Power of the Office and Ultramontane Authority

Dear Participating Protestants:

At stake is the nature and power of office. Does the holder of official authority have, by that authority, the right to undermine the very institutional structures and traditions perceived to uphold the power granted to the individual by their office? Additionally, is it possible to maintain respect for the office without a corresponding respect for the individual who has taken the position through means consistent with pre-defined mechanisms and procedures? At what point does an attempt to rein in the behavior and abuse of power require restricting the holder of office in ways detrimental to accepted, even canonical structures? And at what point do the attitudes and decisions of the official become so contrarian and unpalatable that it becomes reasonable to ignore, even subvert, the official’s authority?

The term is ultramontane, meaning extreme authority held by a single post, and refers to the power of the papacy in the Roman Catholic Church. The other day I tripped over the term in a book review of Jesuit John O’Malley’s recently published history of Vatican I: The Council and Making of the Ultramontane Church. The Council, O’Malley argues, must be understood in light of the century that preceded it, in which, beginning with the French Revolution, Catholic authority could no longer be maintained through wealth and imperial alliance. If kings defended the pope and popes authenticated the king, what happens when kingship itself is toppled?

The 1870 Vatican Council, O’Malley argues, replaced imperial defense with doctrinal infallibility, just as the Franco-Prussian war was redefining the European map. No longer a commander of vast armies, the pope became the arbiter of truth, speaking without error on matters of faith and doctrine. This authority was first granted to Pius IX, a charismatic pope who, just sixteen years before, singlehandedly imposed the doctrine of the immaculate conception, which made him wildly popular with devotees of the Virgin Mary.

Reviewer and conservative Catholic Adam Deville laments, “the changes wrought in that context [of Vatican I] are with us still, adding immeasurably to the damage done in this long emergency within the Church of 2018 as an unaccountable pope is allowed, as a result of Vatican I, to sit in solipsistic splendor and do nothing except shamelessly tell the rest of us to be silent about the squalor.” An obvious backhand to anyone who finds the words of Pope Francis to be refreshing in their inclusivism. 

I muse over these words because I believe there is something brewing well beyond the walls of the Vatican and far greater than a holder of the Oval Office who has been identified by conservative evangelicals as God’s man for the job. I believe we are living in revolutionary times in which the world is recalibrating the relationship between office and power.

The Protestant Reformation, I was taught, was partially a response to the rapid dissemination of information made possible through the printing press. The corresponding deterioration of kingship giving way to democracy resulted in infallible doctrinal authority granted the pope in Vatican I. Vatican II (1965) was an attempted response by the Roman Catholic Church to the transformation of global politics resulting from two World Wars. Our own denomination adopted a new statement of faith in 1967, responding to the same historic shifts.

Given subsequent transformations brought by instantaneous mass communication and industrial globalization, structures and principalities and those who have historically benefited from their power are flailing to maintain relevance and authority. As in all such historic periods, we must fear most those who announce their incapacity for error, a divine right to power or a claim of infallibility in any sphere of influence, personal or official. We should not be looking for God’s man, but for God’s hand.

Musing though the web of histrionics and history, I remain,

With Love,
Jonathan Krogh
Your fallible Pastor