Contra Roberto de Mattei on Ultramontanism

Here is the link to his article at Rorate Caeli. The article is titled: “Papolatry and Ultramontanism are not the same: Why I am proud to be an ultramontane — by Roberto de Mattei”.

I’ve mentioned the errors of de Mattei in some of my past posts here. In particular, this article which quotes de Mattei as saying that, in order to find a model pope, ” it will be necessary to look in the other direction — not only from Pope Francis but also from all of the recent popes, who were all involved in the historical catastrophe of the Second Vatican Council.” Roberto de Mattei rejects the Second Vatican Council and all the Popes since that time. He also rejects the Novus Ordo Mass, as he states in other writings of his. This rejection is per se schismatic. It is not a question of what a particular Pope said or did. The First See is judged by no one but God. And the faithful have always been required to accept all that an Ecumenical Council decides, as approved by the Roman Pontiff, on doctrine and discipline. It is per se schismatic to reject the decisions of any Ecumenical Council, whether infallible or non-infallible, whether doctrine or discipline. Calling any Ecumenical Council an “historical catastrophe” and repudiating not only all the recent Popes, but even the recent Pope Saints, is a rejection of the promises of Christ that the Church is indefectible and never-failing, and a rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit in the body of Christ, with Christ as its Head.

In the current article under consideration, de Mattei tries to distinguish between worship of the Pope (“Popolatry”), which he of course rejects, and ultramontanism, which he unfortunately misunderstands. He seems to want to take two conflicting positions, one in support of the office of the Pope, and the other as a person who deems himself fit to judge and condemn Popes and Councils. He also says that he is proud to be an ultramontane, based on that erroneous definition.

The first point I must make is that the term ultramontane has been used variously. It has not always referred to “integral and active Catholicism”, which supports the Pope as the teacher and ruler of the universal Church, as this article from the old Catholic encyclopedia explains. The term, meaning beyond the mountains, sometimes referred to those on the northern European side of the Alps, who wished to rule over themselves in the Church, rather than be ruled over by the Pope on the southern European side of the Alps. And this other meaning of ultramontanism is a better fit for the overall position of de Mattei on Catholicism and the Roman Pontiff. He wishes not to be ruled over by the Popes since Vatican II. He wishes to be judge over which Popes, Councils, teachings, and decisions of discipline are acceptable to him, and which are not. That is the negative type of ultramontanism, where the Church in France or elsewhere wished the Pope to have less authority, so that they could rule themselves. So de Mattei is an ultramontane only in that sense.

Now at this point, I would like to say that the Church has not used the term ultramontanism, certainly not throughout the centuries, to refer to faithful Catholicism, nor to a faithful support of the Pope. It is not a term proposed in the dogma of the Church, nor consistently in non-infallible magisterial teachings (or at all that I could find). The term has never been used by the Magisterium to describe all faithful Catholics, nor as a goal toward which we all must strive. Roberto de Mattei claims that “Pope Pius IX supported the ultramontane movement … with the encyclical Quanta cura and the Syllabus or summary of the principal errors of our time….” but neither document uses the term, nor explicitly mentions the movement.

Persons are not canonized for being the best examples of ultramontanism, nor is anyone dismissed from the clerical state or excommunicated for being against ultramontanism. It is instead a word used with various ranges of meaning, sometimes with contradictory meanings. It has been used as a word in arguments about Church authority. And so the faithful should not strive to be any version of ultramontanism, but instead should strive to be faithful Catholic Christians, who follow and imitate Christ, and who believe and practice what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and decides. Roberto de Mattei has fallen short, in his public statements on the Faith, of this goal — which should be the goal toward which we all strive.

As for the errors in de Mattei’s description of ultramontanism, these are several. First, he says that the ultramontanes fought in favor of the documents of Vatican I, especially Pastor Aeternus. But he himself does not seem to accept the teachings of that document, especially on the supreme authority of the Roman Pontiffs, their freedom from grave error, and their never-failing faith. How de Mattei can claim to be “proud to be an ultramontane”, while treating the teachings and decisions of all the recent Popes and Pope Saints, and the recent Ecumenical Council Vatican II with such disregard is inexplicable.

de Mattei states: “Blessed Pius IX, on December 8, 1870, with the constitution Pastor aeternus, defined the dogmas of the Primacy of Peter and of Papal Infallibility (Denz-H, 3050-3075). Today, these dogmas are for us a precious benchmark, on which to found true devotion to the Chair of Peter.”

And yet his words and his rejection of Vatican II and the Novus Ordo Mass, and his patent disregard for the recent Popes and the current Pope do not accord with this statement. He pays only lip service to the teachings of Vatican I.

Here’s a clear error by de Mattei on Papal Infallibility: “The First Vatican Council doesn’t teach that the charism of infallibility is always present in the Vicar of Christ, but simply that it is not absent in the exercise of his office in its supreme form, that is, when the Sovereign Pontiff teaches as universal Shepherd, ex cathedra, in matters of faith and morals….” This expression is very weak. He describes Papal Infallibility as “not absent” when the Pope’s teaching meets the criteria for infallibility. This charism of Papal Infallibility is a work of the Holy Spirit, and so it is an active gift of the grace and power of God, not merely a “not absent” charism attached to an office.

This point is clarified by Vatican II:

Lumen Gentium 25: “For then the Roman Pontiff is not pronouncing judgment as a private person, but as the supreme teacher of the universal Church, in whom the charism of infallibility of the Church itself is individually present, he is expounding or defending a doctrine of Catholic faith. The infallibility promised to the Church resides also in the body of Bishops, when that body exercises the supreme magisterium with the successor of Peter.”

Notice that the charism of infallibility is “individually present” in the Roman Pontiff. This infallibility “resides also” in the body of Bishops. So the charism is present in the Roman Pontiff as an individual; it is not merely a charism attached to his office, or attached to certain acts of the Magisterium. Papal Infallibility is a charism individual present in the Roman Pontiff, residing in his person. This charism is in harmony with the charism of truth and never-failing faith, taught by Vatican I (Pastor Aeternus, ch. 4, n. 7) and by the ordinary universal Magisterium throughout the history of the Church. The charism of never-failing faith must reside in the Roman Pontiff as a person, and not merely be attached to his official acts. For the charism prevents the infused virtue of faith from every failing in the Roman Pontiff, both as a person and in his decisions of doctrine and discipline.

de Mattei: “Michael Davies himself can be considered an ultramontane traditionalist, like all those who resisted Vatican II and Novus Ordo with respect and love for the Papacy. This is the position I uphold in my book Love for the Papacy and Filial Resistance to the Pope in the History of Church (Angelico Press, New York 2019).”

It is sad and distressing to read a popular Catholic author claim that one can be an “ultramontane” (supposedly supporting faithful Catholicism and the Roman Pontiff), while resisting an Ecumenical Council, resisting the form of the Mass approved by the Popes, and writing a book promoting “filial resistance to the Pope”. It is simply an open contradiction to claim to be faithful to the supreme authority of the Popes, while rejecting that authority whenever one disagrees. This “filial resistance” is like the son who says he will do the will of his father, but does not go.

Pope Saint Pius X refutes this idea of “Love for the Papacy” coupled with disobedience to him: “Therefore, when one loves the Pope, there is no discussion about what he disposes or demands, or how far obedience must go, and in what things one must obey; when one loves the Pope, one does not say that he did not speak clearly enough, as if he were obliged to repeat in the ear of everyone that clearly expressed will many times, not only verbally, but with letters and other public documents…”144 *

* Numbered references are on this linked page.

{21:28} But how does it seem to you? A certain man had two sons. And approaching the first, he said: ‘Son, go out today to work in my vineyard.’
{21:29} And responding, he said, ‘I am not willing.’ But afterwards, being moved by repentance, he went.
{21:30} And approaching the other, he spoke similarly. And answering, he said, ‘I am going, lord.’ And he did not go.
{21:31} Which of the two did the will of the father?” They said to him, “The first.” Jesus said to them: “Amen I say to you, that tax collectors and prostitutes shall precede you, into the kingdom of God.
{21:32} For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. Yet even after seeing this, you did not repent, so as to believe him.

de Mattei writes: “Michael Davies (1936-2004), who attributes part of the conciliar disaster to a false papal obedience, reminds us that Cardinal Manning said: ‘Infallibility is not a quality inherent in any person, but an assistance attached to an office’ “

This claim is contrary to the direct and clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council. The Magisterium states that Papal Infallibility is individually present in the Roman Pontiff, and that it resides in him and in the body of Bishops. Therefore, infallibility is not merely an assistance attached to an office.

As for the claim of “false papal obedience”, there is no obedience in the position which says that one should only obey when one agrees with the teaching or ruling of the Pope. That is not obedience to God, nor to the Church, but only to oneself.

Here is true obedience to the Roman Pontiff:

Pope Saint Clement I, 88-97: “If any disobey what He [Jesus Christ] says through Us, let them know that they will be involved in no small offence and danger; but We shall be innocent of this sin.”2

Pope Honorius I, 625-638, to archbishop Honorius of Canterbury (c. 634): “But if some prelate with inborn arrogance disobeys our command and, acting otherwise, tries to oppose the privileged concessions made to the Church of Canterbury, he must know that he has been cut off from sharing in the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”58

Pope Innocent III: “The Lord confesses at the time of the Passion that he prayed for him: ‘I have prayed for you, Peter, that your faith may not fail: and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren’ [Lk 22:32], by this manifestly indicating that his successors would never at any time deviate from the Catholic faith, but rather they would recall others and also strengthen others in such a way as to impose on others the necessity of obeying….”82

Saint John Henry Newman: “There are kings of the earth who have despotic authority, which their subjects obey indeed but disown in their hearts; but we must never murmur at that absolute rule which the Sovereign Pontiff has over us, because it is given to him by Christ, and, in obeying him, we are obeying his Lord. We must never suffer ourselves to doubt, that, in his government of the Church, he is guided by an intelligence more than human. His yoke is the yoke of Christ, he has the responsibility of his own acts, not we; and to his Lord must he render account, not to us. Even in secular matters it is ever safe to be on his side, dangerous to be on the side of his enemies.”

Pope Leo XIII: “But it is absolutely necessary that he should have received real and sovereign authority which the whole community is bound to obey. What had the Son of God in view when he promised the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to Peter alone? Biblical usage and the unanimous teaching of the Fathers clearly show that supreme authority is designated in the passage by the word keys.”138

Pope Pius XI: “Wherefore, let the faithful also be on their guard against the overrated independence of private judgment and that false autonomy of human reason. For it is quite foreign to everyone bearing the name of a Christian to trust his own mental powers with such pride as to agree only with those things which he can examine from their inner nature, and to imagine that the Church, sent by God to teach and guide all nations, is not conversant with present affairs and circumstances; or even that they must obey only in those matters which she has decreed by solemn definition as though her other decisions might be presumed to be false or putting forward insufficient motive for truth and honesty. Quite to the contrary, a characteristic of all true followers of Christ, lettered or unlettered, is to suffer themselves to be guided and led in all things that touch upon faith or morals by the Holy Church of God through its Supreme Pastor the Roman Pontiff, who is himself guided by Jesus Christ Our Lord.”158

Pope Pius XI: “Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors.” 160

Pope Saint Paul VI: “Since this, unfortunately, is the logical consequence, that is, when it is argued that it is preferable to disobey on the pretext of keeping one’s faith intact, of working in one’s own way for the preservation of the Catholic Church, while denying it effective obedience. And it is said openly! Indeed, they do not hesitate to assert that the Second Vatican Council lacks binding force; that faith would also be in danger because of the post-conciliar reforms and orientations, which one has the duty to disobey in order to preserve certain traditions.” 164

Pope Saint Paul VI: “You [Lefebvre] say that you are subject to the Church and faithful to tradition by the sole fact that you obey certain norms of the past that were decreed by the predecessor of him to whom God has today conferred the powers given to Peter. That is to say, on this point also, the concept of ‘tradition’ that you invoke is distorted.”165

* Numbered references are on this linked page.

Second Vatican Council

Finally, Roberto de Mattei writes: ” ‘Papolatry’, and ‘Magisterialism’ were born after the Second Vatican Council: an extreme cult of the person of the Pope that developed in parallel to the humiliation of the Papacy. This has nothing to do with ultramontanism.”

The teaching of the Popes, Saints, and Ecumenical Councils on the Catholic Christian Faith must be accepted by all the faithful. It does no good to label a position contrary to that teaching as “ultramontanism”. And it is sinful, heretical and schismatic to claim that the teaching of the Church, that an Ecumenical Council, and that successive Roman Pontiffs have all gone gravely astray from truth and faith — in contradiction to the dogmas of indefectibility, never-failing faith, and the unblemished Apostolic See, and in direct contradiction to the teachings and words of our Lord Jesus Christ (Mt 16:18; Lk 22:32). The teaching of the Church is wrongly condemned by de Mattei as a worship of the Roman Pontiff “Papolatry”. Such a claim clearly contradicts the dogma which teaches that the Church is indefectible, and so cannot go astray or lead astray. If the Church, an Ecumenical Council, and the Popes since that Council have all taught the idolatry of the Roman Pontiff, then the words of Christ would be false, saying that the gates of Hell will never prevail over the Church. And why does the Church stand firm against the gates of Hell? It is because She is founded on Peter and his successors as on a Rock. It is because Peter and his successors, with Christ, constitute one only head of the one Church. This dogma would be false if de Mattei’s claims on the Second Vatican Council and the Popes since that Council were true.

Lateran V: “It arises from the necessity of salvation that all the faithful of Christ are to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”219

Lateran V: “the person who abandons the teaching of the Roman pontiff cannot be within the Church….”220

By rejecting the Second Vatican Council and the recent Popes, de Mattei rejects the ancient and constant teaching of the Church on indefectibility, on the charism of truth and never-failing faith of the Popes, on their supreme authority, and on the authority of the body of Bishops teaching in union with the Roman Pontiffs at Ecumenical Councils.

May God have mercy on those who reject the authority of His Church. May God bring them to repentance.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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