There is a word in the Catholic lexicon, and most Catholics are unfamiliar with it. It’s called ultramontanism. Briefly, the word means “beyond the mountains” and it’s a European reference to the Italian Alps that act as a natural northern border between Italy and the rest of Europe. Following the Protestant Revolution, wherein great portions of Germany, Switzerland and the British Isles became Protestant, the term came to reference the pope because he was said to be the man “beyond the mountains” or ultramontan. Thus the term ultramontanism came to be associated with Catholicism, and Catholics themselves came to use the term to describe certain ideological viewpoints within the Church.
In the 19th century, the Church was divided into two camps regarding the papacy…
The first camp was the ultramontanist camp, which basically held the pope in high regard, assigned to him strong administrative powers, and universal pastoral oversight. Furthermore, this camp held to the position that the pope can make infallible decrees on occasion (decrees without error), provided he specifically intended to do so and made it known to everyone that way.
The second camp was the neo-ultramontanist camp, prefaced with the term “new.” It basically held the same position of the ultramontanists, except for the last point regarding papal infallibility. The neo-ultramontanist camp held to the notion that the pope is infallible all the time, ipso facto, because he is the pope. If the pope says something, anything regarding the faith, it is to be held as infallible. Thus popes cannot err when it comes to faith and morals. If it is proved that a pope has erred, he is not really the pope, but rather an impostor or an anti-pope.
This conflict, between these two camps, was the historical context for the First Vatican Council held back in 1869-1870. The two camps, the ultramontanists and neo-ultramontanists, battled for control of the papacy at Vatican I. In the end, it was the ultramontanists who prevailed, and neo-ultramontanism was forced to retreat. The dogma proclaimed at Vatican I was the dogma of papal infallibility, which did more to limit the power of the pope then enable it.
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.
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.Vatican I, session 4: chapter 4 #9
Papal infallibility was restricted to decrees made by the pope ex cathedra “from the chair.” This means that, outside the canonization of Saints, a pope has to specifically teach something, limited to faith and/or morals, and specifically invoke his office as the Successor of Saint Peter, and specifically say that this particular decree is to be held as irreformable, (that is infallible or without error). If he doesn’t do all of these things, then the teaching could potentially contain error. In most cases, it probably doesn’t, but it is possible that in some cases it might. In other words, unless he has made the decree ex cathedra, it is possible (however rare) that the pope could be wrong.
Now there have been twelve popes who have reigned since this Vatican I dogma was proclaimed in 1870. They are as follows…
- Pius IX
- Leo XIII
- Pius X
- Benedict XV
- Pius XI
- Pius XII
- John XXIII
- Paul VI
- John Paul I
- John Paul II
- Benedict XVI
Of these twelve, only two (Pius XII and John Paul II) have exercised the ex cathedra dogma of infallibility, outside of the canonization of Saints. Pope Pius XII was the first pope to make an ex cathedra decree following the proclamation of the dogma. He was rather blunt and direct about it, in 1950, when he proclaimed the Dogma of Mary’s Assumption into heaven, body and soul. The Catholic Church has always taught this dogma, but there was some dispute among Catholics as to exactly when she was assumed. Was it before or after her death? Pope Pius XII ended this dispute by simply proclaiming that (1) it happened, and (2) it happened at the end of her earthly life. So in other words, it happened at the exact same moment of her earthly, physical death. Her body ceased to function, and she vanished. Our Evangelical brethren might refer to this as a “rapture,” much in the same way the Old Testament saints of Enoch and Elijah vanished at the end of their earthly lives. Saint Pope John Paul II was the second pope to make an ex cathedra decree, but he didn’t do this as directly or bluntly as Pius XII. This has caused some to dispute the teaching as infallible, though the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has stated that the teaching is still infallible, even if it wasn’t proclaimed in the explicit ex cathedra fashion. It happened in 1994 when Pope John Paul II issued the papal encyclical Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “Priestly Ordination” which stated that no member of the hierarchy (not even the pope) has the authority to ordain women to the priesthood.
That’s it. These are the only two times the pope has exercised his authority, defined under Vatican I, to proclaim a dogma infallible, outside of the canonization of Saints. All other popes (so far) have not used this authority.
Why is this important? It’s important today because while Vatican I (1869-1870) settled the matter on the books, and in Church law, it did not settle the matter in the hearts of many Catholics, nor did it settle the matter for the public at large, and this has led the Church to the point of crisis we see happening right now.
- To be an ultramontanist is to be a Catholic. This means that Catholics believe in LIMITED papal infallibility. This means Catholics believe the pope CAN err on matters of faith and morals when he’s not speaking ex cathedra. He is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra, which is extremely rare.
- To be a neo-ultramontanist is to be a heretic. This refers to those who believe the pope is supposed to always be infallible (without error) every time he officially speaks, all the time.
Because the word neo-ultramontanism is a very difficult one for Anglophone people to use, I have Anglicized the term to “hyper-papalism.” The term hyper-papalism is meant to mean the same thing as neo-ultramontanism, that is the notion that the pope is always right, all the time, or else he’s not the pope. This is not Catholicism. This is heresy!
People who say the pope is always right, all the time (in unlimited infallibility), are not acting as Catholics. They are acting as heretics. And we see their influence all around us even today. The first and most obvious place we see them is among the Sedevacantists (meaning “vacant chair”) who assert that there hasn’t been a legitimate pope since 1958 when Pope Pius XII died. Because they see errors, or what they perceive as errors, in the teachings of subsequent popes, they presume that these popes must be false popes (antipopes) since in their minds, popes cannot err.
More subtly however, we see hyper-papalism playing out among run-of-the-mill Catholics, who are often not very studied in their own faith. The mindset goes something like this. “The pope said it, and I believe it, so that settles it.” These are Catholics who may in every way be good Catholics, and some who may not be, but are under the false (heretical) impression that to be a good Catholic means believing everything the pope teaches and doing everything the pope says. Their Catholicism is exchanged for hyper-papalism, and their Catholic faith becomes nothing more than a personality cult, dictated by the whims of the latest man who sits in the Chair of Saint Peter. They adhere to an ideology of “dial a new pope, get a new doctrine” wherein they believe that absolute truth can change, depending on the man in charge of the organization. We see this attitude most prevalent among liberal/progressive Catholics, who believe the unchangeable doctrines against abortion, contraception, homosexuality and female ordination can change if they can just get the right pope in charge. Make no mistake about it. This is hyper-papalism, and it is heresy. Absolute truth does not change, and neither does Catholic doctrine, regardless of who’s in charge at the Vatican.
The liberal/progressive mindset among many Catholics in the Church tends to play out in the public media as well. The heresy of hyper-papalism is often reported by the press as if it were Catholic teaching. We see it all too often. The mainstream media will report some “off the cuff” remark the pope made as if it were new Catholic doctrine. The most notorious case of this was Pope Francis’ “off the cuff” remark about homosexuality when he said “who am I to judge?” While the context of his remark was orthodox and within the framework of Catholic teaching, his candid phrase “who am I to judge” was reported by the hyper-papalist mainstream news as an actual change in Church teaching. They reported as “the pope said it, so the doctrine has changed.” There was no appeal to reason or context. It was just a total hyper-papalist approach, that flies in the face of what real Catholics are supposed to believe about the pope.
Lastly, we see hyper-papalism used as a strawman argument against Catholicism by non-Catholics (especially Protestant Fundamentalists and Atheists). Working on the false and heretical assumption that all good Catholics are supposed to be hyper-papalists, they mock and deride Catholicism for every silly and reckless thing that popes have said throughout history. Their objective, of course, is to deride Catholicism so much that they cause as many Catholics as possible to leave the Church. Of course, in reality, all they’re really doing is deriding hyper-papalism (neo-ultramontanism) which is regarded as heresy by the Catholic Church, and they’re actually taking the official side of Rome without even knowing it.
Hyper-papalism puts the Catholic soul in extreme danger when it is believed. It can easily lead a Catholic to reject his entire faith because of one false assumption that the pope is supposed to always be right, all the time, because he’s the pope. Many Catholics have fallen away from the Church because of the heresy of hyper-papalism. Some have become little popes unto themselves, taking the position of the sedevacantists. Far more have just left the Church entirely, some becoming Protestants, and some becoming non-affiliated “spiritual but not religious.” If you adopt the heresy of hyper-papalism (neo-ultramontanism), don’t expect to remain Catholic for long. Hyper-papalism kills the Catholic soul.
Far worse are the implications of hyper-papalism when a pope commits an act that is cause for grave moral scandal. The psychological and emotional effect of hyper-papalism is to elevate a man to near “godlike” status. Hyper-papalism turns a pope into some kind of a guru, shaman, or mystical prophet. His status is elevated to “above human” in almost every respect. The result of which is that people start to think of him as “superhuman,” as if the man has a private line to God which only he can hear, and every word that falls from his lips has divine origin. So when such a man commits an act that is cause for great scandal, (such as for example: fathering a child out-of-wedlock, or helping embezzlers, or sheltering pederast clergy, etc.) the mass of faithful Catholics are scandalized to the point of losing faith in the Church entirely. Once again, hyper-papalism is heresy and it kills the Catholic soul.
To repute hyper-papalism is to be Catholic. To be a real Catholic is to believe…
- the pope can err outside of ex-cathedra decrees, even if such errors are rare,
- the pope can err and still be the pope,
- the pope can commit acts that cause grave moral scandal and still be the pope,
- and the pope is human.
Today, we are facing the darkest time the Catholic Church has ever faced since the Protestant Revolution some 500 years ago. There is nobody alive today who can remember the last time the Church was ever in such a dire situation. Pope Francis has been credibly accused of having covered up the sins of a well-known homosexual pederast (Archbishop Theodore McCarrack), and violated his own standard of “zero-tolerance” in the most extreme way possible. Furthermore, he has been credibly accused of having knowingly used the advice of this homosexual pederast to appoint bishops in the United States, and possibly elsewhere. He has surrounded himself by compromised men, accused of covering for homosexual pederasty and harassment. Furthermore, in his first response to the media, he did not deny any of it. These are actions that cause grave moral scandal.
If you are a hyper-papalist, it is likely that you are either losing your Catholic faith right now, or else you already lost it. However, if you know that hyper-papalism is heresy, and that Catholicism teaches a very strict and limited form of papal infallibility, against the ideas of hyper-papalism, your Catholic faith might be preserved in the midst of this time of crisis within the Church. So I strongly encourage you, if you have even the slightest shred of hyper-papalism in your belief system, abandon it now and toss it out for the heresy it is, before it robs you of your Catholic faith entirely.
Shane Schaetzel is an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism and was trained as a catechist through the University of Dayton – a Catholic Marianist Institution. Shane’s articles have been featured on LifeSiteNews, ChurchMilitant, The Remnant Newspaper, Forward in Christ, and Catholic Online. Shane is an author of Catholic books, which can be read here.