The term ultramontanism has had a long and complicated history. In the Middle Ages, Northern Europeans called someone an ultramontanist simply because he was ruled by the pope, who lived “beyond the mountains” (ultramonate in Latin), i.e., in Rome, on the other side of the Alps. Of course, those in Italy thought of the French and the Germans as “beyond the mountains,” so when a pope came from those lands, he was a papa ultramontano. Same term, nearly opposite meanings.
After the advent of Protestantism, the meaning of the term evolved. The rise of Protestantism was tied to national politics, with each new denomination usually having its own set of political views and leaders. In France, those who did not follow the pope derogatorily called those who supported papal authority in French political affairs “ultramontanist.” The Jesuits in particular were branded with this title, due to their great devotion to the pope.
The nineteenth century saw another evolution of the term. During the Middle Ages, a movement called conciliarism had become prominent within the Church. This movement, which held that Church councils were the highest authority in the Church—even higher than the pope—eventually was defeated in the fifteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the debate over the precise extent of papal authority arose again, and there were still those within the Church who wished to place council over pope. In this context, the defenders of papal authority were given the “ultramontanist” label.
The ultramontanists defeated the conciliarists at the First Vatican Concil, a council in which the universal jurisdiction and infallibility of the pope was definitively defined. Note, of course, that this wasn’t the “invention” of papal authority or infallibility (as the opponents of the ultramontanists claimed) but simply the official declaration of the perennial teaching of the Church.
From this point, it would seem that there would be no need for the term ultramontanism any longer. After all, to be Catholic was to accept the universal jurisdiction and infallibility of the pope as defined at Vatican I. Every Catholic, therefore, is by definition an ultramontanist. However, in keeping with its confusing history, the definition evolved yet again in the latter half of the twentieth century. In recent years, the term has come to refer to someone who seems to believe the pope’s charism of infallibility to be broader than defined by Vatican I.
Although Vatican I is seen by many today as a robust expansion of the authority of the pope, in certain ways it narrowed it. Within the ranks of the nineteenth-century ultramontanists, there was debate as to exactly how far papal authority went. Yes, a pope was infallible, but when? Whenever he taught? Whenever he said anything? Vatican I made clear that the pope was infallible only when teaching ex cathedra; in other words, when intending to define a teaching in faith and morals for the whole Church to hold definitively. If someone suggests that a non-ex cathedra papal declaration is infallibly binding, then he would be an ultramontanist under the latest definition.
The term’s actual real-world use has mostly devolved into an insult devoid of meaning. The most common usage of the term these days is during debates over papal statements. Critics of the statement will label any and all defenders as “ultramontanists.” Yet, if later the roles are reversed—critics becoming defenders and vice versa—then the ultramontanist label will also be reversed.
As it is commonly defined, ultramontanism is a heresy, for it warps the limits of the papal charism of infallibility. Yet the term should be applied only when someone is truly expressing the belief that a pope’s non-ex cathedra statements are in fact infallible. Perhaps one day the term will evolve yet again and mean something else, but until then, a Catholic should not strive to be a ultramontanist but simply someone who accepts papal authority as defined at Vatican I and reiterated at Vatican II.