Rorate Caeli

Francis as “the synthesis of extreme ultramontane centralization with progressive revolutionary content”: Chessman Replies to Ureta

A Response to José A. Ureta
Stuart Chessman 
February 16, 2022

José A. Ureta responded here on Rorate Caeli to my “Ultramontanism: Its Life and Death.” What follows are my comments on his response.

My brief overview of ultramontanism attempted to describe what occurred in historical fact. I wrote of ultramontanism as a system of governance of the Church that had achieved its basic form under Pius IX. Its first characteristic was the centralization in the papacy of all authority in governance, theology, liturgy etc., with rights of intervention even on the local level. Ultramontanist practice recharacterized the role of the clergy of the Church as bureaucrats of a vast administrative structure. Any criticism of the hierarchy and especially of the Pope was prohibited. The scope of de facto papal infallibility increasingly extended to cover even the day-to-day decisions of the Pope. Authority and obedience to it became overriding principles of the Church. Finally, Catholics began to develop a personal relationship with the Pope as a supreme spiritual leader.

These characteristics of the actual practice of the ultramontane system were not necessarily fully supported by theology or canon law. They developed unevenly and over the decades. I am grateful to Mr. Ureta for a reference that shows that at least a minority had perceived theological difficulties with ultramontanist practice early on:

In an article published in L’Osservatore Romano on February 10, 1942, Msgr. Pietro Parente denounced “the strange identification of Tradition (source of Revelation) with the living Magisterium of the Church (custodian and interpreter of the Divine Word).[i]

In the same vein, hadn’t Jaroslav Pelikan (certainly not a witness hostile to Catholicism) wondered in 1959 whether the magisterium has virtually suspended the authority of tradition”?[ii]

Mr. Ureta, however, seems to define ultramontanism much more narrowly than I do—as a special subcategory of Catholic ecclesiastical politics and thought. He seems to admit as ultramontanists only those popes and prelates who espoused policies with which he agrees, especially those relating to combatting social and intellectual revolution. This produces the strange result that, for Mr. Ureta, only two popes, Pius IX and Pius X, seem to have been “true” ultramontanes! Thus the ultramontanes (using Mr. Ureta’s definition) appear to have been singularly unsuccessful in convincing even their superiors in Rome of the merits of their policies. All the other popes of the last 170 years are described by Mr. Ureta as non- or even anti-ultramontanes.

Further, it seems these “authentic” Roman ultramontanes were utterly unable to argue effectively against the progressives at Vatican II. Regardless of their at times eloquent objections to what was unfolding before their eyes, they all conformed to the post-conciliar changes—with the conspicuous exception of Archbishop Lefebvre. Thus in their majority, they testified in true ultramontane fashion to the priority of obedience to papal authority and the preservation of external unity over their doctrinal and liturgical convictions.

I also find a lack of historical awareness in Mr. Ureta’s remarks. So, for example, he triumphantly points to St. Gregory VII as a pope who “raised papal authority to an apex” and “victoriously affirmed papal supremacy over civil authority.” But the world of Gregory VII was not at all that of Pius IX—the historical context was entirely different! Gregory VII reigned as Christendom was reaching its first maturity. By Pius IX’s day, Christendom had already collapsed. Under Gregory VII, the Church was beginning to consolidate her temporal power. Ultramontanism crystallized in 1870—precisely when the Pope’s temporal power disappeared. Now Gregory VII sought both much less and much more than the 19th century ultramontanes. He had no idea of imposing some kind of centralized administrative regime governing all aspects of the Church’s life (which in any case would have been physically impossible in the 11th century.) For example, Mr. Ureta’s own reference to Cluny illustrates that in the 10th– 11th centuries the liturgical restoration of the Church proceeded on its course entirely outside of Rome. (By the way, Gregory VII was most probably not a “confrere” of St. Hugh of Cluny.)

On the other hand, as Mr. Ureta points out, Gregory VII fought not only for the freedom of the Church from secular control—laudably enough—but also for the supremacy of the Church over secular authority. Those latter claims—and the spiritual weapons utilized to enforce them—had problematic aspects. The Church has avoided raising them in more recent eras. And I don’t think that today anyone sane would want to return temporal authority to the Church. For the Vatican’s management of the limited secular affairs remaining to it is just as abysmal as the exercise of its spiritual responsibilities.

Of course, I never said that ultramontanism was the root of all evils in the Church. Clearly, the loss of faith that spread from the 18th century onward has been the Church’s main challenge. Vatican II too is critical both as the product of that loss of faith and an immense accelerant of it. Finally, the formless liturgy of the Conciliar Church is both a further symptom and cause of Catholic decline.

What I did write was that the essentially defensive regime of ultramontanism had achieved mixed results even during its heyday of 1870-1958. I described how the overthrow of most aspects of Catholic practice and liturgical life during and after Vatican II was inconceivable without ultramontane liturgical centralization and the habits of absolute deference to authority. Further, I pointed out that the conservative heroes John Paul II and Benedict XVI had been unable to do more than preserve the “great façade” of unity despite relentless pro-papalist propaganda.

Finally, with the regime of Pope Francis, we witness the synthesis of extreme ultramontane centralization with progressive revolutionary content. Just in the last year, Pope Francis has intensified his control of the Knights of Malta. He has personally intervened to endorse a small movement in the United States (New Ways Ministry) that had been subject over the years to various ecclesiastical censures. He has similarly endorsed one political figure (President Biden) who was potentially coming into conflict with the United States Catholic hierarchy over his aggressive support of abortion. Irrespective of their formal ecclesiastical position, confidantes of Francis like Cardinals Cupich (Chicago) and Hollerich (Luxembourg) by reason of their blatant political connection enjoy an inordinate influence in the Church. Finally and most extraordinarily, in Traditionis Custodes Francis has condemned an entire sector of the Catholic clergy, religious and laity to second class status, exclusion and eventual elimination. To carry out this mission of annihilation, Francis has endorsed rules implementing the anti-Tradionalist campaign even on the parish level. All these initiatives are buttressed by ultramontane acts and rhetoric—from the canonization of the Conciliar popes to the positing of external Church unity as an absolute goal to the grandiose claims of “magisterial authority.”

Yet while the scope of Francis’s papal power seems to grow endlessly, in fact the far greater power of the left and the secular establishment confines it within narrow limits. The Church is increasingly playing the role of a mere agency of the secular power elite of the West on matters such as Covid, interreligious relations and “migrants.” The German church is proceeding on its progressive synodal path regardless of what the Vatican says. All Francis can do is talk of unity and attempt to coopt the German synodal ideas and rhetoric. The same is true for the Church on the local level. For example, in our area, the LGBT parishes of Manhattan proceed on their chosen path—publicly and explicitly—no matter what Cardinal Dolan says. In the Bridgeport diocese, an attempt by the principal of an exclusive girls school to restrain pro-Planned Parenthood manifestations (with Bishop Caggiano’s backing) ended in total capitulation—by the Church. Thus, the great growth of bureaucratic ultramontane power coincides with the greatest weakness of the Church in the face of both secular society and the Church’s own internal progressives.

Catholic Traditionalism in fact had coexisted within the Church with the Vatican II establishment and for some eight years even with the regime of Francis. For hadn’t Pope Benedict with Summorum Pontificum summoned Catholics to set aside their earlier resentments and animosities in the interest of liturgical peace? This was the course followed by most Traditionalists. Indeed, some went further and in order to ingratiate themselves with bishops and mainstream religious orders were willing to disguise and censor their own opinions.

Yet Francis has now revoked that peace. Moreover, beyond the liturgical realm, he has either made or is fostering drastic changes to fundamental Catholic practices and even the basic rules of morality. All of this is justified as an exercise of papal authority—resting on the arbitrary decision of Francis. And this is largely accepted—at least publicly and at least by the clergy. Yet, for others, a stark choice now presents itself. One must choose between the will of Francis and, not just Traditionalism, but even Catholicism as such. And really, between the current papal regime and one’s sanity. For as in any totalitarian regime, not even the rules of logic are allowed to restrict the arbitrary will of absolute authority. As a Francis favorite, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich (a Jesuit drawing on Asian “wisdom”) puts it:

The Japanese do not think as in the European logic of opposites. If we say a thing is black, it means it is not white. The Japanese, on the other hand, say: ‘It is white, but perhaps also black.’ In Japan opposites can be combined without changing the point of view.”[iii]

It is in this disturbing context that I feel compelled to reexamine the role of ultramontanism in the Church.


[ii] Pelikan, Jaroslav, The Riddle Of Roman Catholicism at 83 (Abingdon Press, New York, 1959)

[iii][iii] Magister, Sandro, “If the Conclave wants a second Francis, Here is the Name and the Program,”  Settimo Cielo 2/10/2022