The splendor and death of ultramontanism

15 11 2019

Reading John O’Malley’s recent book Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church in the context of the last few years of the Catholic Church is a peculiar experience. On the one hand, Vatican I shows how a Pope Francis is possible in spite of supposed centuries of settled doctrine and praxis. The Pope can do what he likes and there is no real mechanism to stop him (prima sedes a nemine iudicatur). On the other hand, the Jesuit papacy is the next stage of the backlash against Papal power that started at Vatican II (though this received a major assist from “reactionary” Pope Benedict’s casting off the Papacy in a manner unprecedented in modern times.) Previous devotees of the monarchical Papacy are now finding their “inner Gallican”, if not their barely suppressed inner sedevacantist, while rebels of the past are taking up the mantle of past defenders of the cult of the Papacy. The wheel of fortune was spun once more and turned everything upside down. Those who think that things will “return to normal” are quite mistaken in my opinion.

O’Malley’s book didn’t break much new ground in my mind, but it did enforce two ideas that I had concerning the emergence of the ultramontanist Church. The first concerns the role of nationalism. The French Revolution and the subsequent nationalist movements of the 19th century were an immediate factor in efforts to define Papal primacy and infallibility at the First Vatican Council. The book goes into detail concerning the threat that Gallicanism and Febronianism posed to Papal power in the 18th century and how secular governments seamlessly continued these meddling trends in the form of secular intervention into the affairs of the Church. As ecclesiastical power was being contested outside the walls of the church, the hierarchy turned increasingly inward, strengthening its grip over the internal affairs of the Church that had previously been the partial concern of secular authorities.

The other notable point of O’Malley’s book is how much the impetus to define Papal infallibility came from the laity and the lower clergy, and not the bishops. The lay-run L’Univers in France and the Jesuit-run La Civilta Catolica in Italy were key in whipping the episcopacy into line to back a strong papacy, to the point of accusing certain bishops of heresy for their lukewarm attitudes toward ultramontanism in the face of secular threats. The growth of an independent press and vibrant civil society meant that the common man could affiliate with the international Church independent of the national state and official power structures. The Pope and his most fervent devotees could appeal directly to the hearts and minds of the common people on the street.

The description of the actual council itself seems somewhat anticlimactic in the book. While the gathering at Vatican I was one of the first truly international gatherings in history, it addressed only a small fraction of its proposed agenda due to the precarious political situation that broke out into the Franco-Prussian War. The resulting overturn of the political order resulted in the taking of Rome by Italian troops and the definitive end of claims to the Papal States. As Pius IX achieved his main objective of defining Papal infallibility, he deigned there was no point in continuing the council after it had been indefinitely adjourned in 1870. O’Malley points out that John XXIII indicated that Vatican II was not an official continuation of Vatican I, though the subtext is that it would continue the unfinished business from a century earlier.

One point that resonated with me at the end of the book was O’Malley’s characterization of a bloated Papal magisterium in the aftermath of Vatican I. Popes in the modern era write copiously, and they broadcast almost every significant thought they have to a captive audience. The entire literary output of modern Papacies can span almost two dozen volumes. By contrast, Pius VI only published one encyclical. In the age of social media, the Pope and hierarchy can communicate with the faithful in real time, and the faithful in turn can react to the acts of their shepherds as they do with any other celebrity. One wonders if one day Tweets will be entered into the official annals such as the Acta Apostolicae Sedis.

Our current atmosphere has many similarities and contrasts to the period around Vatican I. The drive to define Papal infallibility was a mostly European affair, and the opposition to the current Papacy is also an almost exclusively European and North American concern. Opposition to Francis comes as well from a very small vocal minority of bishops (just as in Vatican I), but more from select journals (this time on the Internet) run by laity and supported by lower clergy. Coupled with “call-outs” on social media, these lay pundits don’t hesitate to accuse bishops and even the Pope himself of heresy. What is most distinct in our situation is how little secular interest there is in the affairs of the Church at this point. The silver lining of the rise of secularism is how it consolidated ecclesiastical power into the hands of the Papacy. The Pope can now choose who will govern every diocese in the world, and he has total say concerning the shape and character of Catholicism in every church on Earth.

I have not spoken about doctrine proper yet because doctrine was never the point. The worst part about talking about Catholicism in 2019 is that it’s not like in the early Church where they were discussing the nature of Christ or even what to call the Virgin Mary. It’s all haggling over procedure and bureaucratic red tape. For example, I don’t really see what the issue with Amoris Laetitia is as, at worse, it just seems to be streamlining the annulment factory that emerged in the last 50 years that never encountered a marriage it couldn’t invalidate. I just see it as dispensing with the paperwork and kangaroo canonical court. Even the scandal of “idolatry” at the Vatican at the beginning of the Amazon Synod seems like a tempest in a teapot to me. Similar spectacles took place over thirty years ago at Assisi, and that Pope is already canonized. We’re not debating dogma at this point, but regulations and optics. Truth continues to be merely an exercise in public relations.

Vatican I was a failure because it did not provide what it said it would provide, and that is certainty. This hearkens to my long held belief that one shouldn’t try to resolve epistemological problems with doctrinal solutions. Vatican I sought to fortify the Papacy as the last pillar of objective truth in an increasingly secular and relativistic world. As “everything solid melts into air” (Marx), the Vatican Prisoner Dressed in White was supposed to be a bulwark of sanity that all could look to for guidance. The papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI (anyone remember the Regensburg Address?) broadcasted that trope after the turmoil of the Second Vatican Council. Overall, this scheme was never going to work. Once you state that truth rises and falls due to only one link in the Great Chain of Being, at that point you’re tempting fate. If there’s one thing the Fates like, it’s throwing a wrench into the gears of a well-oiled, well-devised Theory of Everything. Watching everyone scramble in the aftermath is somewhat entertaining at least.

I said at the beginning of this essay that things will never “return to normal”, and I reiterate this by saying that things were never “normal” in the first place, at least not recently. As I stated some months ago, the Church actually looks how Pope Francis thinks, in spite of how things are supposed to be on paper. I also indicated above how little secular power is directly concerned with the affairs of the Church. The reality is that secular society exercises a heavy soft power on the Church. People have options these days after all, and voting with one’s feet has never been easier. The Church of Vatican I expressed that it would be a counter-cultural force working against the grain of secularism; with Vatican II, it lost its nerve. The mixed messages and ambivalent signals the Church has communicated since then have made conservative agitation seem like impotent protesting. One either goes along with the course of self-dissolution into the secular ethos, or one grounds the whole Catholic project in ill-devised cultish posturing. What Jesus has to do with any of it is beyond me.

There is a quote by Bossuet in the book that was something to the effect that the Catholic Church supplies certainty concerning what is true even when the Roman Church is lacking. This position was of course resoundingly defeated at Vatican I. It took all that the minority could muster at the council to prevent infallibility from being defined as a personal charism of the Roman Pontiff. It is thus poetic justice to see the ultramontanist of ten years ago now having recourse to an “eternal Rome” of Archbishop Lefebvre in 1974, a Platonic ideal of Truth above history and change. Both Paul VI, the Pope in 1974, and John Paul II, the Pope who excommunicated Lefebvre in 1988, have been raised to the altars. If the crisis of the Franciscan papacy is ever resolved to the partial satisfaction of the conservative mind, perhaps Catholic reactionaries and progressives will approach the issue of church authority with more introspection in the future. However, as I have come to believe that many Catholics believe more in the power of the Church than in the Church itself, I am not holding my breath in this regard.




2 responses

4 12 2019

Very good. Thanks for writing.

15 11 2019

Thanks, very interesting. Does the book also focus on bishop Gasser?

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