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FEBRONIANISM. Febronianism was an ecclesiastical and political movement in late-eighteenth-century Catholic Germany. It was precipitated in 1763 by the publication of De Statu Ecclesiae (On the state of the church) by Nikolaus von Hontheim (17011790), the auxiliary bishop of Trier, writing under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius. Hontheim's six-hundred-page Latin work of theology, canon law, and ecclesiastical history vigorously attacked the development of papal monarchy within the Catholic Church while advocating a strong episcopal system of church government and a central role for secular rulers in church affairs.

In De Statu Ecclesiae, Hontheim outlines the historical origins of papal authority, tracing it to the successes of the papal court system and the University of Bologna law school in the Middle Ages and to falsified scholarly works like the ninth-century forged decretals of Isidore Mercator (known as the pseudo-Isidore). Hontheim supports his historical arguments with a theological position advocating the independence of the bishops from the pope. He does not deny the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, but argues that neither Scripture nor tradition grants the pope legal or political jurisdiction over other bishops. He insists that many papal prerogativessuch as the right to confirm episcopal elections, grant dispensations, or hear legal appeals from episcopal courtsare usurpations. De Statu Ecclesiae even argues that some of the decrees of the Council of Trent illegally increase papal control over local churches. Hontheim was a conciliarist, for he considered church councils the ultimate source of authority in the church. Pope Clement XIII (reigned 17581769) formally condemned the work in 1764 and a number of refutations were published, mostly in Italy.

Hontheim's work was well received in Germany because it drew on a number oftraditions. Hontheim refers regularly to Gallicanism with the aim of bringing "the liberties of the French Church" to Germany. The popularity of Febronianism among educated Catholics in Germany, however, has to be traced to several specifically German traditions. The first of these was the sentiment, strong in Germany for centuries, that the Italians who dominated the Papacy did not understand conditions in Germany. This view often coincided with anti-Jesuit feeling after the Thirty Years' War, because many Catholics blamed the Jesuits, papal nuncios, and Rome for the confessional extremism that contributed to the length and destruction of the war. Furthermore, aristocratic prince-bishops and cathedral canons remained committed to the mix of secular and ecclesiastical powers that characterized the Imperial Church (Reichskirche) within the Holy Roman Empire, and Febronianism seemed to provide intellectual support for their position at a time when they were under increasing attack for their aristocratic lifestyle and lack of religious training and commitment.

However, Febronianism was not really a defense of the aristocratic Reichskirche, even if it tapped into the traditional dislike of Roman interference in German affairs. Hontheim's treatise can be considered part of the Catholic Enlightenment in Germany, especially in its non-Austrian, non-Bavarian form. Much of the appeal of his work comes from the fact that he gave a strong role within the church to the very public who read the work: clerics, scholars, and canon lawyers. Febronianism was also strongly episcopalist, giving bishops extensive powers, and nationalist, in advocating national and provincial synods as ultimate sources of authority. Ultimately, by the 1780s Febronianism lost much of its vitality as the Josephine reforms in Austria divided Catholic leadership. The movement was nevertheless important in highlighting the problematic relationship between German Catholicism and the Roman Church. German Catholics had needed the Jesuits, the nuncios, and papal support in the aftermath of the Reformation and the Council of Trent, but by 1700 Catholicism was firmly entrenched in about a third of Germany and more confident German church leaders increasingly disliked Roman involvement in their affairs.

See also Enlightenment ; Gallicanism ; Jesuits ; Law: Canon ; Papacy and Papal States ; Reformation, Catholic ; Trent, Council of .


Klueting, Harm, ed. Katholische AufklärungAufklärung im katholischen Deutschland. Hamburg, 1993.

Printy, Michael O'Neill. Perfect Societies: German States and the Roman Catholic Revolution, 16481806. Ph.D. Diss. University of California, Berkeley, 2002.

Marc R. Forster

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