Those who have followed the debate about Pope Francis over the last several years have certainly come across various terms used to describe the defenders of the Holy Father, including “bergoglian,” “papaloter,” “mottramist,” modernist, and liberal. Some of our more academic critics will accuse us of embracing “papal positivism” or quietism or some other school of philosophical thought that goes against a traditional Catholic outlook.
While most of these titles are completely inaccurate or based in false understandings of our position, the one that’s most interesting is “ultramontanist.” The word was first used as a pejorative used by Gallican critics of the Catholic position on the papacy in the 19th century, and the results of the first Vatican Council were seen as a victory for the “ultramontane” position in the Church. Back in October, the Church Life Journal published an essay entitled “A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism” by Taylor Patrick O’Neill. In the essay, he traces the early history of the term and contrasts it with how it is used today. He argues that the term shouldn’t be viewed negatively at all, saying,
Given that the term arose as an insult against those who challenged the claims of Gallicanism, and given that those who championed papal primacy over local kings and bishops were legitimized at Vatican I, the term ought not to be associated with heterodoxy but rather orthodoxy. This is precisely why Umberto Begnigni writes in the 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia, ‘For Catholics it would be superfluous to ask whether Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing: assuredly, those who combat Ultramontanism are in fact combating Catholicism, even when they disclaim the desire to oppose it.’
If that was all the Church had to say about ultramontanism, then there would be no pushback against such accusations. What his essay neglects to mention is that there is one relatively recent magisterial document that rejects the notion of ultramontanism, the 1998 CDF document entitled, “The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church,” which refers to
“biased and one-sided positions already rejected by the Church in the past (Febronianism, Gallicanism, ultramontanism, conciliarism, etc.)” (paragraph 14).
How, then are we to understand the concept of ultramontanism, then, when it was once referred to as the orthodox Catholic position (opposed to Gallicanism), but later described as “biased and one-sided” by the CDF? Unfortunately, the CDF document does not provide a definition of ultramontanism, and a search of the Vatican’s website reveals very little about ultramontanism beyond this one reference.
Given that this CDF document on primacy is one of the foundational documents for the position on the papacy held by Where Peter Is, and that the document’s aim is to provide a comprehensive summary of Church teaching on papal primacy, we reject the label of ultramontanism, while embracing the doctrinal congregation’s definition of primacy.
Taken in the context of the document, we can only assume that their use of the word ultramontanism suggests an excessive understanding of the papacy, or of ascribing more power and authority to the pope than he actually has. If that is how the term is defined today, we certainly reject it. Our own position on the papacy is precisely that which is outlined in the document.
Indeed, there are doubtless excesses in some views of the papacy. Many of these are exaggerated stereotypes used by anti-Catholics or radical traditionalists when accusing orthodox Catholics. Still, there appears to be some truth to some of these accusations. The term “Ultramontanism” is often associated with the famous quote attributed to 19th Century English convert William George Ward:
“I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast.”
While the Catholic faith is intrinsically connected to the pope, we are not so dependent on him that we require frequent major statements from him in order to function as people of faith. That said, in today’s world of mass media, with numerous journalists assigned to report and analyze every public action of the pope, and with the proliferation of his homilies, addresses, and speeches on the internet, it’s possible to hear or read something new (although not on the level of a papal bull) from the pope almost every day. This isn’t a bad thing. As pastor of the universal Church, access to his ordinary teachings can help unify the Church around his leadership. As most of us know, access to the daily homilies and weekly addresses and audiences of Pope Francis have given Catholics a regular source of teaching and inspiration (while giving his detractors a steady flow of material that they can pick through and scrutinize.
“Ultramontanist” is a label ascribed to those who (rightly or wrongly) are accused of believing that the pope can change Catholic doctrine, or that he receives direct revelation from God, or that he can invent new Catholic teachings that aren’t rooted in Tradition. It is used to describe the supposed “magical thinking” that everything the pope says is automatically law, or that every teaching of the magisterium is infallible.
Needless to say, we reject these false notions of the papacy. We believe that the pope is not an oracle and doesn’t receive direct revelation or new doctrines from God. But we do believe that in his role as authentic interpreter of tradition, he faithfully transmits the faith that has been handed down over the centuries from the apostles.
We do not believe that the pope has the authority or the ability to invent new doctrines or to change them in violation of divine law, but we do believe that
The Roman Pontiff – like all the faithful – is subject to the Word of God, to the Catholic faith, and is the guarantor of the Church’s obedience; in this sense he is servus servorum Dei. He does not make arbitrary decisions, but is spokesman for the will of the Lord, who speaks to man in the Scriptures lived and interpreted by Tradition; in other words, the episkope of the primacy has limits set by divine law and by the Church’s divine, inviolable constitution found in Revelation. (Paragraph 7 of the 1998 CDF document)
Despite what many of his critics argue, our faith teaches us that Pope Francis’s decisions are not arbitrary and that he is in fact the guarantor of the Church’s obedience to the Word of God. He is not a threat to Tradition, but the spokesman for the will of the Lord. When the pope issues a teaching, even a non-infallible act of the authentic Magisterium, what he is proposing is that the teaching is both authoritative and compatible with Tradition. The work of assessing its fidelity to the deposit of Faith has already been done at an authoritative level. And our responsibility is to grant religious assent of intellect and will.
Catholics are implored by the Church not only to respect the authority of the successor of Peter, but also to trust that his magisterial judgements are in harmony with scripture and tradition. I understand that for some, this is a hard sell. But it is impossible to divorce Tradition from magisterial authority (and I challenge anyone to find a magisterial teaching on the papacy that suggests otherwise).
For example, in October 2018, alongside the revised teaching on the death penalty in number 2267 of the Catechism, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document that asserted explicitly that “the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”
In this case, both the teaching and the doctrinal justification were given to us on the same day. Naturally, some critics rejected the teaching immediately, and refused to consider seriously that there is any legitimate way to justify the teaching. Robert Fastiggi tells us in his recent piece that
A group of 75 scholars wrote to the cardinals of the Catholic Church telling them that it was their serious duty— binding on them “before God and before the Church”— to correct Pope Francis for taking a position on capital punishment “contrary to the Word of God.” These critics, however, fail to recognize that the interpretation of Scripture is subject to the judgment of the Church’s magisterium and not their own (cf. Vatican II, Dei Verbum 12). They also assume that their understanding of the Church’s tradition on the death penalty is correct when, in fact, it has been challenged by reputable Catholic scholars.
Some papal critics seem to suggest that we believe the pope can simply make things up out of thin air. But that’s not the case at all. We believe, quite firmly, that what the pope teaches through the Magisterium must conform to the deposit of faith. This isn’t ultramontanism or papalotry, it’s simply what the Church teaches about the nature of the pope. And we also believe that we have been assured that the Church will not deviate from true doctrine. This is a function of the papal charism, and the grace he receives to lead the Church. As the CDF document states,
The Roman Pontiff, as the Successor of Peter, is “the perpetual and visible principle and foundation of unity both of the Bishops and of the multitude of the faithful” and therefore he has a specific ministerial grace for serving that unity of faith and communion which is necessary for the Church to fulfil her saving mission.
It’s trust in the fidelity of the Church through the unifying office of the papacy that’s missing from the beliefs of many of Pope Francis’s critics. Having that trust doesn’t make one an ultramontanist, it is part of being a believing Catholic. And understandably, it can be very difficult to trust the Church at times. What traditionalist papal critics are unwilling to confront is that they have constructed a false, parallel Magisterium (or “Imagisterium”) based on what they think Church teaching should be, rather than embracing the actual teaching that exists in reality. Following the Magisterium is what the Church teaches us to do, it’s not an ultramontanist fantasy.
Mike Lewis is a writer and graphic designer from Maryland, having worked for many years in Catholic publishing. He’s a husband, father of four, and a lifelong Catholic. He’s active in his parish and community. He is a founding editor for Where Peter Is.