When we publish articles defending Pope Francis, some of our critics accuse us of being “ultramontanists.”

Another line we frequently hear is, “Where were these guys during the papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II?”

I can only speak for myself, but I will tell you where I was.

For most of St. John Paul II’s papacy, I was only a nominal Catholic. Even then, however, I greatly admired him. And I began the process of rediscovering my faith about a year before he died.

If you want to know what I was doing on the last day of his life, I remember clearly that I was watching this video online:

The song is in Spanish, but you can easily find the English translation of the lyrics. This song was written on the occasion of John Paul II’s visit to Mexico in 1999. Based on the way so many people today define the term, this song would be described as extremely ultramontanist. It goes as far as to say that the pope’s words “contain a ray of white light,” that he is a “new wind,” that he has “an infinite heart,” and that he is “the friend who will bring us to a new world.”

Where was I when John Paul II died? I was watching this video with tears in my eyes as this song was shared across the Catholic blogosphere and around the world.

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

When Benedict was elected, I was drawn to his writings, which I found deep and profound. Shortly thereafter, I realized the way the secular media was bent on twisting every word he said in order to tarnish his image and portray him as someone he was not.

So where was I during Benedict’s papacy? I was running a website that I started in order to defend the Pope—just as I did when I helped found Where Peter Is.

Catholics then did not rebuke me for defending the pope.

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

Even before I started my own blog, I would regularly defend him in the comboxes of other Catholic blogs. For example, when Benedict’s words were twisted after his speech at Regensburg in order to make him sound like an anti-Muslim fanatic, I did everything I could to address those who attacked him by defending the Holy Father and by putting his quote in its proper context.

At the time, Catholics would read my comments and thank me. They would not suggest that the Regensburg speech was simply the opinion of the pope as a private individual, and they wouldn’t be quick to insist that it was not magisterial. No—they were more concerned with how the pope was being maligned and misunderstood than with the level of authority of this speech.

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

Whenever Benedict published an encyclical, I would eagerly watch the Vatican website on the day of its release, so I could read it as soon as it came out. I would devour it and publish my own commentary about it.

At the time, no one felt obligated to remind me that Benedict’s encyclicals were “not infallible,” or to inform me that Catholics could just disregard them if they wanted to.

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

When a book-length interview of Benedict was released in which he said that a male prostitute who wore a condom could be “a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility,” I published an article clarifying what he had meant.

At the time, Catholics would read the clarification I had written—even though I was a mere lay apologist—and be satisfied with it. They did not feel the need to assert that a papal interview in a book is not magisterial. Nor did they accuse the Pope of being “ambiguous.” No one would lecture him on the need to “teach clearly.”

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

When Benedict made an off the-cuff-remark about how condoms were not sufficient to address the AIDS crisis in Africa, I investigated his claim and discovered that there was credible medical evidence on the matter. I wrote a post explaining that the pope actually had a point.

At the time, Catholics enjoyed that article I wrote. They did not react by saying that the pope is not competent to speak about scientific or technical matters.

I was not called an ultramontanist then.

I have observed that some Catholics recognize what they are doing. They understand that the behavior they call ultramontanist today is what they once considered normal. They acknowledge that they themselves were ultramontanists during previous pontificates, until Pope Francis made them swallow the “red pill.” Now, they are truly Catholic—so they say—and they have been cured of their ultramontanism.

That is not true. And the fact is that there was already something amiss during Benedict’s papacy.

On the Catholic websites I so enthusiastically frequented, the seeds of what we are seeing now were already there. A new theology was beginning to unfold, one that taught them that the Church’s social doctrine can be discarded in the name of “prudential judgment” when it conflicted with certain political or partisan agendas. Pundits were already asserting that papal documents could be marked up with red ink (parts that should be disregarded) and gold ink (the parts true Catholics should adhere to).

The attacks against Pope Francis we see today stem, in many ways, from such ideas.

Those Catholics were not ultramontanists then.

In fact, they were not even orthodox then.

And they are not orthodox now.

As for me, I will answer the charge. Where was I at the time of John Paul II and Benedict XVI?

I was exactly where I am now, doing exactly what I am doing now. I am with the pope. I have not changed anything. I stand where I always stood.

I was not an ultramontanist then.

I was simply Catholic.

Just like I am now.

Image: Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, April 2, 1995. Public domain.

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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