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Understanding True Ultramontanism

Editor’s note: we welcome all contributions to OnePeterFive which seek to critically engage with these ideas under the same aims of Traditionalism, as Mr. Ureta does here.

One can only agree with the editorial position published on OnePeterFive about uniting the clans in a single crusade to rebuild Christendom and “restore all things in Christ.” I join the editorial team in lamenting the catastrophe of some representatives of traditional Catholicism who “argue among themselves over minutiae while heretics triumph against dogma.”

It is not in this quibbling spirit that I accept your invitation to present a guest submission. Rather, I hope to contribute to the core of your new focus: the correct attitude a faithful Catholic must adopt toward the errors promoted by Pope Francis and numerous bishops.

I fully agree with your rejection of two false solutions: sedevacantism and any favoring of the Greek Orthodox schism. However, I would like to share my reservations on using two new labels: the “false spirit of Vatican I” and “extreme ultramontanism.” Both are used incorrectly to describe the reprehensible attitude of those who would rather be wrong with the pope than right and against him.

I denounced the false concept of obedience that paralyzes many conservative Catholics in my book, Pope Francis’s Paradigm Shift: Continuity or Rupture in the Mission of the Church? An Assessment of His Pontificate’s First Five Years.  I called it magisterialism. This error crept in over the last few decades among admirers of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Magisterialists criticized neo-modernists not because they rejected traditional Church teaching but because they attacked the magisterium of the reigning pope.[1]

With OnePeterFive’s editorial team, I reject as false the idea that “the whole Catholic life must revolve around the pope who is, as it were, some kind of de facto oracle at Delphi, whose every whim becomes a binding law in the Church.” This notwithstanding, I believe it is dangerous to attribute this error to a “false spirit of Vatican I” and “extreme ultramontanism.” I can see how it is tempting to draw a simple parallel between the two councils insinuating that some people distorted their documents in the post-conciliar period.

However, I see three problems with this approach:

1) it suggests an impossible approval for the Second Vatican Council—just as magisterialism would have stemmed from a “false spirit of Vatican I,” the current Church crisis would be due to “the spirit of Vatican II” supposedly being in contradiction with that council’s texts;

2) it unfairly casts a pall of suspicion over the nineteenth century’s ultramontane movement, placing it on the same footing as the progressivism responsible for the Second Vatican Council;

3) it distorts the historical record because papolatry is not a poisoned fruit of ultramontanism but the distorted progeny of its opponents, the liberal Catholics. The latter used it during the pontificate of Leo XIII, trying to force traditional Catholics to accept his misguided policy of ralliement—rallying around the Masonic French Republic.

To their credit, the ultramontanes were the great defenders of the two dogmas of faith regarding the pope that were solemnly defined at the First Vatican Council. These were (a) the pope’s full, supreme, immediate, and universal jurisdiction (papal supremacy) and (b) his infallibility. The ultramontanes’ spirited defense of these truths triggered the false accusation back then that they were “theologians of absolutism” and had immolated truth “as a sacrifice to the idol they have erected for themselves in the Vatican.”[2] Their accuser was the well-known liberal Catholic writer, Count Charles de Montalembert.

Did the ultramontanes love these two privileges of the Vicar of Christ in an exaggerated, distorted way? Nothing of the sort. An overview of the thought and action of His Eminence Louis-Édouard Cardinal Pie, bishop of Poitiers, demonstrates this.

At the First Vatican Council, then-Bishop Pie was a major figure along with Henry Edward Cardinal Manning. I use Cardinal Pie as an example because I live a good part of the year in France, and thus I am more familiar with his life. France was also the intellectual center of the ultramontane movement. Finally, the bishop of Poitiers was the great defender of the social kingship of Christ and inspired Saint Pius X’s motto, which your website has also adopted to define its editorial position: Instaurare omnia in Christo.

Let us begin with Montalembert’s false accusation that the ultramontanes had some sympathy for absolutism. It is completely baseless both concerning the temporal as well as the religious sphere. The ultramontanes—and especially the future Cardinal Pie—were legitimist monarchists. They rejected Bonapartist imperial centralism and defended a tempered monarchy. “Christian royalty, especially French royalty”—wrote Bishop Pie in a royalist program at the request of the Count of Chambord, heir to the French throne—“has never been an arbitrary or even absolute royalty. This temperament is in the dynasty’s very marrow, as seen in the existence of various orders of the kingdom, the provincial assemblies, the States General, the Parliaments, the local liberties, and, above all, in Christian morals.”[3]

Bishop Pie applied the same vision of tempered authority to the Church. He was a great defender of the prerogatives of what were called particular or provincial councils back then. He worked to have them held in his ecclesiastical province, executed their decrees, and, following the spirit that had inspired them, drafted the rules they elaborated. About a letter from Pius IX to the Austrian bishops urging them to hold a provincial council, Bishop Pie commented that it was an “unanswerable answer to those rash accusations of monopolizing all attributions and of a tendency to a boundless centralization, which some people have not been afraid to raise in recent times against the Roman Church.”

He added: “Particular councils are an element and a guarantee of freedom and nationality for the various provinces of the Catholic world; several ecumenical councils have given them this character. Now, far from taking offense at the holding of these provincial states, the head of the Church himself asks for their resumption, regrets their abandonment, and highlights their benefits.”[4] Which ones?

As long as there remain diversities of origin, language, government, I would even say climate . .  . the existence of a common law, an absolute, uniform legislation without modifications and dispensations will be impossible on a rather large number of points of ecclesiastical discipline. . . . [A common law] admits as an element of the law itself the principle of exceptions, derogations, modifications, provided they are made in normal conditions. Now, the tribunal that offers the most guarantee . . . is the hierarchy of the province assembled canonically, conciliarly, subordinating their decrees to apostolic review.[5]

Elsewhere Bishop Pie wrote: “Never has the Apostolic See insisted more [than under Pius IX] on the periodic holding of particular councils, in which the bishops nevertheless fulfill in common that function of judges, which Rome is accused of disputing.”[6]

Let me digress for a moment. The Second Vatican Council’s fathers were ill-advised when accusing the First of having unbalanced the structure of the Church. It addressed this non-problem by introducing a “collegiality” unknown to tradition, borrowing from Eastern schismatics. It borrowed even the word, a poor translation of the Russian term sobornost.[7] Contrary to Lumen Gentium (no. 22) and the Preliminary note added by Paul VI, the college of bishops united to the pope does not exercise a permanent supreme power over the universal Church. The Catholic Church is not two-headed. She has only one head: the successor of Peter. Unless the pope convenes the bishops into a council, their authority is ordinarily limited to the single diocese where they have jurisdiction, as its shepherd. They can meet in provincial councils, however, under the supervision of the Holy See, which must watch over the unity of the Church. The Holy See refuses to exercise this oversight today regarding the German Synodal Path, even though this assembly of the German Church usurps a doctrinal power that the old provincial councils never had. These were limited to legislating on disciplinary matters.

However, let us return to our subject and go to the heart of the matter: were the ultramontanes papolaters who wanted to make the Successor of Peter a kind of Pythia who delivered Apollo’s oracles at Delphi? Not at all!

In this respect, the attitude of Bishop Pie before and during the First Vatican Council is very enlightening. Having been appointed consultor by Pius IX even before the council was publicly announced, Bishop Pie wrote a plan for the preparatory commission on the current topics that, in his opinion, the future council should address. He was convinced that the great problem of the moment was secularism’s denial of the social kingship of Christ. Thus, his proposed plan focused especially on the errors of rationalism and naturalism, which the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius addressed.

Papal infallibility was not included in his plan. Although an ardent advocate of papal infallibility, Bishop Pie was not fixated on this unproclaimed dogma. He even proposed as conciliar consultor Arthur-Marie Le Hir, a priest of Saint-Sulpice and professor of Sacred Scripture at the famous Parisian seminary, which was the bulwark of Gallicanism.

After the council’s official inauguration, it was the liberals who stirred up a controversy about infallibility, which was not yet on the agenda. Pressed by several friendly bishops to enter the arena of this controversy, Bishop Pie refused.  In a letter to his diocese, he explained his reasons:

We resolved from now on to avoid dealing in our own name with the capital questions that impose themselves on this holy assembly. It seemed to us that the respect due to our venerable colleagues in the episcopate, as well as the one we owe to ourselves, commanded us this reserve. We should neither anticipate the judgment of others, nor formulate in advance our personal judgment, disposed as we are to profit from the exchange of thoughts, from the fruit of discussions, and especially to obey the lights and movements of the Holy Spirit, whose assistance will not fail us at the proper time.[8]

The bishop of Poitiers was not disturbed by the fierce media polemic between the two camps on this burning subject:

Let individual writers, under their personal responsibility, form suppositions and engage in discussions in this regard. The Church, which is very liberal in its procedures and gives free rein to the expression of all thoughts and feelings during the duration of the conciliar sessions, is not alarmed or offended by these public debates when contained within just limits. As long as false liberalism does not claim a monopoly on freedom, as has happened before, and, in its habit of practical absolutism, it does not repress opinions and cry scandal because of the freedom given to its opponents.[9]

One would say that that he speaks prophetically about our days!

The future Cardinal Pie did not abandon his reserve until Bishop Henri Maret, dean of the Sorbonne University, published two volumes. In them, Bishop Maret dubbed the supposed “omnipotence” that would be created by the definition of the pope’s personal infallibility (unsubordinated to any approval by the college of bishops) as absolutism. Instead, the Gallican prelate argued that the bishops should ordinarily participate in the Church’s general government. This would occur through ecumenical councils held every ten years! (If alive today, Bishop Maret would be a loud promoter of Pope Francis’s inverted pyramid Synodal Church). On the twentieth anniversary of his episcopal consecration, Bishop Pie affirmed in his sermon that to subordinate the popes’ doctrinal decisions to the positive or silent assent of the world’s hierarchy would insult the promise of Our Lord Jesus Christ to Saint Peter. True to custom, however, he hastened to add that he did not intend “to provoke or prejudge in any way a conciliar definition, whose timeliness first, and then the form, must be entirely reserved to the judgment of the great synodal assembly and the Holy Spirit’s supreme will.”[10] Conforming actions to words, he published Bishop Maret’s reply in the diocesan weekly, adding that, “In any fair polemic, it is the rule that a defense can be presented where an attack has occurred.”[11]

Bishop Pie’s reserve continued when Bishop Dupanloup, the liberal champion, published two polemical writings on the eve of the council’s opening. In asserting the unseasonableness of a solemn definition of the Roman pontiff’s magisterial power, Bishop Félix Dupanloup made a full-scale attack on infallibility itself. In response, the bishop of Angoulême, Most Rev. Antoine-Charles Cousseau, pronounced the famous words: Quod inopportunum dixerunt, necessarium fecerunt. In other words, those who say that the proclamation of dogma is inopportune have made it necessary. Dom Prosper Guéranger, abbot of Solesmes, commented that Bishop Dupanloup’s intervention was what was missing to conclude that the time had come to define papal infallibility. Nevertheless, Bishop Pie limited himself to reaffirming, in a confidential letter to his mother, that, “Despite all this, we are resolved to remain silent. The council will gain from it.”[12]

On December 8, 1869, feast of the Immaculate Conception, the council was solemnly opened. On December 14, with 470 out of 700 votes, Bishop Pie was the second council father elected to the Commission of Doctrine and the Faith. This first victory for the ultramontane doctrines that he represented found him as respectful to the liberal minority as before. In a letter to Fr. Gervais, the Vicar General of the Bordeaux archdiocese who had remained in France, he said: “It would have helped if some theologians from the other side, as the bishop of Grenoble [Most Rev. Jacques Ginoulhiac], had been appointed to the first commissions.” By first, he meant those on doctrine and discipline.[13]

He was the rapporteur on the schema on “Faith and Reason.” He confided to his mother that the general congregation had received his presentation well, “bishops of almost all shades complimented me.”[14] Small wonder that the Dogmatic Constitution Dei Filius, which contained this schema, was approved unanimously by the assembly.

On the day of this approval, April 24, 1870, a worsening international situation and threats of war prompted 150 council fathers gathered by the future Cardinal Manning, archbishop of Westminster and the great leader of the ultramontane current in English-speaking countries, to present to Pope Pius IX a postulatum requesting the prompt discussion of the Roman pontiff’s infallibility. Contrary to what some might think, Bishop Pie was not among the petition’s signatories.

Although the ultramontane French-speaking champion, he was not the hothead ultramontanes are sometimes called. His moderation stands out in the explanation he later gave to his priests. While recognizing the question’s importance, he believed that “not every council must settle every controversy and define every doctrine.”[15] He reasoned further that it was not yet the turn for papal infallibility in the council program’s logical order. This, because the second part of the schema De Fide on grace, original sin, and redemption, almost entirely written by then, had not yet been discussed. He thought that only after finishing this great dogmatic synthesis should the council fathers tackle the chapter on the Church and the supreme pontiff. That is where the question of papal infallibility would find its natural place.

Finally, he believed that his position on the Commission of Doctrine and the Faith demanded this reticence “since I was likely to be called on to intervene personally in the official introduction of the cause, which indeed happened.”[16]

A comment from his biographer is interesting for this essay’s purpose:

It was surprising that he did not belong to any militant group and that, accessible to all, he usually met with many people of various opinions, studying each one of them, avoiding to shock them with absolute partisanship and bias, but immediately becoming very firm in the eyes of the bishops who had made themselves leaders of the opposition. His entourage and friends would have liked that he lead the majority, but he avoided any personal intervention for he saw it as misunderstanding the spirit of the Church.[17]

This notwithstanding, Bishop Pie was quick to recognize the urgency of addressing papal infallibility so as not to leave it in the state of turmoil in which it had been placed by the polemics triggered by the Gallican-liberal minority. The latter hurriedly protested through the voice of sixty-seven bishops against any possible change to the council’s program.

On May 9, 1870, seeing that five hundred bishops had now joined the request to deal with the question, Pius IX ordered the distribution of the outline on papal infallibility. The Commission of Doctrine and the Faith commissioned Bishop Pie to report on this new topic. He did so four days later, before the general congregation. In the commission’s name, he apologized for presenting an outline that was out of place but imposed by the passion with which public opinion had come to grips with the subject. He explained the first three chapters on pontifical power. In the fourth, he addressed infallibility, the logical and obligatory corollary of the pope as supreme and universal judge. He concluded with these reassuring words to the council fathers: “Undoubtedly, the schema proposed to you has not been perfected. That is why the commission you have entrusted to prepare it has no greater desire than to see its sketch perfected by you.”[18]

In thirty-four general congregations every morning and particular ones in the afternoons, both “infallible” ultramontanes and the “anti-infallible” and “unseasonable” party thoroughly discussed the topic. Gallicans continued to maintain that the infallibility of the Church could not rest on the person of the pope alone but required the agreement of pope and council. On the other hand, liberal Catholics did not oppose the thesis of the personal infallibility of the pope but considered it inappropriate to proclaim this dogma because its absolutist character could offend the democratic spirit of the modern world. They also feared that the ultramontanes would extend papal infallibility retroactively to the Syllabus, which had condemned their plans for a “Christianization of liberalism.”

Benefiting from his influence, Bishop Pie received copies of all speeches, especially those of his opponents, and took notes to adjust his positions. Sometimes he let his sadness show: “One is astonished to see how even men of the Church judge things exclusively from the human point of view.”[19]

The liberal-Gallican minority tried filibustering, prolonging the debates indefinitely. On July 4, 1870, a telegram was sent from Paris to a council father. It read, “Hold on for a few days. Providence is sending you unexpected help.” It was the war. Recognized as inevitable in the upper echelons of the French government, it would cause the council’s postponement to an unspecified date.

The telegram had arrived too late, though. On that July 4 and the day before, a total of fifty-six speakers relinquished their time to speak. The discussion was now closed. Several minority leaders left Rome. On July 13, the general congregation approved the whole schema. The votes were 451 placet, 88 non placet, and 62 placet juxta modum, i.e., a yes vote, but suggesting improvements. Some of the majority wanted an even clearer definition. Those in opposition proposed inserting that, to be infallible, the pope had to rely on the testimony of the Churches: nixus testimonio Ecclesiarum, which subordinated papal infallibility to the bishops’ assent.

The result was the opposite. “Thus, the majority improved the meaning of the contested phrases,” says Bishop Pie,

And, in the face of these threats from within and without, the Church affirmed its constitution. In canon IV, it was added that not only did the pope have the greater part—potiores partes—but the entire fullness of the supreme power. Likewise, these words were added to the dogmatic paragraph of the fourth chapter: ‘Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.’[20]

Thus clarified, papal infallibility was solemnly proclaimed on July 18, 1870, by the unanimity of the council fathers present minus two, one of whom went to lay his act of faith before Pius IX that same evening, and the other on the following morning. Most of the dogma’s opponents abstained from the session. On July 19, as the mysterious telegram from Paris had foreseen, the Franco-Prussian war broke out. Two months later, the Piedmontese invaded Rome, making Pius IX a prisoner in the Vatican. He was unable to continue the conciliar assembly, which was interrupted sine die.

Bishop Xavier de Mérode gave eloquent testimony of Bishop Pie’s harmonizing temperament. That former soldier, hailing from a Belgian princely family, had organized the famous Zouaves for the defense of the Papal States. Although a personal friend of the Bishop of Poitiers, he was Montalembert’s brother-in-law and came from a liberal background. In the council, he had joined the minority. The day after the proclamation of the dogma, and when Bishop Pie was already on the train, Bishop de Mérode went to his carriage. After asking the entourage to give them some time alone, the two doctrinal opponents had a long conversation in which Bishop de Mérode shed many tears. Bishop Pie showed the same benevolence toward all of the members of the minority and had the Poitiers diocesan weekly register the adhesions and submissions they addressed to the sovereign pontiff.

Through his charitable efforts, Bishop Pie also obtained the submission in articulo mortis of Fr. Alphonse Gratry. This priest’s anti-infallibility writings had been one of the most powerful weapons the liberal press used against ultramontane doctrines. Bishop Pie’s charitable dispositions had a doctrinal source. Contrary to the Jansenist tendencies of the Gallicans, he had helped the Cardinal-Archbishop of Rheims, Archbishop Thomas Gousset, to import Liguorism from Italy. Instead of the concept of a terrible God, this moral doctrine developed by St. Alphonsus Liguori promoted the idea that our God was a God of love and confidence.

Having achieved the victory of truth over liberal and Gallican errors, was the French ultramontane champion led to exaggerate the scope of the conciliar definition? Did he consider the pope infallible even in his ordinary magisterium? And was he infallible in matters that did not touch on faith and morals?

The future Cardinal Pie would have been astonished if anyone had asked him such questions. He was well aware of human weakness and knew that divine assistance had been promised to the pope only under very restrictive conditions:

The assistance guaranteed to him [the pope] from above is not inspiration or infused science. Therefore, his duty is not to neglect any natural and supernatural elements that can help the triumph of truth and the work of grace. Some of these elements are study, advice, discussion, the collecting of all insights and experiences. . . .

Before pronouncing himself, there are examples of how the head of the Church has asked in writing for the opinion of his brothers worldwide and encouraged discussion among those he could gather around him. It was under these conditions that Pius IX published the dogmatic bull that defines the Immaculate Conception of Mary.[21]

Hence also the appropriate role of good counsel: “What more modern theological language calls the pope teaching ex cathedra, was called in previous ages the pope speaking with counsel: papa loquens cum consilio.[22]

Bishop Pie was also conscious that infallibility did not extend to the Holy Father’s ordinary magisterium, and in his extraordinary teaching, only the dogmatic sentence itself was imposed on the assent of the faithful. “Indeed, theology admits that if the most solemn doctrinal acts of the teaching Church impose themselves on the intelligence and faith of Christians as far as their final decision is concerned, the preliminaries and considerations of the decision remain in the realm of controversy.” Therefore, “the supreme supernatural magisterial power . . . strengthened by its infallibility regarding the essence of things, safely delivers to a proper and respectful examination all that is not the object of this privilege.”[23]

I beg the readers’ pardon for having exceeded an article’s limits in this essay. Nevertheless, I believed it necessary to defend Bishop Pie’s edifying intellectual and moral stature. Indeed, he was called in his time “the hammer of liberalism.” A fitting tribute, seeing how his predecessor, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, was known as “the hammer of Arians” (Malleus Arianorum).

If such was the great and undisputed leader of the French ultramontane bishops at the First Vatican Council, the natural conclusion is that the “spirit of Vatican I” was imbued with a supernatural love for truth and, therefore, it was objective, prudent, balanced, and nuanced even in the heat of controversy. Therefore, there is nothing to fear from an “extreme ultramontanism” since it would only represent that same Christian faith and wisdom in greater perfection. The First Vatican Council’s ultramontane spirit is far from the caricature sketched by its liberal or Gallican opponents and which, due to a misunderstanding, some traditionalists today are redrawing.

Neither the “false spirit of Vatican I” nor ultramontanism is responsible for the subsequent drift to the fixation on the reigning pope’s person and magisterium to the detriment of truth and tradition. This magisterialism is the progeny of the liberal-progressive movement within the Church, and it started in the pontificate of Leo XIII. Liberals used it to bolster the pope’s misguided policy of “rallying around the [French Masonic] Republic,” a folly that the ultramontanes opposed.

That is another story, however, and must be left for a follow-up article.

Photo by Fabio Fistarol on Unsplash 

[1] See in this line, the insightful article of Fr. Chad Ripperger, “Operative Points of View,” Christian Order, Mar. 2001.

[2] Édouard Lecanuet, L’Eglise et le Second Empire (1850–1870), vol. 3, Montalembert, 4th ed. (Paris: Ancienne Librairie Poussièlgue, 1912), 467, accessed Sept. 26, 2021.

[3] Louis Baunard, Histoire du cardinal Pie: Évêque de Poitiers (Poitiers: H. Oudin, 1886), 2:488, accessed Sept. 25, 2021. (All translations are mine.)

[4] Lettre pastorale (July 14, 1866), in Oeuvres de Monseigneur l’évêque de Poitiers, 5th ed. (Poitiers: Librairie Henri Oudin, 1876), 2:442, accessed Sept. 25, 2021.

[5] Ibid., 2:443.

[6] Oeuvres de Monseigneur l’évêque de Poitiers, 9th ed. (Poitiers: Librairie-Éditeur H. Oudin, 1887), 6:67, accessed Sept. 26, 2021.

[7] See Albert Kallio, O.P., “Collegialità nel Vaticano II: una nuova dottrina?” accessed Sept. 26, 2021.

[8] Baunard, Histoire du cardinal Pie, 2:330–31.

[9] Ibid., 2:331–32.

[10] Ibid., 2:340.

[11] Ibid., 2:341.

[12] Ibid., 2:355.

[13] Ibid., 2:357.

[14] Ibid., 2:365.

[15] Ibid., 2:375.

[16] Ibid., 2:377.

[17] Ibid., 2:377–78.

[18] Ibid., 2:384.

[19] Ibid., 2:388.

[20] Ibid., 2:392.

[21] Lettre pastorale et Mandement (May 24, 1869), in Oeuvres, 6:408–9.

[22] Ibid., 6:408.

[23] Allocution (Dec. 1861), in Oeuvres, 4:338–39, accessed Sept. 26, 2021.


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