Editor’s Note: The following lengthy text originally appeared as a three-part series in the Print Edition of Catholic Family News (November 2020—January 2021 issues). It is an expansion of a lecture given by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski at St. Stephen of Hungary Catholic Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, an apostolate of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, on Sept. 20, 2020.
Many Catholics have heard the word “ultramontanism.” But what exactly does it mean? Where did it come from? And why might the phenomenon it describes be harmful—at least today? The Encyclopedia Britannica offers us a short, handy definition of the term:
“Ultramontanism, from Medieval Latin ultramontanus, ‘beyond the mountains,’ in Roman Catholicism, a strong emphasis on papal authority and on centralization of the church. The word identified those northern European members of the church who regularly looked southward beyond the Alps (that is, to the popes of Rome) for guidance. During the period of struggle within the church over the extent of papal prerogatives—beginning especially in the 15th century with the conciliar movement and continuing in the following centuries with the growth of strong nationalism and theological liberalism—the Ultramontanists were opposed by those, such as the Gallicans, who wished to restrict papal power. The Ultramontane Party triumphed in 1870 at the first Vatican Council when the dogma of papal infallibility was defined as a matter of Roman Catholic belief.”
The Growing Strength of the Papacy
We should note, first of all, that the initial desire of Northern Europeans to look towards the papacy in Rome for support and guidance came in the midst of a false theory of conciliarism that attempted to make an ecumenical council—a general synod of bishops—the ultimate authority in the Church, which is clearly contrary to the divine institution of the papal primacy in the Apostle Peter and his successors.
This adherence to the pope gained strength in the period of the Protestant Revolt, for obvious reasons: the Protestants rejected with increasing radicalness the very existence of a single Church of Christ with a single form of government, which led inevitably to doctrinal fragmentation and contradiction. The reforming popes of the Counter-Reformation emerged as the saviors of Christendom, or at least of what portions of it they could salvage in Europe, as well as of the immense additions to the Church that were made through European exploration and conquest.
The spirit of Protestantism gave birth, in the 17th and 18th centuries, to the rationalism and liberalism of the so-called Enlightenment. In this period, too, the papacy functioned as a visible symbol of continuity with the one Faith of the ancient and medieval Church.
In the revolutionary spirit of the late 18th and 19th centuries, with the growth of a disordered patriotism and a diseased nationalism, the papacy in Rome, even as it grew progressively weaker in political terms, became just about the only office on earth whose incumbent was, and could be seen to be, transnational and universal, a representative of Christ to the nations and a teacher of all mankind.
Finally, as Protestant liberalism infected the Catholic Church in the 19th century and became Modernism, once again the pope showed himself to be a defender of the simplicity, integrity, and totality of the Catholic Faith. This unique role on the world stage made it inevitable that the pope would be understood and seen as the very embodiment of the Catholic Faith, the measure of what it means to be Catholic.
The Pope as Rallying-point for Catholics
In practical terms, think of what it was like in England or in France in the 19th century. England was dominated both by the Established or Anglican Church and by political moderates who were nonetheless basically “liberals” in the Catholic understanding of the term. France was even worse off; her government was dominated by anticlerical Freemasons who continually sought pretexts for opposing the resurgent post-revolutionary Church and who would eventually prevail in their campaign against any kind of union between Church and State. France, moreover, was imbued with centuries-old habits of Jansenism and Gallicanism, which gave rise to a rationalistic and anti-Roman mentality.
In England and in France, the most devout and zealous Catholics tended almost inevitably towards exalting the office of the Pope, the “Father of Christians,” as a counterbalance to regional or national self-interest, a common rallying point for doctrine and discipline. Military imagery has always been favored by Christians, ever since St. Paul’s letters and the Rule of St. Benedict. The pope could be seen as the general of the Lord’s army, mustering troops from the four corners to engage in battle against the philosophical and political forces of modernity.
In fact, one of the greatest of the 19th-century ultramontanists, a passionate pamphleteer in the cause of Rome and Romanitas, was none other than Dom Prosper Guéranger, the beloved author of The Liturgical Year, whose book The Papal Monarchy in 1870 was one of the most prominent defenses of the doctrine of papal infallibility defined at the First Vatican Council, which adjourned on October 20 of that year (we just observed its 150th anniversary).
Three Distinctive Marks of the Catholic
I will come back later in my talk to the actual teaching of the First Vatican Council. For now, I would like to propose that ultramontanism has been the basic mentality of most Catholics in modern times (stretching back several centuries). In the public eye, what makes a man a Catholic is threefold: first, he believes in the Eucharist as the true Body of Christ; second, he venerates the Blessed Virgin Mary; third, he accepts the Pope as head of the Church, and follows the Pope’s teaching. If we take the veneration of Mary as predicated on the privilege of her divine Maternity in the Incarnation, we can see the profound connection between these three (at first sight) disparate truths. In a work published in 1958, at the dusk of Pius XII’s pontificate, the great theologian Cardinal Charles Journet beautifully brings out this connection when he says, concerning the bestowal of universal jurisdiction on Peter and his successors:
“What a union of apparently contradictory attributes! What a difficult saying seeking a welcome in our hearts! That Peter, who is one man and who can inhabit only one place, was chosen as head of the Church, which is divine and universal! Nevertheless, in Christianity, this saying is not seen as something strange or foreign to the faith. In a sense, we could say that it sounds to our ears like a familiar and expected message. It formulates a great mystery; but this mystery is in no way new.
In one of its applications, it is the presence of a unique, breathtaking mystery in which Christianity consists: God willed that divine things be enveloped in feebleness, infinite things held fast in space and time. In Luke 1:26–27, at the moment of the Incarnation, we see that all the geographical and genealogical details have been massed together in order to announce to us the descending of Eternity into a moment, Immensity into a place, spiritual Liberty into the constraints of matter. The very Creator of the entire universe was born a small child on our planet and later declares that his flesh is food and his blood drink: these words were spoken in order to unite, but, seeming to many hard and intolerable, they divided. Finally, he proposes a mystery, no doubt inferior but analogous, and he chooses (we could not say his successor—this would be blasphemous) his vicar, that is, someone to be the authorized spokesman of his teaching and the depositary of a power until now unheard of—a weak man, whose misery Christ knew well and whose denials he publicly foretold.
The Incarnation, the Eucharist, the primacy of Peter, these are the directed manifestations and stages, as it were, of one and the same revelation. There is a worldly wisdom that immediately rejects this revelation. And there is another wisdom that begins to be Christian, begins to believe in the Incarnation, but then, a little farther on, becomes disconcerted before the mystery of the Eucharist or the mystery of the primacy of Peter and makes no further advancement. It seems to forget that God is God, that he passes through matter without being diminished, that, on the contrary, he makes use of matter and transfigures it.”
One might put it this way: within the very conception of Christianity, in the mind of its author, the Incarnation was destined to ripple out into the Eucharist, and the Eucharist was to be the sign and cause of the unity of the Church governed by Peter. It is impossible to be Catholic—indeed, impossible to be fully Christian—without believing in the unique visitation of the world by the Son of God made man, without honoring the singular woman He chose as His Mother, without accepting His enduring presence among us as our Emmanuel or God-with-us in the Blessed Sacrament, and finally, without remaining subject to His Vicar or representative on earth. There is a tight logic to the fundamental elements of Catholicism: they stand or fall together. Christian reform movements that began by rejecting the papacy ended up, in time, rejecting the Real Presence, the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation itself. All of these are various forms of one and the same “scandal of the particular”: the entrance of God into our material world in order to seek and to save that which was lost.
Temptations to Exaggerate the Truth
Given these general truths, which have much to be said for them, it is not surprising that Catholics may develop a “hypertrophic” ultramontanism, a sort of excessive adherence to the person and policies of the pope, by which one simplistically takes everything he says as a definitive judgment and everything he does as a praiseworthy example, wrapping the mantle of infallibility around all his teaching and the garment of impeccability around all his behavior.
Generally, those who operate in this manner are suffering from a double handicap: first, a mighty ignorance of the annals of Church history, which often display the papacy in (shall we say) a less-than-favorable light; and second, a mighty ignorance of the precise understanding of papal infallibility officially taught by the Church.
I decided to call this series “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism” because, as embarrassing as it is to admit it in 2020, my understanding of the papacy during my years in college was papolatrous to an almost satirical degree. I was a “John Paul II” Catholic who believed that the pope had all the right answers on any and every question, and that the one and only problem we were facing was widespread disobedience to him.
Like many writers, I have kept journals in certain periods of my life, and I’m happy that I possess the one from my senior year at Thomas Aquinas College, in which I stumbled upon this over-the-top passage from April 28, 1994:
The Pope measures; he is not measured. There is no higher tribunal, no court of appeals; who is to set himself up as judge over the Supreme Pastor, the Vicar of Christ?… He knows more, sees more, hears more, looks towards the future with a higher gauge of utility and worth—charism of his office, grace necessary to fulfill his functions as mother and teacher. No one can be led to hell by following his teaching, per necessitatem, whereas one risks condemnation for disobeying him, if he speak the words of Christ. …
A “prudential” decision of the Holy See may or may not be right—that is entirely irrelevant to the Catholic. Religious obedience: “be silent,” “bury the baseball bat,” “milk the cows,” “let the heretics alone,” “permit altar girls,” whatever, so long as it does not contradict faith and morals, so long as it pertains to a change in discipline and not a change in dogma. When the order is promulgated, it is ipso facto binding and obligatory, until the Holy See revokes it, or until historical conditions, sufficiently obvious, render it irrelevant… But, if a man have not sufficient wisdom and prudence to decide, he should always follow the Pope’s decree to the very letter, knowing that the Vicar of Christ can “neither deceive nor be deceived” in his proclamations and orders, when they touch upon the care of souls.
The meeting of Christ and the Centurion. What do we learn? “I am a man accustomed to command; I say to one man, Go, and he goes…” Christ, marveling, responds: “I have not found faith such as this in all of Israel!” Why? Because the Centurion was ready to submit himself to Christ even as his underlings and slaves submit to him, viz. absolutely. The Catholic is no milk-toast religionist, he is no Rosary-touting Protestant: he must obey the voice of Peter, or else he forfeits the very thing which separates him from the amorphous Christians who plague the face of the earth.
Not quite a year later, on March 20, 1995, I wrote in a letter to a good friend:
I maintain … that the Pope measures, he is not measured. He is “first in the genus,” from which all species derive their title, as fire, being the hottest, is the source of heat. The depositum fidei does not exist as a separate substance, hovering in the centuries of church history. There is no Magisterium apart from the Pope, who guards and interprets it, “like to a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasury new things and old” (Matthew 13:52). “A good man out of a good treasure bringeth forth good things” (Matthew 12:35). The Pope is the incarnation of the apostolic power and trust, it is he who holds the keys that loose on heaven and on earth. The whole inheritance of the depositum fidei rests in his hands, and it is only made living and binding through his mediation. The Pope exercises on earth a role similar to the Virgin Mary in heaven; just as she is the mediatrix of all grace, he is the mediator of all doctrine and discipline. The “constant teaching of the Church” is not simply, or even primarily, historical; it is present, active, animate. Wherein does it reside on earth? In the Vicarius Christi; it is like a second nature ingrafted onto him by the working of the Holy Ghost, when he is consecrated Pope.
This, I’m afraid, is a pure and perfect statement of what Italian historian Roberto de Mattei calls “papolatry.” As I said, such juvenile exhibitions are frankly embarrassing—but they have the value of demonstrating the absurd overgrowth of a normally healthy instinct, when it is detached from the reality of history and magisterial teaching.
Enter John Henry Newman
Earlier I mentioned the growth of ultramontanism in France and England. Not every prominent orthodox Catholic was equally on board with the trend towards papal centralization and exaltation. The man who was arguably the greatest theologian of the 19th century, John Henry Newman, was extremely suspicious of the kind of ultramontanism espoused by his fellow countryman William George Ward, who famously and provocatively stated: “I should like a new Papal Bull every morning with my Times at breakfast,” so that he would have still more beliefs to accept as a Catholic convert. Newman, also of course a Catholic convert from Anglicanism, was distressed at this exaggeration of the papal office and its function. The papacy risked being turned into an industrial factory of new pronouncements and new directives on every subject under the sun.
While Newman’s own account of doctrinal development is not immune from criticism, he clearly affirms the immutability of the apostolic deposit of faith and the requirement of complete consistency of any later definition or explanation of a truth with all that has already been held and taught about that truth. In other words, Newman adhered to St. Vincent of Lérins’s assumption that if doctrine is to grow or make progress—the word in Latin is profectus—it can do so only “according to the same meaning and the same judgment,” in eodem sensu eademque sententia—a phrase that has been repeated countless times in magisterial documents. Any other kind of change, says St. Vincent, is a corruption, or, in his language, permutatio. Profectus and permutatio: those are the options.
Newman was anxious about such corruption taking place at the First Vatican Council concerning the proposed definition of papal infallibility—a belief on which he thought the less said, the better, not because he did not accept the pope as the God-given teacher of Christians and the final court of appeal, but because he knew that a party of “ultramontanes” was busy pushing a theologically unsound, philosophically unreasonable, historically untenable, and ecclesiastically damaging version of papal inerrancy that threatened to confuse the pope’s office with divine revelation itself, rather than seeing him more modestly as the guardian of tradition and the arbiter of controversy.
“One is obliged to hope…”
Considering the fact that it was none other than Pope Francis who raised Newman to the honors of the altar, the following excerpt from one of Newman’s letters comes across as more than a little ironic. On August 21, 1870, a little over a month after the July 18 promulgation of Pastor Aeternus, Newman wrote to his friend Ambrose St. John:
“I have various things to say about the Definition … [T]o 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 [NB: this is how Newman refers to the bishops at Vatican I who voted for the definition!] 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.”
It is striking to see one of the most brilliant and saintly theologians of modern times entertaining such deep misgivings about an ecumenical Council lawfully convoked, about conciliar acts lawfully promulgated, and especially about the reigning pope, whom he hopes will be driven out of Rome or be soon replaced by a better pope. Yet Newman made no attempt to hide where he stood, and although he fully accepted the definition of Vatican I, he also understood it restrictively and modestly, as he argued one should accept all definitions: according to their precise limits and their role within the whole religion of Catholicism.
Those who today have misgivings about the convoking of Vatican II by John XXIII, about various and sundry elements in the sixteen conciliar documents issued under Paul VI, and about the conduct of Pope Francis may take comfort in knowing that such difficulties of mind and problems of conscience are not incompatible with the Catholic Faith or with the virtues of humility and obedience.
The first installment concluded with John Henry Newman’s realistic and critical assessment of the work of the First Vatican Council, whose dogmas he wholeheartedly accepted but about whose “spirit,” if I may so put it, he expressed reservations. Would the definition of papal infallibility prompt popes to start acting like divine oracles, flexing their magisterial muscles on every topic under the sun?
“Bring it on,” a blog called Where Peter Is would confidently respond. Where Peter Is features the work of ardent defenders of Pope Francis and, for that matter, of anything and everything papal. They are, so to speak, those who have never met a papacy they didn’t like. If you have run out of creative penances, you may wish to pay the site a visit, but only if you do not suffer from high blood pressure or PTSD (Post-Tridentine Stress Disorder).
Recognizing that Catholicism is inherently a religion of Tradition, Where Peter Is sidesteps the awkwardness of patent contradiction between earlier magisterial teaching and Francis’s “creativity” by arguing that Tradition actually means “whatever the pope says.” Tradition is not something given in the past or cumulative, but something constituted by the Pope’s endorsement of it here and now. Therefore, Catholics must assent to Amoris Laetitia, the abolition of the death penalty, human fraternity among a plurality of divinely willed religions, and every other kind of novelty “proposed” by the pope.
The Papal Ex Nihilo
The heart of the argument is the claim that the pope and bishops are the “interpreters of Tradition,” such that we cannot even know what Catholic doctrine is unless we are told what it is by the pope and bishops. It has no existence in itself, apart from their acknowledgment and exposition of it. And if they merely say that something is Catholic doctrine, or is somehow “part of Tradition”—even if it sounds very different from what other popes and bishops used to teach, or even if it’s never been said before by anyone—that’s okay, because Tradition is, after all, whatever the current pope and bishops tell us it is (or isn’t).
According to this theory, no one could ever have a legitimate disagreement with a pope, because such a one would be pitting his own “private interpretation” against the interpreter set up by God. This brand of ultramontanism, like the harangues of my college days quoted earlier, elevates all papal statements and policies into authoritative utterances that ought to be trusted on faith as God’s will for us today and, accordingly, should never be criticized.
The basic difficulty with this approach is that it makes a hash out of any claim of consistency of teaching on the part of the Catholic Church. If you can get unanimity from the time of the Old and New Testaments to the 21st century on the legitimacy of capital punishment, but then Pope Francis can suddenly declare it contrary to the Gospel and to human dignity (as he very clearly does in his October 11, 2017 address), where are we? Where does that leave us? This line of argument empties Catholicism of any objective content and makes the pope the master rather than the servant of Tradition. Something is wrong if a pope one fine day can make a statement that renders inaccurate or unusable an entire library full of previously approved catechetical, apologetic, theological, and spiritual writings.
How different is the understanding of Pope Benedict XVI, who said in an oft-cited homily in 2005:
“The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith. The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism. … The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.” (Emphasis added)
This is what well-catechized Catholics had always believed to be the role of the papacy. The pope was expected to make his acts of teaching and governance conform to a Tradition that preexists as a providentially bestowed measure for all believers.
No New Doctrines, Says Vatican I
Let us recall the resounding and reassuring words of the First Vatican Council:
“For the Holy Spirit was not promised to the Successors of Peter that they might disclose a new doctrine by His revelation, but rather that, with His assistance, they might reverently guard and faithfully explain the revelation or deposit of faith that was handed down through the Apostles.”
This view furnishes the basis on which the Third Council of Constantinople (A.D. 680-681)—the sixth of the ecumenical councils—saw itself as competent to issue a crystal-clear condemnation and anathematization of the deceased Pope Honorius (r. 625-638). The conciliar acts were signed by 174 council fathers and the five patriarchal sees, including most importantly that of Rome, where Pope St. Leo II (r. 682-683) endorsed the anathema, repeated it in his own writings, and ordered all the Western bishops to sign off on it. This view explains the shadow that hangs over the name of Pope Liberius (r. 352-366) in the West, as a vacillator who gave encouragement to enemies of the Faith.
The original ultramontanists could be forgiven for their enthusiasm. Most of the popes of the Counter-Reformation and post-revolutionary periods in Europe were solidly committed to traditional dogma, liturgy, and morals; the popes from Gregory XVI to Pius XI in particular were anti-modern (or anti-Modernist) to the core. They were the heroes fighting the drift into total secularism. We are, regrettably, in a very different place. One who reads Pope St. Pius X’s great 1907 encyclical against Modernism, Pascendi Dominici Gregis, would find it difficult not to see the opinions he is condemning in the very words of Pope Francis and his supporters.
Note how carefully Benedict XVI, in the quotation above, chooses his every word. He says: “The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the Faith.” In other words, it is not involuntary, like the reflex motion of a knee struck with a doctor’s rubber mallet. Each bishop, including the bishop of Rome, must make a voluntary submission of mind and heart to the Faith, and he can fail to do so in the vast realm of statements, decisions, and actions that fall outside the confines of papal infallibility as defined by Vatican I. If a pope’s failure to submit himself to Sacred Tradition and to defend it strenuously is notorious enough, it merits condemnation and resistance—a point to which I shall return in a moment.
Pope Benedict continues: “He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.” Implied in this “must” is an ought: he ought not to proclaim his own ideas, but choose to bind himself and the Church to what is true, regardless of the pressure of progressive elites. Benedict also insists that the pope should avoid “tearing to pieces the Word of God by continuous changes in usage.” It seems that Paul VI never received that memo. In almost every area of the Church’s life, he attempted to change what his predecessors—including the popes immediately before him—had established. Francis, like Paul VI, has attempted, directly and indirectly, to overturn the magisterium of his predecessors as well. One can see this in his approach to Veritatis Splendor on moral absolutes, Familiaris Consortio on the indissolubility of marriage, Humanae Vitae on contraception, and much else besides.
Even Bad Bishops Remain Bishops
In the fourth century, during the Arian crisis that swept through the Church, most of the bishops stopped defending Catholic Tradition. To put it bluntly, they were either heretics or cowards. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and just a few others whom we now revere as confessors of the Faith claimed that their brother bishops—in the hundreds—were renegades.
Did this mean that all of those bishops ceased to be successors of the Apostles? No. Did they lose their authority to govern? No. They remained what they were divinely ordained to be. But they were not living up to the demands of their office; they were not living by the charism of truth entrusted to them. By the sensus fidei or divine instinct for the truth, the faithful were able to detect the difference between the Arians and the Catholics; they purposefully avoided the former and sought out the latter. St. Athanasius was faithful to the office that Christ gave him, but he was hounded out of his see multiple times by his opponents and died from maltreatment at the hands of Arians and Semi-Arians who had the backing of “successors of the Apostles.” The laity supported Athanasius because they recognized in his doctrine the truth of the Faith proclaimed immutably at Nicaea.
Having an apostolic office makes a bishop worthy of honor and obedience—but he still has to work out his own salvation “in fear and trembling” (Philip. 2:12), like everyone else. He still has to profess the Faith by an act of free will supported by God’s grace. He still has to submit to the same Tradition to which every other Catholic from the day of Pentecost to the Second Coming has to submit. And, if I may be allowed to lapse into slang, he can blow it big time, just like the rest of us. As it says in Scripture, the mighty, if they fail, “shall be mightily tormented” (Wis. 6:6). It’s not for nothing that Dante puts popes and bishops in his Inferno.
Can We Condemn or Resist a Pope?
A moment ago, I spoke of condemnation and resistance. I want to clarify this point because it is very important.
“Condemnation” of papal error coming from a layman or a simple priest or even a diocesan bishop could not be a definitive judgment, such as that which the Third Council of Constantinople passed posthumously on Honorius. It could only ever be a respectful expression of one’s conscientious conviction that a pope had gone astray, based on objective criteria.
All the more impossible would it be for laymen or clergy to conclude that a pope had ceased to be pope, or that he had never become pope in the first place. Whoever reigns as pope, acknowledged to be such by the unanimity or generality of cardinals, bishops, and faithful, must be endured, for good or for ill. Although it is theoretically possible that an imperfect council consisting of either all cardinals or all bishops could declare that a pope, due to his contumacious adherence to heresy or his apostasy, has been ipso facto deposed by God, I have not met a single person who actually believes that all of our cardinals or bishops today, or even a representative number thereof, will ever come together for this purpose, so the question, however fascinating it may be, is moot.
Some neo-ultramontanists contest whether any Catholic of any degree may condemn or resist a pope in his teaching or prudential decisions. The more “street-smart” approach of our forefathers to this question may be seen in quotations from eminent and approved Catholic theologians.
Speaking of fraternal correction in the Summa, St. Thomas Aquinas famously says: “If the Faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” A century later, Juan Cardinal de Torquemada (1388–1468) states: “Were the pope to command anything against Holy Scripture, or the articles of faith, or the truth of the Sacraments, or the commands of the natural or divine law, he ought not to be obeyed, but in such commands is to be ignored.”
Resist to His Face
The Renaissance Thomist Cardinal Cajetan (1469–1534), born one year after Torquemada’s death, counsels: “You must resist, to his face, a pope who is openly tearing the Church apart—for example, by refusing to confer ecclesiastical benefices except for money, or in exchange for services… A case of simony, even committed by a pope, must be denounced.” Cajetan is talking about simony, which was obviously a massive problem in centuries past; but it is far from being the worst sin or the greatest problem. The imposition of harmful discipline such as the promulgation of a valid but inadequate and inauthentic liturgy, or an assault on the integrity of doctrine, is certainly worse than simony.
One of the greatest Jesuit theologians, Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), declares: “If the Pope lays down an order contrary to right customs one does not have to obey him; if he tries to do something manifestly opposed to justice and to the common good, it would be licit to resist him; if he attacks by force, he could be repelled by force, with the moderation characteristic of a good defense.”
Sylvester Prieras (1456–1523), “a Dominican theologian, appointed master of the Sacred Palace by Pope Leo X and known for his detailed rebuttal to Luther’s 95 Theses,” has these surprisingly vigorous words to say:
“In answer to the question, ‘What should be done in cases where the Pope destroys the Church by his evil actions?’ [I reply]: ‘He would certainly sin; he should neither be permitted to act in such fashion, nor should he be obeyed in what was evil; but he should be resisted with a courteous reprehension.… He does not have the power to destroy; therefore, if there is evidence that he is doing it, it is licit to resist him. The result of all this is that if the Pope destroys the Church by his orders and acts, he can be resisted and the execution of his mandate prevented. The right of open resistance to prelates’ abuse of authority stems also from natural law.’”
Similarly, St. Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), Doctor of the Church and preeminent theologian of the Counter-Reformation, wrote:
“As it is lawful to resist the pope, if he assaulted a man’s person, so it is lawful to resist him, if he assaulted souls, or troubled the state, and much more if he strove to destroy the Church. It is lawful, I say, to resist him, by not doing what he commands, and hindering the execution of his will; still, it is not lawful to judge or punish or even depose him, because he is nothing other than a superior.”
In that last phrase, Bellarmine is strictly correct: no one on earth could depose a pope, since it is only an inferior who can be deposed by his superior. However, as we said earlier, it is possible that an imperfect council of cardinals and/or bishops could declare a pope who is known to be formally heretical of having been deposed by Almighty God—for surely, no one believes that God is not superior to the pope (do you hear that, Where Peter Is?).
The Need for Study
Have there been instances in Church history where condemnation has been called for and resistance has been exercised? Absolutely: dozens of times. The most readable, interesting, and important book on the subject is Roberto de Mattei’s Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church, published by Angelico Press in 2019, with a Foreword by Cardinal Raymond Burke. I cannot recommend this book too highly. I would also recommend Henry Sire’s Phoenix from the Ashes: The Making, Unmaking and Restoration of Catholic Tradition, also published by Angelico in 2015.
Sometimes traditional Catholics are presented with the objection: “Should we all have to be theologians and historians to maneuver our way in the Church today? Surely, that’s not what Jesus had in mind. He wanted simple faith and trust.” This objection is true in one way and false in another. It is true in the sense that the Catholic Faith is indeed accessible to all and at all times: what we need to know and to do in order to be saved is mercifully compact. We find it in the Creeds and Commandments taught by the Church in all of her trustworthy old catechisms. In this sense, one who knows his catechism knows what the truth is and how to get to Heaven.
We are, however, in a period unique in history. Never before have the basic tenets of the Creed, the elementary Commandments of God, and the traditional divine worship of the Church been so assaulted, ripped apart, and undermined as they are in modern times, particularly with the surge of Modernism right before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. What Catholics in former ages had the luxury of taking for granted, what every bishop and pastor taught from the pulpit, what every catechism given the imprimatur would have contained, can no longer be assumed to be what we will find when we walk into a church, pick up a document, or buy the latest catechism. For this reason, it is incumbent on us, more than it would ordinarily be for laity in a healthy period of time, to study our Faith, to understand at least the rudiments of the revolution that has occurred, and to hold fast to the Catholicism that the saints lived and handed on—with simple faith and trust.
Catholics who protest the novelties of Francis are not setting up their “private judgment” against “God’s judgment.” Rather, such Catholics are looking at the witness of twenty centuries, twenty-one councils, and two-hundred-sixty-five popes preceding this one and seeing contradictions on any number of points, using our God-given gift of reason, which can indeed tell us infallibly that—contrary to papal cheerleader Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J.—two plus two equals four and cannot equal five.
In the first part of this series, I defined ultramontanism, explained why it arose, and analyzed the danger of it when taken as an attitude that makes more of the papacy than it was intended to be, or rather, makes it other than it was intended to be. In Part 2, I looked at an extreme current example of this hyperpapalism, namely, the blog Where Peter Is, and quoted theologians on why and when Catholics are authorized to condemn or resist a pope.
“What good, then, is having a pope?” someone might be tempted to ask. “On your account, we’d be better off without one.”
My response is that (1) this is certainly not true, if we look at the many saintly and valiant popes who have defended and, when necessary, defined the Deposit of Faith down through the centuries, and (2) a pope benefits the Church when, and precisely inasmuch as, he exercises his office well.
Frustration with the papacy occurs only for those who have an exaggerated notion of the pope’s role. For the most part, Catholics throughout history have been able to ignore what the pope is doing, because they already knew their faith—what they had to believe, pray for, do, and shun. For its part, as we have seen, Vatican I is clear about the specific circumstances within which the Church’s infallibility is engaged by her earthly head. The pope is supposed to be “where the buck stops” when there is a dispute that cannot be otherwise resolved. He is meant to be, as Cardinal Newman says, a remora or barrier against doctrinal innovation, not an engine for doctrinal development, let alone a chatterbox sharing his personal opinions in newspaper interviews or airborne press conferences. A priest writing under the pen name Pauper Peregrinus observes:
“Was it also from being thus weakened in their sense of their own prerogatives that orthodox bishops came to depend too much on Rome to teach the unpopular doctrines, for example, on sexual morality? While we were blessed with many fine papal encyclicals in the 19th and 20th centuries, it is not a healthy sign when letters from the Roman Pontiff to the universal Church become the usual means by which orthodoxy is maintained among Catholics. The episcopacy is the normal means for doing this; the papacy exists to scotch errors that episcopal teaching has not been able to defeat. Whether the massive increase, in modern times, of papal documents directed to the universal Church is related as cause or as effect of a dearth of good episcopal teaching is a nice question.”
In fact, the gravity of the papal office is such, and so great the responsibility, that a pope should be characterized by saying rather less than most bishops or priests do, instead of saying more. He should be a man of few and serious words, a “prisoner of the Vatican” (so to speak) who, instead of globetrotting, works tirelessly to put the Church’s house in order by a rigorous selection of orthodox bishops and the appointment of collaborators exceptional for orthodoxy, holiness, and zeal for souls. Is this too much to ask? If we look at what St. Pius V and St. Pius X did, we can see that it is certainly not too much to expect.
How the Pope is Like St. Joseph
I find it helpful to reflect on how the pope plays a role not unlike that of St. Joseph towards the Virgin and Child. Christ, the Word, has His origin from elsewhere; Joseph is not His natural father, but only His protector. The Virgin, image of the Church, is more exalted than her husband, but nevertheless under his care and authority. Joseph is “the Just Man” because he never exceeds or falls short of the role he has been given, which places him at once in subordination to his wife and foster Child, and in a certain position of governance over them. But St. Joseph is also “the Silent Man”: not a single word of his is recorded in Scripture. He does what he is asked to do, without making a scene, without excess verbiage, and without the need to shine. No wonder there was barely any cult of St. Joseph for the first 1,500 years of Christianity. He hid himself in the shadows. Looking at the popes across history, we might ask ourselves which ones have acted the most like St. Joseph, and which ones the least.
John Henry Newman helps us to grasp the Catholic religion as something whole, complex, sublime, and coherent, in which we do not see the papacy looming as a dominating protuberance out of all proportion with the rest of the body, but as one piece in a brightly-colored mosaic designed by the divine Craftsman. Newman gratefully acknowledges the pope’s crucial role but refuses to make of him the originator or measure of Christian doctrine or Christian life. This is why I believe Newman would have had just the same reaction to Cardinal Müller’s “Manifesto of Faith” as Fr. John Hunwicke did (another convert from Anglicanism):
“Silence can say more than a million words. Conan Doyle’s dog, for example, that did not bark in the night. I think the most striking thing about the Manifesto given us by Gerhard Cardinal Mueller was what it did not mention … the Papacy.
Just consider the amount of controversy the question of the Petrine Ministry created at the time of Vatican I; how much controversy there has been between Catholic and non-Catholic polemicists. Consider the Personality Cult which has surrounded popes since, I think, roughly the last part of the pontificate of Blessed Pius IX. A cult that treats the Roman Bishop like a demi-god or a pop star. … I think it is sentimental and mawkish, sickly, corrupt and corrupting. It was certainly not invented by PF and his cronies, but it has reached a new theological peak in this pontificate. Curial cronies tell us that the Holy Spirit speaks through PF’s mouth; the English bishops write letters to inform him that the Holy Spirit was responsible for his election and guides him daily; a [certain] Fr. Rosica, incredibly, explains to us that the pope is free from the encumbrances of Scripture and Tradition. It is what I have called ‘Bergoglianism’. I think it is not only sick in itself, but is a dangerous poison of rare toxicity within the Church Militant.
Yet, despite all this, Cardinal Mueller did not even mention this enormous elephant in a tiny room, even in passing. I have not felt so refreshed for a long time.”
Of course, the refreshment soon passes as we realize once again, with a groan, that we are living in a world and in a Church in which Newman’s wise reservations about the role of the pope and Cardinal Müller’s confidence in basic Catholic doctrine are not shared by a large number of the bishops, especially the Bishop of Rome at their head—in spite of the fact that, precisely as successors of the Apostles, they are solemnly committed to their Joseph-like role of guarding the holiness of our Mother and providing a home worthy to be dwelt in by Christ.
Why Peter is the Rock
Peter—the original Peter and each of his successors—is called a “rock” by holding and publicly professing the immovable truth of Christ and His Church. This is not a subjective faith to be determined by each generation, or customized by each new pope, but rather the common faith of the Church, which each of us receives as a member of the Mystical Body of Christ. This is the Faith that waxes strong in any Christian who has learned his catechism well and who knows, by a supernatural instinct, what is true and compatible with the truth, and what is heretical or offensive to pious ears. If the Faith was supposed to be changeable and changing, Christ would have named Peter “water” or “mud,” not “rock.”
In a time of confusion, one thing is clear: we must hold fast to the settled and articulate Tradition of the Church: in her doctrine (e.g., what we find thoroughly spelled out in a careful compilation like Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma); in our moral life, according to the constant teaching and example of the Saints; above all, in her liturgical worship, her authentic age-old rites. This is what we are asked to do: remain faithful to the inheritance we have received, prior to the period of anarchy.
To the objector who says: “this traditionalist position is subjective!”, I reply: No, it is not. The Catholic Tradition includes generally accepted readings of Scripture by the Church Fathers and Doctors as well as copious magisterial determinations, such as the dogmas and anathemas of ecumenical Councils. There are numerous objective and mutually reinforcing indications of Catholic teaching, and these constitute true limits on what the current Magisterium (Pope/bishops) may legitimately teach, or what a Catholic today may accept as rationally consistent. If you are put in a situation where you must, in effect, deny both your faith in the past guidance of the Church by the Holy Spirit and your reason—which tells you, according to available evidence and sound argumentation, that one thing is better or worse than another—in order to cling to a self-destructive path chosen by Church officials, how are you different from a Calvinist who denies that faith and reason have anything to do with one another, or a Mormon who has neither faith nor reason to bank on? “A priorism” is all well and good, but it is a short step from that to the most blind and pathetic fideism that has ever been seen.
The conservative, by indiscriminately taking “the Magisterium of the Moment” as his guide in all things, unmoors himself from the established content of cumulative teaching and risks being guided by the whims of a capricious monarch or the synthetic dogmas of an ideologue. The conservative would have no basis for questioning or disagreeing with a pope on any matter, no matter how much it departed from the teaching of his predecessors or even that of Scripture. Such a view effectively infallibilizes in one fell swoop the current Magisterium or the current Pope of Rome, thereby dissenting from Vatican I’s understanding of the infallibility that Christ willed the Church to possess.
In Part 1, I quoted some passages from journals written in my college years, when, intoxicated with John Paul II’s stardom, I espoused an extreme ultramontanism as the solution to all evils. In Part 2, I noted that today an entire website caters to this death-defying sport. We find a rather startling exhibit in the otherwise edifying book Meditations for Each Day written by Cardinal Antonio Bacci, the Vatican’s chief Latinist under four successive popes (Pius XI, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI):
“There is in the world … one man in whom the greatness of God is reflected in the most outstanding way of all. He participates in the authority and in a certain sense in the personality of Christ. This man is the Vicar of Jesus Christ, the Pope. … His power extends to the ends of the world and is under the protection of God, Who has promised to confirm in Heaven whatever he will decree upon earth. His dignity and authority, then, are almost divine. Let us bow humbly before such greatness. Let us promise to obey the Pope as we would Christ. … We cannot dispute or murmur against anything which he teaches or decrees. To disobey the Pope is to disobey God. To argue or murmur against the Pope is to argue or murmur against Jesus Himself. When we are confronted with His commands, we have only one choice—absolute obedience and complete surrender.”
A sport that involves this level of danger might well be called, tongue-in-cheek, “Bacci Ball.” The good cardinal himself, however, had to give up on it. The years 1967 and 1969 saw Bacci stand forth, almost alone in the college of cardinals, in acts of noble and courteous opposition to the line being taken by Pope Paul VI. As befitted a man of letters and a passionate lover of Latin, these acts took the form of critiques of the liturgical reform. The first was Bacci’s own preface to Tito Casini’s diatribe against the vulgarization of the liturgy, The Torn Tunic, in which he made no attempt to hide his disapproval of the unceremonious murder of the Latin-rite Church’s mother tongue. The second was Bacci’s willingness to add his name to the cover letter of The Short Critical Study of the New Order of Mass written by a group of Roman theologians. Although many high-ranking prelates had initially agreed to sign it (Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre claimed that six hundred prelates would have done so), everyone got proverbial cold feet when the text was prematurely leaked. In the end, it was sent to Paul VI with only two signatures: Cardinal Ottaviani’s—and Cardinal Bacci’s. This act of courage will be remembered for centuries to come, no less than Paul VI’s villainy in allowing the magnificent liturgy of the Church of Rome to be defiled.
This Trial Is for Testing and Purifying Us
It is true that at a tense moment like this, we can become impatient and frustrated at the inaction of our episcopal shepherds, who ought at very least to be condemning rampant errors and evil actions (e.g., the Buenos Aires guidelines, the death penalty error, the Pachamama veneration, the Abu Dhabi statement, etc.). It is at just such times that we are proved like gold in the furnace, our patience is put to the test, and we grow in our trust in Divine Providence and our fervor in crying out to Him for intervention.
The worst thing we could do is to abandon ship for one or another branch of the Eastern Orthodox, or for the imaginary green pastures of sedevacantism, on the pretext that somehow these groups are “better off” than we are. What good would this move accomplish? It would only remove good people from where they are most needed—within the visible hierarchical Body of Christ—and would only contribute further to the scandal of Christians divided amongst themselves. What is needed is steadfast attachment to the Bride of Christ, in spite of her marred countenance on earth; unswerving loyalty to her eternal Head; and total acceptance of the doctrine He entrusted to her in its integrity.
We are living through an unprecedented time. So many “certainties” have been blown up as by grenades and bombs. The one and only safe path is to stick to what we know to be certain; to implore God’s help and intervention daily; to entrust oneself to the Virgin Mary; and not to venture into dangerous trackless territory, such as holding that the one accepted as pope is not the pope, or that the new Mass is invalid, etc. These conclusions are by no means necessitated by the problems, but they are tempting as pressure-release valves that make us feel like we are “doing something” against the evil, “rejecting” it, when all the while we are giving into subtler evils. In fact, it is precisely the validity of this renegade papacy and the sacramental validity of this fabricated Mass that make our lot so much worse, and the duty of fidelity and reparation so much more urgent.
Do Not Get a Crick in the Neck
We are duty-bound to pray for our shepherds—and then, with a cheerful countenance and a jaunty step, get on with our daily lives as Catholics. For most of her history, the Church has bustled along in her mission, without waiting to hear the latest address by the pope or counting the bishops’ votes at the latest synod. What we need to believe and to do has been laid out for us for a long time, with no possibility that it will ever be substantially changed. For this reason, we don’t need to get a crick in the neck by always looking over our shoulder towards Rome, wondering what’s the latest revelation (good or evil) from the Casa Santa Marta.
The city of Rome houses the bones of at least a hundred popes, most of whom are forgotten by all but historians. Visitors to St. Peter’s basilica walk past one sarcophagus after another as they proceed toward the confessio to pay homage to the Prince of the Apostles. Soon, the wretched papacy under which we now suffer will be past, as we draw closer, step by step, to the final confrontation of Christ with Antichrist. Let the dead bury the dead; let modernists bury modernists. “As for you,” says the Lord to each of us, “follow Me.”
I realize the foregoing advice does not clear up our difficulties, which remain stubbornly opaque and undeniably menacing. For basic sanity, it is crucial at this time to recognize that we are in uncharted waters, in the midst of a tempest like none other. There will be no “easy solutions”; those proffered by hyperpapalists and antipapalists are no better than the simplifications (sola fide, sola gratia, sola Scriptura) by which Protestantism thought to escape from the corruption of the late medieval Church, and purchased instead centuries of fissiparous woe. This is surely a mess that only an omniscient and omnipotent God could sort out, a mess from which only He could deliver us, in answer to the prayers He would call forth from our weary but unconquered souls.
That is why I repeat: our sanctifying work, planned for us by God in His eternal Providence, is to remain faithful to tradition and to prayer, come what may; to bide our time, keep our sanity, hold steady, and wait for the Lord. He is not far away in utopian pastures; He is still and always among us. “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matt. 28:20).
 Journet, Theology of the Church, 128–29.
 There is the problem of what Thomas Pink calls “official theology,” and the exaggerated notions of infallibility that have crept in that way, but I will not be able to address that in the present talk.
 Entry on April 28, 1994. This entry continues: “Only per accidens could his decision lead to damage or distress, as did the words of Christ to Judas: ‘Go now, be about your business.’”
 Homily for the Mass of Installation as the Bishop of Rome (May 7, 2005).
 Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus on the Church of Christ (July 18, 1870), Ch. 4 (Denzinger-Hünermann 3070).
 See Roberto de Mattei, Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of the Church (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2019), p. 26.
 See Claudio Pierantoni, “The Need for Consistency between Magisterium and Tradition: Examples from History”.
 See my article “Pius X Condemns Modernism: Relevant Then, Relevant Now,” OnePeterFive, Sept. 3, 2018.
 See my article, “The pope’s remarks about sex ed are either naïve or nefarious,” LifeSiteNews, Jan. 30, 2019.
 See “The New Synthesis of All Heresies: On Nietzschean Catholicism,” OnePeterFive, May 16, 2018.
 See my article, “Two strategies enemies within Church will use to abandon Humanae Vitae,” LifeSiteNews, Aug. 14, 2018.
 See my article, “Why Catholicism is necessarily dogmatic, with a definite content,” LifeSiteNews, Feb. 12, 2019.
 No private individual or lay Catholic has the right or the authority to declare, in a universally binding and effective manner, that a certain bishop or pope is deposed due to apostasy, heresy, or schism. We can recognize heresies, call them out, refuse to adopt them, and warn others to be wary, but ultimately it has to be a bishop (such as a metropolitan archbishop) who corrects and deposes a bishop, and an ecumenical council, or at very least an “imperfect council,” that confronts and admonishes a heretic pope, and declares him deposed by God if the heresy is unrenounced (though reputable authors have argued that not even this recourse is possible, and that we must suffer while resisting; cf. https://onepeterfive.com/bishop-athanasisus-schneider-on-the-question-of-a-heretical-pope). If a pope is a heretic, we know what we must do; that is all we can do. His status is for the college of cardinals or the episcopacy to adjudicate. Nor is this a matter of “punting” on the question; it’s a matter of honoring the apostolic, hierarchical constitution of the Church. Whether our bishops are doing a great job or a deplorable job, it’s still their job to do it. At this juncture they are making an absolute mess of it, admittedly, but that’s on their head, and we must pray for them to get some courage and wisdom.
 De Torquemada, Summ. de Eccl., pp. 47–48.
 Cajetan, De Comparatione Auctoritatis Papae et Concilii.
 Suarez, De Fide, disp. X, sect. VI, n. 16; De Fide, disp. X, sec VI, no. 16.
 Prieras, Dialogus de Potestate Papae (from Francisco de Vitoria: Obras, pp. 486–7). Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) himself says: “If the Pope by his orders and his acts destroys the Church, one can resist him and impede the execution of his commands.”
 Bellarmine, De Romano Pontifice, Bk 2, Ch. 29, seventh reply.
 Pauper Peregrinus, “Papal Infallibility After One Hundred and Fifty Years,” OnePeterFive, July 20, 2020.
 For the full text in English, see “Cardinal Müller issues Manifesto: A quasi correction of Pope Francis’ pontificate,” LifeSiteNews, Feb. 8, 2019.
 “Without the Father … Cardinal Mueller’s Manifesto (1),” Fr Hunwick’s Mutual Enrichment, Feb. 15, 2019.
 See Pauper Peregrinus, op. cit.; Kwasniewski, “Could God permit a heretical pope to remain in office, and why would He?” LifeSiteNews, Jan. 9, 2020.
 Meditations for Each Day (Waterloo, Ontario: Arouca Press, 2018), 26–28. This work was originally published in Italian in 1959, at the end of Pius XII’s reign. Its English translation appeared in 1965, the year when Paul VI offered the first-ever Italian Mass at the Ognissanti in Rome. See “Dom Alcuin Reid on the 50th Anniversary of Mass in the Vernacular,” New Liturgical Movement, Mar. 7, 2015.
 On the history of the Short Critical Study otherwise known as The Ottaviani Intervention, see the preface to the edition prepared by the late Rev. Anthony Cekada (West Chester, OH: Philothea Press, 2010).
 See Michael Massey, “Sedevacantism Is Modern Luciferianism,” OnePeterFive, Dec. 2, 2019. Here, “Luciferianism” refers to the movement started by Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari (d. 370/71) at the time of the Arian crisis.
 See “International Crusade of Eucharistic Reparation Launched by Bishop Schneider,” Catholic Family News, July 24, 2020.