More confusion on a fundamental Catholic concept…

Still Lost in Blunderland: Refuting Peter Kwasniewski’s Latest Specious Attack on Ultramontanism


by Francis del Sarto

Ultramontane (Lat., ultra, beyond; montes, mountains; beyond the Alps, viz., Italy, and particularly Rome as the home of the pope), name given to Catholics who agreed with the pope on matters of doctrine, discipline, and policy. It came into vogue after the Vatican Council. Cisalpine (this side of the Alps) was the name adopted by those who differed.–C.E., V, 125.” (The New Catholic Dictionary [1929], p. 979)

What is going on over at the Catholic Family News (CFN) editorial department? How is it that they ever greenlit an article with a title as illogical and manifestly un-Catholic as “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”, much less saw fit to carry it as a prominent three-part series in the November 2020 through January 2021 issues of their print edition?

As a preface, CFN states that this nonsense forms “an expansion of a lecture given by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski at St. Stephen of Hungary Catholic Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, an apostolate of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, on Sept. 20, 2020”.

Before we begin dismantling this “conversion story” from Ultramontanism, it behooves us to review the professional credentials of Prof. Kwasniewski.

A Philosopher, Not a Theologian

Dr. Peter Kwaniewski shares his blunder-filled theological “insights” with unsuspecting audiences in awe of his superficial theological erudition, while apparently unaware that his attacks on Ultramontanism in some respects echo those of the Modernists and other enemies of the Church. (image: / fair use)

On the home page of his personal website, next to the photo of a bearded, bespectacled, professorial-looking man standing at a lectern, a caption informs the visitor that this is “the official site of Catholic theologian Dr. Peter Kwasniewski”. Then going over to the “About” page we learn of his undergraduate and graduate degrees, which are the following:

  • Ph.D. in Philosophy at Catholic University of America (2002)
  • M.A. in Philosophy at Catholic University of America (1996)
  • B.A. in Liberal Arts at Thomas Aquinas College (1994)

No doubt, these are impressive academic credentials. Notice, however, that a degree in Theology was not earned by the “Catholic theologian Dr. Peter Kwasniewski”. Just for the record.

The “About” page further informs us that the professor left Wyoming Catholic College in 2018, where he had taught philosophy and theology for many years. He now “pursue[s] a career as a freelance author, public speaker, editor, publisher, and composer, with the intention of dedicating his life to the articulation and defense of Catholic Tradition in all its dimensions.”

Kwasniewski has already “written or edited ten books” and

has published over 1,300 articles, both academic and popular, on sacramental and liturgical theology, the aesthetics of music, Thomistic thought, and the social doctrine of the Church. His articles have been translated into at least 14 languages.

(“About”, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski)

Although Dr. Kwasniewski may well write and lecture in a learned fashion in the fields of study mentioned above, many of those appearing in online publications for which he is a regular contributor — such as One Peter Five, Life Site, Rorate Caeli, Catholic Family News, or The Remnant — simply don’t inspire confidence when it comes to pronouncing convincingly on today’s crisis in the Church or the historical antecedents of the past century-and-a-half that have led to it.

In fact, although Dr. Kwasniewski enjoys great popularity among the “semi-traditionalists” of the recognize-and-resist persuasion, we have shown on at least half a dozen occasions that the professor’s competence is simply overrated when it comes to actual traditional Catholic theology:

But now on to a critical examination of Kwasniewski’s “Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”.

A Most Curious Choice of Reference Work

The “Catholic theologian” begins thus:

Many Catholics have heard the word “ultramontanism.” But what exactly does it mean? Where did it come from? And why might the phenomenon it describes be harmful—at least today?

(Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”, Catholic Family News, Feb. 4, 2021)

Quite appropriately, Dr. Kwasniewski begins with an introduction of the concept of Ultramontanism. What, however, does he offer to the reader for a definition? The answer might surprise you.

When we recall that the speech from which his article derives was given at a church that has the word Catholic in its formal name, and considering that the text was printed in a publication that uses the same adjective to describe itself, it just makes good sense that for a definition of “Ultramontanism” this self-styled Catholic theologian would turn to a Catholic source.

For example, one would expect him to use The Catholic Encyclopedia, or in lieu of that, a Catholic dictionary, a Catholic theology book, a Catholic history of the First Vatican Council, or some other relevant pre-Vatican II text with reliable imprimatur and nihil obstat facing the title page. For any Catholic scholar worthy of the name, it’s just instinctual to reach for such an appropriate and duly accredited source, one that a Catholic audience or readership would expect and appreciate, right?

Normally, that’s a question that wouldn’t even need to be raised. However, in the present case, normally isn’t the operative term, because the professor’s go-to source for what he calls “a short, handy definition” isn’t Catholic at all: Dr. Kwasniewski decided to present to his readers the secular Encyclopedia Britannica as the basic reference on Ultramontanism.

One need only glance at a few of Britannica’s editorial advisors to see why this should be cause for concern: Besides including in fields other than religion a President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and the President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the “distinguished scholars” for religion don’t inspire confidence as regards a sound grasp of Catholic theology. They include the late Stewart Baron Sutherland of Houndwood, President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, who had many affiliations with the Anglican academic scene and enjoyed a reputation as a great religious philosopher; and Wendy Doniger, the daughter of “immigrant non-observant Jewish parents”, who is an expert in Sanskrit and Indian religions.

Why would anyone choose a work overseen by such editorial advisors to understand Catholicism over the Church’s own approved (and therefore theologically safe) sources? Ultimately, only “Dr. K” will be able to answer that question.

So, what does the non-Catholic encyclopedia say about Ultramontanism? Here is the full quote:

Ultramontanism, from Medieval Latin ultramontanus, “beyond the mountains,” in Roman Catholicism, a strong emphasis on papal authority and on centralization of the church. The word identified those northern European members of the church who regularly looked southward beyond the Alps (that is, to the popes of Rome) for guidance. During the period of struggle within the church over the extent of papal prerogatives—beginning especially in the 15th century with the conciliar movement and continuing in the following centuries with the growth of strong nationalism and theological liberalism—the Ultramontanists were opposed by those, such as the Gallicans, who wished to restrict papal power. The Ultramontane Party triumphed in 1870 at the first Vatican Council when the dogma of papal infallibility was defined as a matter of Roman Catholic belief.

(Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. “Ultramontanism”; quoted in Kwasniewski, “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”)

Now, what’s stated there is reasonably accurate as far as it goes, the problem is just that it doesn’t go nearly far enough; and the omissions from this “short, handy definition” are glaring ones, because they withhold information that is vital to a nuanced and correct understanding of the topic. (Note: There is some distorted information in the definition as well, which will be examined further along in this article.)

While quoting a secular reference work instead of a Catholic one might seem like a small or benign matter to some, it should raise suspicions. Dr. Kwasniewski purports to be a Catholic theologian and shouts it from the proverbial housetop for all the world to know, yet he makes the bizarre choice of using a non-Catholic source to supposedly shed light upon a uniquely Catholic topic. Obviously, there is a reason for that, and so the question presents itself: Why didn’t he utilize Catholic sources, which are available to the average Catholic and should be right at the fingertips of a supercharged academic?

Without even leaving the introduction of his presentation, then, Kwasniewski has already caused a big red flag to be waved in the faces of more perceptive readers, a red flag inscribed with a few salient questions:

  • Dr. Kwasniewski, why did you so assiduously avoid all of those many Catholic books at your disposal, and settle for one that isn’t Catholic at all?
  • You say you want to illuminate, but aren’t you really obfuscating?
  • Are you trying to conceal something?
  • Do you fear that by opening Catholic books the whole truth about the Church’s real view of Ultramontanism will be shown, not the half-truth you are content to pawn off as the only part of the truth that your readership needs to know about?
  • In the end, aren’t you hiding the fact that when it comes to the subject at hand, the view you’re trying to advance more or less implicitly — namely, that Ultramontanism is essentially a heresy that you had to escape from in order to reach Catholicism — is a false claim that in no way is in conformity with the mind of the Church, and that to show what these Catholic texts have to say would expose your thesis as the pseudo-learned balderdash it is, and quickly shut it down before it ever saw the light of day?

We will answer these questions in Part Two of this article, and our rebuttal will knock down any remaining pretense that Kwasniewski is providing anything worthwhile on the subject of Ultramontanism.

In fact, much of the remainder of the current first part and also the upcoming installment will be spent refuting the professor’s “proofs” — and there are several — that purportedly show Ultramontanism to be a theological hobgoblin from which the faithful must flee with the greatest haste. In reality, this is the same sort of deception and scaremongering we have seen the recognize-and-resisters use against Sedevacantism in the past as a make-do in lieu of substantive argumentation.

For a preview, suffice it to say that Pope Pius IX lambasted those liberals who “dub [the Holy See’s] most zealous and most obedient sons Ultramontanes or Jesuits…” (Apostolic Letter Per Tristissima; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 418).

An Unquestionably Catholic Historian on Ultramontanism

Here, some readers might request a brief timeout to pose a question along the lines of: “At the beginning of this article, you quote a definition of Ultramontanism from The New Catholic Dictionary that is actually shorter and less detailed than the one provided in the Kwasniewski article. Why spend so much time and effort criticizing the author for a supposedly faulty source, when, in fact, you yourself use a Catholic reference work that is no better and, arguably, even less valuable on account of its sketchiness?”

Now, that’s an entirely fair question, and one that deserves a clear and direct response.

To begin with, the definition affixed at the top of the present article is merely meant to serve as a lead-in, giving the reader only a general idea of the subject, a kind of topical overview, as it were. We will be looking at a substantial Catholic definition in detail momentarily. It will show how untrue, nonsensical, and unworthy of the belief of Catholics is Peter Kwasniewski’s central anti-Ultramontanist premise; and it comes to us from The Catholic Encyclopedia. (Bear in mind that his Encyclopedia Britannica definition is the only one we get from him throughout his lengthy article — there is no substantial one later on from a reliable Catholic source [per imposibile] to bolster his flawed argument.)

Before getting to the more consequential definition, a few words are in order about The New Catholic Dictionary. The New in context was “new” for a book bearing a 1929 imprimatur. On the title page it states that it was published “under the auspices of the editors of the Catholic Encyclopedia”. Despite it being over 90 years old, its 1100+ pages still provide a useful reference when one only has time for a quick read rather than wading through pages of text, as is the case with many entries found in the more expansive Catholic Encyclopedia.

It is to that more substantial reference collection we shall now turn. Prior to the current study, Novus Ordo Watch had cited it numerous times in an attempt to dispel the blatantly erroneous ideas about Ultramontanism that have been so pervasive in the articles of Peter Kwasniewski and others with the same obstinate mindset. In fact, the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Ultramontanism is so excellent a place to quarry solid information on the topic that we have used different passages to prove various points.

The entry’s author is Monsignor Umberto Benigni (1862-1934). He enjoyed special province at the Holy See, and this is particularly noteworthy, as he was one of Pope St. Pius X’s closest collaborators in the fight against Modernism. In fact, it’s been speculated with good reason that he helped in the composition of the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, which explained and condemned the doctrine of the Modernists.

After the death of Pope Pius in 1914, the battle against Modernism was scaled back considerably and Msgr. Benigni quickly became an outcast, shockingly betrayed even by some leaders within the Vatican. So successful was the smear campaign against him that at his own passing 20 years later, the clergy represented among the mourners at his Requiem consisted of only a pair of priests. The vilification of this great man would later be used as part of a fraudulent attempt to block the 1954 canonization of St. Pius X, a ploy that Pope Pius XII wisely rejected.

Msgr. Umberto Benigni, the indefatigable foe of Modernism under St. Pius X, whose Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Ultramontanism was passed over by Peter Kwasniewski in favor of one taken from a secular source.

Among the monsignor’s other anti-Modernist contributions was the formation of the Sodalitium Pianum (“Fellowship of Pius”, better known in history under its French code name, La Sapinière). The fierce vigor with which the Sodalitium went into battle with the anti-Catholic dragons of the day, the Modernists and liberals, can easily be gleaned by reading the potent 18-point Program of Sodalitium Pianum, composed by Msgr. Benigni himself. If one applies a Venn diagram to the Vatican’s anti-Modernist crusade, and to the Monsignor’s defense of Ultramontanism, it will readily be seen that the common ground of the two in terms of aims and methods makes up nearly the complete circle.

It’s of the greatest importance to keep in mind that, according to Cardinal Pietro Gasparri, Benigni’s group not only received the papal blessing and endorsement of St. Pius X, but was even financed by him, at least in part. Here is a translation of the first point (the other 17 can be found on the linked page, and are well worth perusing):

1. We are integral Roman Catholics. As these words indicate, the integral Roman Catholic accepts, integrally, the doctrine, the discipline, and the direction of the Holy See, and all their legitimate consequences for the individual and for society. This is “papist”, “clerical”, antimodernist, antiliberal, antisectarian. It is thus integrally counter-revolutionary, because it is adversarial not only towards the Jacobin Revolution and sectarian Radicalism, but equally so towards religious and social liberalism. It must thus be absolutely understood that, by our saying “integral Roman Catholic”, this should not be understood as modifying, in any way, the authentic and glorious title of Roman Catholic. The word “integral” solely means “integrally Roman Catholic”, namely, fully and simply Roman Catholic without any corresponding additions or restrictions (even beyond the intention of the one using it), such as the expressions “liberal Catholic”, “social Catholic”, and whatever other sort, insofar as these tend in theory or in practice to restrict the application of the law of the Church and the duties of the Catholic in religious or social life.

(Quoted in Sacerdos Romanus, “An Important Document of Anti-Modernism: The Program of the Sodalitium Pianum”, Rorate Caeli, Feb. 18, 2020.)

We deemed that this brief review of the career and thoughts of Mgr. Benigni was warranted in showing the stature of the man whose encyclopedic entry on Ultramontanism — written, by the way, during the reign of Pope St. Pius X, and quite probably with the explicit approval of said pontiff, as the two worked so closely together — Dr. Kwasniewski preferred not to use, and didn’t even acknowledge.

To be perfectly candid, it is the present writer’s opinion that Dr. K knew very well what Msgr. Benigni wrote, yet deliberately rejected it because it didn’t fit his contrived version of theological reality. (How could he not know, given that there are at minimum two websites that make the entire Catholic Encyclopedia available online for free, not to mention hard copy alternatives, the closest likely occupying a yard or so of shelf space in his personal library?)

Alas, the intellectual deviousness not infrequently practiced by writers promoting the recognize-and-resist position never fails to astound, and it is on full display here in what did, and didn’t, go into Kwasniewski’s “research” for “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”, and more importantly, why he made the decision to keep his readers in the dark about what The Catholic Encyclopedia says on the subject.

Ultramontanism in The Catholic Encyclopedia (1912)

Now let’s turn, at last, to an authentically Catholic examination of the subject. Msgr. Benigni begins by defining “Ultramontanism” as follows: “A term used to denote integral and active Catholicism, because it recognizes as its spiritual head the pope, who, for the greater part of Europe, is a dweller beyond the mountains (ultra montes), that is, beyond the Alps” (Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Ultramontanism”).

Notice how in this brief definition there is an added component not found in what Kwasniewski quotes from the Encyclopedia Brittanica. The points about recognition of the Roman Pontiff and the etymology of the phrase ultra montes as coming from beyond the Alps are already familiar, but the Monsignor implicitly links Ultramontanism with the Church’s war against her enemies (something that will become clearer later on in his remarks), as seen also in the Program of Sodalitium Pianum. In the Catholic Encyclopedia Benigni tells us about how Ultramontanism is a term used to “denote integral and active Catholicism, because it recognizes as its spiritual head the pope”, while in the Program the same author observes that “the integral Roman Catholic accepts, integrally, the doctrine, the discipline, and the direction of the Holy See, and all their legitimate consequences for the individual and for society”.

Here is one of the places that Kwasniewski and other recognize-and-resisters must necessarily oppose Ultramontanism/ integral Catholicism, because by the very nature of their novel, heterodox (Gallican?) view of the Papacy, they hold themselves exempt from any obligation to give their complete (integral) and filial acceptance of “the doctrine, the discipline, and the direction of the Holy See” per se. Instead, they set themselves up as the living arbiters of if, when, and what they choose to obey from the man they “venerate” as their Holy Father, or in what manner. But this runs contrary to sound doctrine, as affirmed by Pope Pius XI, to cite just one concrete example: “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” (Encyclical Mortalium Animos, n. 11; underlining added).

To use Vatican II speak, the recognize-and-resisters are constantly going from “full communion” to “partial communion” to “no communion” and back again with regard to the Argentinian apostate (“Pope Francis”), depending on the issue of the day. The big question is: When are they ever in communion with the Roman Catholic Church?

Make no mistake, this is not analogous to the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), when the faithful were confused as to which of up to three papal claimants (all of whom professed the Catholic Faith) they should give their allegiance to. Rather, this is a Church crisis that surpasses all others in nature, magnitude, and severity. In this unprecedented mega-crisis, a Modernist pseudo-pope brazenly and routinely puts his heretical and apostate ideas on display for all the world to see, not merely in his personal writings but as part of his official “papal” magisterium, from which the entire church draws its belief and practice.

Further on in his article for the Catholic Encyclopedia, Msgr. Benigni declares in so many words that since the (First) Vatican Council defined papal primacy and infallibility, Catholics are obliged to fight for the principles of Ultramontanism. He even forcefully condemns the subterfuge of anti-Ultramontanists that they are not in fact opposing the Church:

As our present purpose is to state what Ultramontanism is, it is beside our scope to expound the Catholic doctrine on the power of the Church and, in particular, of the pope, whether in spiritual or temporal matters, these subjects being treated elsewhere under their respective titles. It is sufficient here to indicate what our adversaries mean by Ultramontanism. For Catholics it would be superfluous to ask whether Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing: assuredly, those who combat Ultramontanism are in fact combating Catholicism, even when they disclaim the desire to oppose it.

(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Ultramontanism”; underlining added.)

Does this not largely anticipate the nonsense spouted by Kwasniewski, who pontificates emptily against the “errors” of Ultramontanism (or at least his caricature thereof), as he flees from it in order to reach the safe haven of, supposedly, Catholicism?

But let’s proceed even further with Msgr. Benigni and demonstrate in what ways Catholic Family News’ self-described “Catholic theologian” is echoing some of the errors of the anti-Ultramontanist (=anti-Catholic) cabals of a century or so ago, and the adversaries who comprised them.

The war against Ultramontanism is accounted for not merely by its adversaries’ denial of the genuine Catholic doctrine of the Church’s power and that of her supreme ruler, but also, and even more, by the consequences of that doctrine. It is altogether false to attribute to the Church either political aims of temporal dominion among the nations or the pretence that the pope can at his own pleasure depose sovereigns that the Catholic must, even in purely civil matters, subordinate his obedience towards his own sovereign to that which he owes to the pope, that the true fatherland of the Catholic is Rome, and so forth. These are either pure inventions or malicious travesties. It is neither scientific nor honest to attribute to “Ultramontanism” the particular teaching of some theologian or some school of times past; or to invoke certain facts in medieval history, which may be explained by the peculiar conditions, or by the rights which the popes possessed in the Middle Ages (for example, their rights in conferring the imperial crown). For the rest, it is sufficient to follow attentively, one by one, the struggle kept up in their journals and books to be convinced that this warfare by the Rationalist-Protestant-Modernist coalition against “Clericalism” or “Ultramontanism” is, fundamentally, directed against integral Catholicism–that is, against papal, anti-Liberal, and counter-Revolutionary Catholicism.

(Catholic Encyclopedia, “Ultramontanism”; underlining added.)

Here Msgr. Benigni states that Ultramontanism — that is, true, integral Catholicism founded on “genuine Catholic doctrine” and attacked by a coalition of the Church’s enemies (“this warfare”!) — is, by its very nature, a “papal, anti-Liberal, and counter-Revolutionary Catholicism”. This is reinforced by the Program of Sodalitium Pianum, where the good Monsignor emphasizes the fundamental divide between integral Catholicism and liberalism. In so doing, he was merely reiterating what all pontiffs had taught in one manner or another throughout the nineteenth century, namely, that being a genuine Catholic negates even the possibility of also being a “liberal Catholic” or a “social Catholic” — so much for such leftist distortions of the Faith as a “social gospel” or “liberation theology”.

Explicit Vatican Approval for Ultramontanism

Moreover, it was under one of these 19th-century pontiffs, Pope Leo XIII (r. 1878-1903), that another literary defense of Ultramontanism received official Vatican approbation. Since a previous Novus Ordo Watch article exposing the follies of Kwasniewski has covered this, even providing a most illustrative passage from the book itself, we can do no better than to reproduce it here:

The great 19th-century fighter against Liberalism (which was the immediate precursor to Modernism), the Spanish Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, wrote the following concerning Ultramontanism in his 1886 book Liberalism is a Sin, which bears the official stamp of approval and recommendation of the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation of the Index (1887), the dicastery that concerns itself with the evaluation of theological books:

To know and serve God is the only freedom, and Liberalism completely severs the bond which links man to God. With a just and rational horror does a good Catholic regard Liberalism. Ultramontanism will never cause you to lose your soul; Liberalism is a broad road to the infernal abyss.

What the greatest Catholic polemists and Saints have done is assuredly a fair example for even the humblest defenders of the Faith. Modern Ultramontanism has never yet surpassed the vigor of their castigation of heresy and heretics. Charity forbids us to do unto another what we would not reasonably have them do unto ourselves. Mark the adverb reasonably; it includes the entire substance of the question.

A well-instructed Catholic—who thoroughly comprehends the rational grounds of his faith and understands the character of Liberal tactics under our national conditions—can alone successfully cope with the enemy face-to-face. Ultramontanism is the only conquering legion in this sort of warfare. It is for the vanguard of the army to surprise the enemy at his own ambuscade, to mine against his mine and to expose him before he has burrowed under our own camp. Ultramontanism is Catholicity intact and armed cap-a-pie [from head to foot]. It is Catholicity consistent in all its parts, the logical concatenation of Catholic principles to their fullest conclusions in doctrine and practice. Hence the fierce and unholy opposition with which it is constantly assailed. The foe well knows that to rout the vanguard is to demoralize the entire army; hence their rage and fury against the invincible phalanx which always stands fully armed, sleeplessly vigilant and eternally uncompromising.

(Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, Liberalism is a Sin, trans. and adapted by Conde B. Pallen [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1993], Chapters 14, 20, 33; pp. 70,101,160-161; italics given; available online here.)

This clarifies things quite a bit, doesn’t it?

A good rule of thumb is perhaps this: Whenever you hear someone denounce “Ultramontanism,” you can be sure you are talking to a Gallican or a Liberal/Modernist.

(“Peter Kwasniewski and ‘the Troubles of this Pontificate’: A Sedevacantist Reply”, Novus Ordo Watch, Dec. 5, 2018)

Pray tell, what part of this do you not understand, Dr. Kwasniewski? Are you comfortable with the fact that by opposing Ultramontanism/integral Catholicism, you are, however unwittingly, adopting a stance long favored by the enemies of the Church? And by “enemies of the Church”, we mean specifically those whom Pope St. Pius labeled “the most pernicious of all the adversaries of the Church” (Encyclical Pascendi, n. 3), the apostate Modernists, who spawned “the synthesis of all heresies” (Pascendi, n. 39)!

Then, Professor, there’s your responsibility in misrepresenting Catholic teaching to the audiences of your lectures and readers of your articles. Are you not the least bit troubled that by your rot you are poisoning their minds with the same lies and misrepresentations favored by Gallicans, Liberals, and Modernists in their assault on the Church? Here’s a reality check for you: You are not in the slightest way helping to restore the Church by rebooting errors of over a century ago, untruths that were soundly refuted by the Holy See; for revived errors are still errors, even when they’re superficially prettified by wrapping them in a phony veneer of Tradition.

Should Peter Kwasniewski, any of his fellow travelers, or any members of his fan club by chance be reading this, they also should understand that while what Msgr. Benigni wrote is ostensibly a mere article in The Catholic Encyclopedia, and, of course, not to be confused with a papal pronouncement, it nevertheless packs considerably more clout behind it than meets the eye.

As noted above, Benigni was one of the closest collaborators with Pope Pius X in repelling the Modernists’ attempts to breach the bastions of the Church. As Undersecretary of the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, a curial post he attained in 1906, he was reporting to Pope Pius on what was nearly a daily basis. For the article we’ve been examining, Benigni was surely in close consultation with His Holiness about its contents, and one may surmise it would not have gone into print without a final vetting and unwritten imprimatur by the sainted pontiff.

In any case, due to Benigni’s exemplary loyalty to the Pope and his strict adherence to the Church’s doctrine, we can be sure that his mind was entirely aligned with that of the Holy Father on the topic, and so it is incontrovertibly certain that what he wrote about Ultramontanism is in total agreement with the thought and teaching of Pope St. Pius X. After all, what is the alternative? That Benigni was so brazen as to publish ideas about the Papacy that he didn’t know — or care — the Roman Pontiff would agree with?

All these facts and considerations about Ultramontanism should give Prof. Kwasniewski pause. Will he abandon his half-baked theological efforts, or will he resume his heterodox blundering?

In the next section, and also in Part Two of this article, we will see how badly Dr. K misinterprets and misrepresents Catholic history.

Kwasniewski promotes Historicist View of Papal Primacy

Saints Augustine and Ambrose, painted by Juan de Sevilla Romero y Escalante (1643-95). These two Doctors of the Church have provided timeless aphorisms about the Papacy that show Dr. Kwasniewski’s version of ecclesiastical history to be curiously truncated by about a millennium. (image: shutterstock/paid)

As we go deeper into exploring Peter Kwasniewski’s contrived version of Ultramontanism, it’s worth noting that he paints a picture of the history and development of the Papacy that sometimes misrepresents it in ways not unlike the very Modernists have done against whom he’s pledged to do battle. Yet this is precisely the sort of intellectual convolution that time and again leads the recognize-and-resist partisans to adopt novel viewpoints that ultimately are irreconcilable with sound Catholic doctrine.

“The Growing Strength of the Papacy” is how Dr. K titles his first section. He begins by asserting that

the initial desire of Northern Europeans to look towards the papacy in Rome for support and guidance came in the midst of a false theory of conciliarism that attempted to make an ecumenical council—a general synod of bishops—the ultimate authority in the Church, which is clearly contrary to the divine institution of the papal primacy in the Apostle Peter and his successors.

(Kwasniewski, “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”)

Here the author mixes fact with a stunted timeline of papal authority. Yes, Conciliarism — also known as the “Conciliar Theory” — was and is a false theory positing that supreme authority resides in ecumenical councils, and not with the Pope. The problem lies in how Kwasniewski begins his sentence.

It is simply a false narrative to speak about “the initial desire of Northern Europeans to look towards the papacy in Rome for support and guidance”. Put simply, looking towards the Pope for support and guidance is precisely what faithful Catholics have been doing for 2000 years. Hello! Strangely, in the very same sentence Kwasniewski also refers to “the divine institution of the papal primacy in the Apostle Peter and his successors”. How ironic.

If the Petrine primacy constitutes the essence of the Papacy, as Catholic dogma requires us to hold (see Denz. 1823), how is it then that it supposedly wasn’t until nearly 1500 years later that Northern Europeans first looked to Rome for guidance and support? Certainly, it took some centuries for the Church to evangelize that part of Europe, but in most cases, nations there had become Catholic at some point in the first millennium. The thought is ridiculous on the face of it.

We have as our rebuttal the testimony of two of the brightest lights among the whole constellation of Catholic theologians (and we mean real ones). Saints Ambrose (c. 340-397) and Augustine of Hippo (354-430) are Doctors of the Church, and, along with Saints Gregory the Great and Jerome, are universally acclaimed as the Four Great Western Fathers of the Church. They are also the respective sources for two of the strongest aphorisms in defense of papal prerogatives.

We have from St. Augustine the famous “Rome has spoken; the case is closed”, sometimes rendered as, “Rome has spoken; the cause is finished.” In Latin the adage is given as Roma locuta est; causa finita est. It is derived from St. Augustine’s Sermon 131, chapter 10, where the celebrated theologian says verbatim: “Jam enim de hac causa duo concilia missa sunt ad Sedem Apostolicam: inde etiam rescripta venerunt. Causa finita est: utinam aliquando finiatus error!” Which can be translated as: “For two councils having written to the Apostolic See about this matter already, the replies have come back. The question is settled: If only it would settle the error now!” (See Jacques-Paul Migne, ed., Patrologiae Cursus Completus, vol. 38, col. 734.)

With regard to St. Ambrose, he bequeathed to us the equally celebrated “Where Peter is, there is the Church” (Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia). It is found in his Commentary on Psalms, specifically on Psalm 40. St. Ambrose writes: “Ubi ergo Petrus, ibi Ecclesia: ubi Ecclesia, ibi nulla mors; sed vita aeterna”. In English, this can be rendered as: “Therefore, where Peter is, there is the Church: Where the Church is, there is no more death, but eternal life.” (See Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus, vol. 14, col. 1082.)

Do these statements not manifest supreme confidence in looking “towards the papacy in Rome for support and guidance”? Are we to believe that the Northern Europeans didn’t “discover” this essential part of the Catholic Faith until the fifteenth century as a reaction to the Conciliarist error? And, to make the immediate application to today’s situation, would Kwasniewski seriously claim that “where Francis is, there is no more death, but eternal life”? To ask the question is to answer it.

The professor ends his section on the “growing strength of the Papacy” by insinuating that the more recent Popes were given an artificial and unjustified inflation of their power on account of such developments as he described:

Finally, as Protestant liberalism infected the Catholic Church in the 19th century and became Modernism, once again the pope showed himself to be a defender of the simplicity, integrity, and totality of the Catholic Faith. This unique role on the world stage made it inevitable that the pope would be understood and seen as the very embodiment of the Catholic Faith, the measure of what it means to be Catholic.

(Kwasniewski, “My Journey from Ultramontanism to Catholicism”)

This is outrageous! Dr. Kwasniewski is implicitly arguing that the Pope-as-rule-of-Faith is just an unfortunate historical development that those misguided “Ultramontanists”, since they happened to have a long line of good and orthodox Popes, mistakenly took for doctrinal truth! That is Modernism!

Indeed, it appears that Kwasniewski is putting forward a historicist view of dogma. As the German Fr. Georg May, a conservative member of the Vatican II Sect, explains:

A typical Modernist error is the talk about the historicity of truth. By this is not meant the (explicative) development of dogma which is guided by the Holy Ghost, but the abandonment or redefinition of dogmas. The binding (and unchanging) faith of the Church is passed off as the product of a historical period which has been overcome, and thus the faith has to adapt itself to the changed social conditions.

(Fr. Georg May, 300 Jahre gläubige und ungläubige Theologie [Bobingen: Sarto Verlag, 2017], p. 913; our translation; underlining added.)

With his rejection of Ultramontanism as merely an exaggerated view of papal primacy based on historical conditions, Dr. K also finds himself in bad company.

Writing in 1982, then-“Cardinal” Joseph Ratzinger (now “Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI) wrote about the Papacy:

We may not interpret as truth that which is, in reality, a historical development with a more or less close relationship to truth.

…Certainly, no one who claims allegiance to Catholic theology can simply declare the doctrine of primacy null and void, especially not if he seeks to understand the objections and evaluates with an open mind the relative weight of what can be determined historically. Nor is it possible, on the other hand, for him to regard as the only possible form and, consequently, as binding on all Christians the form this primacy has taken in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

(Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology, trans. by Sister Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. [San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1987], p. 198.)

For more information about Ratzinger’s heresy on the Papacy, please see:

Returning to the Kwasniewski quote, it should be obvious to anyone who calls himself a traditional Catholic that the Pope truly is “the very embodiment of the Catholic Faith, the measure of what it means to be Catholic” — he wasn’t merely “understood” in this manner during the post-Tridentine historical epoch. This is a matter of objective reality, not of subjective recognition: “For any man to be able to prove his Catholic faith and affirm that he is truly a Catholic, he must be able to convince the Apostolic See of this. For this See is predominant and with it the faithful of the whole Church should agree” (Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quartus Supra, n. 8).

Now, by “the Pope”, we mean any true Pope, any legitimate successor of St. Peter as Bishop of Rome, head of the Universal Church, Vicar of Christ, Father and Teacher of all Christians, with regard to those things that pertain to the exercise of his office. For, although he be a great sinner in his personal moral life, the divine guarantee for the exercise of his office is never wanting:

…[T]he Church has received from on high a promise which guarantees her against every human weakness. What does it matter that the helm of the symbolic barque has been entrusted to feeble hands, when the Divine Pilot stands on the bridge, where, though invisible, He is watching and ruling? Blessed be the strength of his arm and the multitude of his mercies!

(Pope Leo XIII, Allocution to Cardinals, March 20, 1900; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, p. 349.)

In the tempest of earthly events, and in spite of the deficiency and weakness which may dim her luster to our eyes, [the Church] has the security of remaining imperturbably faithful to her mission to the end of time.

(Pope Pius XII, Allocution to the Cardinals, Dec. 24, 1944; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 1142.)

The Pope has the divine promises; even in his human weaknesses, he is invincible and unshakable; he is the messenger of truth and justice, the principle of the unity of the Church; his voice denounces errors, idolatries, superstitions; he condemns iniquities; he makes charity and virtue loved.

(Pope Pius XII, Address Ancora Una Volta, Feb. 20, 1949)

That is the ancient and constant teaching of the Church, as we saw confirmed by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine earlier, and as was declared by the Vatican Council in 1870 when it affirmed explicitly:

Moreover, that by the very apostolic primacy which the Roman Pontiff as the successor of Peter, the chief of the Apostles, holds over the universal Church, the supreme power of the magisterium is also comprehended, this Holy See has always held, the whole experience of the Church approves, and the ecumenical Councils themselves, especially those in which the East convened with the West in a union of faith and charity, have declared.

For the fathers of the fourth council of Constantinople, adhering to the ways of the former ones, published this solemn profession: “Our first salvation is to guard the rule of right faith [. . .]. And since the sentiment of our Lord Jesus Christ cannot be passed over when He says: ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church’ [Matt. 16:18], these words which were spoken are proven true by actual results, since in the Apostolic See the Catholic religion has always been preserved untainted, and holy doctrine celebrated. Desiring, then, least of all to be separated from the faith and teaching of this [Apostolic See], We hope that We may deserve to be in the one communion which the Apostolic See proclaims, in which the solidarity of the Christian religion is whole and true.”

Moreover, with the approval of the second council of Lyons, the Greeks have professed, “that the Holy Roman Church holds the highest and the full primacy and pre-eminence over the universal Catholic Church, which it truthfully and humbly professes it has received with plenitude of power from the Lord Himself in blessed Peter, the chief or head of the Apostles, of whom the Roman Pontiff is the successor; and, just as it is bound above others to defend the truth of faith, so, too, if any questions arise about faith, they should be defined by its judgment”.

Finally, the Council of Florence has defined: “That the Roman Pontiff is the true vicar of Christ and head of the whole Church and the father and teacher of all Christians; and to it in the blessed Peter has been handed down by the Lord Jesus Christ the full power of feeding, ruling, and guiding the universal Church.”

(First Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Ch. 4; Denz. 1832-1835)

So, while Peter Kwasniewski effectively claims that Vatican I is but an exaggerated reaction to the liberalism of the time, centuries of magisterial teachings before the council prove otherwise.

As we shall see in Part Two of this article, Dr. K makes every attempt to demean and diminish the power and prerogatives of the Papacy. Never mind that it is precisely the Papacy “to which has been promised a special, permanent, divine assistance”, as Pope Pius IX teaches (Apostolic Letter Per Tristissima; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 418). It doesn’t matter to Kwasniewski because he has no choice but to argue his mutilated version of the Papacy if he wants to justify the recognize-and-resist approach to Francis as an authentic Pope whose magisterium is not in and of itself authoritative, much less a safe guide for souls.

It is a tune he has sung before, and likely will sing again, but it’s a discordant one that should ring sour in the ear of every knowledgeable and faithful Catholic.


Title image source: composite of elements from Wikimedia Commons (Library of Congress) and
License: public domain and fair use

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