I’m not ashamed to be called a ‘new ultramontanist’

I’m not ashamed to be called a ‘new ultramontanist’

In upholding immutable truths, the ultramontanists of the 19th century were the true progressives

It is distressing to contemplate how much influence journalists have on Catholic life, but in truth this has long been the case. The furious exchanges among writers at First Things, Commonweal, La Civiltà Cattolica and the Catholic Herald have their precedents in the 19th century, when Louis Veuillot defied the Archbishop of Paris in the pages of L’Univers.

A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Brian Flanagan recognises this continuity and identifies Ross Douthat and me as representative of the “new ultramontanists” – today’s versions of Veuillot and William George Ward. If the comparison holds in my case, there could be no surer proof of decline.

There are reasons to doubt the analogy. The ultramontanists championed papal power, whereas both Douthat and I have expressed reservations about the reign of Pope Francis. Veuillot received warm thanks from Pius IX. The only feedback I have received from Pope Francis – handwritten notes on an article I had edited – was not complimentary.

It is true that Americans now stand where the French once did – at the centre of Catholic debate. As Emile Perreau-Saussine noted, “Demographic shifts within the universal Church and internal change in France have latterly combined to bring [its] intellectual primacy to an end. The internal arguments of American Catholicism now hold centre stage.” Opinions will vary as to whether this development is good or bad, but that it has happened cannot be denied.

Flanagan argues that the new ultramontanists, like the old, are often converts who lack formal theological training. That much is certainly true. Veuillot’s low birth and lack of education did not prevent him from seeing things that Lord Acton and Professor Döllinger, for all their refinement, learning and deep Catholic culture, could not.

This point became a matter of controversy when a group of liberal academics led by Massimo Faggioli complained to the editor of the New York Times that Ross Douthat had “no professional qualifications” for writing about the Catholic faith. This was ironic. Though Faggioli is often billed as a theologian, he in fact received his doctorate in history. That he is nonetheless one of our most incisive Catholic commentators shows the foolishness of policing credentials in this freewheeling sphere.

The main commonality Flanagan sees between old and new ultramontanists is that both are opposed to change. This means that they deny what he calls the “historical reality of the Church”. Here the comparison is more apt. Acton and Döllinger invoked historical science against papal power. The ultramontanists championed a perennial philosophy, as reflected in this decree from Vatican I:

If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.

Awkwardly, this condemnation could be aimed at many Catholics today, including some at the highest levels of the Church. Arguably inconsequential revisions to Church documents are presented as revolutions, with the apparent hope of justifying still greater changes.

We are barraged with advertisements for a “new paradigm”. This doctrinal mischief is apparently directed at no higher end than undoing the Church’s teaching against sterile acts. One wishes that men who abuse their own bodies would at least refrain from abusing the Body of Christ. Instead they revel in the idea of reversing Church teaching.

But reversal is not valid change. As Newman observed, Catholic teaching develops in a manner that excludes revolution. It changes in the way a sapling changes to become a tree. A legitimate development deepens, clarifies, and consolidates what came before.

One can see the operation of this rule in the ultramontanist debate. Despite – or rather because of – their insistence that the Church cannot contradict itself, the ultramontanists effected impressive changes. They championed a massive expansion of papal power in the form of jurisdictional primacy. They celebrated the definition of the Immaculate Conception, which anticipated the stunning decree on papal infallibility.

Against the ultramontanists, Döllinger and Acton invoked the older model of a conciliar Church that treasured local liberties. What these men failed to see – and the ultramontanists correctly understood – was that this model of the Church had been rendered obsolete by the rise of nationalism and the modern state. Broad-minded men claimed as forebears by today’s liberals (on both the left and the right) turned out to be purblind conservatives. Dogmatic ultramontanists were the true progressives.

We can view the ultramontanists as opposed to all change only if we misunderstand the development of Catholic belief. Because they were persuaded of dogma’s unchanging character and secure in its immutable truth, they could adapt it to their own times. In this sense, I am proud to be called an ultramontanist.

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16 comments on “I’m not ashamed to be called a ‘new ultramontanist’

  1. The First Vatican Council appears problematic. It emphasizes the Pope in expounding Tradition, and declares that the Pope is to be obeyed, not because he never made a mistake in the past, but because he is incapable of error. At that time many put the Papacy in as a sure guarantee of orthodoxy. And it may have contributed to a Catholic laity that is doctrinally laid back and accepting of blind obedience. Correct me if I am wrong by, but before Vatican I, Roman mobs were ready to lynch a Pope like we have today.

    • …the Pope is to be obeyed, not because he never made a mistake in the past, but because he is incapable of error

      Huh? That’s a neoCat understanding of V-I, not at all what it taught. Infallibility is guaranteed only under very limited circumstances. Also, the council made clear that doctrine couldn’t change, and that the pope isn’t an oracle:

      “For the 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. ” (Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4)

  2. I frankly do not know enough to comment beyond the little I believe I understand correctly about the First Council of the Vatican. Which is that it is considered a valid Council and that the infallibility question was settled in a way that appears to maintain consistently a consensus dating back, literally, to Apostolic times and since, ratified by Saints, Doctors and ecclesiastical history on the SPECIFIC question, taken in its narrowest terms, of the particular and exclusive limitations and circumstances under which a pope may act infallibly.
    It would appear reasonable to suggest that the influence of the political crisis of the late 1800s facing Bl. Pius IX and the hierarchy of that time had its place in the midst of a challenging environment created by Liberal, Masonic and other enemies of the Church. Yet it is also as reasonable to suggest that not a few of those enemies had their own agents in place among theologians and prelates – a point both Bl. Pius IX and St. Pius X went to great lengths to correct.
    If it can be argued that the declaration on infallibility was somehow prejudiced, “overwrought,” etc. (c.f.. J H Newman) by victorious Ultramontanist interests in reaction to mounting Liberal threats to the primacy of the papacy, such claims must also recognize that infallibility has only been exercised three times since the mid-1800s: Twice in matters held firmly since the earliest days of the Church concerning the extraordinary privileges of Our Lady and once, within Vatican I, to clarify Pontifical prerogatives universally accepted since antiquity, as mentioned above.
    Dragging infallibility into lesser issues not specific to dogmatic definitions has become commonplace and seems only to blur necessary distinctions amid the present day concerns which do not in most cases rise to the level of issues requiring invocations of infallibility at all. Criminal acts, even by prelates, terrible example on public display, toleration by prelates of gravely sinful activity, etc. all are provided against under ecclesiastical laws long on the books.
    Vigilant prosecution of such misdeeds, especially lately, is, of course, another question altogether. Mobs with torches are not precisely an acceptable Catholic replacement for ecclesiastical courts and due process, as entertaining as the very thought might be. 😉

    • Very well said, IMHO.
      I DO like the idea of mobs with torches though…provided the mobs don’t proceed to disordered extravagances like, say, defenestration, or using the torches for something other than to, er, shed light on things.

  3. Addendum: I included the dogmatic pronunciation on the Immaculate Conception, even though it was given long before Vatican I’s definition on papal infallibility existed, in the sense that, apart from the Vatican I declaration,
    infallibly true dogmas have dealt only with Mariological matters. My apology for any imprecision or confusion my remark may have caused.

  4. Alright, Infallibilty is limited, got that. But how about Indefectability? Doesn’t the Church have the charism of Indefectabilty?How is that different from Infallibilty? Michael Davies write this book on it, called “I wil be with you Always”, and he argues that one must be submissive to the Pope, and his teachings because even if it us not infallible, all official acts of the Church are guaranteed free from evil. Is Michael Davies not a traditionalist? Pleae explain brothers.

  5. Heretics cease being Catholics. They are no longer Catholics once they commit themselves to heresy. This is where Rod Dreher gets it wrong when he says “Catholic” priests did this, “Catholic” bishops did that, therefore, the Catholic Church is false. A heretic is NOT part of the Catholic Church or the Mystical Body. That especially includes modernist heretics.

    Almost NONE of these perverts are believing or practicing Catholics. As for Pope Francis, he is clearly a modernist heretic, committed to the heretical modernist agenda. Neither the Petrine Office nor the Holy Ghost can transmit a charism or authority to a modernist heretic (or any heretic). It is ontologically impossible. The heretic is no longer a Catholic and is barred from such grace by obstinate persistence in mortal sin and heresy.

    Papal infallibility is a theory and legal concept from Vatican I. Since there have been anti-popes in the past, it is possible for a heretic, villain, or a scoundrel to pretend to be a Catholic priest and bishop, ascend through the ranks, and through political chicanery and fraud, with help from heretics and/or anti-Catholic secret society cabals, win a fraudulent papal election and attain the papal throne. Whether this is to be interpreted as a divine chastisement and punishment for sins, infidelity, and unorthodoxy of the faithful or as part of some other apocalyptic and eschatological drama in sacred history, preceding the Reign of the Antichrist.
    God can withdraw his divine protection in order to allow chastisements and diabolical phenomena to punish and purge sin and infidelity. As a principle of moral theology that is in sacred scripture and is part of divine Revelation (such as in The Apocalypse of St. John). According to various sources such was also hinted at in the Prophecies of Fatima by the Mother of God.

    • Howl, we have disputed in the past, and I hope in friendly fashion. I don’t like doing so, but conscience sometimes requires it, since not to do so is sometimes a sin of omission.
      Rod Dreher is wrong, but not because objective heretics are not members of the Church and therefore their scandalous behavior is not done by members of the Church. He is wrong because impeccability is not, and never has been, granted to any member of the Church. Every single member of the Church, up to and including the pope, is a sinner. Nor is there any particular category of sin from which any member of the Church, including the hierarchy and the pope, is exempt from possibly committing. That includes heresy.
      With one small exception for the pope.
      Although papal infallibility was *dogmatically defined* at Vatican I (it is NOT a mere theory or legal concept), it excludes the pope from the possibility of committing the sin of heresy only under restricted conditions. It’s all there in Dz 1839. Infallibility only protects the pope from stating heresy (whether consciously and sinfully or not) when he does so under the said conditions.
      Again, those conditions are:
      1) Must be a pronouncement concerning faith or morals.
      2) Must be clear he intends to engage infallibility.
      3) With the intention to bind all the faithful throughout the world to believe the point in question as a dogma (i.e. as an article of faith that must be believed in order to be called Catholic).
      It might be added that Frankenpope has never engaged infallibility…as far as I know.

      • Dreher is wrong to leave the Catholic faith and to slander the Church for MANY reasons.

        Regarding modernist homo heretics:
        A heretic is not a “Catholic” and does not represent the Catholic Church. Pointing to any modernist heretic homo and yelling, “Ha ha, a ‘Catholic’ priest molested someone” may go over well among uninformed recovering ex-Methodists in yahoo land. It is not good theology.

        Do we really have to review what ipso facto means in Latin again?

        Moreover, a Communist homo pervert or freemason homo pervert who infiltrates the Church in order to shield or commit crimes or to pursue an anti-Catholic agenda was NEVER a Catholic of any kind EVER. The vast majority of the clergy perverts are not Catholics but practicing homosexualists which is essentially a gnostic heretical cult which removes them from the Catholic faith. That includes McCarrick and the modernist heretic homo enabler Bergoglio. They are NOT Catholics. Period. They do not believe the Catholic faith. They do not teach Catholic teachings. And they do not follow those teachings. They are some kind of neo-gnostic neo-Protestant heretics of the Bultmann antinomian type.

        There is no further need to presume to lecture to me on this controversy. A homo pervert who pretends to be a priest and who engages in the sacrilege of celebrating Mass after homo sodomy and who promotes an LGBTQ agenda is excommunicated automatically latae sententiae. It is automatic.

  6. The “indefectibility” question is an issue of ecclesiology. We can think of the Church in many ways, in the institutional sense, however, when the ecclesiastical bureaucracy of the hierarchy is in confusion and disorder caused by heresy and corruption, it can be necessary to look elsewhere. “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name,” etc. The Church is where the true faith is which does not always coincide with mitres, croziers, or bishop’s palaces. But the corruption of the hierarchy through crimes or heresy does not end the Church. When a bishop or even a pontiff falls into heresy, a Catholic layman must search for the true faith in a virtuous, pious, and orthodox Catholic priest who has not fallen into heresy.
    In extreme situations such as in parts of the world where there may be few or no Catholic priests, it falls to the layman to practice the faith in white martyrdom in the home (praying the Rosary and reading sacred scripture, Lives of the Saints, devotional works) in the absence of availability of the true Mass, such as was done during penal times after the Protestant Reformation in England, with the graces of deep holiness and extreme sacrifices, including martyrdom (the Church was present in the martyrs where the faith had disappeared from parishes and bishoprics).

    Catholic Dictionary



    Imperishable duration of the Church and her immutability until the end of time. The First Vatican Council declared that the Church possesses “an unconquered stability” and that, “built on a rock, she will continue to stand until the end of time” (Denzinger 3013, 3056). The Church’s indefectibility, therefore, means that she now is and will always remain the institution of salvation, founded by Christ. This affirms that the Church is essentially unchangeable in her teaching, her constitution, and her liturgy. It does not exclude modifications that do not affect her substance, nor does it exclude the decay of individual local churches or even whole dioceses.


  7. More from Vatican I touching on indefectibility:


    That which the Prince of Shepherds and great Shepherd of the sheep, Jesus Christ our Lord, established in the person of the Blessed Apostle Peter to secure the perpetual welfare and lasting good of the Church, must, by the same institution, necessarily remain unceasingly in the Church; which, being founded upon the Rock, will stand firm to the end of the world. For none can doubt, and it is known to all ages, that the holy and Blessed Peter, the Prince and Chief of the Apostles, the pillar of the faith and foundation of the Catholic Church, received the keys of the kingdom from Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of mankind, and lives, presides, and judges, to this day and always, in his successors the Bishops of the Holy See of Rome, which was founded by him, and consecrated by his blood.


    And indeed, all the venerable Fathers have embraced, and the holy orthodox Doctors have venerated and followed, their Apostolic doctrine; knowing most fully that this See of holy Peter remains ever free from all blemish of error, according to the Divine promise that the Lord our Savior made to the Prince of His disciples: “But I have prayed for you, so that your faith may not fail, and so that you, once converted, may confirm your brothers.” (Lk 22:32). [21]

    This gift, then, of truth and never-failing faith was conferred by heaven upon Peter and his successors in this Chair, that they might perform their high office for the salvation of all; that the whole flock of Christ, kept away from the poisonous food of error by them, might be nourished with the pasture of heavenly doctrine; that the occasion of schism being removed, the whole Church might be kept one, and, resting on its foundation, might stand firm against the gates of Hell.


    I can’t see how to read this in any way that allows for the pope to become a contumacious heretic, because that would constitute a failure of his faith and consequently would mean that Our Lord’s prayer would have failed. And more, it would mean that the promised perpetuity would also have failed. Or it would mean that Vatican I taught error.

    On the other hand, I can’t see how to reconcile this teaching with our recent popes Wojtyla, Ratzinger, and Francis, especially the latter.

    • IMHO, the reconciliation is as follows:
      1) Both the latter quote you give, and the dogmatic definition of papal infallibility, come from Vatican I, and indeed from the same Session IV, Cap. IV.
      2) The quote given is not itself dogmatic; it is part of the preambulatory lead-up to the actual dogmatic definition.
      3) Since only the dogmatic definition itself is infallible, all preparatory exposition MUST be understood in a manner that conforms to the dogma.
      4) The dogma restricts infallibility to the conditions mentioned in my last post.
      5) Therefore, a pope is only protected from heresy under those conditions, and consequently, the preparatory exposition you quoted CANNOT and must not be interpreted to mean that the pope is protected from declaring or committing heresy under any other conditions.

      • I’d rather admit that the Council is to be taken as would be generally understood by the average reader, and admit that I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge that Francis is a contumacious heretic whose faith has failed.

        Yes, on infallibility, the protection can only be as narrowly defined. The reconciliation, then, is that the pope can have failings, errors in his teachings, yet would not in his heart reject any fundamentals that would put him out of the Faith. Our Lord would guarantee that he would “be converted” in order to “confirm his brethren.”

        The part that I can’t see, though, is how can Francis possibly have the faith? He might have had it at the time he left his Catholic home bound for the seminary. Could the Good God be crediting Francis for that while viewing a conversion to come?

        But what about Wojtyla? He seemed to be off in his pan-religious universalist synthesis throughout his pontificate, and then lost his mind at the end. Was it enough that he publicly professed the Nicene Creed?

        In the end, though, it will come down to what God thinks of me. And that’s troubling.

        • I would fully agree that the Council is to be taken as would be generally understood by the average reader…but I would add three things:
          1) The average reader, at least in the sense of *interpreter* of council documents is a bishop, for only such is officially charged to teach in the Church. Of course, first of all, the understanding proposed must be consonant with Tradition. The best we layfolk can do, under the present circumstances when not even the bishops can be trusted, is resort to Tradition, and specifically the common opinion of theologians as approved by the Church over centuries, for this opinion has already been sanctioned by said bishops, and especially the bishops of Rome.
          2) In the matter of the weight (theological note) to be given to any given statement of a council, the theological tradition is unanimous that only those passages of a council that are labeled as Canons, or which carry the ‘anathema sit’, or which otherwise clearly express the will to solemnly bind all Catholics to belief, are dogmatic and infallible. All other statements are of lesser value in some degree, and therefore absolutely cannot be understood in contradiction to the dogmatic definitions.
          3) As to whether a pope is protected from falling into heresy, the overwhelming majority of theologians say that, not only is it possible materially (i.e. that a pope can be simply mistaken), but it is also possible formally (i.e. that a pope can become a contumacious, sinful heretic).
          As to that last point, I also admit that I don’t have sufficient knowledge to judge contumacious heresy in a pope — or in anyone. And nobody else does either, except God, because it’s a matter of knowing the interior state of a soul. (Of course, the sedevacs have no problem judging interior states of soul, and thus they reveal their superlative arrogance, blasphemers that they are).
          On the other hand, all four of the most trusted theologians who have dealt with the question of a heretical pope do think that the pope, in the one case of heresy, can be judged by the Church, and deposed. But no “judgment”, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is considered to be infallible. As the saying goes, “De internis Ecclesia non judicat (The Church does not judge the interior things). There is no absolute guarantee that *any* human judgment — and ecclesiastical judgments are also human — even that rendered in due court process, and under best practices, is correct as to the subjective interior guilt of the accused. Even the exterior facts are subject to error (though this is much less likely). Court judgments do not HAVE to be infallible. The purpose of human courts is simply to maintain law and order in society, whether Church society or civil society. To achieve this goal, it is not necessary to have 100% reliability of judgment.
          As you say, for us it comes down to what God will judge, and THAT judgment *is* infallible — which is perhaps one of the biggest reasons it is so troubling. :o)

  8. While Almighty God will prevent the Pope from issuing a formal pronouncement, that under the strict conditions set, should be infallible, but in fact contains specific and clear heretical teaching, nevertheless, as I undersdtand it, the doctrine of Papal Infallability does not mean that a Pope cannot be either immoral or even a heretic. I think this present Pope is close to being both and at the very least he has issued so many ridiculous and confusing statements that I have lost count. Worse, I believe he is causing a confusion of belief and aiding the enemies of the Faith by refusing to properly defend it.

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