In upholding immutable truths, the ultramontanists of the 19th century were the true progressives
It is distressing to contemplate how much influence journalists have on Catholic life, but in truth this has long been the case. The furious exchanges among writers at First Things, Commonweal, La Civiltà Cattolica and the Catholic Herald have their precedents in the 19th century, when Louis Veuillot defied the Archbishop of Paris in the pages of L’Univers.
A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Brian Flanagan recognises this continuity and identifies Ross Douthat and me as representative of the “new ultramontanists” – today’s versions of Veuillot and William George Ward. If the comparison holds in my case, there could be no surer proof of decline.
There are reasons to doubt the analogy. The ultramontanists championed papal power, whereas both Douthat and I have expressed reservations about the reign of Pope Francis. Veuillot received warm thanks from Pius IX. The only feedback I have received from Pope Francis – handwritten notes on an article I had edited – was not complimentary.
It is true that Americans now stand where the French once did – at the centre of Catholic debate. As Emile Perreau-Saussine noted, “Demographic shifts within the universal Church and internal change in France have latterly combined to bring [its] intellectual primacy to an end. The internal arguments of American Catholicism now hold centre stage.” Opinions will vary as to whether this development is good or bad, but that it has happened cannot be denied.
Flanagan argues that the new ultramontanists, like the old, are often converts who lack formal theological training. That much is certainly true. Veuillot’s low birth and lack of education did not prevent him from seeing things that Lord Acton and Professor Döllinger, for all their refinement, learning and deep Catholic culture, could not.
This point became a matter of controversy when a group of liberal academics led by Massimo Faggioli complained to the editor of the New York Times that Ross Douthat had “no professional qualifications” for writing about the Catholic faith. This was ironic. Though Faggioli is often billed as a theologian, he in fact received his doctorate in history. That he is nonetheless one of our most incisive Catholic commentators shows the foolishness of policing credentials in this freewheeling sphere.
The main commonality Flanagan sees between old and new ultramontanists is that both are opposed to change. This means that they deny what he calls the “historical reality of the Church”. Here the comparison is more apt. Acton and Döllinger invoked historical science against papal power. The ultramontanists championed a perennial philosophy, as reflected in this decree from Vatican I:
If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.
Awkwardly, this condemnation could be aimed at many Catholics today, including some at the highest levels of the Church. Arguably inconsequential revisions to Church documents are presented as revolutions, with the apparent hope of justifying still greater changes.
We are barraged with advertisements for a “new paradigm”. This doctrinal mischief is apparently directed at no higher end than undoing the Church’s teaching against sterile acts. One wishes that men who abuse their own bodies would at least refrain from abusing the Body of Christ. Instead they revel in the idea of reversing Church teaching.
But reversal is not valid change. As Newman observed, Catholic teaching develops in a manner that excludes revolution. It changes in the way a sapling changes to become a tree. A legitimate development deepens, clarifies, and consolidates what came before.
One can see the operation of this rule in the ultramontanist debate. Despite – or rather because of – their insistence that the Church cannot contradict itself, the ultramontanists effected impressive changes. They championed a massive expansion of papal power in the form of jurisdictional primacy. They celebrated the definition of the Immaculate Conception, which anticipated the stunning decree on papal infallibility.
Against the ultramontanists, Döllinger and Acton invoked the older model of a conciliar Church that treasured local liberties. What these men failed to see – and the ultramontanists correctly understood – was that this model of the Church had been rendered obsolete by the rise of nationalism and the modern state. Broad-minded men claimed as forebears by today’s liberals (on both the left and the right) turned out to be purblind conservatives. Dogmatic ultramontanists were the true progressives.
We can view the ultramontanists as opposed to all change only if we misunderstand the development of Catholic belief. Because they were persuaded of dogma’s unchanging character and secure in its immutable truth, they could adapt it to their own times. In this sense, I am proud to be called an ultramontanist.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things and a Robert Novak journalism fellow
This article first appeared in the August 31 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here