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.

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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 the founding managing editor for Where Peter Is.

About those accusations of ultramontanism…

13 Responses

  1. Chris dorf says:

    It is difficult to rationalize with folks if people believe that there are prophecies about an anti-pope or a false Pope. In today’s secular and religious world of constant conspiracy theories, people research and find media everywhere that substantiates their conspiracy beliefs and just taking the American conspiracy group q Anon. If people believe bet Pope Francis is a heretic or an anti-pope or false Pope they are convinced of it and think they’re saving the church from being led into the world of Satan. To deceive to be deceived to think you’re not being deceived… It makes for a very difficult period in our Catholic history right now.

  2. Ralph says:

    What critics of Pope Francis seem to miss is that if you cannot trust the teaching authority of the pope then we are ultimately left with a situation where anyone can claim to authoritatively interpret Tradition any way they want. It seems to me that this produces exactly the same problem that sola scriptura does. Inevitably there will be multiple interpretations of Tradition (just like scripture) and eventually sectarian division as different individuals or groups will claim that their interpretation is the true and correct interpretation.
    It is very possible that with the right amount of money and media power a charismatic dissenting Catholic could potentially set themselves up as an alternative Magisterium and that is one of the dangers we are facing today.

    • Mike Lewis says:

      Absolutely. Check out the post entitled “Sola Traditio” on this site, if you haven’t already.

      These papal critics accuse us of ultramontanism and papalotry, when it is they who actually reject Catholic teaching.

  3. Yaya says:

    Mr. Lewis and company stay strong! Our Holy Father needs you! We need you!

    Be assured of my prayers for you all.

  4. Peter Aiello says:

    A basic principle in Christianity is that because the Holy Spirit exists within the individuals in the Church, all are guided and influenced independently of each other; but, at the same time, are parts of the Body of Christ which acts as a unit. Vatican II, in Lumen Gentium 12 says: “The entire body of the faithful, anointed as they are by the Holy One, (111) [cf. 1 Jn 2:20, 27] cannot err in matters of belief. They manifest this special property by means of the whole peoples’ supernatural discernment in matters of faith when “from the Bishops down to the last of the lay faithful” (8*) [Cf. 1 Cor. 10: 17] they show universal agreement in matters of faith and morals. That discernment in matters of faith is aroused and sustained by the Spirit of truth.” You can’t exercise you own infallibility if you defer to the pope’s. We are all supposed to be intrinsically connected to Christ and not the pope. This has been difficult for Catholics to grasp because of past teaching.
    The Church has limited itself to being regulated by Sacred Scripture, and not the pope. Vatican II, in Dei Verbum 21 says: “Therefore, like the Christian religion itself, all the preaching of the Church must be nourished and regulated by Sacred Scripture.” We are all individually regulated by Sacred Scripture as well as the pope is; and we are also all individually guided by the Holy Spirit in this endeavor.
    We all individually contribute to tradition. There is an interesting quote from Vatican II’s Dei Verbum 8 which states: “This tradition which comes from the Apostles develop in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. (5) For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth.” Tradition includes our own private Holy Spirit experiences.
    The assent of our personal conscience to a teaching in the Church is required before it is binding on us (Dignitatis Humanae 3).
    Most Catholics don’t read the Bible for themselves; and also don’t read Vatican II for themselves.

    • Christopher Lake says:


      You keep posting virtually the same comment, under multiple pieces on multiple subjects, at this site, so I’m going to re-post a reply (to virtually the same comment) that you did not reply to when I first posted it. I have added some thoughts to my original reply as well.

      According to recent surveys, there are now a good many lay Catholics who do not believe the Church’s historic teaching regarding the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. According to your interpretation of Lumen Gentium 12 (about the entire body of the faithful and infallibility), does the lack of a complete unanimity of belief in the Real Presence. among the laity, simply mean that there *is* no authoritative Church teaching on the Real Presence? Or, perhaps, in your interpretation of Lumen Gentium 12, does the lack of a complete unanimity of belief, among lay Catholics, on the Real Presence, simply mean that the official Church teaching is somehow *in error*? Who is right here– the Church and her official teaching, or those members of the laity who disbelieve that teaching?

      The hard reality is, if one interprets Lumen Gentium 12 in a woodenly literal way, and in contradiction to other Church documents, as you do, then there is virtually no Church teaching that is *not* up for grabs, because there are lay Catholics who disbelieve even the physical Resurrection of Christ. In that light, is it possible that phrase, “the entire body of the faithful,” in Lumen Gentuim 12, implies that if lay Catholics are not willing to ultimately submit their intellect and will to the teaching authority of the Church, they are not actually being “faithful” to Christ, who said to Peter that “you have the keys of the kingdom,” and “whatever you bind on earth is bound in Heaven. and whatever you loose on earth is loosed in Heaven”?

      You continue to talk about the laity exercising its own infallibility. The Church does not have a doctrine of the infallibility of the laity that is *apart from* submission to the Magisterial teaching authority that was given to us by Christ. When you disagree with the Church on some of her official teachings (such as on Mary), you are not exercising your own infallibility. Lumen Gentium 12 does not teach that you are infallible whenever your subjective judgment on Scripture and/or Tradition disagrees with the teaching of the Church.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Piecing together the many statements in Vatican II can be a challenge. The most important thing that I see coming out of V2 is the recognition that all of the faithful have a role in the functioning of the Church because the Spirit of Truth is not confined only to the hierarchy. The top-down emphasis prior to V2 no longer exists.
        We have obligations to our personal consciences that supersede our obligations to the magisterium. We were not aware of this in the past.
        The gift of teaching is conferred by the Holy Spirit and is spread out among all of the faithful. It is not confined only to the hierarchy.
        This has required less obeisanse than in the past. The place of Scripture has been clarified. The concept of infallibility has been broadened to include the supernatural discernment of the entire body of the faithful, and not just the hierarchy. The Church has its authoritative teachings, and our job us to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1Thessalonians 5:21).
        All of this is not as tidy as it used to be before V2; but we all have to deal with the hand that is dealt.

      • Christopher Lake says:


        When a non-Catholic enters the Church and becomes Catholic, that person is required to take a vow, affirming this statement: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.” In a radical contrast to this statement, you appear to claim that the Catholic Church *once* taught such a view, but since Vatican II, Catholics no longer need to make such an affirmation. Rather, they are simply free to follow what their interpretations of Scripture and Tradition lead them to as a matter of personal conscience. This is is in *complete contradiction* to what the Popes since Vatican II have officially taught as the *correct interpretation* of Vatican II.

        In a previous comment, you wrote that “The assent of our personal conscience to a teaching in the Church is required before it is binding on us.” You claimed that this is the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae 3. Dignitatis Humanae is a Church document about religious freedom and the right of people to be able to freely choose their religion. DH 3 is not about *professing Catholics* being supposedly “free” to pick and choose what they will assent to out of the Church’s official teachings, based on their own personal interpretations of Scripture and Tradition. If Catholics can simply accept or reject the Church’s teachings, based on personal interpretations of Scripture and Tradition, then, in effect, the Church has no authoritative teachings, period.

        Pope St. John Paul the II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all taught that the documents of Vatican II are to be read in a spirit of *continuity with* the historic teachings of the Church. You are proposing, instead, that we should read the Vatican II documents in a spirit of *rupture from* previous Church teachings. The Church has explicitly rejected this interpretation of Vatican II for decades and continues to reject it with Francis as the current Vicar of Christ.

      • Peter Aiello says:

        Catholics who are not converts do not make the affirmation. Popes have said a lot of things since Vatican II. Are all of their statements infallible? I don’t see where Dignitatis Humanae 3 excludes professing Catholics from having to assent to a teaching of the Church. It doesn’t discriminate.

  5. Christopher Lake says:


    You replied to me, “Catholics who are not converts do not make the affirmation.” (i.e.“I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.”) Therefore, in your view, it seems that cradle Catholics and convert Catholics are held to two different standards of faith by the Church?? Peter, that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

    You seem to be saying that in terms of Church teaching, cradle Catholics only have to assent to whatever accords with their personal interpretations of Scripture and Tradition, but Catholic converts are required by the Church to make an *utterly different* affirmation, in which they promise to believe and profess that all the Church teaches, believes, and proclaims is revealed by God. That is nonsensical. The Catholic Church, the Church founded by Christ, does not have a different standard of faith for converts than she does for cradle Catholics.

    I have attempted to dialogue with you for months here, but I am done with that, because from all of your comments here, you are only interested in promoting your own views at WPI– views which radically differ from the authoritative teachings of the Church, as recorded in both Scripture and Tradition, which are both authentically interpreted, *not* by your private, personal judgment, but by the Pope and the bishops in communion with him.

  6. Jane says:

    This is such a breath of fresh air and a tremendous weight off my often-heavy, Vicar-of-Christ-on-earth-loving heart. I come to this website when my soul needs therapy from the onslaught of the horrific negative reporting that is out there. Thank you and God Bless you!

    • Christopher Lake says:


      I am also very thankful for, and continually encouraged by, this website. Increasingly, the Catholic blogosphere can be a discouraging place for me to visit, but this site is definitely one of the happy exceptions to that rule.

      To be very honest, tt’s quite strange, to me, that I am now actually *surprised* to find fellow committed Catholics who defend the current Vicar of Christ! I am only taking the same stance, in respecting, loving, and defending Pope Francis, that I did with Benedict XVI when he was our Vicar of Christ. Of course, that is the same position of this site (which is so encouraging)!

      Sadly, I just found out that another Catholic friend of mine is listening to, and being influenced by, one of the “traditional Catholic” websites that constantly, harshly, opposes Pope Francis. Ironically, it’s a website that played an important role in my own return to the Church years almost a decade ago. However, I eventually reached the conclusion that any “Catholic” website that spends most of its time criticizing the bishops and other Catholics is not a productive, faith-building place for me to regularly visit. I truly hope that my friend’s faith will not be poisoned by what she hears at that site. Until recently, she was a defender of Pope Francis. Maybe I can encourage her to read some of the articles here at WPI.

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