Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Thoughts on the Ultramontanism Label

A tactic used by some foes of the Pope is discrediting his defenders by calling them Ultramontanist or Ultramontane. The term has had different connotations in different ages of the Church. Initially, it was used to denote Catholics who defended the authority of the Pope over all aspects of the Church, in opposition to those Catholics who claimed there were limits on the Pope’s authority—usually from those who claimed that a Council could outrank a Pope (a view condemned as a heresy) or that a ruler had a more immediate authority over the Church in his nation than the Pope.

In the current form, the label is a Straw Man and an Ad Hominem attack. It attempts to portray the defender of the Pope as a blind fanatic who believes everything that comes from the Pope’s mouth is an ex cathedra statement. Since it is true that not everything that comes from the Pope’s mouth is a teaching, not everything he says or does is sanctified simply because the Pope says it. The defender labeled as Ultramontanist is treated as a simpleton who is ignorant about the Catholic faith and easily misled.

The problem is, no informed defender of the Pope ever made such a claim about the Pope. I don’t doubt you can find some misinformed Catholics out there who believe that, but I’m sure you can find some misinformed Catholics who literally worship Mary too. But if you do find any, you can be sure they don’t represent accurate Catholic thought.

The Catholic who defends the Pope is not doing the theological equivalent of “my country, right or wrong!” Rather he is saying that the Catholic attacking the Pope has misrepresented what he teaches and has failed to give the assent required (Canon 752) when the Pope teaches. The Popes are not protected from error, nor making a binding teaching, when they grant interviews or press conferences. They are not protected from error when governing Vatican City (or, previously, the Papal States). They are not protected from error when they write a book, like St. John Paul II’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope or Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth

But when they intend to teach, making known their intention in an official Church document—for example, by an encyclical—then we are required to give assent. This requirement is not limited to infallible statements. Pope Pius IX condemned the notion that only an infallible statement is binding. Vatican I declared those who limited the authority of the Pope over the Church to be anathema.

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema. (Pastor Æternus, Chapter 3)


Vincent McNabb, ed., The Decrees of the Vatican Council (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1907), 42.

Defending the Pope when he issues such a teaching statement (considered part of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church is not “Ultramontane.” It is offering correction to the Catholic who is failing to give the required assent.

Indeed, the critic who uses the “Ultramontane” label when a defender of the Pope defends a teaching of the ordinary magisterium shows the real lack of knowledge. All of the Church teachings which were defined infallibly were also previously defined through the ordinary magisterium. The Church defining Transubstantiation in AD 1215 did not mean people were free to believe otherwise in AD 1214. Indeed, Berengarius of Tours was condemned in the 11th century for denying Transubstantiation because it had been taught by the Church, even though not defined in a formal ex cathedra act.

No, the defenders of the Holy Father are not Ultramontane. They are correcting the error from the critic who has misrepresented the Pope while defending his lawful authority as the successor of Peter. They are giving the same respect and assent to the Popes from 1958 to the present that was also due their predecessors. That’s not a blind devotion. That’s expected of the faithful, as St. Pius X said in November 1912:

And how must the Pope be loved? Non verbo neque lingua, sed opere et veritate. [1 John 3:18] When one loves a person, one tries to adhere in everything to his thoughts, to fulfill his will, to perform his wishes. And if Our Lord Jesus Christ said of Himself, “si quis diligit me, sermonem meum servabit,” [John 14:23] therefore, in order to demonstrate our love for the Pope, it is necessary to obey him.

Therefore, when we love the Pope, there are no discussions regarding what he orders or demands, or up to what point obedience must go, and in what things he is to be obeyed; when we love the Pope, we do not say that he has not spoken clearly enough, almost as if he were forced to repeat to the ear of each one the will clearly expressed so many times not only in person, but with letters and other public documents; we do not place his orders in doubt, adding the facile pretext of those unwilling to obey - that it is not the Pope who commands, but those who surround him; we do not limit the field in which he might and must exercise his authority; we do not set above the authority of the Pope that of other persons, however learned, who dissent from the Pope, who, even though learned, are not holy, because whoever is holy cannot dissent from the Pope.

This is the cry of a heart filled with pain, that with deep sadness I express, not for your sake, dear brothers, but to deplore, with you, the conduct of so many priests, who not only allow themselves to debate and criticize the wishes of the Pope, but are not embarrassed to reach shameless and blatant disobedience, with so much scandal for the good and with so great damage to souls.

(Allocution Vi ringrazio) [†]


[†] Ironically, the site this came from was quite happy to share it in 2012 when Benedict XVI was Pope. They don’t feel the same about Pope Francis. 

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