Neo-ultramontanism

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Neo-ultramontanism (literally the new ultramontanism) is the belief of certain Catholics, primarily during the period immediately prior to Vatican I, that papal infallibility was not restricted to a small number of papal statements but applied ipso facto (by virtue of being said by the Pope) to all papal teachings and statements.

Although few of today's Catholic Church historians distinguish between neo-ultramontanism and the more moderate ultramontanism of mainstream nineteenth-century Catholicism, there were substantial differences between the two. The neo-ultramontanes wanted to pass by decree the most extreme definition of papal infallibility possible and did not wish for debates at all. They were, indeed, regarded as imprudent by more moderate ultramontanists who won the debate at Vatican I.

Origins and history[edit]

Neo-ultramontanism as a movement dates back to the writings of Joseph de Maistre, who in Du Pape ("about the Pope"), argued essentially that what the Pope says is true to the exclusion of all other contrary truths. In the following period the ideals of neo-ultramontanism were formulated - though for many years in a quite incoherent manner - to free the Church from the power of the secular state. Many who know about it see neo-ultramontanism as the most extreme reaction to the ideas promoted by the French Revolution, which made them turn to the papacy as the last bastion of truth. Its main bastion in these early days was the French journal Univers under the leadership of Louis Veuillot.

The term "neo-ultramontanism", however, was not coined until 1863, when it was used by one of its strongest adherents, the British lay convert William G. Ward and adopted by Cardinal Henry Manning. Ward's viewpoint can be summed up in the following article by Cuthbert Butler, the best historian of Vatican I:

  • He held that the infallible element of bulls, encyclicals, etc., should not be restricted to their formal definitions but ran through the entire doctrinal instructions; the decrees of the Roman Congregation, if adopted by the Pope and published with his authority, thereby were stamped with the mark of infallibility, in short “his every doctrinal pronouncement is infallibly rendered by the Holy Ghost”...

During the lead-up to Vatican I the neo-ultramontanes were very well organised and included within their ranks a substantial portion of the 601 bishops who voted on the question of infallibility at that council. They were concentrated in Western Europe, but did not manage to win the debate - a fact often attributed by liberal historians to their lack of theological and historical understanding of how the doctrine of infallibility was first proposed.

After Vatican I, neo-ultramontanism as a semi-organised movement declined as its chief adherents were not replaced. Pope Leo XIII never attempted to exercise infallibility and by the time of his death all the neo-ultramontane publications had been closed down or had changed their views on what was now "history" (Vatican I and the debates within it). However, some liberal theologians and historians have argued since the beginning of John Paul II's papacy that a view of papal infallibility analogous to that proposed by neo-ultramontanes has made a comeback. This has been especially true since the controversy surrounding the aftermath of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis in 1994 and The Tablet's article about that letter On Not Inventing Doctrine published a year and a half later. However, it ought to be emphasised that John Paul II and Benedict XVI have never cited nineteenth-century neo-ultramontanists as influences on their theological or ecclesiological viewpoints.

Criticism of term[edit]

Many Catholic Church historians are critical of the term "neo-ultramontanism" because they believe that it fails to clarify clearly the position of those who advocated it and that it was never in any general use: always being confined to a few of either its staunchest advocates or to strong opponents of its beliefs like Lord Acton.

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