A Quasi-Defense of Gallicanism

Taylor Patrick O’Neill’s article on the recent (mis)use of the term “ultramontane” as an insult rightly pointed out certain pitfalls afflicting the contemporary Catholic conversation about papal authority and our duties towards it. Some recent rhetoric indeed risks “moving the goalposts” in unhealthy ways. Both the “traditional” and the “progressive” have been guilty of this, especially during the papacies of Bendict XVI and Francis, respectively. I cringed during the papacy of Benedict XVI when I heard a Ratzinger devotee gleefully advance the thesis that, in light of the expanded permission to celebrate the Latin Mass in Summorum Pontificum (2007), from now on all good Catholics ought to anticipate the mens (will) of the Holy Father by attending both forms (not follow his teaching, but anticipate his mens!). Now in the age of Francis the shoe (though not, apparently, the red slipper) is on the other foot, and Francis-cheerers gloat about brow-beating their opponents over everying from climate change, to Amoris laetitia, to the death penalty amendation/development. Some of these folks are open about their schadenfreude at having a chance to pay back, eye for an eye, their own suffering under John Paul II and Benedict. O’Neill is right that this culture of naked partisanship is unseemly and theologically dangerous. This attitude, apart from simply being immature, reveals deeply unhealthy views of the papal office and the nature of the pope’s authority.

In contrast to O’Neill, however, I do not see ultramontanism as a “golden mean” to cling to. Modern Catholicism’s obsession with the papacy, in my view, is itself the unhappy offspring of the historical ultramontane movement and theological culture, an offspring that is thoroughly modern, historically contingent, and by no means (for the most part) necessarily flowing from the Church’s definitive teachings.

O’Neill argues that using the term ultramontanist “as a pejorative” aligns the one doing so “with doctrinal heterodoxy.”

To use a term which has heretofore represented orthodoxy in order to condemn heterodoxy risks moving the goalposts of our own understanding of papal authority. We risk legitimizing whatever hidden Gallicanism remains within the Church or even creating a neo-Gallicanism.

This is a strong claim. It goes well beyond alleging that these folks tarring their opponents with the term “ultramontanist” are mistaken or misapplying history or being hyperbolic. O’Neill asserts that they “align themselves” with heresy – that is, with denying truths that Catholics must hold with divine and Catholic faith. The heresy that O’Neill identifies lurking behind such insults is none other than the ancient tradition of Gallicanism. But what are these truths being denied?

O’Neill mentions evocations of the term “ultramontane” in popular publications like First Things, the New York Times, and the National Catholic Reporter, and argues that these authors (Brian Flanagan is named, I presume Ross Douthat is a target as well) “misunderstand the Church’s teaching on ultramontanism.” I can understand why such an error would be alarming to O’Neill, since he believes ultramontanism is equivalent to Catholic orthodoxy, quoting Umberto Begnigni (1862–1934), the leader of the anti-Modernist secret society Sodalitum Pianum (he could also have quoted John Henry Newman’s contemporary, Cardinal Manning, who once quipped “ultramontanism is Catholic Christianity”). But the Church has no “teaching” on ultramontanism as such – it has specific teachings about specific tenets historically advanced and championed, generally speaking, by ultramontanists.

Setting up Gallican heresy as a foil to ultramontane orthodoxy is, I think, precisely to do what O’Neill (rightly) urges we not do: to “disassociate” terms from their historical significance and change (or, rather, oversimplify) their meanings. We cannot reduce these broad and rich umbrella terms, which span decades and even centuries, to a few discrete doctrinal propositions condemned or upheld at the First Vatican Council (1870).[1] Let me explain.

The term “ultramontane” was coined not by Gallicans, but by Germans. Originally simply a geographical descriptor (“beyond the Alps”) it was popularized in a polemical context in the 1760s by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (alias “Febronius”), an auxiliary bishop of Trier who authored an anti-papal, episcopalist book that galvanized conciliarists all over Europe (including Gallicans).[2]

But the Gallican tradition far predates the bitter conflicts between papalists and conciliarsts in the eighteenth century. It predates also the Reformation, and by no means flows from an encounter with Protestantism, either from positive inspiration or from negative reaction (as a side note, one major but often overlooked reason a “Reformation” took hold in England but not in Spain or France is because those nations had, for better or worse, very zealously secured their “rights” vis-a-vis Rome).

We see Gallican tendencies at least as far back as the late 1290s, in French resistance to the extreme papalism of Pope Boniface VIII, some of whose political claims bordered on the hierocratic and are scarcely defensible today (it should be noted, however, that Boniface’s nemesis, the French King Philip IV, equalled him in ego and exceeeded him in violence). The Great Western Schism (1378–1415), in which there were two, then three rival claimants to the papacy, quite understandably strengthened Gallicanism and other forms of conciliarism. Ultramontanism is a difficult position to hold when there are popes on both sides of the Alps.

Ultramontanism may have served the Church well in the last two centuries and was an understandable development in the era of revolutions and then manic nationalisms, but it was Gallicanism and conciliarism that saved the day in the late medieval world, at the Council of Constance (1414–18). Two of the most important leaders at Constance, which finally healed this deplorable and damaging schism, were Gallican theologians: Jean Gerson (1363–1429) and Pierre d’Ailly (1351–1420).[3]

Taylor O’Neill is absolutely correct in his piece “A Defense of Ultramontanism Contra Gallicanism” that we should always give the reigning pope a charitable and filial benefit of the doubt, but we also need to be honest about our history. Admitting this might be offensive to pious ears, but sometimes the papacy has been a bigger part of the problem than the solution. We need ideas and mechanisms to deal with such situations. Contemporary ultramontanists know this too: witness the public musings of a Cardinal regarding a possible “formal correction” of Pope Francis.

Vatican I condemned, rightly, certain ecclesio-political ideas associated with Gallicanism and Febronianism. The definition of papal infallibility itself also specifically rejected the Gallican idea of the “consent of the Church” (consensus Ecclesiae) as a necessary bar to clear for papal teaching to be universally binding. Still, none of this should consign Gallicanism per se to the dustbin of heresies.

Historically, the term “Gallicanism” has functioned as an umbrella term for a host of propositions, tendencies, and positions. It was never one thing or one idea, and opposition to papal infallibility or excessive papal power did not always mean one wanted a caesaropapist French King (it certainly did not mean that at Vatican I—France had no king and the Italian king was excommunicated). Just as it would be a mistake to dismiss the legacy or value of ultramontanism by appealing to an obsolete ultramontane idea (like the infamous papal “deposing power”), it would be equally mistaken to dismiss the complicated Gallican legacy by citing some of the canons of Vatican I. In order to be fair, we must consider the whole historical sweep of attitudes and ideas bound up with each term.

There were at least three main types of Gallicanism:

  1. “royal,” emphasizing the the role of the King as a kind of “bishop of exernals”;

  2. “parliamentary,” a complex movement strengthened significantly during the Jansenist crisis over the Bull Unigenitus in the eighteenth century,

  3. and “episcopal” or “theological” Gallicanism.

Gallicanism at Vatican I was this third kind. These theological or episcopal Gallicans either disagreed with the doctrine of papal infallibility (as they understood it) or believed such a definition was untimely (as did many others, including Cardinal Newman). While these Gallicans ultimately lost the debate on a key issue—whether the pope could define dogma infallibly outside of a council and/or without the consensus ecclesiae—two very important things should be pointed out in their defense.

The first is that all of these Gallican bishops accepted the decisions of Vatican I. There was no schism in France, although there was a small schism in Germany and Switzerland. Therefore, there was not, then or now, any Gallican schism led by Gallican heretics. Once the universal Church spoke in council these minority French bishops humbly accepted the dogma, though it caused some of them great difficulty. Gallicans, of course, should not be blamed for not believing in a dogma that was not yet accepted and promulgated by the Church, just as Aquinas is not blamed for denying the Immaculate Conception.

The second important point is that the theology of these figures, and its value, cannot be reduced to one or two propositions, either at Vatican I or before. Gallican figures like Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704), one of the most excellent preachers and theologians of early modernity, and Claude Fleury (1640–1723), one of the greatest ever Catholic historians, are of enduring value for Catholics.

Also, the presence of Gallican bishops at Vatican I was an important check on extreme ultramontanism.[4] Yves Congar even saw the minority bishops at Vatican I as “the vanguard of Vatican II,”[5] since they sought to recover episcopal collegiality and synodality in Church governance, and saw infallibility first and foremost as a gift to the whole community of believers, not the prerogative of an individual. These days, theologically literate Catholics are used to explaining the rare and precise conditions in which the pope can speak infallibly.

Yet, before and during Vatican I, there was a very real fear that the maximalist ultramontane position was seeking to retroactively confirm as infallible some of the sweeping condemnations in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors (1864)—including the condemnation of religious liberty. Extreme ultramontanism was a problem then (voiced most spectacularly by Louis Veuillot and W. G. Ward) and now—as those Catholics who treat the pope as an oracle rather than a guardian of the deposit of faith make clear.

Another reason we should not lionize ultramontanism and reject Gallicanism as heresy is because both words describe theological cultures of early modernity. Gallican method grounded theology in scripture and the Church Fathers and usually tried to settle disputes by appealing to an alleged doctrinal consensus in the Early Church. Their desire for the “pure doctrine” of the Early Church helped some Gallicans to seek rapprochement with Protestants. This proto-ecumenical tendency was explicit in Bossuet’s fascinating exchanges with Leibniz[6] and in some well-meaning but ultimately abortive dialogue initiatives between Anglicans and Gallicans.[7] The Gallican approach was “an assiduous search for ‘pure doctrine’ in Fathers, councils, and popes” that was attuned to history and “eminently suited to distinguish essentials from accidentals.”[8] Such a position will sound familiar to students of twentieth-century ressourcement and the nouvelle théologie whose method and thought totally permeated the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962–65).

Were there dangers in the theological culture of Gallicanism? Certainly, and O’Neill and many others have ably pointed them out. But within the theological culture of ultramontanism there existed other dangers, which are alive and well today.

My point in this qualified defense of Gallicanism is not that we should “return” to Gallicanism, if such a thing were even possible. Neither must we equate ultramontanism with Catholic orthodoxy, simply because ultramontanes triumphed at Vatican I. Catholic orthodoxy is too big to be equated with either. The Catholic faith is big enough and dynamic enough to include what is good and true in ultramontanism and in Gallicanism, and likewise to reject what is harmful, false, or exaggerated in both.

Featured Image: Hyacinthe Rigaud, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, 1702; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.

[1] For a classic study of Gallicanism see Aimé-Georges Martimort, Le gallicanisme de Bossuet (Paris: Cerf, 1953). A recent and excellent look at Gallicanism, ultramontanism, and their legacies is Emile Perreau-Saussine, Catholicism and Democracy: An Essay in the History of Political Thought, trans. Richard Rex (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). Perreau-Sassine even points out (178n3), correctly in my view, that widely accepted positions such as those taken in John F. Kennedy’s address to a Protestant gathering in Houston in 1960 are “the American equivalent” of the first Gallican Article of 1682. In the modern Catholic Church of the Vatican councils, Gallicanism and ultramontanism have found certain modes of coexistence. A key part of the Gallican agenda – the independence of governments from direct clerical interference – can and has been realized alongside, and not in opposition to, ultramontanism.

[2] Heribert Raab, “Zur Geschichte und Bedeutung des Schlagwortes ‘Ultramontan’ im 18. und frühen 19. Jahrhundert,” Historisches Jahrbuch der Görres-Gesellschaft  81 (1962): 159–73. See also Owen Chadwick, The Popes and European Revolution (Oxford: Clarendon, 1981), 411.

[3] One of the best and most readable books on this history is Francis Oakley, The Conciliarist Tradition: Constitutionalism in the Catholic Church 1300–1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003),

[4] See the excellent study of Margaret O’Gara, Triumph in Defeat: Infallibility, Vatican I, and the French Minority Bishops (Washington, DC: Catholic University Press, 1988). O’Gara takes her title from the anti-infallibilist Gallican bishop Henri Maret (1805–84): “the minority has triumphed in its defeat” (xvii).

[5] Congar, “Bulletin d’ecclésiologie,” Revue des sciences philosophiques et théologiques 60 (1976): 288.

[6]  Franc̜ois Gaquière, Le dialogue irénique Bossuet-Leibniz: La réunion des Églises en échec (1691–1702) (Paris: Beauchesne, 1966).

[7]  Leonard Adams, ed. William Wake’s Gallican Correspondence and Related Documents, 1716–1731, 7 vols. (New York: Peter Lang, 1988–92).

[8]  Joseph Chinnici, The English Catholic Enlightenment: John Lingard and the Cisalpine Movement , 1750–1850 (Shepherdstown, WV: Patmos Press, 1980), 8–9.


Shaun Blanchard

Shaun Blanchard is Senior Research Fellow at the National Institute for Newman Studies. He is the author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II: Jansenism and the Struggle for Catholic Reform and co-author of a forthcoming Oxford Very Short Introduction to Vatican II.

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