There is currently amongst many self-described “conservative” and “Neo-Conservative” Catholics a modern view of the papacy that has taken effect amongst many individuals called ultramontanism which is at times called “papolatry.” This view of the papacy is basically the view that the pope can do no wrong. I would call this view of the papacy Machiavellian in nature. Namely that everything the pope does is par excellent and that we must rally behind everything a pope does or says. This type of view regarding the papacy furthermore holds that every statement or action that the pope does is the best course of action and that the Holy Spirit inspires everything the popes choose to say and do. Furthermore many who have this view of the papacy have a very flawed view regarding the teaching of papal infallibility, often claiming that many things that the pope says or does is infallible It is most definitely true that the pope exercises infallibility and that whenever the pope speaks, specifically in regards to faith and morality that he deserves our attention and respect. The ultramontane view of the papacy that many “conservative and neo-Catholic” individuals happen to hold is very different though than what the Church teaches and what the common belief amongst theologians is regarding papal infallibility. It is my most humble opinion that this view of the papacy is not only flawed, but furthermore, it is quite harmful to one’s faith and is contrary to reality.
When we talk about ultramontanism it should be noted that we are not talking about fidelity to the Holy Father. Rather what we are describing is a tendency by many modern Catholics in attaching uttermost importance to every prudential decision of the pope, including things such as every statement on ever matter, as well as papal actions in taking a prudential decision such as changing or modifying disciplines and the like as not only good, but the absolute best decision that could possibly be taken because it is the pope that happened to do it.
The main problem with this ultramontane view of the papacy is that it does not have a good understanding of what the Church teaches regarding the papacy, specifically in regards to papal infallibility. It should be noted that in regards to the infallibility of the pope and the magisterium that there are three levels which comprise it:
*Extraordinary Infallible Magisterium (“Solemn Magisterium”): this is exercised when the Pope, as supreme pastor of the entire Church, speaks ex cathedra (from the Chair of Peter) and solemnly defines a dogma concerning faith and morals to be held by the entire Church, or when a Dogmatic Council convened and endorsed by a Pope formally defines a matter of faith and morals to be held by the entire Church. This is a very rarely exercised assertion of authority (only a few times in the past few hundred years). When the Pope teaches using his extraordinary infallible Magisterium, or when a Council dogmatically defines something and the Pope endorses that defintion, Catholics must believe what is taught de fide, as an article of faith.
Ordinary Infallible Magisterium (“Constant Magisterium” or “Universal Magisterium”): this is exercised when the Pope, Council, Bishop, priest or any authorized teacher teaches in accordance with Tradition, the Sacred Deposit of Faith, and what has been always accepted and taught by the Church in the past.
Merely Authentic Ordinary Magisterium: any teaching by Pope, Bishop, priest, or any authorized teacher, that does not fall into the above two levels of infallibility is, quite simply, fallible, even though it may be part of the Authentic Magisterium (that is, it is “authorized” teaching). Teaching at this level is owed obedience — as long as obeying does not harm the Faith, lead to sin or the loss of souls, does not contradict the Faith, etc. If what is being taught contradicts the Faith, it not only can be resisted, it must be resisted.1
The First Vatican Council which defined the doctrine of papal infallibility defined it as follows:
Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God our savior, for the exaltation of the Catholic religion and for the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the Sacred Council, we teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals. Therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not by the consent of the Church, irreformable.2
This description of papal infallibility by the First Vatican Council basically describes that the pope exercises the gift of papal infallibility specifically when 1) He speaks authoritatively as pope, speaks to the whole Church 3) and wishes to define a doctrine dealing with faith or morals. This is basically the pope exercising the first level of infallibility through Ex Cathedra Statements “The Extraordinary Infallible Magisterium” or “Solemn Magisterium.”
Obviously, the pope is not always exercising this type of infallibility, which has only occurred a handful of times within hundreds of years. Those who often have an ultramontane view of the papacy often reject or fail to realize the third level of the Magisterium and the Pope which is not in of itself infallible. “Catholics who forget this level (the third level) of the Magisterium try very hard to be “orthodox” by being obedient, but they often have a false sense of obedience- an obedience that sometimes borders on a pre-conscious papolatry… They usually have a very healthy sensus catholicus, a desire for traditional Catholicism, and a virtuous patience, but they simply attribute to the Pope authority he does not have.” 3
This along with what Boniface had said shows the essence of what the ultramontane view of the papacy amounts to as well as why it is flawed in nature. This erroneous view of the papacy is not only flawed in nature but quite harmful to the faith and our efforts at evangelizing. Ultramontanists fail to realize that there are many cases when someone might accept a particular papal decision while acknowledging that one is not bound to agree with it. There are various examples of papal decisions and statements that one could legitimately criticize for being a pastoral mistake or for being a pastorally bad decision or statement. Whether this includes some of the disciplinary changes that came out of Vatican II and or some afterwards such as allowing women altar servers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the Promulgation of the New Order of the Mass, various clerical promotions done by various popes, the various ecumenical approaches and prayer services with non-Catholic Christians or non-Christians in general, the kissing of the Koran by Pope Saint John Paul II, Pope Francis’s choice of language, his handling and silence at the Synod, some of what he has said in his interviews and or private audiences and many other things are examples which can legitimately be criticized without someone falling into disobedience.
There are already many misunderstandings and objections to the understanding of papal infallibility that are held by many sincere individuals including both Catholics as well as, Protestants, and even non-Christians such as atheists, agnostics, skeptics, or simply individuals who simply have misconceptions about Church teaching regarding papal infallibility. Having this ultramontane view of the papacy, which is itself flawed in nature does not help clear up these misconceptions, but rather only adds to these misconceptions. Say a well to Protestant or non-Christian observer sees a pope say something or do something that seems to contradict what appears to be Church teaching, obviously it should be properly explained to such individual that although the pope is infallible, the pope does not exercise papal infallibility in every word and action that the pope does, but that there are fine lines to the use of this infallibility.
- Fish Eaters “Infallibility”
- Vatican I SESSION 4 : 18 July 1870 – First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ
- Fish Eaters “Infallibility” Op. cit.
* It has been brought to my attention that it is not really correct to talk about three levels of the magisterium. Rather there are two levels of the Magisterium, the Extraordinary Magisterium, and the Ordinary Magisterium. With that being said such “third level of the Magisterium” should merely be understood as any exercise either by the Pope or an individual bishop, or groups of bishops for that matter in such a way that is not fallible. It should also be noted that quoting FishEaters does not necessarily mean an endorsement of all aspects of the website. This includes any link to groups not in Communion with the Magisterium. Nor does this mean an endorsement of each and every articles contained in the website.