Febronianism, the politico-ecclesiastical system outlined by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, Auxiliary Bishop of Trier, under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius, in his work entitled “Justini Febronii Juris consulti de Statu Ecclesiae et legitima potestate Romani Pontificis Liber singularis ad reuniendos dissidentes in religione christianos compositus” (Bullioni apud Guillelmum Evrardi, 1763; in reality the work was published by Esslinger at Frankfort-on-the-Main). Taking as a basis the Gallican principles which he had imbibed from the canonist Van Espen while pursuing his studies in Louvain, Hontheim advanced along the same lines, in spite of many inconsistencies, to a radicalism far outstripping traditional Gallicanism. He develops in this work a theory of ecclesiastical organization founded on a denial of the monarchical constitution of the Church. The ostensible purpose was to facilitate the reconciliation of the Protestant bodies with the Church by diminishing the power of the Holy See.
According to Febronius (cap. i), the power of the keys was entrusted by Christ to the whole body of the Church, which holds it principaliter et radicaliter, but exercises it through her prelates, to whom only the administration of this power is committed. Among these the pope comes first, though even he is subordinate to the Church as a whole. The Divine institution of the primacy in the church is acknowledged (cap. ii), but Febronius holds that its connection with the Roman See does not rest on the authority of Christ, but on that of Peter and the Church, so that the Church has the power to attach it to another see. The power of the pope, therefore, should be confined to those essential rights inherent in the primacy which were exercised by the Holy See during the first eight centuries. The pope is the center with which the individual Churches must be united. He must be kept informed of what is taking place everywhere throughout the Church, that he may exercise the care demanded by his office for the preservation of unity. It is his duty to enforce the observance of the canons in the whole Church; he has the authority to promulgate laws in the name of the Church, and to depute legates to exercise his authority as primate. His power, as head of the whole Church, however, is of an administrative and unifying character, rather than a power of jurisdiction. But since the ninth century, chiefly through the influence of the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, the constitution of the Church has undergone a complete transformation, in that the papal authority has been extended beyond proper bounds (cap. iii). By a violation of justice, questions which at one time were left to the decision of provincial synods and metropolitans gradually came to be reserved to the Holy See (cap. iv), as, for instance, the condemnation of heresies, the confirmation of episcopal elections, the naming of coadjutors with the right of succession, the transfer and removal of bishops, the establishment of new dioceses, and the erection of metropolitan and primatial sees. The pope, whose infallibility is expressly denied (cap. v), cannot, on his own authority, without a council or the assent of the entire episcopate, give forth any decisions on matters of faith of universal obligation. Likewise in matters of discipline, he can issue no decrees affecting the whole body of the faithful; the decrees of a general council have binding power only after their acceptance by the individual churches. Laws once promulgated cannot be altered at the pope’s will or pleasure. It is also denied that the pope, by the nature and authority of the primacy, can receive appeals from the whole Church.
According to Febronius, the final court of appeal in the Church is the ecumenical council (cap. vi), the rights of which exclude the pretended monarchical constitution of the Church. The pope is subordinate to the general council; he has neither the exclusive authority to summon one, nor the right to preside at its sessions, and the conciliar decrees do not need his ratification. Ecumenical councils are of absolute necessity, as even the assent of a majority of bishops to a papal decree, if given by the individuals, outside a council, does not constitute a final, irrevocable decision. Appeal from the pope to a general council is justified by the superiority of the council over the pope. According to the Divine institution of the episcopate (cap. vii), all bishops have equal rights; they do not receive their power of jurisdiction from the Holy See. It is not within the province of the pope to exercise ordinary episcopal functions in dioceses other than that of Rome. The papal reservations regarding the granting of benefices, annates, and the exemption of religious orders are thus in conflict with the primitive law of the Church, and must be abolished. Having shown, as he believes, that the existing ecclesiastical law with reference to papal power is a distortion of the original constitution of the Church, due chiefly to the False Decretals, Febronius demands that the primitive discipline, as outlined by him, be every-where restored (cap. viii). He then suggests as means for bringing about this reformation (cap. ix), that the people shall be properly enlightened on this subject, that a general council with full freedom be held, that national synods be convened, but especially that Catholic rulers take concerted action, with the cooperation and advice of the bishops, that secular princes avail themselves of the Regium Placet to resist papal decrees, that obedience be openly refused to a legitimate extent, and finally that secular authority be appealed to the Appellatio ab abusu. The last measures reveal the real trend of Febronian principles; Febronius, while ostensibly contending for a larger independence and greater authority for the bishops, seeks only to render the Churches of the different countries less dependent on the Holy See, in order to facilitate the establishment of the national Churches in these states, and reduce the bishops to a condition in which they would be merely servile creatures of the civil power. Wherever an attempt was made to put his ideas into execution, it proceeded along these lines.
The book was formally condemned, February 27, 1764, by Clement XIII. By a Brief of May 21, 1764, the pope required the German episcopate to suppress the work. Ten prelates, among them the Elector of Trier, complied. Meanwhile no steps had been taken against the author personally, who was well known in Rome. Despite the ban of the Church, the book, harmonizing as it did with the spirit of the times, had a tremendous success. A second edition, revised and enlarged, was issued as early as 1765; it was reprinted at Venice and Zurich, and translations appeared in German, French, Italian, Spanish, and Portugese. In the three later volumes, which Hontheim issued as supplementary to the original work, and numbered II to IV (Vol II, Frankfort and Leipzig, 1770; Vol III, 1772; Vol IV, parts 1 and 2, 1773-1774), he defended it, under the name Febronius and various other pseudonyms, against a series of attacks. Later he published an abridgment under the title: “Justinus Febronius abbreviatus et emendatus” (Cologne and Frankfort, 1777). In addition to the “Judicium academicum” of the University of Cologne (1765), refutations appeared from a large number of Catholic authors, the most important being: Ballerini, “De vi ac ratione primatus Romanorum Pontificum et de ipsorum infallibilitate in definiendis controversiis fidei” (Verona, 1766); Idem, “De potestate ecclesiastiea Summorum Pontificum et Conciliorum generalium liber, una cum vindiciis auctoritatis pontificiae contra opus Just. Febronii (Verona, 1768; Augsburg, 1770; new ed. of both works, Munster in W., 1845, 1847); Zaccaria, “Antifebronio, ossia apologia polemicostorica del primato del Papa, contra la dannata opera di Giust. Febronio” (2 vols., Pesaro, 1767; 2nd ed., 4 vols., Cesena, 1768-70; tr. German, Reichenberger, Augsburg, 1768); Idem, “Antifebronius vindicatus” (4 vols., Cesena, 1771-2); Idem, “In tertium Justini Febronii tomum animadversiones Romano-catholicae” (Rome, 1774); Mamachi, “Epistolae ad Just. Febronium de ratione regendae christiani reipublica deque legitima Romani Pontificis potestate” (3 vols., Rome, 1776-78). There were, besides, refutations written from the Protestant standpoint, to repudiate the idea that a diminution of the papal power was all that was necessary to bring the Protestants back into union with the Church, for instance Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, “Dissertatio de eo, an fieri possit, ut sublato Pontificio imperio reconcilientur Dissidentes in religione Christiani” (Leipzig, 1763), and Johann Friedrich Bahrdt, “De Romany Ecclesia irreconciliabili” (Leipzig, 1767); Karl Gottl. Hofmann, “Programma continens examen regulae exegetic ae ex Vincentio Lerinensi in Febronio repetitae” (Wittenberg, 1768).
The first measures against the author were taken by Pius VI, who urged Clemens Wenzeslaus, Elector of Trier, to prevail on Hontheim to recall the work. Only after prolonged exertions, and after a retractation, couched in general terms, had been adjudged unsatisfactory in Rome, the elector forwarded to Rome Hontheim’s emended recantation (November 15, 1778). This was communicated to the cardinals in consistory by Pius VI on Christmas Day. That this retractation was not sincere on Hontheim’s part is evident from his subsequent movements. That he had by no means relinquished his ideas appears from his “Justini Febronii Jcti. Commentarius in suam Retractationem Pio VI. Pont. Max. Kalendis Nov. anni 1778 submissam” (Frankfort, 1781; German ed., Augsburg, 1781), written for the purpose of justifying his position before the public. Meanwhile, notwithstanding the prohibition, the “Febronius” had produced its pernicious effects, which were not checked by the retractation. The ideas advanced in the work, being in thorough accord with the absolutistic tendencies of civil rulers, were eagerly accepted by the Catholic courts and governments of France, the Austrian Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, Venice, Austria, and Tuscany; and they received further development at the hands of court theologians and canonists who favored the scheme of a national Church. Among the advocates of the theory of Febronianism, in Germany, mention should be made of the Trier professor, Franz Anton Haubs, “Themata ex historia ecclesiastica de hierarchia sacra primorum V saeculorum” (Trier, 1786); “Systema primaevum de potestate episcopali ejusque applicatio ad episcopalia quaedam jura in specie punctationibus I. II. et IV. congressus Emsani exposita” (Trier, 1788); and Wilhelm Joseph Castello, “Dissertatio historica de variis causes, queis accidentalis Romani Pontificis potestas successive ampliata fuit” (Trier, 1788). It was the Austrian canonists, however, who contributed most towards the compilation of a new law code regulating the relations of Church and State, which was reduced to practice under Joseph II. Especially noteworthy as being conceived in this spirit were the textbooks on canon law prescribed for the Austrian universities, and compiled by Paul Joseph von Riegger, “Institutiones juris ecclesiastici” (4 vols., Vienna, 1768-72; frequently reprinted), and Pehem, “Prlectiones in jus ecclesiasticum universum”, also, in a more pronounced way, the work of Johann Valentin Eybel, “Introductio in jus ecclesiasticum Catholicorum” (4 vols., Vienna, 1777; placed on the Index, 1784).
The first attempt to give Febronian principles a practical application was made in Germany at the Coblenz Conference of 1769, where the three ecclesiastical Electors of Mainz, Cologne, and Trier, through their delegates, and under the directions of Hontheim, compiled a list of thirty grievances against the Roman See, in consonance with the principles of the “Febronius” (Gravamina trium Archiepiscoporum Electorum, Moguntinensis, Trevirensis et Coloniensis contra Curiam Apostolicam anno 1769 ad Caesarem delata; printed in Le Bret, “Magazin zum Gebrauch der Staaten- and Kirchengeschichte”, Pt. VIII, Ulm, 1783, pp. 1-21). More significant was the Ems Congress of 1786, at which the three ecclesiastical electors and the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg, in imitation of the Coblenz Congress, and in conformity with the basic principles of the “Febronius”, made a fresh attempt to readjust the relations of the German Church with Rome, with a view to securing for the former a greater measure of independence; they also had their representatives draw up the Ems Punctation in twenty-three articles; they achieved, however, no practical results. An attempt was made to realize the principles of the “Febronius” on a large scale in Austria, where under Joseph II a national Church was established according to the plan outlined. Efforts in the same direction were made by Joseph‘s brother Leopold in his Grand-Duchy of Tuscany. The resolutions adopted at the Synod of Pistoia, under Bishop Scipio Ricci, along these lines, were repudiated by the majority of the bishops of the country.