Novus Ordo priest blasts Ultramontanism as ‘heresy’…

That Dreaded Specter of ‘Ultramontanism’:
Response to Fr. Jeffrey Kirby, STD

When the ghost of Ultramontanism looms, who ya gonna call?

The Rev. Jeffrey F. Kirby (b. 1975) is a Novus Ordo priest in the diocese of Charleston, South Carolina.

The biographical blurb on his personal web site describes him as

a Catholic priest, moral theologian, and Papal Missionary of Mercy. He serves as the Pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish in Indian Land, South Carolina and is an Adjunct Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College. He has author [sic] several books and digital programs on the moral and spiritual traditions of the Catholic Church.

Kirby holds a doctorate in moral theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and is a 2016 recipient of the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

Kirby is known for his previous vocations work in which he actively used contemporary social media, web design, and videography in recruitment efforts for the Catholic priesthood and sisterhood.

Kirby is sought out as a conference speaker and retreat leader throughout the United States.

Moreover, his impressive curriculum vitae is not short on academic and other achievements.

All the more inexcusable, therefore, is the poor-quality article ‘Father’ (why the quotes?) Kirby published on Apr. 14, 2024, at The Catholic Thing, entitled “The Rise of the Ultramontanists”, in which the presbyter gives a peculiar definition of Ultramontanism and denounces it as a “heresy”. He makes lots of unsupported assertions in the relatively brief write-up, offers sloppy reasoning, and, with the exception of one quote from Vatican II and two Bible verses, cites no sources.

In this post we will examine “The Rise of the Ultramontanists”, quote the worst portions, and offer a refreshing reality check based on real traditional Catholic doctrine.

Ultramontanism: Heresy or Orthodoxy?

‘Father’ Kirby begins as follows:

It’s a peculiar era in the Church that witnesses the rise of ultramontanism. Sound theology has laid that heresy to rest many times and yet it keeps popping up. Regrettably, there will always be popes who welcome ultramontanism and the unconditional adherence that comes with it, just as there will always be those souls who are more than eager to kowtow to the man who happens to be pope.

Ultramontanism is the false belief that everything a pope says is without error. Everything a pope decides must be right. Everything a pope speaks or does is paramount and cannot be questioned. The shocking rhetoric of the ultramontanists is found in such slogans as, “If you don’t believe everything the pope teaches, then you’re not Catholic.”

There is so much wrong in these two paragraphs alone that it is difficult to know where to begin dismantling it.

So ‘Ultramontanism’ is being introduced as a heresy that is presently afflicting the Catholic Church (i.e., the Vatican II Sect, which Kirby believes to be the Catholic Church). We are told that even though it has been refuted time and again by “sound theology”, nevertheless there will lamentably always be some Popes (!) to welcome it.

To make matters worse, Kirby then gives a definition of Ultramontanism that is false or at least gratuitous (without support or foundation) and somewhat arbitrary (based on subjective whim). Certainly he cites no source for it. Perhaps he could point to a few concrete examples of people professing to be Catholics who hold that everything a Pope says is without error (and without even the possibility of error, for that is what infallibility means); that every papal decision must be right; that no word spoken by a Pope — no matter the subject, occasion, or context — can be questioned. Just where are all those über-Ultramontanists whose “rise” Kirby has come to warn us against? In other words, who actually believes that?

Not even the open liberals and Modernists who, since the election of ‘Pope Francis’ (Jorge Bergoglio) in 2013, have suddenly discovered their love for, and devotion to, the ‘Pope’, believe that everything a Pope says is infallible. Even if they did think such a thing about Bergoglio in particular — which they don’t — they will certainly abandon that attitude with regard to any future Pope or ‘Pope’ who is too conservative for their liking.

The Rev. Kirby does not at all seem troubled by the implications of his rash and outrageous assertion that “there will always be popes who welcome” what he claims is a heresy. But then, that must be the consequence of accepting the Novus Ordo ‘popes’ as true Popes for so many decades: One simply loses all understanding of, and love and respect for, the Papacy; and thus one thinks nothing anymore of accusing Popes of welcoming, favoring, believing, and even teaching heresy.

Regarding the proper meaning of Ultramontanism, let’s see how it is defined in a few sources, both pre- and post-Vatican II.

First, we note that the 1951 Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology has no entry on Ultramontanism at all, which is rather odd for such a terrible ‘heresy’ threatening the integrity of Catholic dogma.

Second, the popular Catholic Dictionary edited by Donald Attwater (3rd ed., 1961) describes it as follows:

ULTRAMONTANISM (Lat., ultra, beyond; montes, the mountains). A term invented by the Gallicans to describe the doctrines and policies which upheld the full authority of the Holy See. With the noun and adjective ultramontane it was used down to the end of the 19th century (especially at the time of the [First] Vatican Council), and still is sometimes, usually by non-Catholic controversialists, to describe a real or supposed exaggeration of papal prerogatives and those who supported them. […]

(Donald Attwater, ed., A Catholic Dictionary [#CommissionLink], 3rd ed. [New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1961], s.v. “Ultramontanism”; italics and bold print given.)

How about that! In the 19th century, the term was used by Gallicans to describe what would be vindicated as the orthodox Catholic position! Its possible association with an exaggeration of papal prerogatives is not denied altogether, but is confined to “usually … non-Catholic controversialists” who “sometimes” still — as of 1957, when the imprimatur was granted — use it in that sense.

The Modern Catholic Dictionary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980) of the conservative Jesuit Fr. John Hardon, likewise, knows of no such heresy as ‘Ultramontanism’. Rather, it defines the term ultramontane as “Catholics who agreed with the Pope on matters of doctrine and policy” (p. 551) — clearly a dangerous, heretical movement! 😉

The Novus Ordo New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967, 2003), does not know of “Ultramontanism” as a heresy either, although it does mention an exaggerated “Neo-Ultramontanism”, supposedly occasioned by the magisterial teaching of Pope Pius IX:

The encyclical Inter muliplices (March 1853) marked a direct involvement of PIUS IX in favor of this centralizing effort. His intervention responded to the expectations of many, against the reservations of isolated bishops and theologians. It encouraged what has been called “neo-ultramontanism,” to distinguish it from the doctrine proclaimed at Vatican I: an extreme exaltation of the Roman Pontiff, associated with a high interpretation of his infallibility, closer to direct inspiration than inerrancy. With interesting variations, it can be found in all Catholic countries, with the uncompromising and prejudiced traits well illustrated by L’Univers. The discussion of these themes at VATICAN I allowed for a beneficial reflection. The constitution Pastor Aeternus that resulted did affirm papal primacy and infallibility, but did not follow the more extreme Ultramontanes in their interpretation.

After Vatican I, the concept of Ultramontanism is only analogical, for instance in the qualification of ‘integralist’ perspectives that arose during the Modernist crisis, or of oppositions to the Vatican II doctrine of collegiality [ha!].

(Thomas Carson and Joann Cerrito, eds., New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 14 [Detroit, MI: Thomson/Gale, 2003], s.v. “Ultramontanism”, p. 285.)

Interestingly enough, the (old) Catholic Encyclopedia of 1912 defines Ultramontanism thus: “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” (s.v. “Ultramontanism”).

The history of the term is most interesting:

In a very different sense, the word once more came into use after the Protestant Reformation, which was, among other things, a triumph of that ecclesiastical particularism, based on political principles, which was formulated in the maxim: Cujus regio, ejus religio. Among the Catholic governments and peoples there gradually developed an analogous tendency to regard the papacy as a foreign power; Gallicanism and all forms of French and German regalism affected to look upon the Holy See as an alien power because it was beyond the Alpine boundaries of both the French kingdom and the German empire. This name of Ultramontane the Gallicans applied to the supporters of the Roman doctrines–whether that of the monarchical character of the pope in the government of the Church or of the infallible pontifical magisterium–inasmuch as the latter were supposed to renounce “Gallican liberties” in favour of the head of the Church who resided ultra montes [beyond the mountains]. This use of the word was not altogether novel; as early as the time of Gregory VII the opponents of Henry IV in Germany had been called Ultramontanes (ultramontani). In both cases the term was intended to be opprobrious, or at least to convey the imputation of a failing in attachment to the Ultramontane’s own prince, or his country, or his national Church.

In the eighteenth century the word passed from France back to Germany, where it was adopted by the Febronians, Josephinists, and Rationalists, who called themselves Catholics, to designate the theologians and the faithful who were attached to the Holy See. Thus it acquired a much wider signification, being applicable to all Roman Catholics worthy of the name. The Revolution adopted this polemical term from the old regime: the “Divine State”, formerly personified in the prince, now found its personification in the people, becoming more “Divine” than ever as the State became more and more laic and irreligious, and, both in principle and in fact, denied any other God but itself. In presence of this new form of the old state-worship, the “Ultramontane” is the antagonist of the atheists as much as the non-Catholic believers, if not more–witness the Bismarckian Kulturkampf, of which the National Liberals rather than the orthodox Protestants were the soul. Thus the word came to be applied more especially in Germany from the earliest decades of the nineteenth century. In the frequent conflicts between Church and State the supporters of the Church’s liberty and independence as against the State are called Ultramontanes. The [First] Vatican Council naturally called forth numerous written attacks upon Ultramontanism. When the Centre was formed as a political party it was called by preference the Ultramontane party. In a few years the “Anti-Ultramontane Reichsverband” came into existence to combat the Centre and, at the same time, Catholicism as a whole.

…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, s.v. “Ultramontanism”; italics given.)

So it turns out that Ultramontanism and Catholicism are the same thing. It would have been nice of the Rev. Kirby to mention as much, even if just to note that what he has in mind is not Ultramontanism but perhaps a Hyper-Ultramontanism, not to be confused with the authentic Ultramontanism that is most certainly not a heresy but the orthodox understanding required of all Catholics.

If Kirby is looking for heresy, he will find it in Gallicanism, the position of the opponents of Ultramontanism, for Gallicanism was condemned at Vatican I:

This term [Gallicanism] is used to designate a certain group of religious opinions for some time peculiar to the Church of France, or Gallican Church, and the theological schools of that country. These opinions, in opposition to the ideas which were called in France “Ultramontane”, tended chiefly to a restraint of the pope’s authority in the Church in favour of that of the bishops and the temporal ruler. It is important, however, to remark at the outset that the warmest and most accredited partisans of Gallican ideas by no means contested the pope’s primacy in the Church, and never claimed for their ideas the force of articles of faith. They aimed only at making it clear that their way of regarding the authority of the pope seemed to them more in conformity with Holy Scripture and tradition. At the same time, their theory did not, as they regarded it, transgress the limits of free opinions, which it is allowable for any theological school to choose for itself provided that the Catholic Creed be duly accepted.

Stricken to death, as a free opinion, by the [First] Council of the Vatican, Gallicanism could survive only as a heresy; the Old Catholics have endeavoured to keep it alive under this form.

(Catholic Encyclopedia, s.v. “Gallicansim”)

So, just what terrifying ‘heresy’ is Kirby fighting here? Why is Ultramontanism a concern of his at all?

A Question of Authority, Not Infallibility

The answer is not difficult to find. The fact of the matter is simply that ‘Pope’ Francis is so obviously deviating from the remote rule of Faith (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition) as well as from pre-Vatican II magisterial teaching on a near-daily basis that conservative Novus Ordo priests like Kirby must find a way to diminish the Papacy to such an extent that Bergoglio will fit into it. Thus certain traits of Gallicanism have become attractive again, now often disguised as the ‘orthodox alternative’ to that gruesome Ultramontanism.

We have witnessed this for over 10 years now: ‘Catholic’ theologians, academics, and pundits deny the traditional Catholic doctrine on the Papacy so they can affirm that Francis is ‘Pope’. It is irony on stilts!

Thus it seems that Kirby has caricatured the true doctrine on assenting to everything the Pope teaches as the truly “false belief that everything a pope says is without error”.

To boot, he appears also to have admitted that he rejects not merely this caricature but even the true concept of submission to the Pope as understood by the Church. For, clearly, the Reverend ‘Father’ holds the mistaken view that each Catholic’s obligation of assent to papal teaching is conditioned on the teaching being infallible, in such a way that where such teaching does not meet the criteria for infallibility, assent is unnecessary and perhaps unwise or even dangerous.

However, that is not the traditional Catholic view at all:

…There are other, almost countless, proofs drawn from the most trustworthy witnesses which clearly and openly testify with great faith, exactitude, respect and obedience that all who want to belong to the true and only Church of Christ must honor and obey this Apostolic See and Roman Pontiff.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Amantissimus, n. 3)

…In fact, Venerable Brothers and beloved Sons, it is a question of recognizing the power (of this See), even over your churches, not merely in what pertains to faith, but also in what concerns discipline. He who would deny this is a heretic; he who recognizes this and obstinately refuses to obey is worthy of anathema.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quae in Patriarchatu [Sept. 1, 1876], n. 24; in Acta Sanctae Sedis X [1877], p. 33. English taken from Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 434.)

They [the Modernists] will learn many excellent things from such a great teacher [as Cardinal John Henry Newman]: in the first place, to regard the Magisterium of the Church as sacred, to defend the doctrine handed down inviolately by the Fathers and, what is of highest importance to the safeguarding of Catholic truth, to follow and obey the Successor of St. Peter with the greatest faith.

(Pope St. Pius X, Apostolic Letter Tuum Illud)

All know to whom the teaching authority of the Church has been given by God: he, then, possesses a perfect right to speak as he wishes and when he thinks it opportune. The duty of others is to hearken to him reverently when he speaks and to carry out what he says.

(Pope Benedict XV, Encyclical Ad Beatissimi, n. 22)

…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.

(Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Casti Connubii, n. 104)

Nor must it be thought that what is expounded in Encyclical Letters does not of itself demand consent, since in writing such Letters the Popes do not exercise the supreme power of their Teaching Authority. For these matters are taught with the ordinary teaching authority, of which it is true to say: “He who heareth you, heareth me” [Lk 10:16]; and generally what is expounded and inculcated in Encyclical Letters already for other reasons appertains to Catholic doctrine.

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 20)

Sounds like a lot of Popes had imbibed the ‘heresy’ of Ultramontanism, huh? But no, the above is simply the true Catholic teaching on submission to the Pope, no matter what label we want to give it. And Kirby apparently rejects it.

We might add that even the Vatican II religion teaches submission to non-infallible papal teaching (see Vatican II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, n. 25), though Kirby makes no mention of it.

The fallacy at work here has been extremely common among recognize-and-resist traditionalists for a long time, and since Francis came along it has also made inroads into the conservative Novus Ordo camp: It is the error of basing all submission to Church teaching on infallibility — as if the obligation to assent to papal teaching derived from the impossibility of it containing even the slightest error. Alas, it is not new.

As Canon George Smith explained roughly 90 years ago:

We have seen that the source of the obligation to believe is not the infallibility of the Church but her divine commission to teach. Therefore, whether her teaching is guaranteed by infallibility or not, the Church is always the divinely appointed teacher and guardian of revealed truth, and consequently the supreme authority of the Church, even when it does not intervene to make an infallible and definitive decision on matters of faith or morals, has the right, in virtue of the divine commission, to command the obedient assent of the faithful. In the absence of infallibility the assent thus demanded cannot be that of faith, whether Catholic or ecclesiastical; it will be an assent of a lower order proportioned to its ground or motive. But whatever name be given to it – for the present we may call it belief – it is obligatory; obligatory not because the teaching is infallible – it is not – but because it is the teaching of the divinely appointed Church. It is the duty of the Church, as [Cardinal] Franzelin has pointed out, not only to teach revealed doctrine but also to protect it, and therefore the Holy See “may prescribe as to be followed or proscribe as to be avoided theological opinions or opinions connected with theology, not only with the intention of infallibly deciding the truth by a definitive pronouncement, but also – without any such intention – merely for the purpose of safeguarding the security of Catholic doctrine.” If it is the duty of the Church, even though non-infallibly, to “prescribe or proscribe” doctrines to this end, then it is evidently also the duty of the faithful to accept them or reject them accordingly.

To sum up, Catholics are bound to believe what the Church teaches. To refuse the assent of divine-Catholic faith to a dogma is to be a heretic; to refuse the assent of ecclesiastical faith to a doctrine which the Church teaches as belonging indirectly to the deposit of faith is to be more or less near to heresy; to refuse internal religious assent to the non-infallible doctrinal decisions of the Holy See is to fail in that submission which Catholics are strictly bound to render to the teaching authority of the Church.

(Canon George Smith, “Must I Believe It?”The Clergy Review, vol. 9 [April, 1935], pp. 296-309)

Canon Smith’s article was published in 1935. Thus we see that Kirby’s error is not new, but it is reappearing at this time because conservative Novus Ordos are desperately trying to fit the square peg of ‘Pope Francis’ into the round hole of the Papacy.

On this web site we have covered this very topic so many times that we ask those who would like to see additional evidence simply to consult some of our prior material on the matter, such as the following:

A Pope’s teaching pertains to instruction in sacred doctrine. A Pope’s laws and disciplinary decisions, on the other hand, pertain to the government of the Church, or to sacred worship and the sanctification of souls (sacraments). Regardless, however, of whether the papal judgment concerns a matter of doctrine, of law, or of worship, it requires a Catholic’s acceptance, typically under pain of sin.

However, even though we must submit to a Pope’s laws, teachings, etc., this does not mean we must hold them (with regard to laws) to be prudent or even helpful in a given situation, nor must we believe that (with regard to teachings) they are stated in the clearest and best possible terms (aside, perhaps, from a dogmatic definition given ex cathedra).

For example, Pope Clement XIV’s suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773 may very well have been a terribly imprudent decision (as many believed), but the order was abolished nonetheless. The papal decree was authoritative; it had legal effect. Therefore, it bound consciences; it had to be obeyed. (The fact that the Jesuits were later re-established is irrelevant here.)

Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) was alive at the time of the suppression of the Society of Jesus and was grieved by the papal judgment; however, he most certainly accepted it immediately and without reservation:

Respect for the pontifical judgment closed his mouth, but the unspeakable anguish of his heart was plainly depicted on his venerable countenance. When he received the brief, he adored in silence the judgments of God, and then said: “The will of the Pope is the will of God.” One day the grand vicar and other persons of distinction appeared to cast blame on the dispositions of the Pope: “Poor Pope,” he exclaimed, “what could he have done in such delicate circumstances, when so many monarchs demanded their suppression. As for us, we have only to adore the secret judgment of God, and remain in peace.”

(Austin Carroll, The Life of St. Alphonsus Liguori [New York, NY: P. O’Shea, 1886], p. 415)

Clearly, St. Alphonsus understood the meaning of: “And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven” (Mt 16:19).

In 1864, Pope Pius IX blasted

the audacity of those who, not enduring sound doctrine, contend that “without sin and without any sacrifice of the Catholic profession assent and obedience may be refused to those judgments and decrees of the Apostolic See, whose object is declared to concern the Church’s general good and her rights and discipline, so only it does not touch the dogmata of faith and morals.” But no one can be found not clearly and distinctly to see and understand how grievously this is opposed to the Catholic dogma of the full power given from God by Christ our Lord Himself to the Roman Pontiff of feeding, ruling and guiding the Universal Church.

(Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Quanta Cura, n. 5; underlining added.)

Is ‘Fr.’ Kirby not aware of the traditional Catholic teaching on this matter, or is he denying it deliberately?

In any case, it would certainly be incorrect to say, “If you don’t believe everything the pope teaches, then you’re not Catholic”. The reason is that Popes teach many things at a level lower than dogma, and although the denial of such lesser teachings is still sinful, it is not the sin of heresy. Thus, one who does so does not cease to be a Catholic — he simply becomes a disobedient and therefore bad Catholic. Unless, perhaps, such refusal to assent were to amount to a pertinacious refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff, then it would constitute the sin of schism, and schism does make one lose Church membership: “For not every sin, however grave it may be, is such as of its own nature to sever a man from the Body of the Church, as does schism or heresy or apostasy” (Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Mystici Corporis, n. 23).

Adding Insult to Injury

Next, Rev. Kirby argues with foolish and scornful audacity:

Ultramontanism has been with the Church since her beginning. The first ultramontanist was the catechumen, Cornelius. Saint Peter, our first pope, was called to Caesarea. When he arrived, we’re told:

As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “I am only a man myself.”  (Acts 10:25-26)

Cornelius’ actions went beyond the filial reverence of the believers (cf. Acts 5:15-16), who saw the chief apostle as a reflection of God’s presence and saw the divine power working through him. In Cornelius’ case, he sought to circumvent God and saw Saint Peter himself as some type of demigod. The apostle saw the abuse and was right to correct Cornelius. As a man of virtue, Saint Peter would allow no wiggle room for ultramontanism.

This is simply adding insult to injury, and so we will not dignify it with a response.

Kirby maintains further:

The Fathers of the First Vatican Council had to humble the ultramontanists of the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular belief, Pastor Aeternus, the decree on papal infallibility, did not enhance the power of the papacy but actually tempered and limited it.

Here we see Kirby confusing authority with infallibility fairly openly, yet he seems completely oblivious to it. Whether Vatican I technically enhanced or curbed the power of the Papacy is irrelevant for purposes of this discussion. The point is that Vatican I must be adhered to, and it taught much more about the Papacy than the infallibility of ex cathedra definitions — that was merely the last paragraph in the fourth chapter of the First Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Pastor Aeternus (the intended second dogmatic constitution on the Church was never debated or voted on, as the council had to adjourn in haste and never reconvened).

Perhaps Kirby could quote a few sources that back up his claim that the Ultramontanists were humbled at Vatican I. Certain Hyper-Ultramontanists may have been, but certainly not the Ultramontanists. Alas, it turns out that Kirby’s write-up is full of assertions and short on documentation.

The Reverend goes on to argue:

Prior to that decree [Pastor Aeternus], it was never clear where the teachings and thoughts of a pope stood in terms of his authority. For instance, when Pope Gregory XVI first saw a steam locomotive, he cursed it and called it the “road to hell” (a play on the French chemins de fer). Some then wondered exactly where trains stood in Catholic doctrine. With Vatican I, however, clear formulae emerged; the faithful could know when the pope was speaking infallibly. And not.

Yet again we find Kirby conflating authority with infallibility. He acts as if only infallible papal definitions require our adherence, and everything else is optional. As we have seen, that is completely false, and dangerously so.

We will dismantle the alleged anecdote concerning Pope Gregory XVI in a moment. First let’s take a quick look at Vatican I’s dogmatic definition of papal infallibility and take note of what it does and does not say:

And so We, adhering faithfully to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, to the glory of God, our Savior, the elevation of the Catholic religion and the salvation of Christian peoples, with the approbation of the sacred Council, teach and explain that the dogma has been divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when carrying out the duty of the pastor and teacher of all Christians by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority he defines a doctrine of faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised him in blessed Peter, operates with that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer wished that His church be instructed in defining doctrine on faith and morals; and so such definitions of the Roman Pontiff from himself, but not from the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

(Vatican I, Dogmatic Constitution Pastor Aeternus, Chapter 4; Denz. 1839.)

Thus the council defined dogmatically the infallibility of papal ex cathedra statements.

It would be unjustified, however, to conclude from this definition that the Pope is infallible only under the conditions given. Indeed, the word “only” is not found in the text at all, and there is good reason for that.

Catholic dogmatic theology divides the object of infallibility into primary (or direct) and secondary (or indirect), as follows.

The primary object of the Church’s infallibility is dogmatic definitions made either by the Pope alone in a solemn ex cathedra pronouncement; or by the Pope with the bishops gathered in ecumenical council; or by the Pope with the bishops dispersed throughout the world in the daily exercise of their ordinary magisterium.

The secondary object of the Church’s infallibility “comprises all those matters which are so closely connected with the revealed deposit that revelation itself would be imperiled unless an absolutely certain decision could be made about them”, as explained by Mgr. Gerard van Noort (1861-1946) in volume 2 of his Dogmatic Theology (n. 87, p. 110). They include the following:

  • Theological conclusions
  • Dogmatic facts
  • General discipline of the Church
  • Approval of religious orders
  • Canonization of saints

There is no need to elaborate further on this here. Interested readers can peruse the dogmatic manuals on the question (we recommend volume I-B of this set), or take a look at the following article:

Next, let us delve into the story about Pope Gregory XVI.

Pope Gregory XVI and the ‘Railroad to Hell’

As before, Kirby is welcome to disclose the sources he is drawing from, also with regard to Pope Gregory XVI (r. 1831-1846) supposedly ‘cursing’ the railway system. In the meantime, we will say that though this particular anecdote has frequently been repeated in recent decades (especially since 1985), finding serious source documentation for it is rather difficult.

The punny words ascribed to Pope Gregory are chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer, French for “road of iron, road to hell”. According to Pietro Desiderio Pasolini, in whose father’s memoirs the story appears first to have been told, these words were Pope Gregory’s “favourite witticism” (Memoir of Count Giuseppe Pasolini [London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1885] p. 164).

From what the present writer has been able to research, it is true that this Pope, whose birth name was Bartolomeo Cappellari, opposed the construction of a railway in the Papal States, but it had nothing to do with rejecting the invention or technological progress as evil or somehow bad in itself. Rather, His Holiness probably feared it would facilitate socio-political turmoil and could negatively impact the States’ economy.

It was “[a]gainst a backdrop of political unrest and uncertainty throughout the Papal States” that the Pope decided against railways, writes Chrissie Van Mierlo (James Joyce and Catholicism [London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017], p. 8). Further, “the rejection was occasioned chiefly by political reasons, although this was denied with apologetic intentions”, says Roger Aubert (“The Beginning of the Risorgimento in Italy”; in Hubert Jedin and John Dolan, eds., History of the Church, Vol. VII [London: Burns & Oates, 1981], p. 313, fn. 10).

While Pope Gregory XVI’s opposition to railways in the Papal States is certain, what is not so clear is whether he really made the “road to hell” quip in the first place: “…[I]t is now recognized as apocryphal”, that is, of doubtful authenticity, writes Richard Wittman (Rebuilding St. Paul’s Outside the Walls: Architecture and the Catholic Revival in the 19th Century [New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2024], p. 319, fn. 51). “For a more even-handed study of Gregory XVI’s attitude toward railways,” the same author refers the reader to a 1968 study by Pietro Negri, which is not available online.

The Italian edition of Wikipedia has some interesting tidbits on this as well:

Gregory XVI is mistakenly credited with the phrase Chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer (‘The railway is the road to hell’). However, Pope Cappellari was not opposed to the railways but, simply, did not authorize the construction of them. A commission to study the possible construction of the railway in the Papal State was in fact established by Gregory XVI in 1840, but the projects presented were disadvantageous. The state, in fact, had neither iron nor coal, resources that should have been found abroad, nor did it have the necessary technology. The commission concluded that the costs would be very high, especially for the meagre Roman finances. Gregory XVI, however, said that surely his successor would have to get his hands on the matter. Pius IX, years later, built one of the first Italian railway networks within the Papal States.

(Wikipedia [Italian], “Papa Gregorio XVI”; underlining added; computer translation.)

A book just published by Aaron Marrs also provides some interesting context to the quip ascribed to Pope Gregory:

According to historian John Pollard, Gregory was “reputed to have said ‘chemin de fer, chemin d’enfer’ (roughly translated: ‘the iron road is the road to hell’).” Gregory was apparently worried that railroads bringing cheaper goods from Europe would wreck the local, rural economies of the Papal States. But in the eyes of anti-Catholics, the French pun was evidence that Catholics were opposed to technology. As we have seen, Protestant writers linked technology and the advancement of civilization to the advancement of Christianity, which made Gregory’s attitude all the more problematic. Gregory’s successor, Pope Pius IX (1846-1878), was reported to have “rather enjoyed a train ride” and was more supportive of constructing railroads. For Protestant writers looking for additional ammunition against Catholics, however, Gregory’s supposed attitude told them all they felt they needed to know.

(Aaron W. Marrs, The American Transportation Revolution: A Social and Cultural History [Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2024], p. 110; underlining added.)

The whole story about Pope Gregory XVI’s witty remark, assuming he did utter it, is much ado about nothing, then. After all, what does any of this have to do with the papal magisterium, with theology, with doctrine, with Faith and morals? Nothing, of course.

The way Kirby brings it up makes it seem as if Pope Cappellari had been a superstitious doofus afraid of technological progress, ‘cursing’ what he did not understand, such that all we can do at this point is laugh about it in embarrassment. But this would indeed resemble cheap anti-Catholic polemics rather than aid in the pursuit of truth.

More Bad Arguments

Kirby continues his appalling assault on Ultramontanism:

Ultramontanists, especially the current neo brand, blur levels of authority and give supreme credence to everything a pope might utter.

So now he distinguishes Ultramontanism from a Neo-Ultramontanism after all. Unfortunately, this does not make things better for him because now he has shown that whether we be talking about an exaggerated Ultramontanism or the authentic kind, either way he opposes it!

That there are different levels of papal teaching can readily be admitted, but regardless of the level, assent must be given it. That is the point Kirby ignores entirely. He is the one blurring distinctions and obfuscating the issue.

The Reverend continues his criticism of Ultramontanists:

They so exaggerate the authority and power of the papacy that they become confused about the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ even as they live and work within it. They become papal fideists, claiming some special virtuous loyalty to the pope, even as they morph the man holding the papal office into some type of leviathan, beyond divine revelation and sacred tradition.

Here Kirby makes clear what’s driving his theological position, and it’s no surprise: He must reconcile the person of Jorge Bergoglio with the office of the Papacy. That is an impossibility, however, and therefore he must distort either the truth about Bergoglio or the truth about the Papacy. Since he is unable to deny Bergoglio’s departure from the Faith, all he has left — if he will not consider Sedevacantism — is to minimize the Papacy. That is exactly what we see him do in his article by essentially reducing papal authority to infallibility, which is exercised only relatively rarely, and consigning the rest to the status of optional, if not outright junk.

Thus, the Novus Ordo Reverend is caught between a rock and a hard place.

Is the Pope above Divine Revelation then? No, not in the sense that he could change it, deny it, or cancel it out. But yes in the sense explained by Pope Leo XIII:

…[I]t belongs to the Pope to judge authoritatively what things the sacred oracles [Scripture and Tradition] contain, as well as what doctrines are in harmony, and what in disagreement, with them; and also, for the same reason, to show forth what things are to be accepted as right, and what to be rejected as worthless; what it is necessary to do and what to avoid doing, in order to attain eternal salvation. For, otherwise, there would be no sure interpreter of the commands of God, nor would there be any safe guide showing man the way he should live.

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae, n. 24)

Again we must ask, is ‘Fr.’ Kirby not aware of this? Does he not know Catholic teaching from before Vatican II?

How ironic that he goes on to lambast Ultramontanists for being intellectually lazy, unwilling to get their hands dirty with real theology:

Ultramontanists claim merely to be showing reverence for the man holding the papal office. They refuse to roll up their sleeves and enter into the trenches of real theological reflection and work.

If we compare the present article with Kirby’s brief and essentially unsupported write-up, which of the two represents a more serious investigation into, and interaction with, Catholic theology?

Kirby continues:

The ultramontanists rally – in almost partisan political fashion – around one man claiming that everything he says is right and everything he even happens to whisper is true. They sadly become the custodial services to a single man, cleaning up his messes, veiling his exaggerations, explaining his mistakes away, while engaging in name calling and accusations against loyal sons and daughters of the Church who raise questions, pose challenges, and indicate possible errors.

That criticism may very well apply to the ideological defenders of Bergoglio — the so-called ‘popesplainers’ of our day, current chief among whom is no doubt Michael Lofton — and of course it is they who are Kirby’s principal target. They are the alleged ‘Ultramontanists’ he has in mind primarily.

However, his criticism of them is not entirely justified. Insofar as they are merely applying the traditional Catholic teaching on the Papacy to Bergoglio, what they are doing is quite consistent. Like Kirby, they are only trying to squeeze Francis into the Papacy. But unlike Kirby, they are unwilling to deny the Catholic teaching on the Papacy and would rather tinker with (explain away, minimize, etc.) the facts concerning Bergoglio. Same motivation, same goal — different premises!

What we have witnessed since that fateful 13th day of March, 2013, when Bergoglio first stepped on the balcony as ‘Pope Francis’, are but two sides of the same coin: Just as the open liberals suddenly discovered the importance of ‘submitting loyally to the Pope’ during Francis’ reign of error, so the conservatives suddenly ‘came to understand’ that the Pope doesn’t always have to be followed (or so they think).

Next, ‘Fr.’ Kirby quotes Vatican II, but he does not appear to grasp what the text is actually saying:

In Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Council Fathers were clear:

But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.  (#10)

The pope is a servant to the Word of God. He is the interpreter of the Deposit of Faith, while also serving as its guardian and attendant. Divine revelation keeps the magisterium in check, even as the magisterium interprets and teaches.

(underlining added)

The pseudo-council is teaching (correctly) that through the exercise of his teaching office, the Pope serves Divine Revelation, he does not create, change, or manipulate it. Yet, that is precisely what Kirby is (rightly) accusing Francis of doing: messing with Divine Revelation!

The Reverend seems to be falling here into the extremely popular but nonetheless deadly recognize-and-resist error of understanding the limits of papal authority in normative rather than a descriptive sense. We explained this at some length just a few weeks ago:

Yes, Divine Revelation keeps the magisterium in check, but not in the sense Kirby has in mind: It keeps the papal teaching office in check by preventing the Pope from teaching heresy (even non-infallibly!), not simply by witnessing against him, as it were, which would be practically useless anyway.

‘Fr.’ Kirby’s final paragraph is this:

Ultramontanism gives no strength or vigor to the Church. It borders on a flattery that serves no good and causes great harm. The Church is perennially strengthened by integrity and moral fortitude. She is repeatedly renewed by holiness, which is achieved by God’s grace through the “obedience of faith” given to the Gospel.

It was to be expected that, given his mistaken premises, Kirby would also draw a faulty conclusion.

The great 19th-century fighter against Liberalism (which was the immediate precursor to Modernism), the Spanish Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany (1844-1916), 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 [#CommissionLink], trans. and adapted by Condé B. Pallen [Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1993], Chapters 14, 20, 33; pp. 70,101,160-161; italics given; underlining added. Available online here.)

It is precisely through obedience to the Church, specifically to the Holy See, that a Catholic can be assured he is in fact obedient to the Gospel. That is why Christ established the papal office with the threefold mission of teaching, ruling, and sanctifying: “Feed my lambs… Feed my lambs… Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:15,16,17).

Thus, true obedience to the papal magisterium is what guarantees our fidelity to the Gospel. It is also, in fact, the distinguishing mark of every Catholic. It is the ultimate criterion of orthodoxy and Catholicity, and it cannot be vitiated by an immoral or unworthy Pope (as long as he is valid, of course):

We congratulate you, therefore, on the fact that although you suffer, doubtless, at the defection of your brothers, separated from you by the breath of perfidious teaching, you are not troubled for all that, and are even being stimulated by their error to receive with greater willingness and to follow with more zeal not only the orders, but even all the directives of the Apostolic See; and by so doing you are certain that you cannot be deceived or betrayed.

(Pope Pius IX, Letter Didicimus Non Sine; excerpted in Papal Teachings: The Church, n. 439.)

Therefore God confided His Church to Peter so that he might safely guard it with his unconquerable power. He invested him, therefore, with the needful authority; since the right to rule is absolutely required by him who has to guard human society really and effectively….

Union with the Roman See of Peter is … always the public criterion of a Catholic …. “You are not to be looked upon as holding the true Catholic faith if you do not teach that the faith of Rome is to be held.”

(Pope Leo XIII, Encyclical Satis Cognitum, nn. 12-13)

…[T]he first and greatest criterion of the faith, the ultimate and unassailable test of orthodoxy is obedience to the teaching authority of the Church, which is ever living and infallible, since she was established by Christ to be the columna et firmamentum veritatis, “the pillar and support of truth” (1 Tim 3:15).

(Pope St. Pius X, Address Con Vera Soddisfazione, May 10, 1909)

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)

…[T]his sacred Office of Teacher in matters of faith and morals must be the proximate and universal criterion of truth for all theologians, since to it has been entrusted by Christ Our Lord the whole deposit of faith — Sacred Scripture and divine Tradition — to be preserved, guarded and interpreted….

(Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Humani Generis, n. 18)

Among the glories of your predecessors — of which you can be rightly proud and which you seek to emulate — particularly outstanding is the fact that your Society [of Jesus], ever loyal to the Chair of Peter, has always endeavored to preserve intact, to teach, defend, and promote the doctrine proposed by the Pontiff of that [Holy] See, to which, “because of its authoritative pre-eminence, every Church — and, therefore, the faithful from all over — must converge” [St. Irenaeus]. And you have refused to tolerate dangerous novelties or any innovation which has not been adequately tried and tested. It is also to your credit that in matters pertaining to Church discipline you are eager to render the Apostolic See that perfect obedience of action, will, and judgment which contributes so greatly “to a more sure direction of the Holy Spirit” [Formula of the Institute, in Pope Julius III, Apostolic Letter Exposcit Debitum].

May no one deprive you of this reputation for sound doctrine and devoted obedience to the Vicar of Christ. May there never be room among you for that proud spirit of “free inquiry” which is more proper to a heterodox mentality than to a Catholic one, and which does not hesitate to submit to one’s own critical judgment even norms issued by the Apostolic See.

(Pope Pius XII, Allocution Vos Omnes, Sep. 10, 1957;  English translation in The Pope Speaks, vol. 4, n. 4 [Spring, 1958], pp. 447-453.)

If the doctrinal safety of the papal magisterium were not guaranteed by God, the Papacy would be a great danger to souls. How could God demand submission to the Pope and genuine internal obedience to the teachings, laws, and liturgical rites of the Supreme Pontiff as a condition of salvation (see Pope Boniface VIII, Bull Unam Sanctam), if these could in fact lead us into heresy, blasphemy, and sacrilege, thus ruining our souls eternally? Then submission to the Pope would constitute a terrible occasion of sin! Then adhering loyally to the Pope would be a spiritual kind of Russian roulette!

For those interested in more information about the topic of Ultramontanism, we recommend the following:

No, the problem is not Ultramontanism. The problem is recognizing a manifest apostate as the Pope of the Catholic Church and then trying to make that scenario work with the Catholic doctrine on the Papacy.

As the Rev. Jeffrey Kirby has unwittingly confirmed with his article “The Rise of the Ultramontanists”, it simply cannot be done.

Image source: Composite with elements from Shutterstock (Thoom/Ngoc Xanh)
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