There is much debate these days in conservative and traditional Catholic circles about papal authority. Francis’ pontificate has produced concern about the uses of papal power, driven by Francis’ apparent contradiction of what have been understood as settled doctrines on moral questions, and the teaching of his immediate predecessors. What has undoubtedly flummoxed Catholics concerned with orthodoxy is how many ordinary Catholics don’t seem to understand the pope can’t simply will whatever he wants with regard to doctrine. How did things get this way?
Much of this discussion has centered around “ultramontanism.” The term ultramontane literally means “beyond the mountains.” It was first used during the Investiture Controversy of the 11th and 12th centuries, when opponents of the German Emperor Henry IV appealed to the pope “beyond the mountains” in Italy. With the Reformation, theologians made increasing appeal to papal authority in debates with Protestants. According to Thomas Pink, it was during this period that theologians such as Francisco Suárez and St. Robert Bellarmine began to link the Church’s infallibility with its canonical authority—insinuating that its infallibility in teaching the faith extended to its disciplinary legislation, as a means of opposing the claims of absolute monarchs over the Church.
But ultramontanism as we now know it took shape during the nineteenth century, when the Church rallied European Catholics around the banner of the papacy in the face of anticlerical governments, culminating in the declaration of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council. Since then, the term “ultramontanism” has become a shorthand for absolute papal supremacy.
In this process, modern media played a large role. Many have noted that, in the past, few ordinary Catholics would have concerned themselves with the off-hand comments of popes, and they rightly point to the influence of news media on attitudes toward the papacy.
The rise of the popular Catholic press was crucial to the development of ultramontane sentiment on a popular level in the nineteenth century. In France, during the 1830s, journalists like Louis Veuillot and his daily L’Univers began attacking both anti-Catholic republicans and liberal Catholics like the Abbé de Lamennais who wanted to compromise with them.
Beginning with Pius IX, popes encouraged popular writers like Veuillot and the Jesuit paper La Civiltà Cattolica, founded in 1853. This popular ultramontane press, in return, exalted the pope’s authority as never before. This went hand in hand with the centralization of the papacy under Pius IX. Thus, the Vatican embraced a kind of populist authoritarianism in terms of apologetics and approach to governance, which has characterized it to this day.
This was a major shift for the Vatican, which since the Reformation had seen the press as the invention of the devil and tried to curb its influence. But the Vatican had little choice at that point. The French Revolution and Napoleonic wars had threatened the very existence of the papacy, and it found itself increasingly at the mercy of hostile modern states whose financial and bureaucratic powers dwarfed its own, a reversal of the conditions that had made the papacy a formidable power in European life for centuries. The Holy See needed the “masses” on their side in order to resist the encroachments of liberal states.
The emergence of a popular Catholic press was made possible by technological advancements in printing that occurred during the nineteenth century. Until 1811, printing presses were operated by hand, which limited their production capacity. A German, Friedrich Koenig, invented a steam-driven cylinder press that could produce copies at ten times the speed of earlier presses, and these began to proliferate around the world by the 1830s.
This technology appeared just as modern states were dissolving regional cultures across Europe, attempting to establish modern, national identities in place of local ones. This process turned the European peasantry into “masses” that needed a focus of loyalty. In this is the key to understanding “ultramontanism”: it is not a formal doctrine (there are no encyclicals on “ultramontanism” that I am aware of) but a sentiment or species of rhetoric used to mobilize the faithful around the pope. This rhetoric, though intended to deal with hostile threats from outside the Church, inevitably became involved in intra-ecclesial disputes. This, in turn, led to an inflation of ultramontane rhetoric with long-term consequences.
In the run-up to Vatican I, adulation of the pope became so egregious that historians have dubbed this later phase “neo-ultramontane” to distinguish it from the earlier variety, and for good reason. Its proponents attributed to the pope the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and much more.
Among these was the British convert and theologian W.G. Ward, editor of the Dublin Review. According to Ward, the pope’s infallibility meant “his every doctrinal pronouncement is infallibly guided by the Holy Ghost,” and amounts to “a new inspiration.” The 1864 Syllabus of Errors he regarded “as the Word of God.” Veuillot rivaled him in this, claiming that “the infallibility of the pope is the infallibility of Jesus Christ Himself.” Others referred to the pope as “the Vice-God of mankind” and the “Permanent Word Incarnate.”
One French monsignor wrote of the “three incarnations of the Son of God”—in the womb of Mary, in the Eucharist, and in “the old man in the Vatican.” And the Jesuits at La Civiltà Cattolica, ever helpful, informed their readers that “when the Pope meditates, it is God who is thinking through him.”
These writers must have known these egregious exaggerations were not true, but they also wanted to use loyalty to the pope as a club against their opponents. Secular governments were afraid Vatican I would reassert Church prerogatives over areas such as marriage and family life, and opponents of the definition tried to inflame those suspicions, hoping to get those governments to intervene. In response, Veuillot and company ratcheted up their rhetoric, as one of his opponents put it, with the intention “to declare the Pope infallible in matters of faith in order to give him the appearance of infallibility in other matters as well.”
This brainless propaganda had its intended effect, demonizing anyone who objected to it and destroying any resistance in the Church to the definition of infallibility. This is what caused John Henry Newman to balk at the definition initially, and it led Ignaz von Döllinger, previously a supporter of infallibility, to violently oppose it and incur excommunication. It also contributed to the schism of the Old Catholics who refused to accept the definition after the council. Doubtless many of the opponents of defining papal infallibility couldn’t separate the hyperbole of its defenders from the conciliar definition itself.
Of course, the actual definition of papal authority in Pastor Aeternus is much more restrained and nuanced. And Pius IX seconded the German bishops when, in reply to criticism from the German government, they averred that the pope was not “a perfectly absolute sovereign” over the Church. But it is difficult to imagine that such nuanced scholastic qualifications had much impact on the popular Catholic imagination.
Writers such as Newman and others repeated these qualifications, but it is doubtful how much they penetrated the average Catholic’s mind, as opposed to the image projected by a vernacular Catholic press that must have often dispensed with them. Certainly, such sentiments remained widespread. For virtually all of the popes since Pius IX have exploited this to bolster the standing of the papacy, including the current pope.
It seems clear enough now that supporters of Pope Francis have been using the same strategy as their ultramontane predecessors: to insinuate that his infallibility extends further than it truly does and to demonize their opponents for opposing his designs. The difference, of course, is that the ultramontanes were orthodox and advocated positions consistent with previous Church teaching and tradition, whereas “Team Francis,” as Damian Thompson has called Francis’ Anglophone journalistic supporters, has cheered every novelty Francis has proposed, no matter how at variance with the historic teaching of the Church.
It is not surprising that this strategy has had some success. Appeals to personal loyalty are hard to dispel, personal loyalty being a natural emotion. That’s why the ultramontane press took that cudgel up in the first place. Loyalty needs no long explanations for a mass audience. Conversely, explaining to the average Catholic the reasons why the pope can’t dispense with natural or divine law when they become inconvenient is a much more difficult matter in any age.
However, it has clearly not been as successful as its backers would prefer, and this is due primarily to the media climate which is so different than it was fifty or a hundred years ago. The invention of the internet has broken any sort of monopoly on information or news. In the 1870s, a few men like Veuillot could dominate print media and drown out their opponents.
But no such dominance is possible today. A quick Google search can reveal what the Church’s teaching has been, and even with the support of a friendly secular media (another major difference from the 1870s), Francis still cannot completely marginalize his critics. This is probably one reason why he does not like conservative American Catholics very much: they have made greater and more effective use of the internet and social media to oppose his agenda than any other part of the Church.
The fact is that modern media makes distorting the teaching of the Church much easier, even when wielded by orthodox writers, if they are not careful with their words. It is worth recalling that Vatican II was, in part, an attempt by the Church to change its image as an authoritarian monolith to better communicate with “modern man.” The irony is that the caricature it attempted to overcome was at least partly the making of its own ultramontane supporters. Even more ironic is that, despite the council’s admonitions to the contrary, and all the talk of the “spirit of Vatican II,” the power of the papacy has only grown since the council ended. For all Francis’ assertions about the necessity of following Vatican II, his actual reforms have largely strengthened and centralized the papacy at the expense of the bishops.
None of this means that either ultramontanism or modern media are evil in and of themselves. As I stated above, the Church had little choice in the nineteenth century but to lean into the papacy and its aura of authority. However, they are both powerful instruments, and there is a saying in international relations that there are no such things as defensive weapons, only weapons. In that sense, there is a perfect symmetry between the modern media and ultramontanism as a rhetorical device: what they build up and defend, they can also destroy.
[Photo: Pope Pius IX and members of the Papal court, 1868]