The new ultramontanes

“The personality of the Pope alone contributed to it. His charm and open nature, so different from the reserved behavior of his predecessor, … gradually gave him … a popularity such as no pope had known before him.” 1 Apposite though that line might seem, it was written of Pio Nono, and the “it” referred to is the rise and apparent triumph of ultramontanism. I want to suggest that there is a dangerous current in the Church today and that rebuffing it requires us to reexamine what happened between the Gallicans and the Ultramontanes. 2

I. The old ultramontanes

Gallicanism and ultramontanism were tendencies, schools of thought in ecclesiology. Broadly-defined, Gallicanism may be thought analogous to Anglicanism in its insistence on the distinct and independent nature of national churches, whereas ultramontanism insists on the prerogatives and authority of the Pope, the “papa ultra montano,” the “father beyond the mountains.” The conventional wisdom is that the First Vatican Council’s constitution Pastor æternus crushed Gallicanism and baptized Ultramontanism as orthodoxy; the treatments of the topic in the the roughly contemporary Catholic Encyclopedia and Encyclopedia Britannica both reflect this assumption. But the assumption is wrong.

What did the Ultramontanes believe? There is a temptation to circular reasoning: The ultramontanes believed what Pastor ætenus teaches, and we know that because they prevailed at the first Vatican council, and we know that they prevailed at the first vatican council because Pastor æternus teaches what the ultramontanes believed. It is difficult to define ultramontanism more precisely than in the broad strokes just used because, perhaps like Anglicanism, it comprised diverse people of diverse tones and emphases. And like any movement, it had moderates and extremists. Nevertheless, the 1911 Britannica article on ultramontanism says—correctly, I think—this:

It is indisputably legitimate to speak of Ultramontanism as a distinct policy, but it is very difficult to define its essential character. For, true to its nature, it has itself drawn up no complete programme of its objects, and, in addition to its avowed aims, its subsidiary effects claim attention. There is something chameleon-like in its appearances; its genuine views are kept in the background from tactical considerations, and first one aspect, then another, comes into prominence. It is evident, therefore, that the request for a definition of Ultramontanism cannot be answered with a concise formula, but that the varied character of its manifestations necessitates a more detailed examination of its peculiar objects. 3

I think correct Fr. Ignaz von Döllinger’s assessment, quoted thereafter, that the Ultramontane view is largely that

[t]he pope is the supreme, the infallible, and consequently the sole authority in all that concerns religion, the Church, and morality , and each of his utterances on these topics demands unconditional submission—internal no less than external.

The Ultramontanes, then, did not merely support papal infallibility as we know it today. They “exalted the Papacy.” 4 They did not merely emphasize its prerogatives, they “support[ed] … an active intervention of the Roman pontiffs in the governance of national churches” and a “vocal insistence on the papal magisterium.” 5 They “argued for a strong papacy whose voice would be decisive in matters of doctrine and authority,” because “only a strong papacy could protect the Church against … heterodox movements. 6

That is not the Second Vatican Council’s ecclesiology. But more importantly, it is not the First Vatican Council’s ecclesiology, either. Pastor æternus gives a much more modest, qualified endorsement of the papal prerogatives, and so it’s little surprise when we read that Pius IX was unable to water down Pastor æternus to accommodate the concerns of the Gallicans because it was already a compromise from what the ultramontanes wanted. 7

Pastor æternus “teach[es] and declare[s] that … a primacy of jurisdiction over the whole Church of God was immediately and directly promised to” and conferred upon Peter,” and that “the Roman Church [therefore] possesses a pre-eminence of ordinary power over every other Church, and that this jurisdictional power of the Roman Pontiff is both episcopal and immediate.” The ultramontanes believed not only this but also that the pope should actively use that authority in an interventionist way. The council did not say that. 8

Pastor æternus “teach[es] and define[s] as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks ex cathedra , that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.” The ultramontanes believed in infallibility, but many of them would have accepted few of those hedges and caveats; there was a strong current of “the pope can do no wrong, can speak no wrong” that would attribute infallibility to almost every utterance. The council did not say that.

II. The new ultramontanes

When people like the pope, it’s natural to emphasize the authority of the papacy, a fortiori if one senses that the broader episcopal barrel has a number of bad apples in it. That seems to have been the case with Pio Nono. But what happens when there’s a bad pope? As Brantly Millegan pointed out in a prescient article last year, “[t]he danger of good popes” is that when “there has not been an egregiously bad pope in recent memory ,” it’s easy “to think that popes will always be this good, or that God protects the papacy from grave immorality or stupidity.” 9

A year ago, I would not have resisted the label “ultramontane”—keen-eyed readers will notice that posts on this blog appear beneath a papal crest—and would have cheerfully recited the conventional wisdom that since Vatican I, ultramontanism has merged into Catholic orthodoxy. As we have seen, that is not quite right. For a while, though, it was right enough; that kind of sloppy thinking worked when Benedict XVI was pope, because there was no need to delineate carefully between the prerogatives proper to the papacy itself and the substantial deference and respect afforded to its distinguished occupant. But with Francis’ election to the See of Rome, it became necessary to think more precisely, and I have become convinced that in recent decades, in Millegan’s words, conservatives have “overstate[d] the role, powers, and privileges of the papacy.”

We need to pause and back up a little. One of the most helpful things that I read during the last year was a blog post by Joseph Shaw that I resisted for some time because I felt Shaw’s framing was overly tendentious. Nevertheless, reflection persuaded me that he is substantially correct, and so I want to give you just a little of that post, edited to use terminology that I think is more helpful and to focus on the points onto which I latched:

One very easy misconception is that Traditionalism fits onto the same linear scale as ‘liberal’ and ‘[conservative[‘, but at the extreme [conservative] end … [W]hen [Conservative] Catholics become [Trads] … they give up two positions which are crucial to the standard ‘conservative Catholic’ offering: Legal Positivism and Ultramontanism.

[Conservatives] might deny that they really hold these positions, but … [t]hey accept whatever has just been enacted by the Church as the most authoritative statement on any subject, regardless of the weight of earlier laws, or considerations such as Natural Justice and custom. And they place enormous emphasis on the person of the Pope, seeking at all costs to endorse and live by even their non-magisterial statements and philosophical preferences … [But] neither Legal Positivism nor Ultramontanism are teachings of the Church. It is going to be particularly painful for conservatives under the present pontificate, however, since Pope Francis is even more clearly opposed to these tendencies than his immediate predecessors. …

Perhaps [conservatives] great respect for the Office of the Papacy will lead them to reassess these attitudes, and become [Trads]…. On the blog of … [the conservative] Fr. Longenecker, is a neat expression of the dilemma. … [“]I find [the Jesuit publications] interview very hard. I have accepted that this is the Holy Father’s personal view, and that it is not infallible, but this interview is challenging my prior notion of what devotion to the Papacy meant because previously I would not have selected what the Popes said but assiduously read things like this. I can’t get past the cognitive dissonance.[“]

Did you get that? While in theory he accepts the distinctions between fallible and infallible, and between magisterial and private, in practice, up to now, he has tried to accept whatever any Pope has said without ‘selection’. He doesn’t mention this, but this only applies to living Popes, otherwise he would have gone mad long ago. 10

I think that analysis trenchant. From a conservative perspective, I would suggest that most Catholics under forty have no recollection of a bad pope, and our direct, personal experience has been two giants who were adored and respected far beyond what we might know, intellectually, to have been above and beyond the ex officio authority of the papacy. How much mileage did the “reform of the reform” try to extract from Benedict’s liturgical example? There is no particular reason why the Bishop of Rome’s preference in ars celebrandi ought to be normative for the Latin Rite, but we often spoke as though it was, forgetting (or at least failing to emphasize) the point made by Shawn Tribe in the aftermath of the conclave:

Pope Benedict’s liturgies were indeed identified as exemplars in the recent past but that was not because it was the pope’s liturgy that it was an exemplar; rather it was an exemplar because they were liturgies celebrated according to sound liturgical principles. It is the principles that matter and we should keep that always closely in mind. 11

There was a natural tendency to project our personal esteem for and deference to the man onto the office. Our language naturally starts to enlarge the papacy. When that office is taken over by someone else, that shock to the system forces us—or should force us—to consider whether there has been an undue rhetorical excess that has enlarged our rhetoric about the papacy to fit great popes. This should be a chastening experience.

* * *

The old ultramontanism was a spectrum of opinion that ranged from what is today the orthodoxy of Pastor æternus all the way up to what today might be called papolatry.

Today, there is a contingent of neo-ultramontanes among conservatives who are wedded to a way of thinking that, no matter how much they might disclaim it, places excessive emphasis on the papacy, and the dignity and personal competence of the pope. They can’t quite adjust to the new reality, or bring themselves to believe that it must. So much of what we had thought was part and parcel of the papacy was in fact an incident of two good popes. Whenever controversy happens—it’s never far away with Francis—the conservative neo-ultramontanes, of whom Jimmy Akin springs most readily to mind, jump in to spin anything Francis says, to put the most determinedly-positive and orthodox spin possible. They will insist, no matter how implausible the spin must be, that Francis is the victim of forces beyond his control, that what he says is clear and orthodox, but it is invariably misreported and mangled by reporters, that there just isn’t enough evidence. Just this week, we saw the pattern: Deny outright until evidence appears, insist that there’s not enough evidence until there is, and then spin, spin, spin.

A hesitance to believe alarming accusations about a pope, and an impulse to defend him, is, as Millegan notes, a good thing in the abstract. But a refusal to accept the obvious, a radical skepticism about anything that tends to be critical of a pope, is ultramontane and unhealthy. Is it not written in the Letter to the Galatians: “When Cephas came to Antioch, I said ‘now hang on a minute, chaps, what’s the source for this story that he refused to eat with the gentiles? Can you really believe what the gentile’s husband said on their facebook page? I mean, this is our Pope, our Holy Father we’re talking about, we shouldn’t criticize him. I mean, okay, the meal took place, but do we really ‘know’ that Peter separated himself for fear of the circumcision party?”

This disastrous pontificate should force conservatives to more carefully examine what the Church truly teaches about the papacy, and to distinguish between its prerogatives, on the one hand, and the latitude, deference, and respect to which a pope is personally entitled as a rebuttable presumption.


  1. 8 History of the Church 307 (Jeden, ed. 1981).
  2. Careful usage should favor “ultramontane” for an adherent of ultramontanism, for fear of confusion with adherents of the second-century Montanist heresy.
  4. Encyclopedia of Catholicism 1278 (McBrien, ed. 1995).
  5. 2 Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought 1087 (Coulter et al, eds. 2007).
  6. Modern Catholic Encyclopedia 849 (Glazier & Hellwig, eds. 2004).
  7. See 8 History of the Church, supra, at 329-30.
  8. Pastor æternus continues, and the ultramontanes would demur, that “[t]his power of the Supreme Pontiff by no means detracts from that ordinary and immediate power of episcopal jurisdiction, by which bishops, who have succeeded to the place of the apostles by appointment of the Holy Spirit, tend and govern individually the particular flocks which have been assigned to them.” This delicate and seemingly contradictory balance was further explicated by the Second Vatican Council but remains a vexing and complex topic in ecclesiology.
  9. Millegan, The Danger of Good Popes, First Things, Sept. 27, 2013,
  10. Shaw, Mystical not ascetic, LMS Chairman’s Blog, Oct. 8, 2013, We all recognize, I hope, that there are distinctions between conservatives, traditionalists with a small t, and Trads with a large T. To my mind, conservatives and traditionalists are largely the same thing for most purposes, but as Shaw notes, Trads are in a different place.
  11. Shawn Tribe, Some Liturgical Thoughts for the NLM Following the Election of Pope Francis, New Liturgical Movement, March 15, 2013, Tribe astutely notes that “the idea of a ‘personal liturgical style’ is inherently problematic since the liturgy is no one’s personal possession to alter and shape at whim or will—not even a pope’s.”