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What is the False Spirit of Vatican One?

Editor’s note: in light of recent news, we remind our readers of our study on hyperpapalism. The issues we face predate Vatican II by a few generations, especially in regards to the clericalist nature of Vatican I (and thus the modern Church), an innovation imposed on the Church by Bl. Pius IX.

This is part III of a series reviewing the debate about Ultramontanism. Not all statements contained herein may reflect the opinions of the editorial board.

Part I: “Ultramontanisms: Reply to Ureta, De Mattei and Solimeo

Part II: “The Dubia of Vatican One


In the last essay, we discussed further some of the interplay between theological and historical meaning at an ecumenical council. In particular, using the example of the Council of Ephesus (431), we observed that God can bring good out of evil even when a Council is filled with controversial actions which become a scandal to good men. In this way the Holy Spirit can protect and guide an ecumenical council to a theological achievement against heresy, while at the same time, the historical circumstances and actions of individuals can attempt to obscure this theological achievement, but only on a historical level.

In other words, the historical confusion or “bad fruit” after any given council does not (and cannot) negate the good fruit of the proclamation of orthodoxy. The best that the devil can do is obscure this in the minds of many, but he cannot undo what has been wrought by God.

“The False Spirit” of a Council

Here is where we find the phenomenon of a “false spirit” of a Council. Let us discuss again the machinations at the Council of Ephesus.

The historical actions of St. Cyril at the Council of Ephesus seriously provoked schism from orthodox churchmen in Antioch, even though his theological achievements – confirmed by the Holy See and protected by the Holy Spirit – still proclaimed the glory and the ineffable doctrine of the Theotokos against Nestorios. The “false spirit” that resulted from Cyril’s excesses at the Council was a bitterness among the followers of St. Cyril – the so-called miaphysites – against their theological rivals in the Antiochian school – the so-called dyophysites. Had it not been for the holiness of St. Cyril restraining his own followers and forcing a reconciliation with John of Antioch, the “false spirit” of Ephesus – again, only on its historical events, not the theological achievement – could have solidified the lamentable Greek schisms then and there.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to tell the sorry tale of the hardening Greek schisms between the Syriac Christians, Miaphysites, and Dyophysites, but I have treated this topic in detail in another place.[1] To make a sad and bloody story short, the historical events – the actions of individual men and the context of those actions – which surrounded the Third through Fifth Councils helped to precipitate the first lasting schism in Christendom between these three Greek parties, weakening the eastern front in the face of the Sassanians, and later the Muhammadans.

The point is that these councils are indeed ecumenical and achieved infallible pronouncements against heresy (particularly at Chalcedon, with its harmony of orthodox Latin, Greek and Syriac traditions[2]) yet “bad spirits” arose, historically occasioned by these councils based not on the actions of the Holy Spirit, but rather the excesses of zealous orthodox and the sinful machinations of heretics.

Therefore a “false spirit” of a Council refers to the historical effects of the Council considered as a historical event, not considered as a theological achievement. And so that’s what is meant by “false spirit of Vatican I” – the historical aftermath of the Vatican Council which is distinguished from the same Council’s theological achievements.

“Hindsight is Always 20/20”

Yet more, we can say that in the providence of history, sometimes even good, measured actions by good churchmen can have effects in a few generations that were not (and could not have been) foreseen. As we discussed in our first essay, it is no dishonour to our holy fathers to frankly recognise some misstep here or there that produced some unpredictable bad fruit generations later.

To take an easy example, it would be foolish to blame Calvinism on St. Augustine, since St. Augustine was a great Father of the Church battling heresy in his own time. If some of St. Augustine’s strong statements about grace were twisted by heretics later on, this is no fault of the great Doctor of Hippo, but merely the opportunity for men of Calvin’s age to save Augustine’s memory as well as fight heresy in their own day.

It is no dishonour to the great Augustine to concede that some of his statements were imprecise on this matter. As we say in the States, “hindsight is always 20/20.” If the saint would have known how his words would be abused by heretics, he would have rephrased them.

We should feel the same way about the Counter-Revolutionary Ultramontanes, who fought the Revolution and the fallen angels manfully in their own age, and whose mantle we pray to be worthy to pick up.

Nevertheless we can see now, generations later, how some of their words and actions helped to produce a “false spirit of Vatican I.”

Before we turn to even more conspicuous changes occasioned by Vatican I, let us briefly look at how the ordinary Catholic teaching office was traditionally practiced by our forefathers since the Apostles. For the overall historical movement of Ultramontanism (with other factors) helped to produce a dramatic shift of this status quo ante.

Subsidiarity of the Ordinary Teaching Office:
the Family and the Parish

Before Vatican One, the Papacy issued universal decrees only in extraordinary circumstances, i.e. rarely and for the gravest of situations. This is because the ordinary teaching office of the Church was exercised primarily by the local bishop, whose office of episkopos means to “watch over” the depositum fidei, which is ordinarily and primarily taught and passed down by bishops to their clergy, by parish priests to their faithful, and by parents to their children.

So let us note this first of all, the primary teacher of the Faith for most Catholics is the parent, and then the parish priest. The local bishop would be involved in a typical Catholic’s life at Confirmation (in the Latin rite) or if that Catholic attended pontifical events or processions. That local bishop might write a pastoral letter to his diocese, but that’s it. The typical Tradition was passed down and imbued in a local village around the village (or municipal) church. It was seen in all the monuments built by parents and priests down the ages in a community – the parish church, the statuary, the processional paths, the customs, cuisine, dancing etc. All of these things were passed down and taught by parents and then the priest. That’s it. Only in extreme cases would the pope himself be involved in a normal Catholic’s life. This cannot be overemphasised: the normal teaching office was the parent first and the priest second, and only rarely the local bishop.

Thus the doctrine of the Two Swords was most commonly seen in the cooperation and mutual help between the parents (lay power – temporal sword) and the local priest (clerical power – spiritual sword). But this might also involve in extraordinary cases the local noblemen and princes (lay power – temporal sword) with the local bishop (spiritual sword), and only in extreme cases the King or Emperor with the Bishop of Rome.

This began to dramatically change with Trent, since a universal crisis shook Latin Christendom with the Protestant revolt. Still, the Roman Catechism, taught by local priests, was simply an augmentation of the existing structure of the ordinary Tradition passed through parents and priest. The pope increasingly began to intervene in various nations and in more extreme cases on the universal (Latin) level, but with the caveat that the local custom and local bishop would trump the pope (except for grave cases). The stipulations of Quo Primum allowed the local and tradition rites to prevail in all cases, unless it was relatively new and not traditional.

The office of the pope was primarily reactive to answer questions that could not be resolved on the local level. In other words, the Papacy functioned to support the subsidiarity of the local teaching office of the bishop, who was merely “watching over” – not directly intervening unless necessary! – the passing down of the Tradition by parent first and priest second.

This was the normal, ordinary Catholic life of Tradition for centuries and centuries. The papacy simply was never the universal teaching office it is today.

The Papacy Replaces the Family and Parish Culture

In reaction to the French Revolution, the Papacy began to write more nationwide or universal encyclicals. This was an unprecedented innovation of the papal office, but was obviously necessitated by the times. To take another phrase from the States, “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Like Quo Primum, the universal Holy Father felt the need to act in a new and desperate way to address a new and desperate situation.

Due to the concurrent First Industrial Revolution in Western Europe and North America (c. 1760-1840), families had been displaced from their traditional catechetical environment of the local traditions and customs tied to the village or community. The normal teaching office of the parents and the priests was severely weakened. The local bishop literally could not even build enough churches to accommodate the rapid urbanisation of the faithful.[3] Meanwhile, the Liberal and Communist wolves pounced on the faithful, spreading their poisonous doctrines and destroying Christian culture.

Thus the pope, as a good father, filled this vacuum, defending the flock from the wolves and teaching the faith when the local, ordinary teaching office was weakened.

But it seems he did not foresee certain negative consequences.

The “nuclear family” was invented by the industrial urbanisation, which stripped the family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins etc.[4] With this reductionism of the family and loss of parish culture, with the constant bloody revolution of Liberalism, it makes complete sense why our forefathers the Counter-Revolutionary Ultramontanes rallied around the papal teaching office. The result, however, especially after Vatican I, was to move the center of gravity of normal Catholic catechetical life from the local family and parish to the universal teaching office of the pope.

Notice how nowhere in the documents of Vatican I is such a process promulgated, much less suggested! Thus it is a “false spirit of Vatican I,” not according to its decrees, but rather occasioned by its historical events.

Papal Voluntarism and the Loss of Two Swords

Depending on how you count it, Leo XIII wrote eighty-eight encyclicals in his twenty-five year pontificate, amounting to an average of 3.52 per year. This set the precedent for the post-Vatican I papacy. Notice too, that these encyclicals are ordinary teaching documents, not responses to specific questions with precise theological notes or censures. Because of the dubia of Vatican I, it was easy for ordinary Catholics to think that everything contained in an encyclical is infallible.

This became acute, of course, as Mr. Ureta shows drawing on Professor De Mattei’s work, when Leo XIII de facto reversed the position of Bl. Pius IX regarding the French Third Republic. Leo XIII himself seemed to support hyperpapalism in his handling of this situation, leading to the hyperpapalist doctrine: “The sole rule of salvation is to be with the living Pope.”

Was this really invented ex nihilo under Leo XIII with no causal relationship to events in the pontificate of Bl. Pius IX? Surely not. As we mentioned in our first essay in this series, Bl. Pius refused to invite lay noblemen to Vatican I, breaking about fifteen centuries of Tradition, an action which received criticism as “formalising the separation of Church and state.”[5]

The effect of Pius’ action was the de facto suppression of the Two Swords doctrine, by negating the office of the lay, temporal sword aforementioned and represented at councils by emperors, kings, princes and noblemen, who would not be judges of doctrine, yet also not mere spectators. But they, as well formed Christian noblemen, would encourage and enable the bishops to do their job.[6] Thus the lay, temporal order, de facto stripped of its rights by Pius IX, was vulnerable to the clericalist hyperpapalism of Leo XIII in his dealings with the Third Republic.

St. Pius X then revoked the right of lay veto over the pope, further stripping the lay order of its traditional rights.

Notice, however, that none of this is related to the documents of Vatican I, but it is nevertheless occasioned by the historical event of the Council. These are historical effects, not theological effects.

The First Media Council in Wartime

Another critical point to seize upon is that Vatican I was the first council in which the newspapers churned out public opinion at an unprecedented rate. For the mass of the faithful, without any theological erudition to understand the nuances of true Theological Ultramontanism (as Mr. Ureta elucidates), the fiery rhetoric of the Comte de Maistre and Louis Veuillot – both laymen without theological training themselves – seems to have produced a mass media enthusiasm for defending the Holy See and elevating the pope as high as possible. Since Catholic families throughout the world sent their sons to die in the Ninth Crusade defending the pope from the Masonic revolutionaries, this was not a time for a nuanced theological presentation.

The media fury certainly did not help to provide that patient, nuanced analysis necessary to disentangle “theological Ultramontanism” (terminology which can describe the dogma of Vatican I) from Hyperpapalism (that “false spirit” which we are treating).

But we need to sympathetically understand why our forefathers didn’t spend time with theological treatises and at times didn’t bother with theological precision. In wartime, bodies are needed to take up their weapons – the Rosary, and/or the musket – to defend the clergy, and our wives and children from Liberalism’s prideful bloodshed. That is the main concern. And it is an urgent concern.

So coming into the council, we have a generations-long media campaign plunging into a war which is literally being waged a few miles away from the council itself. As we know, the Masonic revolutionaries finally made it to the Vatican later in 1870, stopping the council in its tracks.

The Fathers of the First Vatican Council were fighting the fallen angels on a theological level, while our Counter-Revolutionary forefathers were losing ground to the revolutionaries who were slowly taking more territory and marching closer and closer to Rome.

This revolutionary wartime historical context is essential for understanding the intense media campaign of the Counter-Revolutionary Ultramontanes and the urgency of the theological Ultramontane party at Vatican I. Again if you’re not familiar, this Twitter account gives you a great summary of the times:

Besides that, go read Professor Roberto de Mattei’s summary of recent scholarship over at our friends, The Remnant.

It is easy for us in peacetime to harshly judge the missteps or excesses of our forefathers in wartime. But you and I are now living in the ruins of that world that our forefathers defended, bled and died for, and we need to look at this situation with the respect and honour they deserve.

The “Coup” at the Council Increases the Excess

With this context we can understand why the Theological Ultramontanes at the council fought zealously to have their party’s doctrine dogmatised. They were opposed by the moderate “Inopportunists” like St. John Henry Newman (who wrote against them as a priest observer) or Eastern bishops like Chaldean Joseph VI Audo. These men believed in the dogma of papal infallibility but warned that given the historical context the dogma would lead to the producing of a false exaggeration of papal power.[7]

Meanwhile, a third party did not believe in the doctrine and was sympathetic to Liberalism, especially observers like Lord Acton and Ignaz von Döllinger, who began manipulating the press to undermine the council, which even O’Malley confirms was filled with lies.[8] They were aided by Dr. Georg Ratzinger, the great uncle of Joseph Ratzinger.[9]

Nevertheless owing to the historical actions of limited men, or else the excessive zeal of wartime, the Theological Ultramontanes seized control of the council to produce what their critics termed a “coup” as Kwasniewski has treated in another place.

St. John Henry Newman’s candid observations are apropos here. Shortly after the definition of Papal Infallibility was promulgated, but before the Freemasons seized Rome, he wrote to his friend these prescient words about the false spirit of Vatican I:

I have various things to say about the Definition… To me the serious thing is this, that, whereas it has not been usual to pass definition except in case of urgent and definite necessity, this definition, while it gives the Pope power, creates for him, in the very act of doing so, a precedent and a suggestion to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so. I am telling people who write to me to have confidence—but I don’t know what I shall say to them, if the Pope did so act. And I am afraid moreover, that the tyrant majority is still aiming at enlarging the province of Infallibility. I can only say if all this takes place, we shall in matter of fact be under a new dispensation. But we must hope, for one is obliged to hope it, that the Pope will be driven from Rome, and will not continue the Council, or that there will be another Pope. It is sad he should force us to such wishes.[10]

This was Newman’s opinion of the Theological Ultramontanes at the Council: a “tyrant majority.” And to an Englishman especially, the accusation of “tyranny” means an unlawful, seditious act which does great harm and is against tradition.

Herein we find further historical events occasioning the false spirit.

For like St. Cyril’s Council of Ephesus, it seems, at least to the party of “Papal Minimalists” like Newman, that the actions of the Theological Ultramontanes could create an aftermath that would prove harmful. The Theological Ultramontane party at the Council felt that they had “won,” even though, as Newman insinuates, they did not get all that they wanted. But as we mentioned above, the very next pontificate indeed churned out encyclicals which seemed “to use his power without necessity, when ever he will, when not called on to do so.”

The End of Episcopal Subsidiarity

Newman’s words indicate that there were hyperpapalist churchmen among the Theological Ultramontane party, and it seems that these contributed to the unprecedented papal centralisation after Vatican I. For the dogmatic definition of papal jurisdiction declared that the pope has universal jurisdiction, but does that mean that the whole world should function as his diocese?

In practice, local bishops became vicars of the Roman Pontiff, who appointed bishops throughout the world with or without local participation or the confirmation by the temporal ruler (both traditionally approved by the Church within due limits). The modern idea that Pope Francis should govern what is contained in a parish bulletin is a complete loss of subsidiarity for the local bishop. But this was already happening under Pius X, according to Adrian Fortescue, who said these words about that great pontificate:

You know, we have stuck out for our position all our lives … unity, authority. etc., Peter the Rock and so on. I have, too, and believe it. I am always preaching that sort of thing, and yet is it now getting to a reductio ad absurdum? Centralisation grows and goes madder every century. Even at Trent they hardly foresaw this kind of thing. Does it really mean that one cannot be a member of the Church of Christ without being, as we are, absolutely at the mercy of an Italian lunatic? …

We must pull through even this beastliness somehow. After all, it is still the Church of the Fathers that we stand by and spend our lives defending. However bad as things are, nothing else is possible. I think that when I look at Rome, I see powerful arguments against us, but when I look at the Church of England … I see still more powerful arguments for us. But of course, saving a total collapse, things are as bad as they can be. Give us back the tenth century Johns and Stephens, or a Borgia!

They were less disastrous than this deplorable person[11]

And later, in a passing comment in 1919: “I never cared a tinker’s curse for what the Congregation of Rites may have decided about the order in which the acolyte should put out the candles at Vespers.”[12]

The fact is that Christ constituted the Church with subsidiarity so that the Rock of Peter need not take on the near-impossible task of governing the whole world as his diocese. God did not endow the machination of Vatican bureaucracy with infallibility, and this leads to serious missteps due to centralisation, like the silencing of Padre Pio or the betrayal of the Cristeros. The universal jurisdiction of the pope cannot and should not make the whole world his diocese, and this is not what Vatican I teaches.

Creating a Public Liturgy Ex Nihilo

As the loss of the local bishop’s authority historically resulted in these days, the breviary reform of Pius X created ex nihilo is a direct precedent to the Novus Ordo. The pope “radically altered the ancient arrangement of the Roman psalter” with the “summary abolition” of pious tradition.[13] “That a pope could discard ancient liturgical tradition by sole virtue of his own authority,” writes Reid, “is found nowhere in liturgical history before Saint Pius X.”[14]

This was creation of a new liturgy ex nihilo according to the “signs of the times,” and imposed on the Church by the pope. Because of the loss of the local bishop’s authority (at least de facto if not de jure), the bishop could not veto this universal legislation (as had occurred with Quo Primum, or when Trent rejected Paul III’s breviary). As a result, as one contemporary scholar noted, “this pope has the distinction of abolishing the Laudate Psalms that Jesus Himself prayed.”

Again, that the pope can do such a thing is found nowhere in the Vatican I decrees, but rather is occasioned by this false spirit.

Other Ambiguities

Universalising Canon Law

Right along with the loss of local subsidiarity is another unprecedented act not contained in the decrees of Vatican I: the universal code of canon law. Before this, certain universal canons existed, but only for truly grave things. The local bishop handled canonical matters according to traditions of canon law and local customs.

By promulgating a universal code, the local bishop’s authority to legislate for his own diocese was again undermined. Thankfully, even in our current code the bishop has authority to dispense with universal canon law at his discretion for certain cases.

An Important Omission from Canon Law

Along with this, an important omission was made in the 1917 code and repeated in the 1983 code, as related by Bishop Schneider:

According to a Medieval canonical tradition, which was later collected in the Corpus Iuris Canonici (the Canon law valid in the Latin Church until 1918), a pope could be judged in the case of heresy: Papa a nemine est iudicandus, nisi deprehendatur a fide devius”, i.e. “the pope cannot be judged by anyone, unless he has been found deviating from the faith.” (Decretum Gratiani, Prima Pars, dist. 40, c. 6, 3. pars) The Code of Canon Law of 1917, however, eliminated the norm of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, which spoke of a heretical pope. Neither does the Code of Canon Law of 1983 contain such a norm.

Notice this gives the false impression that Vatican I dogmatised the opinion of Pighius, when in fact the relatio of Gasser explicitly contradicts this assertion. But this omission is part of a false spirit of Vatican I giving this false impression nonetheless.

The Canonisation of Robert Bellarmine

I remember talking to a sedevacantist once who told me that because the Church canonised St. Robert Bellarmine and made him a Doctor shortly after Vatican I, therefore his opinions about the papacy are the doctrine of the Church. This is a prime example of the false spirit of Vatican I. Bellarmine may have agreed with Pighius concerning a heretical pope, that he cannot be a heretic even privately (Bellarmine merely calls this “pious and probable”) but this was not taught at the Council. But the false spirit of Vatican I is at work here too, creating this false impression.

The Papal Oracle

All of these historical factors and more have contributed to create a situation where Trads and other Catholics are accused of schism for confirming the faith we all learned in First Communion Catechism or acting upon the principle of Benedict XVI: “What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.” It is a situation where bishops are removed from their dioceses based on the arbitrary will of the pope as if they are “vicars of the Roman Pontiff” even though Lumen Gentium contradicts this very phrase (27). It is a situation in which the pope has become an “oracle at Delphi” who is believed to hold the power to change white to black, and lies into truth. This is a historical situation that was occasioned by Vatican I, but was not taught by Vatican I. Therefore we call this the “false spirit of Vatican I” and these historical factors must be faced if we want to overcome Hyperpapalism and pass down the Faith to our children. Because the false spirit of Vatican I is the engine that drives the false spirit of Vatican II, and thus the current #SchismaticWay, the dream of arch-Liberal, Cardinal Martini.


[1] T. S. Flanders, City of God vs. City of Man (Our Lady of Victory Press, 2021), 141-161.

[2] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971), vol. 1, 263.

[3] Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the 19th Century (Cambridge: 1975), 97.

[4] David Popenoe, Families without Fathers, new ed., (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009), 81.

[5] This is a paraphrase of the comments made by French prime minister Émile Ollivier as quoted in Sir Rowland Blennerhassett, “The Hohenlohe Memoirs,” The Eclectic Magazine, vol. 148 (University of Iowa, 1907), 236.

[6] Take, for example, this lay involvement at Lateran V: “Towards the close of the council (1517) the noble and highly cultured layman, Gianfrancesco Pico della Mirandola, delivered a remarkable speech on the necessity of a reform of morals; his account of the moral condition of the clergy is saddening, and reveals the many and great difficulties that stood in the way of a genuine reform. He concluded with the warning that if Leo X left such offences longer unpunished and refused to apply healing remedies to these wounds of the Church, it was to be feared that God Himself would cut off the rotten limbs and destroy them with fire and sword. That very year this prophetic warning was verified [when Luther began the Protestant revolt].” K. Löffler, “Pope Leo X,” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1910).

[7] R. Rabban, “Chaldean Catholic Church (Eastern Catholic),” New Catholic Encyclopedia (2003), vol. 3, 369.

[8] O’Malley is a Liberal historian, Vatican(Belknap Press, 2018), 149.

[9] Peter Seewald, Benedict XVI: A Life, trans. Dinah Livingstone (Bloomsbury, 2020), vol 1, 374.

[10] Newman to Ambrose St. John (August 21, 1870), Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, eds., The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman (Oxford University Press, 1973), vol. 25 cited by Peter Kwasniewski, “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism,” Catholic Family News (Nov. 2020-Jan. 2021) <>, accessed March 28, 2021.

[11] Adrian Fortescue, Letter, November 5, 1910 in Alcuin Reid, “Introduction,” in A. Fortescue, The Early Papacy (Ignatius Press, 2008), 12.

[12] Letter to S. Morison (November 24th, 1919) in A. Nichols, The Latin Clerk (Lutterworth Press, 2011), 287.

[13] Reid, Organic Development of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2005), 74-78.

[14] Ibid., 78

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