The term originates in ecclesiastical language from the Middle Ages: when a non-Italian man was elected to the papacy, he was said to be papa ultramontano, that is, a pope from beyond the mountains (referring to the Alps mountains). Foreign students at medieval Italian universities were also referred to as ultramontanes.
The word was revived after the Protestant Reformation in France, to indicate the '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 Germany (Josephinism and Febronianism), where it acquired a much wider signification, being applicable to all the conflicts between Church and State, the supporters of the Church being called Ultramontanes. (It is in this sense that Paleoconservatives in the United States are sometimes referred to as being Ultramontanist.)
The word ultramontanism was revived in the context of the French Third Republic as a general insulting term for policies advocating the involvement of the Roman Catholic Church in the policies of the French government, in opposition to laïcité.
In the above cases, the ultramontanist movement acted as a counterbalance to growing power of the state in Europe. Roman Catholic apologists argued that if the Pope has ultimate authority in the Church, then national churches would be more immune to interference from their governments. But subsequent history seems to have shown that states which had national churches grew increasingly secular, and have either granted charters of religious freedom or have disestablished the national church.
Within the Roman Catholic Church, Ultramontanism achieved victory over conciliarism at the First Vatican Council 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 Roman Pope. Other Christians not in full communion with Rome 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.
Italian unification under the leadership of Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi dissolved the political entity of the Papal States in 1870. Thus the secular power of the Bishop of Rome, i.e., the Pope, was reduced to one square mile, the smallest sovereign nation on earth (as a result of the 1929 Lateran Treaty which established a Concordat between Vatican City and the nation of Italy). Prior to the demise of the Papal States, the First Vatican Council had been convened by Pope Pius IX.
The Ultramontanist movement after Italian Unification and the abrupt (and unofficial) end of the First Vatican Council in 1870 (due to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War), and the opposing Conciliarism, became obsolete to a large extent. Some very extreme tendencies of a minority of adherents to Ultramontanism however, especially those attributing to the Roman Pontiff, even in his private opinions, of absolute infallibility even in matters beyond faith and morals, and impeccability, survived and were eagerly used by opponents of the Roman Catholic Church and papacy before the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) for use in their propaganda. These tendencies however were never supported by the First Vatican Council's dogma of papal infallibility and primacy of 1870, but are 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 #25 and later codified in the 1983 revision of Canon Law.
Some may claim the Catholic Social Teaching (see Distributism) of subsidiarity contradicts Ultramontanism, but closer inspection shows that it is merely a logical operation of bureaucratic societies to allow local authorities the opportunity to handle local problems and concerns. It does not 'de-centralize' the Roman Catholic Church but gives more pastoral responsibility to local bishops and pastors of local parishes. Those of an Ultramontanist philosophy take comfort in the retention of doctrinal and disciplinary (canon law) supremacy by the Roman Pontiff and the Roman Curia which serves and represents him.
Challenges to Ultramontanism have remained strong within and outside of 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 (reference in External Links) in 1998 and highlights agreements and differences on these issues.