The term's origins are in ecclesiastical language from the Middle Ages: when a non-Italian was elected to the papacy, he was said to be papa ultramontano, that is, a pope from beyond the mountains (referring to the Alps). Foreign students at medieval Italian universities were also referred to as ultramontanes.
The word was revived but the meaning reversed after the Protestant Reformation in France, to indicate the "man beyond the mountains" located in Italy. In France, the name ultramontain was applied to people who supported papal authority in French political affairs, as opposed to the Gallican and Jansenist factions of the indigenous French Catholic Church. The term was intended to be insulting, or at least to imply a lack of true patriotism.
From the 17th century, ultramontanism became closely associated with the Jesuits, who defended the superiority of popes over councils and kings, even in temporal questions.
In the 18th century the word passed to Austria (Josephinism and Febronianism), where it acquired a much wider significance, being applicable to all the conflicts between church and state, the supporters of the Church being called ultramontanes. In Great Britain and Ireland, it was a reaction to Cisalpinism, the stance of moderate lay Catholics who sought to make patriotic concessions to the Protestant state to achieve Catholic emancipation. The English bishops at the First Vatican Council were characterized by their ultramontanism and described as "being more Catholic than the pope himself".
Within the Roman Catholic Church, ultramontanism gained the upper hand over conciliarism at the First Vatican Council, convened by Pope Pius IX in 1870, with the pronouncement of papal infallibility (the ability of the pope to define dogmas free from error ex cathedra) and of papal supremacy, i.e. supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary jurisdiction of the pope. Other Christian groups outside the Catholic Church declared this as the triumph of what they termed "the heresy of ultramontanism". It was specifically decried in the Declaration of the Catholic Congress at Munich, in the Theses of Bonn, and in the Declaration of Utrecht, which became the foundational documents of Old Catholics (Altkatholische) who split with Rome over the declaration on infallibility and supremacy, joining the Old Episcopal Order Catholic See of Utrecht, which had been independent from Rome since 1723.
As with previous pronouncements by the pope, Liberals across Europe were outraged by the doctrine of infallibility and many countries reacted with laws to counter the influence of the church. The term "ultramontanism" was revived during the French Third Republic (1870–1940) as a pejorative way to describe policies that went against laïcité —i.e., that advocated integrating Roman Catholicism into government policy. The term was also used in Switzerland and in the German Empire and the state of Prussia under chancellor Otto von Bismarck, where laws restricting the power of the church and the church's resistance developed into a struggle that was coined Kulturkampf.
In the above cases, the ultramontanist movement acted as a counterbalance to the separation of church and state in many states of Europe which the church regarded as interference from the governments in its affairs. Roman Catholic apologists argued that if the pope had ultimate authority in the Church, then national churches would be more immune to interference from their governments.
Italian unification under the leadership of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi dissolved the political entity of the Papal States in 1870. The pope called himself a "prisoner" with all of Rome under the control of his enemies. However, as a result of the 1929 Lateran Treaty which established a concordat between the Holy See and the nation of Italy, the secular power of the pope was revived, in the form of one square mile of Vatican City, the world's smallest sovereign state.
After Italian Unification and the abrupt (and unofficial) end of the First Vatican Council in 1870 because of the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, the ultramontanist movement and the opposing conciliarism became obsolete to a large extent. However, some very extreme tendencies of a minority of adherents to ultramontanism – especially those attributing to the Roman pontiff, even in his private opinions, absolute infallibility even in matters beyond faith and morals, and impeccability – survived and were eagerly used by opponents of the Catholic Church and papacy before the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) for use in their propaganda. These extreme tendencies, however, were never supported by the First Vatican Council's dogma of 1870 of papal infallibility and primacy, but were rather inspired by erroneous private opinions of some Roman Catholic laymen who tend to identify themselves completely with the Holy See.
At the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) the debate on papal primacy and authority re-emerged, and in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church lumen gentium, the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on the authority of the pope, bishops and councils was further elaborated. The post-conciliar position of the Apostolic See did not deny any of the previous dogmas of papal infallibility or papal primacy; rather, it shifted emphasis from structural and organizational authority to doctrinal teaching authority (also known as the magisterium ). Papal magisterium, i.e. papal teaching authority, was defined in lumen gentium No. 25 and later codified in the 1983 revision of Canon Law.
Some claim the Catholic Social Teaching (see Distributism) of subsidiarity contradicts ultramontanism and accuse it of decentralizing the Roman Catholic Church, whereas others defend it as merely a bureaucratic adjustment to give more pastoral responsibility to local bishops and priests of local parishes. However, subsidiarity involves the distribution of authority in structures outside of the Church's clergy and thus does not contradict ultramontanism.
Challenges to ultramontanism have remained strong within and outside Roman jurisdiction. Ultramontanism has particularly overshadowed ecumenical work between the Roman Catholic Church and both Lutherans and Anglicans. The joint Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation published The Gift of Authority in 1998 which highlights agreements and differences on these issues.
Position of other apostolic churches
Ultramontanism is not recognised by the Eastern Orthodox communion, the Oriental Orthodox communion, or the Church of the East, which in turn are not recognised by old believers who see the "Orthodox" in general as heretics. These churches regard the pope as having been primus inter pares when the churches were in communion and do not recognize the doctrines of infallibility or the pope's alleged universal jurisdiction over patriarchates and autocephalous churches other than that of Rome, except insofar as this is part of the concept of primus inter pares.