One Cannot Destroy the Papacy to Save the Church: True Ultramontanism and the Right to Resist

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One Cannot Destroy the Papacy to Save the Church: True Ultramontanism and the Right to Resist
One Cannot Destroy the Papacy to Save the Church: True Ultramontanism and the Right to Resist

The terrible crisis afflicting Church and papacy fills good and faithful Catholics with unspeakable sorrow. However, in resisting the errors being promoted at the highest levels in the Church, some conservative critics seem to be slipping now and then into confusion.

The Danger of Attacking the Papacy Itself

Some of them have ascribed to venerable ultramontanism a new meaning that distorts and denies its ancient fidelity to Church teaching.1

Others wonder if the “inopportunists,” the liberal wing at the First Vatican Council, might not have been correct after all when opposing the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility, claiming that it distorted the role of the Supreme Pontiff in the Church.2

Some use the disrespectful term of “papolatry,” against those who maintain the traditional respect for the Roman Pontiff. “Papolatry” would be an excessive and unreasonable reverence for the pope, which would undoubtedly prevent many from analyzing and resisting Pope Francis’s errors and misbehavior, however egregious. However, some equate this “papolatry” with the growing understanding and love for papal primacy and jurisdiction during the Church’s second millennium.3 Actually this fervor increased with the pontificates of the great Popes of the time, as Saint Gregory VII, Innocent III, Bl. Urban II and Boniface VIII. They fought boldly against Kings and Emperors that wanted to dominate the Church, proclaimed the Crusades and defended the Faith against heresies.

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Others criticize Doctors of the Church who studied and developed Catholic doctrine on the papacy while defending it from attack.4

The confusion spread by these commentators is cause for concern. While it is imperative for Catholics to resist Pope Francis’s errors, it is vital that they do this properly, faithfully growing in their love of the papacy.

It is impossible in the scope of one article to address all of the confusion, but I will attempt to clear up some important points.

I start with ultramontanism since Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira—and with him all TFP members worldwide—considered himself an ultramontane. Indeed, the Counter-Revolution is the continuation today of this current of fidelity in Church history.

Distorting Ultramontanism

The distortion of the meaning of ultramontanism corresponds neither to historical truth nor the current situation and, perhaps unwittingly, runs counter to traditional Church doctrine on the papacy. As Dr. Taylor Patrick O’Neill rightly observed, “the use of the term [ultramontanism] in this way is dangerous for two reasons: it disassociates the term from its historical significance, thus changing its definition, and it threatens to fundamentally alter our regard for papal authority.”5

The terms “ultramontane” and “ultramontanism” have their historical roots in the Middle Ages, and refer to the pope’s defenders against moves by Holy Roman emperors to interfere in Church government. It was used later in Church polemics against Gallicans, Protestants, and Jansenists, becoming popular in the nineteenth century.

“Ultramontane” means “beyond the mountains,” the Alps, referring to Italy and Rome—where the Holy See and the papacy are located—relative to other European countries.6

Gallican and Jansenist Errors

While differing in their doctrines and goals, the errors of Gallicanism, Jansenism, and Febronianism,7 converged in the defense of a State’s falsely claimed right to interfere in ecclesiastical matters and to curtail the pope’s power over bishops.

Based on these errors, civil authorities and national episcopates usurped the power Our Lord Jesus Christ conferred on the pope to teach and govern His Church. In article 4 of the notorious 1682 Declaration of the Clergy of France, the Gallicans said that the popes’ pronouncements on faith only became irreformable when approved by the Church.8

The Jansenists denied that the pope receives his jurisdiction directly from Our Lord, as we see in His words to Saint Peter: “And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Matt. 16:19).9

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In the Bull Auctorem Fidei (Aug. 28, 1794), Pope Pius VI condemned the Jansenist doctrine of the Synod of Pistoia as heretical: “[T]he proposition which states ‘that the Roman Pontiff is the ministerial head,’ if it is so explained that the Roman Pontiff does not receive from Christ in the person of blessed Peter, but from the Church, the power of ministry, which as successor of Peter, true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church he possesses in the universal Church, ‒ heretical.”10

Birth of the Ultramontane Movement

Together with a great religious decay, especially in European elites, these errors contributed to the spread of revolutionary ideas that led to the cataclysm of the French Revolution, followed by the Napoleonic era (1789–1814).

After almost two decades of religious persecution—massacres of priests and nobles, dissolution of religious orders, wars, insurrections, the arrest of two popes (Pius VI and Pius VII) by French revolutionaries—France experienced a religious awakening. Most of its nobility returned to the practice of the Faith, and priestly and religious vocations flourished. New male and female congregations were founded, devoted especially to teaching and the foreign missions, and old religious orders were restored.11

The storm helped to awaken the dormant French Catholic sense and many applied themselves to analyze the Revolution’s causes. Their minds sought for the certainties that guide thought and make it solid through analysis. The certainty of Faith is the greatest of these and is guaranteed by God Himself through the infallible teaching of His Church.

The Ultramontane Doctrine on the Papacy Is Catholic Doctrine

This renewed fervor gave rise to the so-called ultramontane movement, which defended the papacy against Gallican, Jansenist, and liberal errors. The doctrine which the ultramontanes advocated was not an innovation. It appears in the Gospels (Matt. 16:18–20; Luke 22:31–34; John 21:15–17), in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and in writings of great popes who honored the See of Peter.12

It is in this sense that Msgr. Umberto Benigni identifies ultramontane doctrine on the papacy with Catholic doctrine, concluding: “The war against Ultramontanism is accounted for not merely by its adversaries’ denial of the genuine Catholic doctrine of the Church’s power and that of her supreme ruler, but also, and even more, by the consequences of that doctrine.”13

It is evident that in the ardor of battle, especially at the journalistic level, there has often been exaggeration or inaccuracies in theological formulations. But it was not these that drew fire from Gallicans, Jansenists, and liberal Catholics. Their opposition was because they rejected Catholic truth on the pope’s primacy and infallibility.

Ultramontane Militancy Against Error

The ultramontane movement’s hallmark was its combativeness against the errors of the time. Its defense of Catholic doctrine was clear and fearless. It was an earnest endeavor to restore Church and papacy to the glory they had attained in the High Middle Ages when the popes were the arbiters of Christendom.

This movement brought together bishops, priests, and lay Catholics. It had the full support of the great Popes Gregory XVI (1831–1846) and Pius IX (1846–1878). It helped spread the encyclicals against liberalism, which had infiltrated the Church with the French Revolution. Its main focus of irradiation was France, but during these two pontificates it spread to other European countries and to the New World, thus creating a favorable climate for the declaration of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870.

Liberalism Opposed Papal Infallibility

Papal infallibility was a doctrine commonly held by faithful theologians. It was defended by great saints and Doctors of the Church such as Saint Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), Saint Francis de Sales (1567–1622),14 and Saint Alphonsus de Liguori (1696–1787),15 long before the First Vatican Council.

To better understand the importance of this dogma, one should bear in mind that from the mid-nineteenth century on, papal defenders polemicized mainly against liberalism more than Protestants, Gallicans, and Jansenists.

Pius IX’s Syllabus, which accompanied the Encyclical Quanta Cura (December 8, 1864), condemned liberalism, defining its essence as follows: “Human reason, without any reference whatsoever to God, is the sole arbiter of truth and falsehood, and of good and evil; it is law to itself, and suffices, by its natural force, to secure the welfare of men and of nations.”16

Liberal errors lead to total relativism, turning natural and revealed truth into mere personal feeling.

Liberal Governments Against Infallibility

Liberal and philo-Jansenist governments tried to prevent the First Vatican Council from proclaiming the dogma of papal infallibility. Thus, the governments of France, Austria, Bavaria, England, Spain, and Portugal sent a threatening memorandum to the Vatican in opposition to the dogma’s approval. Liberal Catholics, always ready to please the world, spoke in unison with the Church’s worst enemies.17

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That being the context, it is easy to understand the importance of the ultramontanes’ polemics against these liberal Catholics.18

It Was No Mistake to Proclaim Papal Infallibility

As mentioned, some conservatives today wonder if the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council was not untimely.

Their questioning is misplaced. The definition of the dogma of papal infallibility and the reaffirmation of the pope’s direct and immediate primacy over the whole Church without civil or ecclesiastical interference stemmed from the fervor of both clergy and faithful. They arose against the errors of the time, especially liberalism, and confirmed the divinely-established monarchical form of Church government.19

What Is Papal Infallibility?

The First Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus of July 18, 1870, on the primacy of the Pope and papal infallibility was drafted with extreme care. It makes it very clear that the pope only enjoys the personal charisma of infallibility in very specific circumstances of the so-called extraordinary magisterium, to wit:

  1. The Pope must speak as the universal Master and Shepherd;
  2. He must make full use of his apostolic authority;
  3. He must exteriorize the will to define;
  4. He must teach on matters of faith or morals.

Moreover, the pope may not change the doctrine received from the Apostles and kept in the Deposit of Faith: “[T]he Holy Spirit was not promised to the successors of Peter that by His revelation they might make known new doctrine, but that by His assistance they might inviolably keep and faithfully expound the Revelation, the Deposit of Faith, delivered through the Apostles.”20

In their ordinary magisterium, the popes enjoy infallibility only when they teach a doctrine already taught continuously and over a long period of time by the previous Magisterium. However, while the popes enjoy the general assistance which the Holy Spirit provides to the Magisterium of the Church, they can err and have erred, as Church history shows.21

In addition to being able to err doctrinally and politically, if not faithful to the graces received, the pope, like any other person, can fall into sin and even become evil. The examples of some tenth century and Renaissance popes are clear proofs of this.

A Pope Can Fall Into Heresy

Note that the ultramontane Doctors of the Church mentioned above—Saints Robert Bellarmine, Francis de Sales, and Alphonsus de Liguori—while defenders of papal infallibility, also pondered the possibility of a pope falling into heresy.

Thus, Saint Robert Bellarmine writes: “[A] Pope who is a manifest heretic, ceases in himself to be pope and head, just as he ceases in himself to be a Christian and member of the body of the Church: whereby, he can be judged and punished by the Church.”22

Likewise, Saint Francis de Sales states: “[W]e do not say that the pope cannot err in his private opinions, as did John XXII, or be altogether a heretic, as perhaps Honorius was. Now when he is explicitly a heretic, he falls ipso facto from his dignity and out of the Church, and the Church must either deprive him, or, as some say, declare him deprived of his Apostolic See.”23

Saint Alphonsus Liguori is no less peremptory: “Heresy alone and no other crimes render the pope inept for his office; so in case the pope is a heretic, without the Council being superior to him (how can the Council be above the pope if there is no pope?), the council declares the pope to have fallen from the pontificate as, by holding a false doctrine, he can no longer be a Church doctor.”24

The Theological Hypothesis of a Heretical Pope

It should be made clear that for these Doctors of the Church, although a heretic ipso facto expels himself from the Church by formally adhering to heresy, he does not necessarily lose jurisdiction at the same time. That is because the Church is a visible society and his heresy must be externalized and made public and notorious.

Until his heresy becomes public and notorious, a heretic member of the clergy retains jurisdiction. In the case of bishops and priests, that jurisdiction is supplemented by the Church. In the case of the pope, it is supplemented by Our Lord Himself. But it is a precarious jurisdiction, maintained for some time for the sake of the faithful.25

The Right to Resist

In line with his ultramontanism, the great Catholic thinker and leader, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, founder of the Brazilian Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property and inspirer of sister TFP organizations around the world, declared himself in the state of resistance to the Vatican policy of détente with communist governments. On February 18, 1974, in a widely publicized manifesto to Pope Paul VI, he declared:

Yes, Holy Father, Saint Peter teaches us that it is necessary “to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). You are assisted by the Holy Ghost and supported—under the conditions defined by Vatican I—by the privilege of infallibility. But this does not mean that in certain matters or circumstances the weakness to which all men are subject cannot influence and even determine your conduct. One of these fields where your action is subject to error—perhaps par excellence—is diplomacy. And this is precisely where your policy of détente with the communist governments is situated.

What, then, should we do? The limits of this declaration do not permit us to list all the Church Fathers, Doctors, moralists, and canonists—many of them raised to the honor of the altar—who have affirmed the legitimacy of resistance. This genre of resistance is not separation, it is not revolt, it is not acrimony, it is not irreverence. On the contrary, it is fidelity, it is union, it is love, it is submission.26

Defending the True Powers Christ Conferred to the Pope

These brief considerations attempt to show how unfounded it is to change the meaning of ultramontanism and to undermine papal authority and the reverence and devotion of the faithful to the papacy.

The present crisis in the Church is perhaps the greatest in Her history. It is a complex situation that demands extreme care from us. Our Lord, who allows such crises to punish our sins, does not leave us helpless.

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It is wrong to defend the Church by assailing ultramontanism as it has historically existed, or by reducing the powers that Our Lord conferred on the pope.

Instead, we should be faithful, keeping our love and respect for the pope intact, indeed, favoring its growth, and by making use of our right to resist the errors and deviations of the present Sovereign Pontiff as taught by the great Doctors of the Church and the consensus of theologians.

Amid the storm, let us be confident that Our Lord never abandons His Church, having promised to be with Her even to the consummation of the world (see Matt. 28:20).

Updated January 17, 2020.


  1. See, for example, Joseph Shaw, “Ultramontanism’s Death Sentence,”, Oct. 15, 2017,
  2. See, for example, Peter Kwasniewski, “How Francis May Be Vindicating the ‘Inopportunists’ of the First Vatican Council,”, Jan. 2, 2020,
  3. “[T]he High Middle Ages…a time when pope-centrism arrived at a certain high point, when unconsciously the pope was identified with the Church as such. This was already in its root the mundane attitude of an absolutist prince according to the motto: ‘L’État, c’est moi!’ or in ecclesiastical terms: ‘I am the Church!’” Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “On the Question of a Heretical Pope,”, Mar. 20, 2019,
  4. See, for example, Eric Sammons, “Is Francis the Pope?”, Oct. 29, 2019,
  5. Taylor Patrick O’Neill, “A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism,” Church Life Journal, Oct. 12, 2018,
  6. Carl Theodor Mirbt, The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition (1911), Vol. 27, s.v. “Ultramontanism,” available online at, accessed Jan. 2, 2020,
  7. “The politico-ecclesiastical system outlined by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, Auxiliary Bishop of Trier, under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius. … According to Febronius (cap. i), the power of the keys was entrusted by Christ to the whole body of the Church, which holds it principaliter et radicaliter, but exercises it through her prelates, to whom only the administration of this power is committed. Among these the pope comes first, though even he is subordinate to the Church as a whole.” F. Lauchert, s.v. “Febronianism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), accessed Jan. 13, 2020,
  8. A. Dégert, s.v. “Gallicanism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed Jan. 6, 2020,
  9. For a good explanation on this topic, see G. Joyce, s.v. “The Pope,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed Jan. 13, 2020,
  10. Denzinger, 1503. (Our emphasis.)
  11. See Adrien Dansette, Religious History of Modern France (Freiburg-London: Herder-Nelson, 1961).
  12. See Saint Robert Bellarmine, De Controversiis, On the Roman Pontiff, trans. Ryan Grant (Charleston, S.C.: Mediatrix Press, 2015).
  13. Umberto Benigni, s.v. “Ultramontanism,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed Jan. 7, 2020,
  14. The Pope, writes the Saint, “cannot err when he is in cathedra, that is, when he intends to make an instruction and decree for the guidance of the whole Church, when he means to confirm his brethren as supreme pastor and to conduct them into the pastures of the Faith.” Saint Francis de Sales, Defense of the Faith: The Catholic Controversy (Charlotte, N.C.: Tan Books, 2012), 225.
  15. Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, L’infallibilità e la superiorità del Papa sul Concilio, accessed Jan. 7, 2020,
  16. Pius IX, Quanta Cura & The Syllabus of Errors: Condemning Current Errors, Dec. 8, 1864, accessed Jan. 13, 2020, (Our emphasis.)
  17. See J. Kirch, s.v. “Vatican Council,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed Jan. 9, 2020,
  18. Through the pages of the newspaper L’Univers, French journalist Louis Veuillot engaged in famous polemics with liberal Catholics, including Most Rev. Félix Dupanloup, the liberal Bishop of Orleans. Later, during the First Vatican Council, Bishop Dupanloup led the opposition to the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility. See E. Tavernier, s.v. “Louis Veuillot,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, accessed Jan. 10, 2020,
  19. Following Saint Robert Bellarmine, Fr. Christian Pesch affirms the common teaching of theologians: “The society established by Christ is a monarchic society.” (Christian Pesch, S.J., “De Ecclesia Christi” in Compendium Theologiae Dogmaticae, 1:141. See also J.M. Hervé, Manuale Theologiae Dogmaticae (Paris: Berche et Pagis Editores, 1952), 1:306, 336, 345; L. Lercher, S.J., Institutiones Theologiae Dogmaticae (Barcelona: Herder, 1945), 1:163; Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate (New York: Sheed & Ward 1955) 1:422–3.
  20. Denzinger, 1826–1840.
  21. See Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira, Can Documents of the Magisterium of the Church Contain Errors? Can the Catholic Faithful Resist Them? (Spring Grove, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property—TFP, 2015),
  22. Saint Robert Bellarmine, S.J., On the Roman Pontiff, 309. For a discussion of Saint Robert Bellarmine’s position, see Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira, Can a Pope be… a Heretic? (Lisbon: Caminhos Romanos, 2018).
  23. Saint Francis de Sales, Defense of the Faith: The Catholic Controversy (Charlotte, N.C.: Tan Books, 2012), 225. (Emphasis in the original.)
  24. Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Verità della Fede, no. 29, accessed Jan. 9, 2020, (Our translation and emphasis.)
  25. See Xavier da Silveira, Can a Pope be… a heretic?, 96–101.
  26. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “The Vatican Policy of Détente with Communist Governments–Should the TFPs Stand Down? Or Should They Resist?” (Feb. 18, 1975), accessed Jan. 9, 2020,

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