It is distressing to contemplate how much influence journalists have on Catholic life, but in truth this has long been the case. The furious exchanges among writers at First Things, Commonweal, La Civiltà Cattolica and the Catholic Herald have their precedents in the 19th century, when Louis Veuillot defied the Archbishop of Paris in the pages of L’Univers.

A recent article in the National Catholic Reporter by Brian Flanagan recognises this continuity and identifies Ross Douthat and me as representative of the “new ultramontanes” – today’s versions of Veuillot and William George Ward. If the comparison holds in my case, there could be no surer proof of decline.

There are reasons to doubt the analogy. The ultramontanes championed papal power, whereas both Douthat and I have expressed reservations about the reign of Pope Francis. Veuillot received warm thanks from Pius IX. The only feedback I have received from Pope Francis – handwritten notes on an article I had edited – was not complimentary.

It is true that Americans now stand where the French once did – at the centre of Catholic debate. As Emile Perreau-Saussine noted, “Demographic shifts within the universal Church and internal change in France have latterly combined to bring [its] intellectual primacy to an end. The internal arguments of American Catholicism now hold centre stage.” Opinions will vary as to whether this development is good or bad, but that it has happened cannot be denied.

Flanagan argues that the new ultramontanes, like the old, are often converts who lack formal theological training. That much is certainly true. Veuillot’s low birth and lack of education did not prevent him from seeing things that Lord Acton and Professor Döllinger, for all their refinement, learning and deep Catholic culture, could not.

This point became a matter of controversy when a group of liberal academics led by Massimo Faggioli complained to the editor of the New York Times that Ross Douthat had “no professional qualifications” for writing about the Catholic faith. This was ironic. Though Faggioli is often billed as a theologian, he in fact received his doctorate in history. That he is nonetheless one of our most incisive Catholic commentators shows the foolishness of policing credentials in this freewheeling sphere.

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