramontane papacy. However, their successors were less energetic and even conciliatory. With John XXIII and the opening of the Second Vatican Council, the ultramontane, anti-liberal position of combat against modernity and its errors was abandoned officially and replaced with an attitude of benevolent dialogue with and submission to the modern world.
Like twentieth-century modernists, Pope Francis openly seeks to adapt the Church to “anthropological and cultural changes.” According to him, the divine impulse present in humanity’s progress justifies today’s changes. He attributes these impulses and new dynamics in human action to divine action: “God manifests himself in historical revelation, in history. . . . God is in history, in the processes,”19 he asserts. Eugenio Scalfari, the agnostic founder of La Repubblica, was right when he titled his article on Laudato Si’: “Francis, the Pope-Prophet Who Meets Modernity.”20 Leaders of modernity’s applause for the present pope’s statements and initiatives confirm that assessment.
The current pope and some previous ones have abused papal authority to advance the modernist agenda of reconciling the Church to the revolutionary world. This does not make them ultramontane popes. The careerist prelates who ran their dioceses as mediocre public servants and ignored the infiltration of modernist errors among the faithful—errors with which they sympathized—were not ultramontanes either. The clerics and faithful who espoused modernist errors did not do so because of a false notion of obedience. They did it because they were imbued with the liberal and revolutionary spirit of the world.
During this long apostasy from the Faith, a small ultramontane minority of clergy and laity strove to counter the infiltration of heresy and defend traditional Church teaching. If some of them did not do more or even shrank from the fight, it was because of cowardice, not an excessive ultramontane reverence for the papacy.
Blaming Ultramontanism for the current crisis of the Church and ignoring the fundamental role of Modernism in its gestation and journey toward paroxysm is like blaming a dam for being unable to resist a flood while exonerating the foaming and churning waters that overran it.
Ultramontanes have always admired and respected the hierarchical order in the universe, society, and the Church, especially in the papacy, the highest authority on earth. The same love for the hierarchical order led them to venerate and obey the Creator and Sovereign Lord of the world and the Divine Founder of the Church. They thus reject any error or transgression of the divine Law because one must “obey God rather than men.” Because of their well-ordered love of the principle of authority, those who most love the papacy are also better prepared to staunchly, albeit respectfully, resist any deviation from Tradition. No one had a more ardent love for the papacy than Saint Paul, who “went up to Jerusalem to meet Cephas” (Gal. 1:18) and returned there fourteen years later to expound the Gospel he preached to the Gentiles “in order not to run in vain” (Gal. 2:2). No one, however, was firmer than Saint Paul in “resisting [Peter] to his face” “because he was blameworthy” (Gal. 2:11).
In the short run, the proposal to ‘resize’ the papacy to avoid abuse could lessen the problems of conscience created by a series of popes who have promoted the self-demolition of the Church. However, in the long run, it would help Church self-demolishers, bent on destroying or at least weakening the Rock on which She was built. Paradoxically, both ultra-progressives and new “anti-ultramontane traditionalists” propose to stop calling the pope the “Vicar of Christ,” as did the editor of Crisis Magazine. He claimed that this title lends itself to excessive veneration if applied to the pope alone, whereas it could also apply to all bishops.
Paradoxically, an article denouncing “ultramontane totalitarianism” appeared on the blog of a society established to honor Saint Hugh of Cluny. He was the great adviser to Popes Saint Leo IX, Nicolas II, and especially the great Saint Gregory VII. The latter, his Cluniac confrere, raised papal authority to an apex. He reestablished the Church’s internal discipline with the Gregorian reform. Concerning the investiture of bishops and abbots, he victoriously affirmed papal supremacy over civil authority. Saint Hugh was with Saint Gregory VII at the famous episode in Canossa, which revolutionary historians consider the starting point of Ultramontanism.
The papacy’s present eclipse is probably the most dramatic in the Church’s two-thousand-year-old history. The crisis requires us to increase our love for this holiest of earthly institutions. Jesus Christ established it as the keystone of His Church and endowed it with the power of the keys, the most tremendous and sacred power binding Heaven and Earth.
Undiplomatic attitudes by Saint Leo IX’s legate angered the Greeks and favored the Eastern Schism. The scandalous lifestyles of Renaissance Popes angered the Germans and favored Luther’s heresy. Today, Pope Francis’s blatantly erroneous teachings and egregiously unpastoral actions must not arouse emotional anger in his victims. While Catholics may legitimately harbor doctrinal reservations about and resist a wayward occupant of the throne of Peter, they must never succumb to reservations about the papacy itself. These are always illegitimate.
Let us imitate the French monarchists during the Restoration, who, despite Louis XVIII’s liberal policy—which favored Bonapartists and republicans and persecuted defenders of the throne, shouted, “Vive le roi, quand même!” in other words, “Despite everything, long live the king!”
- Eric Sammons, “Rethinking the Papacy,” Crisis Magazine, Sept. 28, 2021, //www.crisismagazine.com/2021/rethinking-the-papacy.
- Stuart Chessman, “Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death” (in four parts), The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny, Dec. 20, 23, 27, 31, 2021, //sthughofcluny.org/2021/12/ultramontanism-sts-life-and-death-part-i.html; //sthughofcluny.org/2021/12/ultramontanism-its-life-and-death-part-ii-1958-2013.html; //sthughofcluny.org/2021/12/ultramontanism-its-life-and-death-part-iii-2013-present.html; //sthughofcluny.org/2021/12/ultramontanism-its-life-and-death-concluding-thoughts.html.
- Stuart Chessman, “Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death,” Rorate Caeli, Jan. 7, 2022, //rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2022/01/ultramontanism-its-life-and-death.html.
- Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 3rd ed. (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), //tfp.org/revolution-and-counter-revolution/.
- José Antonio Ureta, “Understanding True Ultramontanism,” OnePeterFive, Oct. 12, 2021, //onepeterfive.com/understanding-true-ultramontanism/.
- José Antonio Ureta, “Leo XIII: The First Liberal Pope Who Went Beyond His Authority,” OnePeterFive, Oct. 19, 2021, //onepeterfive.com/leo-xiii-first-liberal-pope-who-went-beyond-his-authority/.
- Romana beatificationis et canonizationis servi Dei Papae Pii X disquisitio circa quasdam obiectiones modum agendi servi Dei respicientes in modernismi debellationem, redatta dal cardinale Ferdinando Antonelli (Typis poliglottis Vaticanis, 1950), 178, in Roberto de Mattei, “Modernismo e antimodernismo nell’epoca di Pio X”, in Don Orione negli anni del modernismo, 60.
- Benedict XV, encyclical Ad beatissimi apostolorum, Nov. 1, 1914, no. 22, //www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xv/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_ben-xv_enc_01111914_ad-beatissimi-apostolorum.html.
- Ibid., no. 23.
- Giovanni Vian, “Il modernismo durante il pontificato di Benedetto XV, tra riabilitaziioni e condanne,” n. 23, accessed Jan. 20, 2022, //iris.unive.it/retrieve/handle/10278/3691556/113213/Il%20modernismo%20durante%20il%20pontificato%20di%20Benedetto%20XV%20-%20testo%20atti%20Bologna.pdf.
- “Taming the Action – II The Decree,” Rorate Caeli, Jan. 21, 2012, //rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2012/01/taming-action-ii-decree.html.
- See Peter J. Bernardi, S.J., “Louis Cardinal Billot, S.J. (1846–1931): Thomist, Anti-Modernist, Integralist,” Journal of Jesuit Studies, 8, 4 (2021): 585-616, doi: //doi.org/10.1163/22141332-08040004.
- See Brian Van Hove, S.J., “Blood-Drenched Altars,” EWTN, accessed Jan. 20, 2022, //www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/blooddrenched-altars-4082.
- Pietro Parente, “Supr. S. Congr. S. Officii Decretum 4 febr. 1942—Annotationes,” Periodica de Re Morali, Canonica, Liturgica 31 (Feb. 1942): 187 [originally published as “Nuove tendenze teologiche,” L’Osservatore Romano, Feb. 9–10, 1942.
- Corrêa de Oliveira, Revolution and Counter-Revolution, 52.
- Chad Ripperger, “Operative Points of View,” Christian Order (March 2001), //christianorder.com/features/feature_2001-03.html.
- John Paul II, encyclical Ut Unum Sint (May 25, 1995), no. 95, //www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25051995_ut-unum-sint.html.
- Albert de Broglie, Questions de religion et d’histoire (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1860), 2:199, //play.google.com/books/reader?id=9JUTIdKex-QC&pg=GBS.PA199&hl=en.
- Antonio Spadaro, S.J., “A Big Heart Open to God: An Interview With Pope Francis,” America, Sept. 30, 2013, //www.americamagazine.org/faith/2013/09/30/big-heart-open-god-interview-pope-francis.
- Eugenio Scalfari, “Francesco, papa profeta che incontra la modernità,” La Repubblica, Jul. 1, 2015, //www.repubblica.it/cultura/2015/07/01/news/francesco_papa_profeta_che_incontra_la_modernita_-118048516/.