Ultramontanism: A Means Not an End

Ultramontanism itself—the hailing of the reigning pontiff as Supreme Leader of the faithful, whose every utterance must be accepted unquestioningly—is a relatively recent phenomenon in the life of the Church.


March 10, 2023

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The excitement of recent months over the campaign against the Latin Mass and its adherents in general, waged by the highest levels in the Catholic Church, is both tragic and ironic. Tragic, of course, because of the souls lost and the lives blighted—the re-expulsion of the Benedictine monks from Glastonbury, England, over their attachment to the Mass of their predecessors in that holy spot featured the current Bishop of Clifton in the role of Henry VIII.

But it is ironic because, prior to the current pontificate, no hardier partisans of ultramontanism were to be found than in the ranks of Traditional Catholics—although since 2013 many a figure in the Catholic world who happily disregarded the teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have transformed into virtual papalators.

Of course, ultramontanism itself—the hailing of the reigning pontiff as Supreme Leader of the faithful, whose every utterance must be accepted unquestioningly—is a relatively recent phenomenon in the life of the Church, reflected triumphantly in many a late 19th-century church, such as Paris’ Sacre Coeur, or London’s Brompton Oratory. Before examining our present situation in any detail though, we need to look at how we got here.

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From the time Emperor Theodosius the Great passed the Edict of Thessalonica in A.D. 380, which made baptism passage into Roman citizenship as well as membership in the Church, Catholic Church and Catholic State were seen as distinct aspects of one Catholic body. In this edict, the Emperor declared: 

It is our desire that all the various nations which are subject to our Clemency and Moderation, should continue to profess that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic holiness. According to the apostolic teaching and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in the one deity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity. We order the followers of this law to embrace the name of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict.

After the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries—which successive emperors took their part in either exacerbating or settling (doing the latter finally)—Pope St. Gelasius I wrote to Emperor Anastasius the following description of the two powers: 

There are two, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority (auctoritas sacrata) of the priests and the royal power (regalis potestas). Of these, that of the priests is weightier, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, most clement son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in divine matters you bend your neck devotedly to the bishops and await from them the means of your salvation. In the reception and proper disposition of the heavenly sacraments you recognize that you should be subordinate rather than superior to the religious order, and that in these things you depend on their judgment rather than wish to bend them to your will. If the ministers of religion, recognizing the supremacy granted you from heaven in matters affecting the public order, obey your laws, lest otherwise they might obstruct the course of secular affairs by irrelevant considerations, with what readiness should you not yield them obedience to whom is assigned the dispensing of the sacred mysteries of religion? 

A century later, Emperor Justinian would write to the pope: 

We have exerted Ourselves to unite all the priests of the East and subject them to the See of Your Holiness, and hence the questions which have at present arisen, although they are manifest and free from doubt, and, according to the doctrine of your Apostolic See. 

This relationship between Church and Empire—and the various Kingdoms into which the latter was divided, in much the same fashion (theoretically) as the Church was divided into dioceses—would continue until the Protestant Revolt; this was so with the Byzantines, and with the Western or Holy Roman Empire revived for Charlemagne by Pope St. Leo III in 800. Against this backdrop, the papacy’s own temporal sovereignty culminated with the birth of the Papal States.

But it was not a relationship without difficulties. As the Investiture controversy and the Guelph and Ghibelline struggle showed, while both the popes and the emperors (and kings) agreed in basic principles about their relationship, conflict often arose regarding the concrete application of these principles. Nevertheless, such opponents of papal politics as Dante could not be considered as other than faithful Catholics, regardless of their stances in these areas.

Indeed, if various popes chastised wayward monarchs such as England’s Henry II and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, it took Emperor Otto I to end the century long pornocracy in Rome, and Emperor Sigismund to end the Great Schism. If popes had to approve the choice of Holy Roman Emperor, he (and the kings of France and Spain) had the right to veto any one candidate for the papacy they thought inappropriate for the job.

But as mentioned, this rocky but ultimately successful marriage began to unravel as a result of the Protestant Revolt, whereby the Catholic Church was forcibly separated from several Christian States, whose rulers created substitute ecclesiastical bodies to replace the Church on the one side and to act as departments of state on the other. The great power politics of the 16th and 17th centuries led to the seemingly undying enmity between the kings of France and the Habsburgs, during which the papacy would support first the former (hence Urban VIII’s backing the Swedes against Emperor Ferdinand II in the Thirty Years’ War, and the latter’s famous comment that he would “be the champion of the Church despite the Pope”) and then the latter (which resulted in the pope chanting the Te Deum when news of the Battle of the Boyne came in 1690). 

In the 18th century, a more integrally Catholic policy prevailed at Rome, whereby the popes tried to reconcile Bourbons and Habsburgs and encouraged both to support Stuart restoration in the British Isles. Eventually, this would bear fruit in 1755, when the two dynasties did ally—an alliance sealed with the marriage of the future Louis XVI with Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, it was two centuries too late to end the Protestant or the Muslim menace to Christendom.

The revolution of 1789 began the creation of the secular State we know today, in which religion of any kind exists purely at the whim of the temporal rulers of a given country—as exhibited during the Covid lockdown. But as nation after nation through the course of the 19th century found its Catholics pitted against their temporal rulers, a very different attitude toward the papacy arose among them. Before, if there was a conflict between a Catholic ruler and the pope, believing Catholics did not automatically presume the pope was right; moreover, in any such dispute, the temporal ruler would attempt to show that he was actually working harder for the good of the Church than his pontifical opponent. Bishops, priests, and laity would have to try to make sense of the situation on that basis.

But now, from Portugal to Poland and throughout the Americas, the 19th century saw papacy and national Churches together in conflict with liberal regimes who made no secret of their opposition to the Church as such—and to its Faith. Under such conditions, the pope went from being the religious head of the Church who might or might not be correct in the political arena, to being the beleaguered religious and political leader of the faithful across the globe. This was a role particularly suited to Blessed Pius IX, who not only had to offer moral support to his embattled children in foreign lands but was directly attacked by the forces of Liberalism in the persons of Cavour and Garibaldi. 

In response, he called for volunteers from all over the Catholic world to defend him. These truly gallant and heroic young men—the Papal Zouaves—rallied to Pius’ banner. From across the planet, they came; often enough, they and/or their families were veterans of the Church’s struggles against the revolution in their own homelands. They saw their service in the Papal States as a continuation of those struggles and, indeed, as a latter-day Crusade.

From all of the political and military conflicts besetting the Church in this era arose ultramontanism. Capped by the definition of Papal Infallibility at Vatican I, followed almost immediately by the definitive (so far!) loss of the Papal States, this in turn gave the Holy Father a redoubled moral authority. The multiplication of Catholic Parties in various countries (forerunners of the now defanged and secularized Christian Democratic parties) under Leo XIII, as well as his timely and useful writings on the social issues, reinforced the high repute of the Vicar of Christ. 

World War I and the ruin of Austria-Hungary—the last Catholic great power—ushered in the interwar Catholic Revival, when the lack of Catholic temporal power was seen in many quarters as an advantage, and when, if anything, Catholic politics became even more clerical. Certainly, the direct leadership of the clergy in the Catholic parties in the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Slovenia, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere was seen as a very good thing indeed (although the same tendency in the United States pitted Fr. Coughlin against Msgr. John Ryan). 

World War II propelled the almost ghostly figure of Pius XII into interstellar heights in the general Catholic imagination—heights which he clambered even higher, if possible, as a result of his postwar advocacy of the persecuted Church in the newly Communist Captive Nations and patronage of De Gasperi, Schuman, and Adenauer (themselves all considered for beatification). This prestige was duly passed on to St. John XXIII.

Perhaps only someone of Pius XII’s sterling reputation could have put through the liturgical changes he oversaw (alterations in Holy Week, abolition of most octaves, etc.) with barely a note of dissent. So, too, with John XXIII’s tinkering with the calendar. Indeed, it was the view of the pope as virtually the Oracle at Delphi that initially allowed Paul VI to alter so much with relatively little adverse reaction—although for those who did so react, the full force of Roman power was brought to bear.

Nevertheless, it did not escape those of us alive then that the Holy Father happily pounced upon Traditionalists but was unable to do anything about the dissent of even national bishops’ conferences from Humanae Vitae. For many, this was the beginning of the loss of belief in papal impeccability that had grown up since the French Revolution.

John Paul II’s partial freeing of the Tridentine Mass, his opposition to Communism, and his revitalizing of the nearly moribund Eucharistic and Marian devotions did a great deal to recover some of the ground lost. Benedict XVI seemed to go from strength to strength—although his apparent flight from the wolves ended his pontificate on a decidedly sour note. Nevertheless, from 1978 to 2013, ultramontanism was easy to hold for a great many.

But the arrival of Pope Francis certainly strained the concept for those who held the same religious views as, say, Blessed Pius IX or Leo XIII. Those who dissented from Humanae Vitae and found Francis’ immediate predecessors retrograde and confining, on the other hand, became latter-day Papal Zouaves—and never more so than when Francis directly contradicted Benedict over liturgical and doctrinal matters.  The arrival of Pope Francis certainly strained the concept of ultramontanism for those who held the same religious views as, say, Blessed Pius IX or Leo XIII. Tweet This

So now it must be said; apart from the religious loyalty the papal office commanded even from its political opponents like Dante and Emperor Ferdinand II, our deference to a reigning pontiff must somehow be commensurate with his manner of conducting himself in that effort—even as filial loyalty is still required to a drunken father but must be tempered according to his actual behavior.

There is, of course, no earthly authority higher than the pope; we, his subjects, are rather limited in what we can do—but not in what, as history shows us, we must sometimes endure. We must pray very hard for him—and that he will do what God wants him to. Pope Francis’ time in office will end with his having to account for his actions to Him Whose Vicar he is. May it go well for him—and for all of us, when our time comes.

[Image: Vatican I]


  • Charles Coulombe

    Charles A. Coulombe is a contributing editor at Crisis and the magazine’s European correspondent. He previously served as a columnist for the Catholic Herald of London and a film critic for the National Catholic Register. A celebrated historian, his books include Puritan’s Empire and Star-Spangled Crown. He resides in Vienna, Austria and Los Angeles, California.

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