Febronianism

A German and Austrian movement in the late eighteenth century to limit papal authority in the church. Its chief doctrines were defined by J.N. von Hontheim,* writing under the pseudonym “Justinius Febronius,” The State of the Church and the Legitimate Authority of the Roman Pontiff, a Book Composed for the Purpose of Uniting in Religion Dissident Christians (in Latin, 1763). Hontheim, learning from Gallicanism,* argued with evident Catholic, not secular, devotion, that the “keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19) were not given to the papacy, but to the whole church, which acts through general councils composed of all the bishops, who hold office from God, not the pope. The bishop of Rome should be understood as primus inter pares to establish the unity of the universal church and preserve its canons, while bishops should exercise most of the authority which wrongly accrued to the pope. The doctrine, although similar to some Gallicanism, differs significantly from it in its universality and in not advocating royal supremacy. It remained for proponents of Josephinism* to make Hontheim's ideas serve their own secular statist centralism; Kaunitz, Austrian chief minister, found them useful and ordered them taught in the universities. The Synod of Pistoia* (1786) and the Congress of Ems* (1786) adopted Febronian principles. I.H. von Wessenberg* succeeded Hontheim as leading advocate of Febronianism, and hoped to build a nearly independent national German church. Clement XIII condemned Hontheim's book in 1764, Hontheim later recanted (1778), and the Syllabus of Errors* (1864) and the dogma of papal infallibility (1870) made it dogmatically inconsistent with Catholicism. The Old Catholic* movement continued the doctrines after the Vatican Council (1869-70).

O. Meyer, Febronius, Weihbischof Johann Nicolaus von Hontheim und sein Widerruf (1880); L. Just, “Febronianismus,” in Lex. Theol. Kirche, IV (1960), pp. 46-47; M. O'Callaghan, “Febronianism,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, V, pp. 868-69; C.B. Moss, The Old Catholic Movements, Its Origins and History (1964).