Monday, February 3, 2020

Thoughts on the Misuse of the “Ultramontanist” Label

One tactic used by Catholics who oppose Pope Francis is to label any attempts at defending him as ultramontanism, defining it as attempting to claim everything a Pope says or does is infallible, and then claiming that ultramontanism is a heresy. Therefore, they argue, the defenders of the Pope are guilty of heresy. 

The problem with these claims give us a plethora of misrepresentation. They use the label with a false definition of what it means, and portray those who defend the Pope as guilty of supporting the behavior found in that false definition. As a result, they portray the defenders of Pope Francis as heretical while those who oppose him as faithful—both portrayals would be considered risible by faithful Catholics during the pontificates of his predecessors.

The abuse of term ultramontanism goes so far as to misrepresent the etymology of the word. Properly understood, it is derived from “beyond the mountains,” referring to the fact that the Pope was on the other side of the Alps from the rulers of those nations that tried to deny or reduce his authority over their Catholic subjects. Ultramontanism is not in opposition to orthodox Catholicism. It is in opposition to heresies like Gallicanism or movements like Febronianism, or the kulturkampf that demanded the submission of the Church to the state. Properly understood, Ultramontanism is recognizing that the final decision in the interpretation, teaching,  and governing of the Church lies with the Pope. Where there is a dispute, we obey the Pope over those who reject him. That’s Catholic teaching, defined in Vatican I and reaffirmed in Vatican II.

Unfortunately, the misuse of the term wrongly tries to tie it into the heresy of Montanism, claiming that those they accuse of Ultramontanism elevate the Pope’s teaching and governance to new “revelation.” Thus, we see certain Catholics accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of thinking Church teaching can be “changed,” which is something no informed defender of the Pope is claiming*.

So, to accuse the defenders of Pope Francis of “the heresy of Ultramontanism” certain anti-Francis Catholics commit a hat trick of errors: they falsely misdefine the term, wrongly apply that concept to his defenders, and wrongly claim that his defenders are “heretics” because of their false definition. 

The term Ultramontanism is effectively a combination of the strawman and the ad hominem fallacies. A strawman because it misrepresents the actual defense# of the Pope, and an ad hominem because the label tries to attack the defender, not refute the defense made. When someone uses the term to attack defenders of the Pope, look carefully at what they claim. Under close scrutiny, the Ultramontanism label is rotten to the core.


(*) I don’t doubt you could find grossly misinformed Catholics somewhere who might think that way—just as you might find grossly misinformed Catholics who literally worship Mary—but in both cases, the Catholics thinking that way are in error.

(#) For example, my principal defense of the Pope starts with the fact that the accusations against the Pope are false, not that I agree with the false accusations.

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