A friend wrote me about a school principal, a religious sister, speaking to a parent and requesting school funds. The gentleman was described as an “ultra-Catholic.” My friend asked me: “What is that, do you know?” Evidently, the “non-ultra” principal thought it all right to siphon needed cash from the “ultra” parent. No strings were attached. Once the funds were donated, the non-ultra establishment would go its non-ultra way. The ultra was good for his cash, if he still had any. His ideas were, well, ultra.
Clearly, I cannot resist taking a stab at defining what a modern ultra-Catholic is. Some temptations are difficult to resist. Briefly, in today’s multi-descriptor world, an ultra-Catholic is one who is a believing Catholic, a fairly rare bird. The country is full of ex-, disagreeing, non-practicing, right-to-choose, leave-me-alone Catholics. They tell us that they are better than their hapless co-religionists who naively think Catholicism is credibly the most intelligent thing on the public or private scene. In the public area, the most often cited “authority” on what Catholics believe is the dissenter. Catholics are the one group about which no one has to speak accurately.
A be-knighted ultra-Catholic holds the Nicene Creed as true. He thinks divine authority exists in the Church. He knows that he, a sinner, needs forgiveness. But he does not make his sins into some social-justice crusade. He does odd things like go to Mass on Sundays, even in Latin. He thinks it is fine to have children. He prefers to work for a living. He also knows that the Church is under siege in the culture. He belongs to the real minority.
The word “ultra” is Latin, meaning “beyond.” We have things like ultra viruses, ultrasounds, and ultraviolet rays. In the Middle Ages, a pope was called “ultramontane” if he came not from Italy but from over the mountains. In France in the modern era, the ultramontanists were those Catholics who kept alliance with Rome. Jesuits, perish the thought, were said to belong to this alien group in the Gallican regime. Ultramontanists did not think the French government was divine. This latter view was considered to be rather extreme. I know this negative view of French glory is difficult for the average contemporary to grasp. We find divine authority neither in Rome nor in Paris but only in ourselves.
An ultra-Catholic today, however, is one who strives to do what Aquinas did: He distinguished between those who willingly practice virtue, because they understand that it is the noble thing to do, and those who practice it just to observe the minimum of the law.
In what is hopefully a pioneer endeavor, we even have a bishop explaining to a Kennedy what it means to be a Catholic. Bishop Thomas Tobin in Providence read what Congressman Kennedy said in the Congressional Record about his being a Catholic but still not “agreeing” with everything the Church held — a highly unoriginal position, to be sure. The bishop wondered just what it was that the congressman did not hold, and whether these “un-held” things were central positions in the Church — which, of course, they were. From the beginning, when this selective view of Catholicism first appeared, local bishops did not similarly inquire of politicians who invoked this fuzzy doctrine of themselves deciding what is Catholic, as if the politician were actually himself the pope.
Now about this ultra-Catholic character: We have all laughed at people said to be “holier than the Church.” This latter remark is not a compliment. Unlike the congressman from Rhode Island, some Catholics add things instead of subtracting them, as is the current fashion. Usually, the additions are not really wrong or bad. Most devotions, like the scapulars, are additions in this sense. Aquinas said that adding to the law was not the problem; taking things away from it was.
In the contemporary world, the real enemy of the liberal culture is the “fanatic.” He holds something. We have now reached the point where the fanatic is pretty much identified with the ultra-Catholic. What is dangerous is not some heretical notion of Christianity; it is Christianity itself, especially in its Catholic form. When many Catholics themselves do not know what they are and hold, we distinguish the Christian who defines his own beliefs from the one who holds the self-evident and revealed truths of the Faith.
When the non-ultra-Catholics identify themselves with a disordered culture, the ultra-Catholic is left standing by himself. The popes address their documents to “men of good will.” We read in the Gospel of John: “I have given them thy word; and the world has hated them.” Evidently, not all men have good will.