Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

A Psychological Approach to Treating the Disease of Ultramontanism

Chesterton affirmed that great writers and artists are symbolic without knowing it. I would go further and say that human beings in general are symbolic without knowing it. Mountains represent a liminal space between heaven and earth, between divinity and mortality, and hence, I see more in the term “ultramontanism” than a reference to the man beyond the Alps. I see a yearning, a quest—a primal need—for the theios aner, the godlike man, who dwells somewhere among the misty peaks, or beyond them … perhaps even at the threshold of the heavens.

Here I speak not of Christ, the God-Man, who ascended into a celestial and supramaterial realm. The godlike man is visible, tangible, audible; his home is a palace, his raiment is authority, his voice is law. One can believe in him, honor him, trust in him—without recourse to supernatural faith. And when the Son of Man returns, will He find faith upon the earth?

Lessons from Hellas

The great mountaintops of Greek mythology: here we traverse a land of gods and heroes. On Mount Olympus, we find Zeus and his anthropomorphic entourage. On Mount Pelion, the mortal king Peleus marries the goddess Thetis. On Mount Ida, the infant Paris defeats death, like-to-the-gods Achilles attacks Aeneas, and the next generation of heroic men learn courage and self-mastery.

The Ancient Greek mind searched these summits for some sense of resolution to the fundamental and relentless paradox of human life: man is mortal like the beasts, but aspires to the immortality of the gods; he is an animal that dies, and a spirit that lives. His very existence is liminal—threatened by the roving evils of the material world and burdened by the passage of time, yet excluded from Elysian bliss and incompatible with atemporality.

The promise of death and the tragic ambiguity of the human condition are, of course, perennial themes in mythologies and religions from all times and places. The Greeks responded with epic tales of heroes and demigods, with mystery cults that aspired to ecstatic self-transcendence, and with vague notions of afterlife in an underworld. They had not the ineffable gift of the Catholic faith, which supplies the comprehensive and definitive response—the only truly satisfying response—to these harsh realities.

The Resurgence of Primal Fear

For Europeans living in the Age of Faith, Christian soteriology moderated and regulated the persistent and sometimes convulsive antagonism between human beings and the human condition. Medieval pilgrims at Montserrat could sing the song “We Hasten to Death” (Ad Mortem Festinamus) to a melody that is buoyant and almost celebratory, and this was not mere flippancy—the lyrics refer also to repentance, conversion, judgment, and the horror of damnation.

This fascinating song is emblematic of a healthy psychological attitude toward vulnerability and mortality, and though this attitude was certainly not universal in medieval Europe, I do believe it was generalized to a degree that is exceedingly rare in the history of the world’s cultures, both primitive and developed.

But healthy psychology requires a healthy psyche, and the optimal nourishment for the human psyche is truth. Medieval culture eventually yielded to the more anthropocentric ethos of the Renaissance, and as the Renaissance degenerated into Protestant relativism, Enlightenment rationalism, and scientific positivism, the gloriously harmonious doctrines of the Catholic faith were increasingly diluted, distorted, and discarded.

When Western civilization approached the dismal terminus of systematic skepticism and widespread religious indifference, modern man rediscovered the cognitive dissonance and gnawing, protean fears that were endemic in pre-Christian cultures. And given that he lacked the support and consolation even of tribal ritualism or a socially consecrated mythos, the conditions were ripe for neurosis. Indeed, Freud and his followers in the psychoanalysis movement had no shortage of neurotic patients for their case studies.

Catherine of Siena was a saint, a mystic, and a brilliant psychologist, insofar as psychology is the science of the human mind and soul. In a letter to the Cardinal of Ostia, she explains that “as soon as a rational creature loves himself egotistically, he immediately falls into fear.”[1] She declares,

O how dangerous is this [servile] fear! It cuts off the arms of holy desire, blinds man and does not permit him to know or see the truth, because this fear proceeds from the blindness caused by self-love.

Catherine is offering a crucial insight into the psychological nexus of egocentricity, servile fear, and alienation from truth. The general course of modernity, beginning with Renaissance humanism and descending asymptotically toward nihilistic humanism and the cult of self, has led Western societies back into the stormy waters of primal fear and existential anxiety. The infiltration of primal fear is a psychological burden in itself, but as Catherine suggests, fear also renders us insensitive to truth; in the absence of transcendent truths, fear escalates, and the cycle continues. Something must be done, or the effects upon the psyche could be devastating.

Ultramontanism and the Theory of Transference

Disoriented and apprehensive amidst the spiritual and ideological wreckage of the nineteenth century, modern man regressed to his instinctive defenses against existential ambiguity and the terror of anticipated annihilation. Prominent among these defenses is a process known to modern psychology as transference, which the twentieth-century German psychologist Erich Fromm explains as follows:

In order to overcome his sense of inner emptiness and impotence, [the neurotic patient] chooses an object on to whom he projects all his own human qualities…. By submitting to this object, he feels in touch with his own qualities; he feels strong, wise, courageous, and secure. To lose the object means danger of losing himself. This mechanism, idolatric worship of an object, … is the central dynamism of transference…. The transference phenomenon is… found in all forms of idolization of authority figures, in political, religious, and social life.[2]

It is perfectly understandable that for Latin-rite Catholics, the preferred transference object—the preferred candidate for idolization—is the pope of Rome.

Transference is a natural human response to the subtle yet potentially traumatizing fears that circulate in the human psyche: fear of freedom, fear of the unknown, fear of death and annihilation, fear of an encroaching abyss, the immense and formless abyss that the Greeks called khaos. Man’s psychological instinct is to transfer these fears, and the cosmic power that engenders them, to some object or person, such that they become localized, comprehensible, survivable, perhaps even controllable.

This instinct serves us well when the recipient is Almighty God, for we thereby do exactly what Our Savior exhorted us to do: be not afraid, cast your cares upon the Lord. Our heavenly Father becomes the locus of the various traumatic and oppressive fears that accompany the human condition, and from His divine Heart they emerge as the one fear that exalts, enlightens, and liberates: the fear of God, principium sapientiae.

This instinct does not serve us well when weakened faith—abetted by exaggerated piety, misguided fervor, or religious realpolitik—directs the gaze of transference to a fallible mortal, especially one who is surrounded by malign influences and subject to the corrupting effects of fame and power. The pope is the successor of St. Peter, the vicar of Christ, the patriarch of the West, and the sovereign of the Vatican City State. He is the supreme human authority in the Church. But he is not God, and he is not dogma, and he is not sacred Tradition. Rather, he is custos traditionis: the guardian of ecclesiastical realities that utterly transcend him.

The Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler linked neurosis to a failure of courage, and he remarked that transference seems to promise us “an easy and immediate satisfaction of unfulfilled desires.”[3] The modern world’s scorched-earth war of attrition against the Church and the faith is an unprecedented crisis, but ultramontanism is a facile and ultimately self-destructive response. Catholics have no need to idolize or heroicize the pope. We worship the One God, and His Son is the divine Hero, and His words will not pass away: Fear not, take courage—I have overcome the world.

The Divine Physician

In the title of this essay I refer to the disease of ultramontanism. This is not intended to be sensationalistic or pejorative but rather precise. Ultramontanism is quite literally a source of grievous dis-ease, of systemic dis-order, in the Mystical Body of Christ. In a clinical setting one might speak of popitis, for it resembles an inflammatory condition: the papacy is swollen and throbbing with lifeblood drawn from other portions of the Church. Inflammation is a healing mechanism, not inherently harmful, and indeed, ultramontanism has been promoted or reinforced by many well-intentioned Catholics who loved the Church. But the Francis pontificate has demonstrated, in most compelling fashion, that popitis is inflammation of the autoimmune variety: chronic, unproductive, self-destructive. Let us invoke the divine Physician in behalf of His Mystical Body, and search diligently—the word derives from diligere, to love—amidst the Church’s bimillennial treasury for remedies of proven efficacy.


[1] Angelo Belloni recently translated St. Catherine’s letters from fourteenth-century Tuscan into modern Italian. These quotations are my literal translations of his Italian text.

[2] Fromm, Erich. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud. London, Abacus, 1980, pp. 49–50.

[3] Adler, Alfred. The Individual Psychology of Alfred Adler: A Systematic Presentation in Selections from His Writings. New York, Basic Books, 1956, p. 343.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...