Febronianism was a powerful movement within the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, in the latter part of the 18th century, directed towards the nationalizing of Catholicism, the restriction of the power of the papacy in favor of that of the episcopate, and the reunion of the dissident churches with Catholic Christendom. It was thus, in its main tendencies, the equivalent of what in France is known as Gallicanism.

Origin of name

The name is derived from the pseudonym of Justinus Febronius adopted by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, coadjutor bishop of Treves (Trier), in publishing his work "Justini Febronii Juris consulti de Stata Ecclesiæ et legitimâ potestate Romani Pontificis Liber singularis ad reuniendos dissidentes in religione christianos compositus" (Bullioni apud Guillelmum Evrardi, 1763). This book, which roused a vast amount of excitement and controversy at the time, exercised an immense influence on opinion within the Roman Catholic Church, and the principles it proclaimed were put into practice by the rulers of that Church in various countries during the latter part of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century.


The main propositions defended by Febronius were as follows. The constitution of the Church is not, by Christ's institution, monarchical, and the pope, though entitled to a certain primacy, is subordinate to the universal Church. Though as the centre of unity he may be regarded as the guardian and champion of the ecclesiastical law, and though he may propose laws, and send legates on the affairs of his primacy, his sovereignty ("principatus") over the Church is not one of jurisdiction, but of order and collaboration ("ordinis et consociationis"). The Roman (ultramontane) doctrine of papal infallibility is not accepted by the other Christian Churches and, moreover, has no practical utility. The Church is based on the one episcopacy common to all bishops, the pope being only first among equals.

It follows that the pope is subject to general councils, in which the bishops are his colleagues ("conjudices"), not merely his consultors; nor has he the exclusive right to summon such councils. The decrees of general councils need not be confirmed by the pope nor can they be altered by him; on the other hand, appeal may be made from papal decisions to a general council. As for the rights of the popes in such matters as appeals, reservations, the confirmation, translation and deposition of bishops, these belong properly to the bishops in provincial synods, and were usurped by the papacy gradually as the result of a variety of causes, notably of the False Decretals.

For the health of the Church it is therefore necessary to restore matters to their condition before the False Decretals, and to give to the episcopate its due authority. The main obstacle to this is not the pope himself, but the Curia, and this must be fought by all possible means, especially by thorough popular education ("primum adversus abususn ecclesiasticae potestatis remedium"), and by the assembling of national and provincial synods, the neglect of which is the main cause of the Church's woes. If the pope will not move in the matter, the princes, and notably the emperor, must act in co-operation with the bishops, summon national councils even against the popes will, defy his excommunication, and in the last resort refuse obedience in those matters over which the papacy has usurped jurisdiction.

Reception of Febronianism

It will be seen that the views of Febronius had but little originality. In the main they were those that predominated in the great general councils of Constance and Basel in the 15th century; but they were backed by him with such a wealth of learning, and they fitted so well into the intellectual and political conditions of the time, that they found a widespread acceptance. The book, indeed, was at once condemned at Rome (February 5, 1764), and by a brief of May 21 Pope Clement XIII commanded all the bishops of Germany to suppress it. The papal condemnation met with a very mixed reception; in some dioceses the order to prohibit the book was ignored, in others action upon it was postponed pending an independent examination, in yet others (nine in all) it was at once obeyed for political reasons, though even in these the forbidden book became the breviary of the governments.

The Febronian doctrine, in fact, exactly fitted the views of the German bishops, which were by no means disinterested. It must be remembered that the German bishops were at this time great secular princes rather than Catholic prelates. With rare exceptions, they made no pretence of carrying out their spiritual duties; they shared to the full in the somewhat shallow enlightenment of the age. As princes of the Empire they had asserted their practical independence of the emperor; they were irked by what they considered the unjustifiable interference of the Curia with their sovereign prerogatives, and wished to establish their independence of the pope also, in the ranks of the hierarchy, then, selfish motives combined with others more respectable to secure the acceptance of the Febronian position.

Among secular rulers the welcome given to it was even less equivocal. Even so devout a sovereign as Maria Theresa refused to allow Febronius to be forbidden in the Habsburg dominions; her son, the emperor Joseph II, applied the Febronian principles with remorseless thoroughness. In Venice, in Tuscany, in Naples, in Portugal, they inspired the vigorous efforts of enlightened despots to reform the Church from above; and they gave a fresh impetus to the movement against the Jesuits, which, under pressure of the secular governments, culminated in the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. Febronius, too, inspired the proceedings of two ecclesiastical assemblies, both held in the year 1786.

The reforming synod of Pistoia met under the presidency of the bishop, Scipione de Ricci. The other was the so-called congress of Ems, a meeting of the delegates of the four German archbishops, which resulted, on August 25, in the celebrated Punctation of Ems, subsequently ratified and issued by the archbishops. This document was the outcome of several years of controversy between the archbishops and the papal nuncios, aroused by what was considered the unjustifiable interference of the latter in the affairs of the German dioceses. In 1769 the three archbishop-electors of Mainz, Cologne and Treves (Trier) had drawn up in thirty articles their complaints against the Curia, and after submitting them to the emperor Joseph II, had forwarded them to the new pope, Clement XIV These articles, though Febronius was prohibited in the archdioceses, were wholly Febronian in tone; and, indeed, Bishop von Hontheim himself took an active part in the diplomatic negotiations which were their outcome.

In drawing up the Punctation he took no active part, but it was wholly inspired by his principles. It consisted of twenty-three articles, which may be summarized as follows. Bishops have, in virtue of their God-given powers, full authority within their dioceses in all matters of dispensation, patronage and the like; papal bulls, briefs, etc., and the decrees of the Roman Congregations are only of binding force in each diocese when sanctioned by the bishop; nunciatures, as hitherto conceived, are to cease; the oath of allegiance to the pope demanded of bishops since Gregory VII's time is to be altered so as to bring it into conformity with episcopal rights; annates and the fees payable for the pallium and confirmation are to be lowered and, in the event of the palhum or confirmation being refused, German archbishops and bishops are to be free to exercise their office under the protection of the emperor; with the Church tribunals of first and second instance (episcopal and metropolitan) the nuncios are not to interfere, and, though appeal to Rome is allowed under certain national safe-guards, the opinion is expressed that it would be better to set up in each archdiocese a final court of appeal representing the provincial synod; finally the emperor is prayed to use his influence with the pope to secure the assembly of a national council in order to remove the grievances left unredressed by the council of Trent.

Whether this manifesto would have led to a reconstitution of the Roman Catholic Church on permanently Febronian lines must for ever remain doubtful. The French Revolution intervened and the German Church went down in the storm.

External links

* [http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06023a.htm Catholic Encyclopedia article]


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