Rorate Caeli

Papolatry and Ultramontanism are not the same: Why I am proud to be an ultramontane - by Roberto de Mattei

In recent months, a debate on ultramontanism has opened on Rorate Caeli and elsewhere, with interesting interventions by Stuart Chessman (here), Peter Kwanieswski (here), and José Antonio Ureta (here and here).

I know these authors personally and I have esteem and friendship for them, but to be faithful to the Latin adage Amicus Plato, sed magis amica veritas (Plato is my friend, but truth is a greater friend), I stick to what seems to me to be the truth.

​In this respect I must say that I share the doctrinal position of José Antonio Ureta, although perhaps what divides Ureta and me from the other authors is above all a semantic problem, relating to the use of the term "ultramontanism". This is why I would like to explain, on a historical level, who the ultramontanes were and why I consider myself an admirer and intellectual heir to them.

The term “ultramontanism” was created and used with negative connotations in the 19th century, to designate the faithful attitude of Catholics “beyond the Alps” to the doctrines and institutions of the Papacy. Fr. Richard Costigan S.J., in his book Rohrbacher and the Ecclesiology of Ultramontanism (Gregoriana, Rome 1980, pp. XIV-XXVI) explained this concept well.

Ultramontanes were opposed to the doctrines of Gallicanism, Febronianism and Josephinism, which advocated for the restriction of the power of the Papacy in favor of that of the episcopate. More generally, ultramontanes fought against liberal Catholics who rejected opposition to the French Revolution and tried to establish forms of accommodation with the modern world. Exponents of this ultramontane or counter-revolutionary school were the French political philosopher Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821) and the Spanish statesman Juan Donoso Cortés, Marquis of Valdegamas (1809-1853) and many others.

De Maistre is author of the book Du Pape (1819), a work which had hundreds of reprints, and which anticipated the dogma of Papal Infallibility. Donoso Cortés denounced the absolute antagonism between modern society and Christianity in his Ensayo sobre el Catolicismo, el liberalismo y el socialismo (Madrid 1851). I recall also the good influence during the 19th century of the monumental 28-volume Histoire universelle de l’Église catholique by René François Rohrbacher (1789-1856), which went through seven editions between 1842 and 1901 and was translated into Italian, English, and German. This work influenced nineteenth-century Catholic thought no less than the works of Joseph de Maistre and Juan Donoso Cortés.

​The struggle between ultramontane Catholics and liberal Catholics developed above all in France in the second half of the 19th century. The champions of the liberal front were Count Charles Renée de Montalembert (1810-1870), with his magazine Le Correspondant, and Mgr Félix-Antoine Philibert Dupanloup (1802-1878), Bishop of Orléans. The ultramontane leaders were Cardinal Louis Pie (1815-1880), Bishop of Poitiers, called “the hammer of liberalism,” and Louis Veuillot (1813-1883) with his journal L’Univers. Pope Pius IX supported the ultramontanemovement and condemned Catholic liberalism with the encyclical Quanta cura and the Syllabus (or summary) of the principal errors of our time published on December 8, 1864, the 10th anniversary of the promulgation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Mgr Pie, Louis Veuillot, and Donoso Cortés were consulted during the development of these documents. Since then, the Syllabus would become the manifesto of "ultramontane" or "integral" Catholics against the relativism of liberal Catholics.

​Five years after, when Pius IX announced the Vatican Council, liberal Catholics decided to come out into the open. The first to engage battle was Mgr Dupanloup, who published a short work on infallibility, saying that it was “inopportune” to proclaim it. In Germany Ignaz von Döllinger (1799-1890), rector of the University of Munich, accused Pope Pius IX of preparing “an ecclesiastical revolution” which would impose infallibility as a dogma. In England the theses of Döllinger and Dupanloup were spread by Lord John Emerich Acton (1834-1902).

The ultramontane Catholics, fought for the approbation of the dogma of the primacy of Peter and of papal infallibility. In the vanguard was Cardinal Henry Edward Manning (1808-1892), archbishop of Westminster, who occupied a position in the Council which is comparable to that of St Cyril at the Council of Ephesus. A few years earlier, together with Mgr Ignaz von Senestrey (1818-1906), Bishop of Regensburg, he had made a vow, drawn up by Father Matteo Liberatore (1810-1892), to do everything in his power to obtain the definition of Papal infallibility. They were flanked by eminent personalities, such as the Jesuit father, later cardinal Johann Baptist Franzelin (1816-1886), papal theologian in the Council, Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875), the founder of the French Congregation of Solesmes which re-established Benedictine monastic life in France, and Saint Anthony Marie Claret (1807-1870) Archbishop of Trajanópolis, spiritual leader of the Spanish Bishops, the “the Pope’s Imperial Guard” at Vatican I (Cf. Letter to Mother María Antonia París, Roma, 17 June 1870).

​The liberals, echoing the conciliarist and Gallican theses, held that the authority of the Church did not reside in the Pontiff alone, but in the Pope united to the Bishops, and judged the dogma of infallibility to be erroneous, or at least inopportune. Claret was one of the 400 Fathers who on January 28, 1870, signed a petition asking for the definition of the dogma of infallibility, as being not only opportune, but sub omni respectu ineluctabiliter necessaria, and on May 31, 1870, delivered a moving address in defence of papal infallibility.

Blessed Pius IX, on December 8, 1870, with the constitution Pastor Aeternus, defined the dogmas of the primacy of Peter and of papal infallibility (Denz-H, 3050-3075). Today, these dogmas are for us a precious benchmark on which to found true devotion to the Chair of Peter.

Liberal Catholics were defeated by the First Vatican Council,but after a century they became the protagonists and winners of Vatican II. Gallicans, Jansenists, and Febronianists openly held that the structure of the Church has to be democratic, led from the bottom, by priests and bishops, of whom the Pope would be only a representative. The constitution Lumen Gentium, promulgated by the Second Vatican Council, was (like all of the Council documents) an ambiguous one, which recognized these tendencies, but without bringing them to their final outcomes.

On December 9, 1962, Father Yves Congar (1904-1995) wrote in his diary: “I believe that all that is done to convert Italy from its ultramontane political, ecclesiological and devotional attitude toward the Gospel will also be a gain for the universal Church. So, at this time, I have accepted many commitments in this regard” (Diario del Concilio, Italian translation, 2 vol., San Paolo, Cinisello Balsamo, 2005, vol. I, p. 308). The Dominican theologian added: “Ultramontanism really exists.... Rome’s colleges, universities and schools distil all of it in different doses: the highest, almost deadly one, is the dose currently being administered at the “Lateran [University]” (vol. I, p. 201); “miserable ultramontane ecclesiology,” Congar writes again on February 5 (vol. II, p. 20). He regarded his struggle against the theologians of the “Roman school” as a “mission.” The theological Roman school was the heir of the ultramontane movement: Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, but also Mgr. Marcel Lefebvre were representative of this school.

Michael Davies (1936-2004), who attributes part of the conciliar disaster to a false papal obedience, reminds us that Cardinal Manning said: “Infallibility is not a quality inherent in any person, but an assistance attached to an office” (in Pope John’s Council, Augustine Publishing Company, Chawleigh, Chulmleigh [Devon] 1977, p. 175).

The First Vatican Council doesn’t teach that the charism of infallibility is always present in the Vicar of Christ, but simply that it is not absent in the exercise of his office in its supreme form, that is, when the Sovereign Pontiff teaches as universal Shepherd, ex cathedra, in matters of faith and morals (Pope John’s Council, pp. 175-176). Michael Davies himself can be considered an ultramontane traditionalist, like all those who resisted Vatican II and the Novus Ordo with respect and love for the papacy. This is the position I uphold in my book Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of Church (Angelico Press, New York, 2019). 

In 1875, in their opposition to Chancellor Bismarck, the German bishops declared that the Magisterium of the pope and bishops “is restricted to the contents of the infallible Magisterium of the Church in general, and it is restricted to the contents of the Holy Scripture and tradition” (Denz-H 3116). Pope Pius IX gave his full support to this declaration with his letter Mirabilis illa constantia to the bishops of Germany on March 4, 1875 (Denz-H 3117). I agree entirely with this ultramontane statement which can constitute the basis of a respectful resistance to the unjust decisions of the Holy See.

​“Papolatry” and “Magisterialism” were born after the Second Vatican Council: an extreme cult of the person of the Pope that developed in parallel to the humiliation of the Papacy. This has nothing to do with ultramontanism.

I hope I have explained why I am proud to be an ultramontane and why I am worried about the criticisms of ultramontanism.