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Ultramontanists: Godfathers of the Trad Movement

Above: Catholic counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre.

The crisis the Church is experiencing today is certainly unprecedented in its characteristics, but it is neither the first nor the last in history. Think, for example, of the attack suffered by the Papacy in the years of the French Revolution.

In 1799 the city of Rome was invaded by General Bonaparte’s Jacobin army. Pope Pius VI was taken prisoner to the city of Valence, where he died on August 29, after long-suffering hastened his death. The town hall of Valence notified the Directory of Pius VI’s death, adding that the last pope in history had been buried.

Ten years later, in 1809, Pius VI’s successor, Pius VII, old and infirm, was also arrested and, after two years of imprisonment in Savona, was taken to Fontainebleau, where he remained until the fall of Napoleon. Never had the Papacy appeared so weak before the world. But ten years later, in 1819, Napoleon had disappeared from the scene and Pius VII was back on the papal throne, recognized as the supreme moral authority by European rulers. In that year 1819, Du Pape, the masterpiece of Count Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), was published in Lyon, a work that had hundreds of reprints and anticipated the dogma of papal infallibility, later defined by the First Vatican Council.

De Maistre: Ultramontane Counter-Revolutionary

Joseph de Maistre is a great defender of the Papacy, but it would be wrong for anyone to make him an apologist for the despotic pope or dictator. Today there are some traditionalists who blame ecclesiastical abuses of power on intransigent Catholics of the nineteenth century. These ultramontanes and counter-revolutionaries, we are told, attributed excessive power to the pope, enthusing beyond measure about the dogma of infallibility. This overreaction resulted in sympathy with those Gallican Catholics who denied infallibility and the universal Primacy of the Pope, and with those liberal or semi-liberal Catholics who, while not denying in principle the dogma of infallibility, considered its definition inappropriate. Among them was the Archbishop of Perugia Msgr. Gioacchino Pecci, later Pope under the name Leo XIII, who, once elected, was the first modern Pope to rule in a centralizing manner, imposing as almost infallible the political and pastoral choice of ralliement with the French Third Republic.

The dogma of infallibility proclaimed by Pius IX accurately defines the limits of this extraordinary charism, which no religion possesses, outside of the Catholic religion. The Pope in the Church cannot do whatever he wants, because the source of his power is not his will. The Pope’s task is to transmit and defend, through his Magisterium, the Tradition of the Church. Alongside the Pope’s extraordinary Magisterium, which has its source in ex cathedra definitions, there is an infallible teaching that flows from the conformity of the ordinary Magisterium of all the Popes to the Apostolic Tradition. Only by believing with the Church and its unbroken Tradition can the Pope confirm his brethren in the faith. The Church is not infallible because she exercises authority, but because she transmits a doctrine.

“I Am Tradition”

The words attributed to Blessed Pius IX, “I am Tradition,” sometimes arouse scandal. However, these words must be understood in their correct meaning. What the Pope means is not that his person is the source of Tradition, but that there is no Tradition outside of him, just as there is no Sola Scriptura independent of the Magisterium of the Church.

The Church is based on Tradition, but it cannot continue without the Pope, whose authority cannot be transferred to either an ecumenical council, a national episcopate or a permanent synod.

The Priority of Hierarchy Over Dogma

There is a statement by Joseph de Maistre in his “Lettre à une dame russe sur la nature et les effets du schisme,” which may be as astonishing as that of Pius IX, but which is also profoundly true: “If it were permitted to establish degrees of importance among things of divine institution, I would place hierarchy before dogma, so indispensable is it to the maintenance of the faith.”[1]

This sentence encapsulates the capital problem of the regula fidei in the Church. Father John Perrone (1794-1876), founder of the Roman theological school, develops this theme in the three volumes of his work Il protestantesimo e la regola di fede. The two sources of Revelation are Tradition and Sacred Scripture. The former is divinely assisted, the latter divinely inspired. “Scripture and Tradition fertilize each other, illustrate each other, strengthen each other and complete the ever one and identical deposit of divine revelation.”[2]

But in order to preserve this deposit of faith, which is always one and the same until the end of the ages, Christ entrusted it to an ever-living and speaking authority; the authority of the Church which consists of the universal body of bishops united with the visible head of the Church, the Roman Pontiff on whom Christ conferred fullness of power over the universal Church.

Sacred Scripture and Tradition constitute the remote norms of our faith, but the next regula fidei is represented by the teaching and judging authority of the Church, which has its apex with the Pope. Hierarchy comes in this sense before dogma. But even if we were to give dogma primacy over hierarchy, we should remember that, of all dogmas, the one that in a certain sense underpins all others is precisely the dogma of the infallible authority of the Church. The Church enjoys the charism of infallibility, although she exercises it in an extraordinary way only intermittently. But the Church is always infallible, and has been so not since 1870, but since our Lord transmitted to his Vicar on earth St. Peter the power to confirm his brethren in the faith.

The apostolic succession on which the Church’s authority is based is a fundamental element of its divine constitution. The Council of Trent, in defining the truth and rules of the Catholic faith, states that they are contained “in the written books and unwritten traditions which, gathered by the Apostles from the mouth of Christ himself or by the Apostles themselves, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, transmitted almost from hand to hand, have come down to us” (Denz-H, no. 1501).

“True is only the Tradition that rests on the Apostolic Tradition” reiterates contemporary Roman theologian Msgr. Brunero Gherardini (1925-2017).[3]

This means that the Roman Pontiff, successor of Peter, prince of the Apostles, is the guarantor par excellence of the Church’s Tradition. But it also means that under no circumstances can the object of faith exceed what is given to us by the testimonies of the Apostles.

Sola Scriptura and Sola Traditio

Protestants denied the authority of the church in the name of “Sola Scriptura.” This error leads from Luther to Socinianism, which is the religion of modern relativists. But the authority of the church can also be denied in the name of “Sola Traditio,” as the Orthodox do and as some traditionalists are in danger of doing. The separation of Tradition from the authority of the Church leads in this case to autocephaly, which is the condition of those without a visible and infallible authority to relate to.

What the Protestant proponents of Sola Scriptura and the Greek Orthodox proponents of Sola Traditio have in common is the rejection of the infallibility of the Pope and his universal Primacy; the rejection of the Roman Chair. This is why, according to Joseph de Maistre, there is no radical difference between the Eastern Schism and Western Protestantism.

It is a fundamental truth in all religious matters that every church that is not Catholic is Protestant. In vain attempts have been made to make a distinction between schismatic and heretical churches. I know well what is meant, but in the end all difference lies only in words, and every Christian who refuses the Holy Father’s communion is a Protestant or soon will be. What is a Protestant? He is a man who protests; and what does it matter whether he protests against one or more dogmas, against this or against that? He may be more or less Protestant, but he always protests Once the bond of unity is broken, there is no longer a common tribunal, nor consequently an invariable rule of faith.  Everything is reduced to the particular judgment and civil supremacy that constitute the essence of Protestantism.[4]

In the Catholic Church, the authenticity of Tradition is guaranteed by the infallibility of the Magisterium. Without infallibility there would be no guarantee that what the Church teaches is true. The understanding of God’s word would be left to the critical inquiry of individuals and the gates of relativism would be opened wide, as happened with Luther and his followers. By denying the authority of the Pope, the Protestant Revolution condemned itself to constant variation in a whirling doctrinal becoming. But in the East, after the schism of 1054 the Orthodox Church, which in the name of sola Traditio accepts only the first seven councils of the Church, condemned itself to sterile immobility.

Those under the spell of Orthodoxy should be reminded of Joseph de Maistre’s words, “All these Churches separated from the Holy See at the beginning of the twelfth century can be compared to frozen corpses whose forms have been preserved from the cold.”[5]

An Augustinian theologian of the Assumption Father Martin Jugie (1878-1954), developed this theme in a book published in 1923 called Joseph de Maistre et l’Eglise greco-russe, which I recommend reading.

For many centuries, the East has been accustomed to regard revealed doctrine as a treasure to be guarded, not as a treasure to be exploited; as a set of immutable formulas, not as a living and infinitely rich truth, which the spirit of the believer always seeks to understand and assimilate better.[6]

The Church was not founded by Christ as an institution, already rigidly and irrevocably constituted, but as a living organism, which – like the body, the image of the Church – was to have a development. This development of the Church, its growth in history, takes place through contradiction and struggle, fighting especially against the great heresies that attacked it internally. De Maistre again:

When we consider the trials that the Roman Church has undergone through the attacks of heresy and the mixing of barbarous nations that took place in her bosom, we stand in admiration seeing that, in the midst of these terrible revolutions, all her titles are intact and go back to the Apostles. If the Church has changed some things in her external forms, it is a proof that She lives, for everything that lives in the universe changes, according to circumstances, in everything that does not have to do with essences. God, who reserved them for Himself, gave the forms to time to arrange them according to certain rules. The variation of which I speak is even the indispensable sign of life, because absolute immobility belongs only to death.[7]

The First Vatican Council, quoting Vincent of Lerins explains that the understanding of the truths of faith must grow and progress with the succession of age and centuries in intelligence, science and wisdom, but only “in the same dogma, meaning and sentence” (Commonitorium, ch. 23, 3). Progress of faith does not in fact mean alteration of faith. Condemnation of the alteration of faith, however, does not mean the rejection of all organic development of dogma, which is accomplished through the Magisterium of the Church, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and is guaranteed by the charism of infallibility. But if the Church is infallible there must be a subject who exercises this charism. This subject is the Pope and it cannot be anyone other than him. In the faith of the infallibility of the Pope lie the roots of the faith in the infallibility of the whole Church.[8]

The Constitution Pastor Aeternus of the First Vatican Council clearly states what the conditions of papal infallibility are.  The infallibility of the Pope in no way means that he enjoys, in matters of government and magisterium, unlimited and arbitrary power. While the dogma of infallibility defines a supreme privilege, it sets its precise boundaries, admitting the possibility of infidelity, error, and betrayal.

For the papolater, or “hyperpapalist,” the Pope is not the Vicar of Christ on earth, whose job it is to transmit intact and pure the doctrine he has received, but is a successor of Christ who perfects the doctrine of his predecessors, adapting it to the changing times. Gospel doctrine is in perpetual evolution because it coincides with the Magisterium of the reigning Pontiff. The perennial Magisterium is replaced by the “living” Magisterium, expressed by pastoral teaching, which is transformed every day and has its regula fidei in the subject of the authority and not in the object of the truth transmitted.

Traditionalism and the Papacy

One does not need theological science to understand that, in the unfortunate case of contrast – true or apparent – between the “living Magisterium” and Tradition, primacy can only be attributed to Tradition, for a simple reason: Tradition, which is the “living” Magisterium considered in its universality and continuity, is in itself infallible, while the so-called “living” Magisterium, understood as the current preaching of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, is so only under certain conditions.[9]

Indeed, in the Church, the ultimate “rule of faith” in times of defection of faith is not the contemporary living Magisterium and its non-defining acts, but in Tradition, which constitutes, with Sacred Scripture, one of the two sources of the Word of God.

What happens when those who govern the Church cease to guard and transmit Tradition, and, instead of confirming their brethren in the faith, create confusion in their minds and cause bitterness and resentment in their hearts?

When this happens it is time to increase love for the Church and the Pope. But the answer to hyperpapalism is not the neo-Gallicanism of certain traditionalists, nor the Sola Traditio of the Greek-Russian schismatics. The man of Tradition is not an anarcho-traditionalist, but a Catholic who repeats with Joseph de Maistre:

O holy Church of Rome, as long as the word is preserved for me, I will use it to celebrate you. I salute you, immortal mother of science and holiness! Hail, magna parens In the midst of all imaginable upheavals, God has constantly watched over you, O Eternal City! All that could destroy you has rallied against you, and you have stood; and as you were once the center of error, you have now for eighteen centuries been the center of truth.[10]

Love for the Roman Pontiff, his prerogatives and rights, has characterized authentically Catholic spirits throughout twenty centuries of history, because, as Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira states, “after love for God this is the highest love taught to us by religion.”[11]

However, one should not confuse the Roman Primacy with the person of the reigning Pope, just as one should not confuse the so-called living Magisterium, with the perennial Magisterium, the private and non-infallible teaching of the Pope with the Tradition of the Church. The error, as Chilean scholarJosé Antonio Ureta has well pointed out lies not in ultramontanism, but in neo-Gallicanism, which today comes in two versions: that of the German synodalists and that of some neo-traditionalists, especially from the Anglo-Saxon area.

The only hope in the future lies not in the diminishment of the Papacy, but in the exercise of its supreme authority to solemnly and infallibly condemn the theological, moral, liturgical and social errors of our time. It is useless to discuss who will be the next pope. It is important to discuss what the next pope should do and to pray that he will do it.


Translated by Kennedy Hall

[1] Joseph de Maistre,”Lettre à une dame russe sur la nature et les effets du schisme et sur l’unité catholique,” in Lettres et opuscules inédits, A. Vaton, Paris 1863, vol. II, pp. 267-268.

[2] Il protestantesimo e la regola di fede, Civiltà Cattolica, Roma 1953, 3 voll., vol. I, p. 15.

[3] Quod et tradidi vobis, La Tradizione vita e giovinezza della chiesa (Casa Mariana, Frigento 2010), 405.

[4] Du Pape (H. Pélagaud, Lyon-Paris 1878), 401, 405.

[5] Ibid., 406.

[6] Martin Jugie, Joseph de Maistre et l’Eglise greco-russe, Maison de la bonne presse, Paris 1923, pp. 97-98.

[7] Du Pape, p. 410.

[8] Michael Schmaus, Catholic Dogmatics, Marietti, Casale Monferrato 1963, vol. III/1, p. 696.

[9] R. de Mattei, Apologia della Tradizione ,Lindau, Turin 2011, p. 146.

[10] Du Pape, 482, 483

[11] R. de Mattei, The Crusader of the 20th Century. Plinio Correa de Oliveira, Piemme, Casale Monferrato 1996, p. 309.

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