Rorate Caeli

Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death

We cannot understand the crisis in the Catholic Church today or how to escape from it unless we understand how the ecclesiological distortion popularly known as ultramontanism originated, how it functions as a kind of hyperclericalism, and finally how it has consumed itself like the ouroboros. Stuart Chessman published the following very insightful historical analysis in four installments (December 20, 23, 27, and 31) at the Society of St. Hugh of Cluny’s blog. With his permission they are published here as a single essay.—PAK

Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death 
Stuart Chessman
The Society of St. Hugh of Cluny

The actions of present Pope have put incredible stress on the Church’s constitution—the papal absolute monarchy. I’d like to offer some reflections on this system of government: ultramontanism. To understand it, though, we have to go back in history, starting with the reign of Pius IX when the ultramontanist regime received its “classic” form. I will focus on history—what actually happened—as opposed to theological considerations.

The Art of Ultramontanism: a window depicting the 1903 reform of church music by Pope Pius X (window by Mayer, Munich, circa 1910, Covington Cathedral)

1. Origins of Ultramontanism

In the wake of the French Revolution the Church seemed to have collapsed when the pope died in French captivity in 1799. She survived—but never attained again the identification of the Catholic Faith with state, culture and society that had existed prior to 1789 in Catholic Christendom. The Church was henceforward a minority component of European society—even if one that remained enormously influential. The new mission was thus clear: the Church needed to re-evangelize Europe and the world—to rebuild the faith and her own institutions.

By the conclusion of the First Vatican Council in 1870 the face of the Catholic Church had indeed been renewed. What were the features of the new regime?

The Vatican Council of course was most famous for defining the infallible authority—under certain defined circumstances—of the Pope. But in practice (the “spirit of Vatican I”) the pope was henceforward treated as de facto infallible in all his decisions, at least in the sense in that no Catholic could question them. Any kind of discussion, let alone criticism, of the Pope was strictly prohibited.

The Pope’s immediate jurisdiction was extended directly to the entire world. All authority in matters of the faith, organization and liturgy was centralized in the Vatican. It was expected that normally the pope should have sole right to appoint bishops. Obedience to ecclesiastical authority was elevated to a central position in the Catholic faith. The Church’s independence from secular authority at every level was likewise proclaimed. Obviously, ultramontanism required adjustments to previously existing structures within the Church that had other organizational principles. For example, Leo XIII established in 1893 a Benedictine Confederation under an Abbot Primate, headquartered in Rome, that embraced the previously autonomous Benedictine congregations.

Going beyond these rules of governance, the pope assumed the position of chief spiritual leader and teacher of the Catholic Church. His image and personality were made known to Catholics throughout the world. It was expected that devotion would be paid to him.

Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmeyer (one of the opponents of ultramontanism at Vatican I) summarized the effects of Vatican I: I went in a bishop and came out a sacristan.

The ultramontane regime was a reaction to the historic Gallicanism of the French Church and to the recent clashes over state interventions in the governance of the Church (e.g., in Prussia, Spain and Russia). To this was added the perceived weakness of national hierarchies and individual bishops in confronting secular governments. Loyalty to the Pope was cemented by the fierce anti-papal focus of most of the avowed adversaries of the Church—and their subjection to the powers of this world. For example, much of the opposition to Pius IX was clearly dependent on support from Prussia(a predominantly Protestant state!), on the German secular universities, etc.

But other developments which, at first glance, might have seemed hostile to the Catholic Church, encouraged ultramontanism as well. For example, the French Revolution and its successor, 19th century liberalism, had overthrown or drastically weakened rival regimes, such as the French monarchy, that previously had claimed a role in the government of the Church. It had expropriated or destroyed vested clerical institutions across Europe. By default, the papacy stood alone. Of course, in the days of Pius IX the Church rejected such theories (like Cavour’s “free Church in a free state”). Do we not also detect in ultramontanism the influence of another 19th century development: the Napoleonic regimes? Under Napoleons I and III all power in France had been concentrated in one absolute, charismatic leader—originally, as a bulwark against revolutionary excesses.

Now ultramontanism was not achieved in a day. The system took many decades to perfect. Did not the Austrian emperor’s veto of cardinal Rampolla’s candidacy for the papacy—an extreme un-ultramontane action– take place as late as 1903? The Pope himself was still surrounded and framed by the elaborate ritual trappings of the past: the noble guards, the fans, the sedia gestatoria. For the first 60 years after the Vatican council the Pope remined a “prisoner of the Vatican.”

Yet, as the years went on, the ultramontane elements of Catholicism increased. The last state in Europe that could be considered to be remotely a Catholic monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian empire, dissolved in 1918. In 1929 a new peace agreement was signed with Italy, giving the Holy See once more possibilities of freedom and independence. And as formerly mission territories such as the United States grew in importance the ultramontane element of the Church also increased. Developments in technology and communications (such as radio) also assisted in spreading the message of the Vatican and the Pope throughout the Catholic world and beyond.

The Cathedral of Covington contains an unusual series of windows illustrating dogmatic and administrative decrees of popes and councils. They are evidence of the central role that the pope and the Vatican had assumed in Catholic culture by 1914. In addition to the one at the head of the article, here is Pius IX proclaiming the dogma of the Immaculate Conception.

Between 1846 and 1958, the Church accomplished many great things. First and foremost she did not disintegrate under the hammer blows of liberalism in the second half of the 19th century and she survived the far more violent attacks of anticlerical, communist and national socialist regimes in the first half of the 20th century. Aided by the spread of European colonial regimes, the Catholic Church now became truly universal. Did not the United States, a former colony, advance between 1840 and 1960 from the status of an outlying mission territory to one of the strongest and wealthiest national churches in the world? Analogous progress occurred throughout the then vast British empire. Innumerable new congregations and orders sprang up, mostly devoted to an active apostolate of some kind: education, health care, the missions, etc. In the Catholic world entire nations sought a new, closer link between Church and state (Ireland, Spain and Portugal)

By the reign of Pius XII a new level of respect also seemed to have been achieved at least in that part of the world dominated by the United States and its allies. Catholic politicians were playing a key role in many of the nations on the continent of Europe. In the United States itself, a new era of harmony with the non-Catholic world seemed to have been established. Concrete evidence of this is the vast number of churches and schools that were built in the 20 years after the end of the Second World War. Did this not demonstrate the great success of the Church—as reformed under Pius IX?

And the successes of the Church were not merely material or measured by numbers. New devotions such as Lourdes and Fatima, new saints such as St. Theresa of Lisieux exercised a worldwide influence. A whole new galaxy of apologists testified to their Catholic faith, often using the literary forms of the novel or poetry. Many individual artists (e.g., Gaudi, Bruckner) devoted their efforts to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, the Church rediscovered its treasures of chant and of medieval philosophy. She developed Catholic positions in regard to the totally new economic situation that had arisen in the course of the 19th century. Finally, the 20th century produced legions of new martyrs—in Mexico, Spain, the Soviet Union, after World War II throughout Eastern Europe and, during this entire era, across the colonial/developing world (e.g., China).

But there was another side of the coin. Despite all the successes and the relentless whirlwind of activity there was a palpable narrowing of the Church after Vatican I. The Church seemed to have less and less relevance to the secular world, to be more and more remote and turned in on itself. The great hopes in the immediately preceding period of a grand Catholic recovery and of the reconversion of Europe—such as those of the Oxford movement, led by Newman, or of German Romanticism culminating in the regime of King Louis I of Bavaria—had evaporated. A great uniformity of belief and practice was achieved—among the believers. But if we expanded the definition of the Church to include the entire baptized population, the results in key Catholic countries were less impressive. Didn’t communists play a tremendous political role in France and Italy post-1945? And the cultural influence—even dominance—of these Stalinist parties in those years was even more impressive.

Perceptive observers noted problems early on in the seemingly solid framework of ultramontane culture. For example, Joris-Karl Huysmans asked why most of the prominent Catholic apologists of his age were converts—not the products of the Catholic educational system. He saw the ugliness of much of the art and architecture of the Church of that time as a truly satanic influence. Huysmans also had reservations about the products of Catholic seminaries in France, and early on spotlighted certain abuses that would become all too obvious towards the end of the 20th century.

These “spiritual” and “cultural” deficiencies seemed to increase as time went on even though ever greater material resources became available. As evidence, compare the 1950s edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia in the US with its predecessor of 1907–13, or the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington with the 1918 church of Saint Vincent Ferrer in New York City. That eminent university president Robert Maynard Hutchins (who had enabled the teaching of neo-scholastic philosophy at the University of Chicago) is reported to have frankly told the assembled presidents of the Catholic colleges of the United States what a mediocre job they were doing. And, as we know now, many individuals of doubtful faith or morality—and sometimes both—entered the priesthood and the religious life in the last great wave of expansion after the Second World War.

Aside from its spiritual problems, ultramontanism entailed a number of practical difficulties. By centralizing all authority in the Pope the entire Catholic Church now became involved in the issues of any one particular church. Grand, centrally directed papal initiatives such as the reform of Church music under Pius X also created very negative side effects—attributable in part to the difficulty of attempting detailed management of local affairs from the Vatican. The very nature of the ultramontanist regime tended to advance the careers of bureaucrats, builders and administrators rather than spiritual leaders among the bishops.

The claims of papal authority created expectations that could never be fulfilled. There was disappointment—unspoken or not—at the Ralliement under Leo XIII, the reaction of the Church to the French secularization decrees in 1905, the papal disavowal of Action Française, the Vatican’s management in Germany of the relations of the Catholic Church and the Catholic political party with the Nazi regime, among other actions. Sometimes this criticism came from the left and sometimes from the right. But a common thread was the expectation that in the 20th century the Church needed to make heroic gestures in opposition to the forces of the world. The cautious and perhaps prudent reserve of the Vatican seemed to contrast with its grand claims of omnipotence.

Characteristic of the last years of ultramontanism under Pius XII was a circa-1960 study that compared the management structure of the Catholic Church with an American business corporation—General Electric, I believe. The comparison, according to most reports I have seen, was favorable to the Church. Yet in this analysis, the Church explicitly assumes the role of a minority participant in the ruling secular “civil society” of the West. Similarly, around the same time the popular Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops affected to discern, from the perspective of ultramontanism, a positive side even to events like the separation of Church and State in France in 1905:

[I]t marked the end of Gallican tendencies, which was a notable contribution towards Pius X’s effort to strengthen the hierarchy and centralize ecclesiastical government. Henceforward there would be no intermediary between the pope on the one hand and the clergy and Christian people of France on the other. The bishops would be chosen directly by Rome…[1]

Late ultramontanism thus was now reaching political conclusions almost the opposite of those of Pius IX.

By 1930, at the latest, there was also a revival of progressive Catholicism. As always, leftism proceeds from the existence of very real problems and issues. There was a real sense that it was inadequate for the Church to remain a society within a society, separate from the world. What was necessary was the reconversion of the entire world to Christianity. But almost from the beginning less wholesome views mingled with these aspirations. What started as frustration with the timid “bourgeois” nature of ultramontanist Catholic witness and the Church’s excessive conformity to this world, developed into at first admiration and then uncritical acceptance of 20th century secular regimes. Initially there was undisguised jealousy of the alleged successes of totalitarian movements, especially communism, in inspiring their followers and in “solving the problems” of modern man. Dorothy Day is a case study in this. Later, of course, with Jacques Maritain, the focus of these feelings of Catholic inferiority switched to the United States and the democratic society.

During the reign of Pius XII a pervasive culture of internal criticism emerged within the Church. Given the restrictions on Catholic discourse, it often took the disguised form of historical, liturgical, philosophical, or artistic studies. By 1959 all aspects of Catholic tradition were routinely depicted as corrupt and purely arbitrary products of historical circumstance. It seemed the entire Church had taken the wrong direction even as early as the 4th century (the famous “Constantinian” transformation). A truly revolutionary situation was emerging, at least within the Western European churches, when Pope John XXIII succeeded to the papacy. And the actors in this budding revolution weren’t representatives from the fringes, but the official intellectuals and clerical bureaucrats of the Catholic Church herself. It was a revolution from above, by the establishment, that was in the making. The regime of ultramontanism at the Vatican itself seemed completely incapable of discerning what was going on even among its own proteges.

Ultramontane window in the Church of Our Saviour, New York, contemporary with the proto-progressive encyclical Mater et Magistra of Pope John XXIII (1961), which it parallels with Christ teaching in the temple. William F. Buckley’s public disagreement with the pope’s conclusions (on economics) was up till then virtually unheard of.

2. The Period from 1958–2013

In the foregoing part, I reviewed the triumph and maturity of “ultramontanism” in the Catholic Church. Fundamentally a defensive strategy, it aimed at block-like unity, centralized control and absolute subordination to superiors. Especially up to 1945, its catalogue of achievements was remarkable. Yet, like all defensive stances, it could not be prolonged forever. At some point a counterattack must be undertaken—for otherwise the enemy, having familiarized himself over time with a static opponent, will find a path to break through….

The Second Vatican Council convened in 1962. In no prior council had both the freedom from overt secular control and papal dominance over the proceedings been so assured.[2] The course and outcome of the council was determined by a new alliance of the papacy with internal progressive forces. Paul VI then enjoyed almost unlimited scope of action in implementing the council throughout the Catholic world.

The management of the Council and its subsequent implementation were truly the greatest triumph of ultramontanism. For no previous pope had radically and systematically changed the liturgy and the forms of Catholic piety (e.g., the rules governing fasting, the architecture and decoration of churches) virtually overnight. Paul VI found active supporters for his mission of change. A whole legion of clergy was inspired to forcefully drag into the modern Church the benighted sectors of the laity and their own less “enlightened” fellow clergy and religious. But, on the whole, resistance was minimal—so effective had been the inculcation of ultramontane obedience over the generations. Of course, the customs and traditions of the Church had likely lost their grip on much of the Catholic world through the ultramontane understanding of obedience to authority and adherence to legal rules as the source of their legitimacy.

But even while still in session, the Council had unleashed forces that shattered the closed ultramontane world. For the progressive clergy, empowered by Paul VI, undertook to directly reverse the theology, teachings on personal morality and the governing structures of the Church—all the things that hindered complete reconciliation with the world. For internally, the Council and its aftermath may have been revolutionary. But viewed from outside, these changes were completely conformist, as the Church adopted the worldview, vocabulary and even the dress of the secular world of the 1960’s. The guiding Conciliar principles of aggiornamento and “reading the signs of the times” had in fact subordinated the Church to secular society far more thoroughly than had been conceivable under the European monarchies of the 18th century, the Holy Roman Empire of the Gregory VII’s day, or the Roman empire in the 4th century. None of these historical powers had disposed of means (such as news media in the modern sense) capable of reaching into the life of each individual Catholic. Truly, it was a new, monumental “Constantinian shift!” And it was in these very years of the Council that the Western establishment’s attitude to the Church began to progressively change from a politically dictated posture of respect to an overt, intensifying hostility: starting with Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 drama The Deputy and culminating in an across-the-board critique of “retrograde” Catholicism, above all, the Church’s teachings on sexual morality.

These developments came to a head with the storm over Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical on contraception, Humanae Vitae. The pope could not obtain obedience to his decree—not only from the “rebels” but also from the religious orders, Catholic universities and even entire episcopal conferences. For Paul VI found himself confronting not only internal opponents, but also modern “civil society” and its media, which stood behind the rebellious elements. It was a previously unthinkable breach in ultramontane discipline. Truly, the Council, which had marked the high water mark of ultramontanism, had now administered to it its greatest defeat!

Top: plaque commemorating Pope Paul VI’s visit to the United Nations (not to the American Church); Bottom: a quote from the pope from the same visit. I leave the reader to judge for himself. (Both in the Church of the Holy Family, New York, built by Cardinal Spellman, one of the last arch-ultramontanists)

As to papal authority, the result was deadlock. Paul VI would not withdraw his encyclical—but neither did he attempt to insist on its enforcement. The same impasse was true of many other doctrines and rules of the church. A state of permanent, unacknowledged “civil war” from now on prevailed in a Church in which a substantial part of the Catholic establishment either denied or understood in a new non—literal way what had been previously fixed and certain doctrine. To give just one example, papal infallibility, a foundation stone of ultramontanism, was widely either denied outright (Hans Küng’s Infallible? An Inquiry, 1971) or, more subtly, had its origins called into question (Hubert Wolf’s The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio, 2013). The progressives did not necessarily see any need of respecting the “views” (Eamon Duffy) of the Vatican.

Of course, some leaders of the Church—and not just those resident in the Vatican—continued to resist these interpretations and tried to preserve Catholic doctrine as traditionally understood. Popes John Paul II and Benedict took numerous actions and made frequent statements on the liturgy, Catholic education, Catholic doctrine on sexual morality, etc. Like Humanae Vitae, these were mostly ignored. Disciplinary measures to impose order on the Jesuits (under John Paul II) or on American religious sisters (under Benedict) ended in capitulation by the Vatican. For there was very little the popes could do. To directly confront the progressive establishment would in short order draw the media into the fray. That would reveal clearly that the alleged Conciliar reconciliation of the Church with the modern world had failed. Moreover, I suspect the popes feared that a large portion of the laity would likely follow the media.

This reluctance of the popes during this period (1970–2013) to act against the progressive forces and their institutions was not just dictated by tactical considerations. All these popes shared at least to a limited extent the opinions and goals of the progressives. And they were also desirous of a favorable presentation by the media. Peter Seewald’s biography of Pope Benedict reveals this obsessive concern of the Vatican with the pope’s image in the press.

There was no longer any question of recreating the pre-conciliar unity of belief and practice. At most, the popes could achieve a “tilt” in the direction of Catholic tradition—mainly through episcopal appointments. Even here the results were erratic. Yet, within the constraints outlined above, under John Paul II there was an “ultramontane revival.” John Paul II gained prestige from his role in the collapse of communism and his charismatic public persona. He adopted to a great extent the style of secular politicians and regimes. That even extended to features imported from the repertoire of the totalitarian states of the Eastern bloc (e.g., youth days and festivals; massive orchestrated public appearances). The result was a renaissance of the papal image—appealing to so many at the time. The cult of “John Paul the Great” was born.

The “neo-ultramontane” wave generated an immense amount of activity on the part of the partisans of the “Polish Pope”—especially in the United States and mostly among those outside the clerical establishment. Papal infallibility was reemphasized by these activists and now extended far beyond the 1870 definitions. The election of the pope was now “God’s choice.” The articles contained in Civiltà Cattolica, because they were cleared by the Vatican Secretary of State, took on an aura of infallibility. The infallibility of Humanae Vitae was proposed. The stalemate of the post-Conciliar Church was recast as a struggle between papal authority and “dissenters.” Although such positions remained unofficial, they are indicative of the pro-papal surge under John Paul II.

The new papalism, however, had to account for the tolerance of John Paul II for the progressive forces. The explanation that was found was the Pope’s need to avoid “schism.” This is, of course, a degenerate ultramontane understanding, in which preserving the external appearance of unity takes precedence over ensuring its actual substance.

Another aspect of the neo-ultramontane era—sparked by the style and restless activity of John Paul II—was the obsession with the political aspects of the papacy and the Vatican. A whole legion of reporters, “information entrepreneurs” and, later, internet personalities concerned themselves with the internal affairs of the Vatican. In considering any issue of Catholicism it became usual to include speculation on Vatican personnel moves. Actions having the greatest importance for each individual Catholic were portrayed as the product of changes in the leadership of, and even within, Vatican dicasteries. Do I need to mention all the Vatican novels published in this era?—some of them informative, others ludicrous. Whatever might be the Vatican’s actual authority over the Church, this focus on Rome demonstrated that an unhealthy ultramontanism was alive and well.

We should mention at this point the ever-growing bureaucratization of the Church after the Council. Despite all the disorders within the Church, offices, “apostolates” and administrators increased. As the ranks of clergy and religious declined in the post-Conciliar chaos, the number of lay employees grew exponentially. The clergy were also assimilated to bureaucrats. A retirement age was now set for bishops, and they increasingly were moved about from diocese to diocese. At the local level, term limits began to be imposed on pastors. Added to this mix was an extreme degree of legalism. The result was an increased perception of the Church as a secular organization like the United Nations, a governmental agency, the EU headquarters or, later, a very large NGO (non-governmental organization).

Towards the end of John Paul II’s papacy, and during the whole of Benedict XVI’s reign, the Church and in particular the Vatican had to face ever increasing difficulties. The fundamental issue of the decline of belief and practice of the Faith within the Church herself had not been resolved. The Vatican bureaucracy became a cesspool of careerism, incompetence, and financial corruption. The documentation that has been disclosed on the career of Cardinal McCarrick reveals how little John Paul II understood of the appointments he was charged with making. The scandals of sexual abuse, the conduct of the leaders of the Legionaries of Christ and financial misdeeds at the Vatican opened up new fronts for relentless secular attack on the Church from 2002 to the present day. Pope Benedict was utterly unable to contend with either the media or his own Vatican bureaucracy. Indeed, the pope’s enemies in the latter organization resorted to outright treason to block Benedict’s initiatives.

Faced with rising tide of challenges, these popes seem to have slipped into a fantasy world—at least if popular biographies are any guide. According to George Weigel’s Witness to Hope (1999), John Paul II seems to have been of the opinion that his innumerable voyages thorough the world were having major political effects (only in Poland was that conclusion perhaps justified). In Seewald’s biography, Benedikt XVI: Ein Leben (2020), Pope Benedict is reported to have thought, upon ascending the papal throne, that all issues of the Church already had been favorably resolved by his predecessor. To quote another example, at several Vatican-sponsored conferences it was proposed that excess priests be shifted from the developed to the third world—this, at a time when the churches of these “advanced” countries were in fact relying more and more on imported African, Asian and Latin American priests.

In the same vein, as the popes’ real power within the Church declined, papal visions of global leadership grew. The bishop of Rome now was described as the “pope of all mankind,” a kind of worldwide spiritual advocate. Thus, John Paul II presided over interfaith assemblies at Assisi. Pope Benedict lectured in abstract terms on the relationship of faith and reason to the unbelieving German parliament.

Most importantly, the need for a renewed evangelization—now primarily within the Church herself—still had not been met. The opening to the world had been a one-way street in which the world instructed the Church. The marriage of the Council with ultramontanism had produced a culture that was far more provincial than the ghetto of 1958 so derided by the advanced Catholic circles of that time. The art and music of the Church by 2013 was either kitsch or uninspired copies of modern aesthetic orthodoxy. The increasing lack of funds limited even that activity.

The papacy had indeed survived the turmoil it had itself created in wake of the Council. But the Conciliar papacy had not preserved the Church’s unity in doctrine and practice—the reason ultramontanism had been advocated in the first place. The Vatican increasingly functioned as a mere administrative center, while all kinds of developments, heterodox or not, proceeded autonomously. In 2013 Pope Benedict resigned. It was a crushing blow to the papacy and absolutely unimaginable under pre-conciliar ultramontanism.

Ultramontanism 2021: A German-language “conservative” website regularly carries the messages and homilies of Pope Francis – which as often as not contradict the editorial polices of the same site.

3. The Period from 2013 to the Present

By 2013—the year of Pope Benedict’s resignation—the stalemate that has arisen at the end of the 1960’s had lasted for 45 years. The popes had not dared to force a showdown with the progressive forces on a significant issue. That would have called into question the Council. But neither would they adopt the progressive demands to explicitly adapt Catholic theology and morality to the dictates of the modern world, which would render dubious the Church’s claims of continuity with its perennial traditions. The result was that the Vatican’s authority declined to a merely administrative role, while the pressure of secular society on the Church steadily increased. The Church disguised this through the activity of John Paul II’s papacy and otherwise strove to maintain an image of infallibility, omnipotence, harmony of past and present, and agreement among all elements of the Church. The result was best described as “managed decline.”

Pope Francis’s election brought a recommitment to the progressive agenda of the 1960’s along with a radical revival of ultramontane authoritarianism. Thus, his regime strongly resembles the reign of Paul VI—at least as it existed up to 1970. In one extreme recent example, if Paul VI had imposed on the entire Church radical changes in liturgy, so Pope Francis has now undertaken to compel the traditionalist Catholics to adopt the Novus Ordo. An entire population of Catholics—priests, religious orders, monasteries schools and laity—previously in official good standing with the Church, have been reduced overnight to outcasts. Prior papal legislation, commitments and agreements to the contrary—such as the regimes established for the Ecclesia Dei communities—have been revoked. The Vatican has published a set of implementation measures that have centralized authority to an unheard-of degree—regulating even the content of parish bulletins!

And this anti-Traditionalist “crusade” is but one example among many. From the first day of his pontificate, Pope Francis rejected the application to himself of any of the customs, laws and rules of the church. He routinely disregards the rulings and statements of his own Vatican officials. A whole series of Catholic congregations and orders (like the Order of Malta) have been placed under the rule of papal commissioners. The same is now true of the entire Italian church in regard to Francis’s legislation on divorce. The pope has received the resignation of one entire country’s episcopate (Chile) and later of individual bishops in other countries (Germany and France). A class of bishop emerged that, after proffered resignation, continues in office only at the discretion of the pope. The Vatican has asserted centralized control over contemplative religious monasteries and orders, on the establishment of any new religious congregation and, most recently, on the term of office of the leadership of the so-called movements. In the United States, Francis has intervened directly and repeatedly in the affairs of the national bishops’ conference and even in American domestic politics (e.g., the management of USCCB meetings, the status of politicians who promote abortion, the recognition of New Ways Ministry).

Pope Francis has added to his 1960’s progressivism publicity techniques borrowed from the repertoire of John Paul II. Gigantic papal events and voyages continue. Papal statements, interviews and books proliferate. A vast papal public relations apparatus has come into being at the Vatican and beyond—often in league with the secular press (e.g., Vatican Insider, Crux, Rome Reports). Francis has progressively refined this system over the years to focus it ever more closely on its designated role as a vehicle for propagating his image and thoughts.

The centralizing tidal wave at the Vatican has been reproduced down to the lowest level of the Church. The existence of Catholic Church’s traditional organizational form at the base—the parish—was increasingly called into question. The Archbishop of New York has openly speculated about a reorganization in which all Church property would be vested in the Archdiocese—a step that would, when combined with the current term limits on pastors, effectively transform all New York parishes into chapels. In dioceses in Germany and in the United States (such as the Cincinnati and Hartford Archdioceses) plans are being implemented that provide for radical reductions in the number of parishes. In response, the Vatican has feebly tried to uphold parish rights under canon law.

The changes in rhetoric and style are as significant as the concrete measures. The pope has divided the Church into friends and enemies. For example, in the American context, the pope has made absolutely clear what he thinks the role of Catholic media should be—by singling out for praise the eminently conformist Catholic News Service while accusing its competitor, the “conservative” EWTN, of doing the work of the devil. His publicists carry on this campaign further, denouncing those who “criticize the pope” and, in the last month or two, speculating on how Francis can neutralize “rogue” prelates (his critics in the hierarchy ). They also explain that Francis really shouldn’t care about those in the Church he hurts or “leaves by the wayside.”

The pope often employs against his conservative opponents the language and techniques of ultramontanism. In Traditionis Custodes, for example, the pope sets up Church unity and the inviolability of the Council as absolute values. Indeed, the Second Vatican Council (and its implementing decrees) are described as “dictated by the Holy Spirit.” The pope has canonized representatives of Catholic modernity (like Pope Paul VI!) thereby seeking to invest their polices with an aura of infallibility. Pope Francis himself claims to teach “with magisterial authority.” One often gets the sense Francis is mocking the legalistic and traditional diction of certain of his enemies, as when he titles his motu proprio seeking to abolish traditionalism Traditionis Custodes (“Guardians of Tradition”)!

The culture of the Catholic Church under Francis has been rightly described as Orwellian. The great advocate of dialogue never communicates with those who question his policies or who are the recipient of his attacks. Effeminate rhetoric (tenderness; accompaniment) contrasts with brusque commands and coarse denunciations. Advocacy of a “synodal” church proceeds hand-in-hand with extreme centralization. The apostle of unity within the Church excludes whole sections of believers without a second thought. Truly the regime of Francis can be called totalitarian ultramontanism!

Ultramontanism on the parish level. Top: screenshot from the site of St. Stanislaus parish, New Haven, showing the extensive coverage given to Pope Francis. The Vincentians in charge of this Polish-language parish were recently summarily dismissed. Bottom: a well-attended Latin mass was arbitrarily terminated at this parish in Danbury, CT, just after Traditionis Custodes was issued.

Yet the pope’s totalitarian ultramontanism has a radically limited scope. The most obvious constraint on Francis is the power of the Catholic progressives, the media, and the institutions of Western civil society. Francis is absolutely dependent on their support. But their backing is not at all unconditional but depends on the pope continuing to advance their agenda. Whenever Francis’s Vatican has been perceived as wavering in this mission, the progressive powers, like the German church, have summarily rejected its (and his) authority. Just recently, Francis and the leadership of his upcoming conference on synodality have had to abjectly apologize to the progressive New Ways Ministry in the US.

In his direct interactions with the institutions governing the Western world, the pope pursues policies that are both totally secular and largely identical with the positions advocated by the media. So, Pope Francis has precisely implemented the dictates of the establishment regarding suspension of religious services because of Covid. I should add that the relationship—often scandalous—between the Vatican and the Western financial powers has never been closer.

Resistance within the Church to Pope Francis has, however, also emerged from the other end of the spectrum, even if it is, in contrast to the progressive challenges, most often not publicly disclosed. Only a few prelates from this quarter—generally retired or previously removed from their positions—criticize the pope openly. Nevertheless, the publication of a book by the “pope emeritus” and Cardinal Sarah helped to derail Francis’s push for a married clergy. The pope’s acceptance of divorce in Amoris Laetitia and his accompanying measures have by no means been received enthusiastically everywhere. Indeed, it took blatant manipulation by the Vatican to obtain in the first place from the synods on the subject something that Francis could call approval of his marriage policies. Francis has had to publicly employ strong-arm tactics with the American hierarchy to block their policies on opposition to abortion. Finally, bishops throughout the world generally have been slow in signing on to Francis’s war against traditionalists.

Thus, certainly in the opinion of certain progressives, the organizational deadlock that existed prior to Francis’s papacy has reemerged. The tug-of-war continues between the advocates of radical change and the upholders of some form of Catholic tradition. The debate on synodality in Rome and in Germany—which really often is about other substantive issues such as married and female priests—may well bring this conflict to a head.

What a strange fate for ultramontanism! A set of policies that was supposed to secure the doctrine of the Church from internal enemies and preserve her independence from secular control has instead facilitated the greatest crisis of belief in the Church’s history along with her most abject subjection to the “temporal power”—not that of monarchs as in the past, but of the media, banks, NGOs, universities and, increasingly, “democratic” governments (including China!). The most extreme assertions of ultramontanism (such as those by Pope Francis) coincide with today’s total humiliation of the Church. Is it a failure of trying to achieve spiritual objectives through the application of organizational techniques? In any case, the need for evangelizing the world that arose after the religious collapse of the French Revolution remains unmet even today, as a whole, by the institutional Church.

4. Concluding Thoughts

During the papacy of Pius IX the theory and, to a great extent, the practice of the modern ultramontane regime were perfected. This system did secure internal unity and stability, leading the Church through one of the most pivotal periods of world and European history. Yet the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, the course of the Council itself and the implementation of its decisions revealed all too clearly the deficiencies of ultramontanism. The extreme centralized structures and absence of any real exchange of ideas in the Roman Catholic Church privileged the influence of “experts,” cliques and behind-the-scenes intrigue. At the pope’s command, the bishops, clergy and laity, unable to think for themselves, accepted blindly the destruction or relativization of that which they had only yesterday held sacred and immutable.

But the “Conciliar Church” itself bore the hallmarks of the ultramontane past that it affected to despise—provincialism, authoritarianism, pervasive bureaucracy and remoteness from the life of men and women today. The hundreds of pages of Conciliar decrees and the literary productions of the Conciliar champions (Rahner, Ratzinger, Kung, Schillebeeckx, etc.) made, outside of the clerical bureaucracy, little impression in the Church—and none on the world outside it. Indeed, far from being an avenue for establishing new communication with the world and the laity, Vatican II—its interpretation and defense—became just one more burden on the Church establishment.

Within the Church itself, however, all the institutions so carefully built up since the 1830’s—the schools, seminaries, monasteries, religious congregations, hospitals, universities—experienced a more or less universal existential crisis. Entire national churches (e.g., the Netherlands, Quebec) collapsed virtually overnight, while most others in the developed world commenced a continuous decline of religious practice. Conflict within the ecclesiastical establishment itself broke into the open, as the Vatican and the Church’s dominant intellectual leadership fell out on a broad spectrum of issues.

It became increasingly apparent that the positions of the progressives were irreconcilable with Catholic doctrine and morality, at least as previously understood. The post-Conciliar popes up to Francis, however, could not face the consequences of either adopting the progressive agenda or condemning it. The result was a deadlock between the progressive institutions and the Vatican which lasted for the next 45 years. In the actual practice of ruling the Church the ultramontane papacy more and more assumed a merely administrative role.[3]

In the midst of the post-Conciliar conflicts over the faith, Catholic traditionalism was born. The new Conciliar model was manifestly not working; a return to—or preservation of—the past recommended itself. Contrary to what Pope Francis asserts, the attitudes of the traditionalists to the authority of the Council varied greatly—as did their understanding regarding ultramontanism. Clearly the establishment of the FSSPX and their consecration of bishops in 1988 were utterly contrary to the ultramontane system. By placing Catholic doctrine and tradition above obedience to authority, Archbishop Lefebvre in effect challenged ultramontanism’s foundational assumptions. I am not sure, however, that the FSSPX (and later the FSSP) fully grasped what was happening. I get the sense they adhered to a paradigm that all was perfect in the Church prior to Vatican II—that the Church’s afflictions were attributable to infiltrators and dissenters. And, after achieving reconciliation with the Vatican, the FSSP certainly labored to project an image of alignment with an authoritarian and infallible papacy.

To the traditionalists could be added the “conservatives”—which the progressive establishment hardly distinguishes from the traditionalists. From the late 1960’s onward they espoused a radical ultramontanism, understanding the progressives primarily as “dissenters” from authority. For the conservatives, just like their 19th century predecessors, the papacy is a defender of Christian morality in the secular world, and the omnipotent guardian of doctrinal purity within the church. This was often juxtaposed to the feebleness of the national hierarchies, which the conservatives usually viewed as ineffectual bureaucrats. Yet in fact, the papacy itself, not just the bishops of the local churches, was usually reluctant to be directly drawn into conflict with either the liberal forces in the Church or the governing powers of the Western secular world.

Pope Francis has attempted to revive progressive Conciliarism and make it final and irreversible. To do this, he has made the most extreme assertions of ultramontane authority in history. So far, his most salient “achievements” de jure in ruling the Church have been the attempted institutionalization of divorce within Catholicism and the launching of a campaign of repression of Catholic traditionalism. He has also adopted or tolerated the policy positions of the ruling secular powers on a broad range of issues—totally in harmony with the Catholic liberals. His actions are very often accompanied by intemperate language denouncing perceived adversaries—similar to the rhetorical style of many progressives.[4]

Yet, after 8 years, the pope’s actions still fall short of the demands of his progressive allies. Further papal initiatives—to introduce married and female clergy, to regularize homosexuality, to explore a “synodal” system of governance—have stalled. The hierarchs of the Catholic church remain, in general, extremely unwilling to criticize publicly Pope Francis. We do not fully know what is going on behind the scenes. Whatever its source, however, internal Church resistance has obviously slowed the progressive onslaught. Once again, in the eyes of the progressives, the stagnation of the post-Humanae Vitae Church has returned. In places like Germany they therefore feel empowered to take matters into their own hands—with, so far, a feeble public reaction from the Vatican.

We must remember, after all, that the Catholic Church rests on the voluntary adherence of the faithful throughout the world. National and family support for remaining Catholic continues to erode—even in Poland. In most places the Church also lacks the resources to offer the valuable patronage of an establishment (like that of the Church of England). In the aftermath of the Council the majority of the Catholic laity in the developed world have ceased to practice their faith. In some places many have gone further and declared their public exit from the Church (Germany) or become evangelical protestants (throughout Latin America and to some extent in the United States). Even the remaining practicing Catholics often have little understanding of Catholic doctrine; their adherence to the rules of the Faith regarding sexual morality is also limited.

Thus, just as after the French Revolution, the fundamental challenge to the Church—evangelizing the modern world—still remains outstanding, Now, however, the majority of the Catholic clergy and faithful stand in need of evangelization as well! Ultimately this is a spiritual problem—a crisis of faith. A spiritual challenge can only by addressed by spiritual answers. Such a need cannot be met by a return to ultramontane centralization, strong-arm tactics and publicity tricks. Let us think also of our duty of evangelization to non-Catholics and non-Christians. For those outside the Church, ultramontanism is like “preaching to the choir”—absolutely incomprehensible. Endlessly reiterating Conciliar and progressive platitudes of the 1960’s and 70’s, that themselves are derived from prior secular ideologies, will have just as little success. These policies have been imposed for decades in one way or another and have failed.

In my opinion traditionalism is this answer, the real path of reform, the way out of the ultramontane/progressive dead end. That is because it rests not on the authority of the clergy or the support of the secular world, but on the individual commitment of the laity—not to some self-constructed world-view or to an image of the Church as it appeared in any one era, but to the fullness of Catholic tradition as it exists in every age. The traditionalists of the last twenty years or so—laity, priests and families—have become such because they experienced and then voluntarily lived the traditional mass. Thus, Catholic traditionalism fully respects the freedom of conscience of the individual believer and even presupposes it. It is not a sect, a cult, a “group” (Pope Francis) or an ideology but is a way of life and of faith that is freely available to all. Yet its practice so often works a total transformation of those who fully undertake to live according to its precepts. The traditional Catholic faith is thus the spiritual answer that believers and non-believers are secretly awaiting in this age of unbelief. It is now up to this who have lived it to make it available to the whole world. 


[1] Henri Daniel-Rops, A Fight for God 1870–1939, Vol. I, trans. John Warrington (Garden City: Image Books/Doubleday, 1967), 221.

[2] With the exception of any understandings that may have been reached prior to the Council with the Soviet Union. But in avoiding a specific critique of the communist world the Council was only following the lead of the Western secular establishment which, by that time, had largely committed to an ideology of “peaceful coexistence.”

[3] The situation of the Church under John Paul II and Benedict thus recalled that of Austria-Hungary in the years 1866 to 1918. It was a monarchy that had progressively lost its prior spiritual or ideological raisons d’être (such as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, the advocate of Catholicism in Central Europe, the leader of an embryonic German national state). What remained to the central authority were the cult of the house of Habsburg-Lorraine (Emperor Franz Josef) and ongoing administrative responsibilities. Meanwhile, ideologies that called into question the very existence of the Austro-Hungarian state (e.g., liberalism, socialism, Hungarian, Czech, Polish and even German nationalism as well as religious unbelief in general) proliferated—unchallenged and unrefuted.

[4] Now in the many volumes of Pastor’s History of the Popes one certainly finds, particularly in the period between 1294 and 1559, papal utterances and deeds that are violent, extreme or even insane. These, however, occur most often in the context of papal secular political ambitions and the audience was political rivals, officials and ambassadors. Papal words were not broadcast all over the world—let alone published at the parish level. Nor were the popes of those years holding themselves out as spiritual leaders of the laity.