Ultramontanism (from Latin, meaning "beyond the mountains"; specifically, beyond the Alps, in Rome) refers to the position of those Roman Catholics who historically have emphasized the importance of centralized papal authority over the authority of kings and regional ecclesiastical hierarchies. It was often used in opposition to such nationalist positions as Gallicanism (France), Josephinism (Austria), or Febronianism (Germany), which favored strong national churches, and to Conciliarism, which subordinated the pope's authority to that of a council of bishops.
From the 17th century, ultramontanism became closely associated with the attitude of the Society of Jesus as elucidated by theologians such as Francisco Suarez. Among the basic tenets of ultramontanism were the superiority of popes over councils and kings, even in temporal questions, the primacy of the popes over all other bishops, and, in some cases, papal infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The ultramontanists attained their greatest triumph in the late 19th century with the formal proclamation (1870) of papal primacy and Infallibility.
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Ultramontanism means literally "beyond the mountains" (Alps), the term usually refers to a movement within the Roman Catholic Church in the nineteenth century that opposed conciliar and nationalist decentralization and advocated centralization of power in the papacy in order to restore the spiritual vigor of the church. The concept itself actually dates from the Middle Ages, when the papacy sought increased power in order to free itself from secular control, as in the investiture controversy of the eleventh century, a movement which some call "old ultramontanism." Coined as a term of derision in the seventeenth century, "ultramontanism" was resurrected in the post - Napoleonic era to refer to an attempt spearheaded by French Catholic romantics to terminate the influence of Enlightenment rationalism and secular governments in church affairs and to restore papal power, a movement which some call "new ultramontanism."
However, it was in Germany that the movement became political and eventually touched off the Kulturkampf, literally the "struggle for civilization", between the papacy and the German government led by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The conflict was brief but bitter, beginning in the 1860s and ending by 1890. Diplomatic relations between Germany and the Vatican were restored in 1880, and most of the laws passed against Catholics during the period were repealed by 1886.
The movement aided and abetted the growing administrative authority of the popes and the tightening of the hierachical structure of the church under their direction. Ultramontanists everywhere applauded such unilateral papal acts as the declaration of the immaculate conception in 1854 and the promulgation of the Syllabus of Errors in 1864. The movement culminated with Vatican I in 1869 - 70 and its decree of papal infallibility.
Even though Vatican II (1962 - 65) reaffirmed papal infallibility, it also weakened ultramontanism with its approval of an increased role in ecclesiastical affairs for the college of bishops and a greater voice for the laity in congregational life. On the other hand, the tone of the papacy since John Paul II took office in 1978 has been one of reassertion of the ultramontane principles of centralization of power and strong papal leadership. It remains to be seen if a revitalized ultramontanism will emerge in Catholicism at large.
R D Linder
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
E E Y Hales, Pio Nono: A Study in European Politics and Religion in the Nineteenth Century and Papacy and Revolution, 1769 - 1846; A R Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution; A M J Kloosterman, Contemporary Catholicism; D J Holmes, The Triumph of the Holy See; P Hebblethwaite, The New Inquisition?
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