Saturday, September 21, 2013

Practical Effects of Ultramontanism

Fr. Ray Blake has an interesting post reacting to one ex-SSPX commenter's difficulties with Pope Francis and the general mood that surrounds the Roman Pontiff. In the comments section one poor fellow, who struggles with homosexuality, has thought about ditching Rome for one of the Eastern Orthodox groups. It begs the question: why such a reaction? Why does the personality and the [positive or negative] aura of a given Pope matter so much to people's lives?
More liturgically-oriented readers have probably realized by now that the Rad Trad is not so rad of an Ultramontanist. Indeed, he has little use for the late-19th century, Jesuitical fad that provided so much material for the BBC series Bless Me, Father. What few realize today, either in Traddieland or the mainstream, is how personal and shocking the effects of Ultramontanism have been. The phenomenon has devolved from a hyper-obsession with the Petrine office into a singular focus on the personality of whoever currently wears a white cassock and lives in Vatican City. Ultramontanism can be defined as this: The reigning Pope is always right and inspired by the Holy Spirit in everything he does and everything he approves, until another Pope does something different, in which case we just do not understand it" (Rad Trad Dictionary under "U").
Those who remember the 1960s, '70s, and '80s are about to take a quick stroll down memory lane, but it is prudent to consider what happened when, during and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church infrastructure created by highly centralized Ultramontanism fractured and crumbled under the burden of episcopal conferences, scandalous bishops, bad (but Papally sanctioned) liturgy, ecumenism gone wild, and other degrees of abuse (warning! most of this will sound highly tonue-in-cheek, but I make these comments from an observational, sociological standpoint and do not mean them personally; I am not singling out any readers or any public figures):
  • Continue to call one's self Catholic but cease to adhere to the Church: by far the most common result. So many had put stock into every word that Pius XII said that when Paul VI assumed the Papal chair and allowed bishops and clergy to go wild the impression was that none of this was really important after all. Most ceased to attend Mass and the dissipation of morality followed. Some retained the moniker of "Catholic" and even some cultural vestiges like fish on Fridays, but the great mass of people just left and looked back to those halcyon days as something childish or of a different era.
  • Continue in the Church, but gradually lose vigor: this was the second most common result of the meltdown of the old institution. A number of people found the vernacular readings in 1964 interrupted their private Rosaries during Mass, but His Holiness approved this new practice so along they went. As the liturgy and catechesis devolved and Rome sat lax, Mass attendance became more of a cultural and mechanical function than ever before (not that many did not attend out of social obligation before the collapse of Ultramontanism). The Church became a NGO in the eyes of these people with the Pope, a funny and stodgy old man, as the CEO. He introduced what appeared to be a new program, which was less interesting than the older one, yet it was not an entirely unpleasant experience. On the whole, this reaction can be likened to a classical local restaurant with a trust-worthy owner (let us call him Bill) everyone knows and loves. One day he changes the menu and the number of people going to dinner diminishes, but enough people from the old crowd who, although they do not care for the food, still like Bill patronize the place to support their friend and relive past experiences.
  • Stay and get with the spirit of the times in an orthodox manner: forerunner to the "hermeneutic of continuity." Many of these people held to every word of Paul VI and John Paul II on social issues and especially took to the Polish Pontiff's zeal. This birthed the "JP2" crowd that the Rad Trad recalls so vividly from his university days. These folks are often good people who read the 1992 Catechism and attend Mass frequently; they have adopted the Divine Mercy chaplet (could never get the hang of it) and Taize music for meditation. Everything the Pope, but especially the 1978-2005 Pope, says is inspired by the Spirit, Who dwells amongst us and directs us toward a renewal so fruitful we can hardly comprehend it.
  • Stay and become irate: this option gave birth to the more extreme elements of Traddieland. This crowd, more than the others thus far, shows the harsh effects of Ultramontanism. If everything every Pope before the Second Vatican Council said was as divinely-inspired as the Gospel, one has great difficulty in reconciling Francis and Pius X. Many went on to participate in the Traditionalist movement and join up with "independent" chapels or the Society of St. Pius X. These groups often view the Popes from 1958 onward as material heretics who, although they ought to be infallible in everything they do, must be totally ignored for not celebrating the Tridentine low Mass, writing encyclicals on neo-Thomistic theology, promoting the Sacred Heart, and condemning everyone who does not follow these precepts. Some of this group "lightened up" and joined the Ecclesia Dei type communities like the ICRSS, FSSP, IBP, and "indult" Masses.
  • Sort of stay: sedevacantism is the even more extreme consequence of the preceding line of thought. If the Pope is perfect and the current Popes are unlike their predecessors, then they are not perfect and hence not Popes. Someone who is different is doctrinally suspect; someone who is suspect is a material heretic; someone who is a material heretic is really just a low key formal heretic; and a formal heretic cannot be Pope. Amazing how that works. Best form our own $ociety of $t $omeone and furnish the place with kitsch statues of saints popular between the pontificates of Gregory XVI and Pius XII.
  • Go Protestant: the new following of the Pope, and the ecclesiastical world which emanates from him, is so dull that one may as well go to a Protestant community and really get church'd. In the 1970s and 1980s many Catholics lost their faith and then "found" it in evangelical protestant churches where they sang, danced, and learned the [abbreviated] Bible. This phenomenon has, thankfully, declined in recent decades. Some of these folks, from personal experience, are a variation of the group summarized in the first bullet point. Consequently, because so few of them had a good hold on the faith when they were Catholics, they often equate Christianity with Protestantism and hence zone the Church outside of their peripheries. Many Protestants, particularly clergy, are finding their way to the Catholic Church these days, but these people are often converts and not reverts.
  • Go Greek (or Russian, or Arab) Orthodox: a smaller, but not insignificant, number of devout Catholics, shocked by the situation in the Papacy and the poor state of the Roman liturgy followed the path of Fr. Alex Toth and left the Church altogether for an Eastern dissident group. With few exceptions, these folks can be rabidly anti-Papal, probably reeling from the aftershock of the collapse of the idyllic vision of the Church presented by the hierarchy in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Antiochian Orthodox are by far the worst in this regard (the Rad Trad has listened to an Antiochian Orthodox priest deny his own tradition by saying Papal primacy never existed in substance and that the idea St Peter was ever in Rome is a pious myth). Those who have gone to the Russian Orthodox tend to be more friendly and practical, often searching out good liturgy and not leaving the Church out of malice. The Rad Trad has never met, to his knowledge, any Catholic who has left for the Orthodox communities, but he has been blessed to know two holy people who have gone the other way.
  • Ad orientem: people who go to the Eastern rite Catholic Churches and stay there. Byzantine Catholic Churches have been the most popular destination here, as their liturgies are more often in vernacular than the other options. The Rad Trad's own parish is about one third "transplants" who came into the church for Divine Liturgy one fine morning ten or twenty years ago and never left. They adopt the spirituality and liturgy as their own. Their view of the Papacy often differs from Church to Church. For instance, the Ukrainians are far more Rome-focused than the Melkites.
  • An old fashioned Holy Ghost throw down with the Catholic
    Charismatic movement.
    Be slain in the Spirit: last, but not least popular, is the Charismatic movement. Get "slain in the Spirit" and discover your new gifts! This group, again more popular in past decades, has a uniquely modern sort of Ultramontanism that is attached to John Paul II's confirmation of their movement ("Long life to the Charismatics"), but also to Benedict XVI's kind words for them. Their relations with Pope Francis have yet to be determined, but their personality certainly matches the aesthetic of their style: spontaneous, simple, direct, and somewhat emotion.
Why expound such a long list of subgroups of Catholics and former-Catholics? Because so many of the people within these categories, which are generalizations and not absolute, find themselves where they are because of their relationship to the Papacy. A once tightly run company under the singular direction of Pope/CEO Whoever is now a chaotic array of various people who now have a different relationship to the Bishop of Rome than people half a century ago did and it is largely not their own faults. They had bought into a system wherein Papal encyclicals substituted for good catechesis and the Catholic instinct.
Most Catholics, from the first century until the nineteenth, probably did not even know the Pope's name, much less his policies and particular interests. Obedience to the Church's teachings and love of one another are what is required for salvation, not enthusiasm any particular program. Vatican I certainly made the Pope's role more prominent when the Council defined Papal Infallibility, albeit in a far more moderate way than Pius IX would have liked (he wanted to be infallible in all matters). Papa Sarto's reign was the real turning point, wherein the Pope's personality became a central part of the faith (I am of course referring to his aggressive stance in the Modernism controversy). Pius XII put this on camera and John Paul II put it in Technicolor.

Yet this obsession with the interests and whims of individual Popes is not part of the faith. Excessive concentration on his words, and the endeavor to square every vowel with those of his predecessors, will drive a person into one of the many exciting opportunities above. What does such an endeavor profit? Some liberal blogs are getting quite giddy about what they think Pope Francis has said in his 12,000 word interview and some traddie blogs are becoming distasteful in their reaction to the man. I myself wish his liturgical praxis was better and his statements were clearer, but what does it matter to me what a given Pope says in an interview or what his Curial plans are? Unless he intends to make an ex cathedra statement or do something to my parish then why should I take my eyes off my Divine Office or my editions of the works of the Fathers so that I may engage in the frustrating exercise of squaring Papal politics with my own perspective?

Lastly, one may be tempted to adopt a permanent spirit of criticism toward a given Pope, past or present, and allow that mindset to permeate our prayers and our daily interactions with others. Is this the Catholic spirit? Do we focus on Peter's denial or Our Lord's command "Feed my lambs"?

As G.K. Chesterton once said, I am on the Barque of Peter and do not need to see the engine room.
Keep focused


  1. Well, the cumulative effect of Ultramontanism has been an absolute disaster for Christianity in the West. The pertinent question, I would suggest, is whether the situation is reversible or not.

  2. Couldn't one respond that because of ultramontanism we in fact have to care to a certain extent because it actually will have an impact in dioceses, among other laity, etc.

  3. Perhaps I misread you as saying we shouldn't pay attention/concern ourselves at all, since I missed that you wrote "excessive" concentration.

    1. Right the second time! Never said total ignorance is the solution, just patience, prayer, and prudence.

  4. ¡Me quito el cráneo!

    "must be totally ignored for not celebrating the Tridentine low Mass, writing encyclicals on neo-Thomistic theology, promoting the Sacred Heart, and condemning everyone who does not follow these precepts"
    This is the best depiction I've ever read on current-ill-traditionalism! (in Spanish-speaking websites, it is absolutely dominant! -I don't know about English-speaking ones).

    The ultramontanist virus has already became a true cancer for the Church. Some people are tearing their clothes these days because Pope Francis, but the seem to have forgotten the former Popes' excesses.
    And yes, we must pray, and do penance too.

    Kyrie eleison

  5. Very helpful analysis, thank you. To Rubricarius"s question, perhaps a quote from Dr. Hull is in order:

    The survival of the Church until the end of time may be implicit in her [ the Church ] constitution,
    but just as Christianity, already debilitated by heresy and schism, receded disastrously from its
    original centre in the Middle East and in North Africa before the advance of Islam, it seems
    destined - despite its imposing real estate - to shrink to very modest proportions in the one-time
    homelands and expansion zones of Latin Catholicism.

  6. The Pope is irrelevant to a laymen except when issuing ex cathedra statements? Doesn't he do anything else that's authoritative? What do you say is the Pope's role in the Church, properly understood? Does he have no other role outside of Rome?

  7. But the orthodox laity were forced to look to and depend upon Rome after Vatican II because of the heresy -- or at least heterodoxy -- of the local ordinaries and episcopal conferences.

  8. I attend the Latin Tridentine Mass and remain faithful to the traditions always taught before VII pastoral council that most treat as Dogma. The Novus Ordo is leading souls into the one world church. The late Archbishop Lefebvre is my hero and also the late Fr. Luigi Villa who you should read about here:

  9. You know, Rad Trad, your patience and prudence can be quite irksome to know-it-alls like my own self.

    There is a lot to be said in favor of what you write even as there is a lot to be said for the writings of those who publicly rebuke and correct Franciscus for those last noted are helping to educate those who are seriously ignorant.

    (It is stunning the number of Catholics who think there Pope is impeccable and constantly guided by the Holy Ghost)

    The differences twixt you and them prolly can not be bolled-down to naturally existing personality traits (even while acknowledging the grace building upon that nature) but they can neither be ignored; in any event, yours is an always important voice so, please keep writing and thinking out loud in public

  10. Franciscus loves him some charismatics