Sedevacantism and ultramontanism are thorny concepts. For one thing, both have been used historically – under certain conditions – to denote actual states of affairs regarding the Church. These states of affairs are easily described and easily indentified. But a very different other thing occurs when some Catholics dump mere personal opinions onto otherwise rather Catholicism for Dummies-level concepts.
Let’s define – for the purposes of this post – warped sedevacantism to be the position that the man who claims to be and is nearly universally recognized to be the Bishop of Rome is, in fact, not the Bishop of Rome and that there is no current Bishop of Rome. The see of Peter is empty. Pope Francis is not the pope – and neither is anyone else. Those are the sedevacantists. Ultramontanism is a bit shiftier. But I will take warped ultramontanism here to be the position that some thing (and an important correlate is the lack of any demarcation between what is, and is not, an appropriate thing even to be considered) is right or wrong, morally good or morally evil, because the pope says so. Those are the ultramontanists – be they the Humanae Vitae type or the Laudato Si type.
Now for practical purposes, sedevacantism and ultramontanism are also interpretive paradigms used by some sorts of Catholics to understand – and to determine the relevance to the interpreter – the acts of the person claiming to be and universally recognized as the Bishop of Rome.
This is not to disdain interpretive paradigms. We all have them, whether they be informed, considered, rigid, etc or no.
However, such interpretive paradigms are additionally categorical positions on the essence of the papacy itself. They don’t just inform our decisions on this pope right here and right now’s words. They also demand some position – again informed, considered, etc etc or no – on a whole host of essential issues: what is the papacy itself, what does “being pope” even mean or confer upon him who is pope, how is the papacy lost/gained/maintained and on and on.
Discussions of essences have a humbling bottomless rabbit hole sort of feel to them. However, Holy Mother Church has taught us some things regarding the essence of the papacy. And it seems to me that the wise path to take – perhaps particularly so in these dark and stormy days – is that one in which our interpretive paradigms are primarily informed by the essentials of the papacy the Church herself has taught us. And keeping other contentious issues surrounding the papacy at arm’s length.
See, Ultramontanism doesn’t just “tell you” how to interpret Laudato Si. It also “tells you” to some extent a bit of of what Jesus did when He founded the Church on the rock of St. Peter. It tells you a very great deal more about moral truth and ultimately The Truth. Getting right those sorts of things is of eternal importance.
We risk smuggling into the essence of the papacy a whole lot of near-occasions to material heresy that are undoubtedly bound up in interpretive paradigms we primarily construct to make sense of this pope right here and right now’s acts. And when we don’t agree with – or conversely when we are absolutely smitten with – the current Pope the risks of our interpretive paradigms being less about the pope and more about sinful error-prone us only increase.
Now, none of this should be seen as a refutation of sedevancatism or ultramontanism. That has been done before, by others, and better. All this is simply to illustrate a little care to be had when making sense of what appears to be a dumpster fire mess. That said, ultramontanism and sedevacantism are spiritual maladies. They are somatogravic inversions inflicted at takeoff often in dark and stormy times. And dark and stormy times may make the inversions more understandable. But the wreckage is the same.