In my previous article, Sola Scriptura & the Authority of the Catholic Church, I fleshed out how a Christian can trust his church’s teaching, but not at the expense of the Word of God. This was in response to an attitude seen prevalently amongst Romanists and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Christians to just trust what their church teaches without any reference to the meaning of the Scriptures. Trust in one’s church can be good but not when isolated to the church alone (Sola Ecclesia/Solus Petrus).
However, I have noticed a trend with some Romanists which has broken my heart to watch. When faced with difficulties in their system, instead engaging their intellect and trying to pierce the Cloud of Unknowing, so to say, they shut off their intellect. Instead of becoming more like Jesus Christ, who is Truth Himself, they just “trust what the Church teaches” without anymore dialogue or discovery. It is an intellectual despair and agnosticism which replaces the substance of the Truth for its mere accidents. The accidents of Truth remain while the substance is changed to a false security in unknowing.
This new wicked transubstantiation is rooted in Ultramontanism, because it ultimately must undercut any ties to truth claims before the current pontificate. Upon reflecting on Ultramontanism, its similarity to Modernism (which was discussed in Modernism: A Protestant Concern) explains why it leads to the same kind of despair and agnosticism.
What is Ultramontanism?
Ultramontanism has signified a few beliefs over the years. For our purposes, it is the Roman Catholic belief that the Pope of Rome cannot err in his ordinary teaching, in matters of faith and morals. It may also signify a practice among laymen to believe what a Pope teaches, no matter how novel, because the Pope teaches it. The practical application of this is to reject attempts to correct the Roman Pontiff based on Tradition or the Scriptures. While this is only a theological opinion, and the Society of Saint Pius X ministers in opposition to this opinion, it is still widely prevalent amongst Romanists today.
What is Modernism?
To understand Modernism, it is important to understand the concept of Truth and what makes something true. Ultimately, God is Truth. As Jesus Christ teaches,
I am the way, and the truth, and the life.John 14:6
And this Truth, since it is God, never changes, which is why St. Paul teaches that
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and to-day, yea and for ever.Hebrews 13:8
God is Truth, so Truth is unchanging and unchangeable. Our beliefs, then, are only true inasmuch as they conform to God. It is here that Scripture and Modernism diverge. According to the Sacred Scriptures, and good philosophy, Truth is the conformity of Idea to Reality. That is, a true statement is one which conforms perfectly to what is real: to God Himself ultimately.
According to Modernism, however, Truth is the conformity of Idea to the Times. Therefore, a statement is only true inasmuch as it updates to the present, which means the Truth is always changing. However, Modernists tend to not outright decry the old truth and call for its abolition. Instead, the clever Modernist retains the accidents (the language) of the old truth but then guts its substance (the meaning) and replaces it with the new truth (the new substance/meaning). This epistemological transubstantiation is the key marker of Modernism.
While Modernism is often expressed in updating truth claims to the Times in society, where it is applied is not essential to it. Modernism could exist as updating to the Times to any context, such as Rome. For example, Ultramontanism teaches the conformity of Idea to the Times in the Papal Magisterium. It’s the same model.
For the ultramontanist, a belief is only true if it is up-to-date with the most recent papal teaching and must change when the papal teaching changes. Of course, the ultramontanist will claim that papal teaching secures a contemporary teaching and expression of the ancient faith handed down from Pope to Pope. However, that does not refute the accusation of Modernism. Instead, it agrees that the model is Modernist and only defends that it is a good model. Therefore, even if the ultramontanist is correct about the Pope’s divine protection, his epistemological model is fundamentally Modernist.
Who Has the Model?
Of course, some may defend the divine protection of the Papal Magisterium by arguing that the ultramontanist model is only true for laymen, while the Pope Himself knows truth by conforming Idea to Reality. However, if his epistemology is fundamentally different than any other member of the Catholic Church, then one must suppose that the office of the Pope radically alters his intellect. That is, how the intellect is ordered is only perfect in the person of the Pope. One part of the Catholic Church would have a fundamentally different epistemology than another part of the Catholic Church. Of course, there is a diversity of roles (the Church Teaching vs. the Church Taught). However, the novelty of a diversity of intellects makes one ponder: which intellect did Christ have? Whichever one He has, one part of the Catholic Church does not have that one, limiting the scope of His Redemption (what He did not assume, He did not redeem).
But, in reality, it is clear that there is not a different epistemology between parts of the Catholic Church. For example, Francis often quotes himself when it is convenient, such as in the infamous encyclical, Fratelli Tutti. And, since his teaching is the regula fidei proxima, even though a teaching is based only in himself, it then becomes the standard for all truth claims.
Of course, this is all dealing with the model on its own terms. In reality, it does not secure a consistent, unchanged faith but a constantly changing one where what is false today is true tomorrow, and what is good yesterday is evil today. Each of these topics deserves its own article, but one could think about how it was unthinkable to allow non-Roman Catholics to the Eucharist…until it was considered good, recommended, and ecumenical (Canon 844). Or how the death penalty was considered good and part of natural law…until it is no longer permissible due to “an increasing awareness” of human dignity (CCC 2267). Or how the Jews are faithless…until they are actually growing in faithfulness (Good Friday Prayer for the Jews).
For those not inclined to Modernism, but not wanting to abandon Ultramontanism, a forced continuity must be constructed. However, this forced continuity is just Modernism in disguise. This is obvious in its application. When a Pope contradicts a previous teaching, the conservative explains that it is not really in opposition to the previous teaching, and that the new teaching must be interpreted in light of the old in order to avoid contradiction, even if the Pope’s intention to innovate is manifest. However, this is simply the old epistemological transubstantiation being used by the conservatives: the language of the novel teaching of the Pope is retained, but its novel meaning is gutted and replaced with a traditional meaning. While I respect the good intentions of the conservative in doing this, it is simply repackaged Modernism.
A Return to Truth?
The only solution to Modernism of any kind is a return to Truth. As the Sacred Scriptures teach, the Christian must always have recourse to the Word of God (Psalm 119). While trust in one’s church can be good, authentic trust must be derivative of true faith in the Sacred Scriptures, and it must always be ready to be corrected by those Scriptures.
This is the mark of true doctrine and a real correspondance of Idea to Reality, not to the Times. The Catholic Church should not look forward for Truth, since the future does not exist. It cannot look to the present, lest she fall into Modernism. Rather, the orthodox Christian constantly looks back to the Scriptures and how the Holy Ghost has worked in the Church in fulfilling the promises of the Scriptures.