Hontheim, Johann Nikolaus von
HONTHEIM, JOHANN NIKOLAUS VON
Suffragan bishop of Trier and founder of febroni anism; b. Trier, Germany, Jan. 27, 1701; d. Montquintin, Luxembourg, Sept. 2, 1790. He studied jurisprudence and theology at Trier, Louvain (where he was acquainted with Zeger Bernhard van espen), and Leiden. After extensive travels and a stay of three years in Rome, he obtained the degree of doctor of jurisprudence (1724) and was ordained (1728). He was a professor of the Pandects in Trier (1732–38), a chancery official of the bishop, and a parish priest at Koblenz (1739). He became the suffragan bishop of Trier (1748) and until 1778 was vicar-general for Trier and pro-chancellor of the university. In this capacity the learned and austere Hontheim became influential in the archdiocese. Already in his student days he had leaned toward gallicanism and had been interested in the union between Catholics and Protestants. In 1763 he published under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius the two-volume work De statu ecclesiae et legitima potestate Romani Pontificis liber singularis ad reuniendos dissidentes in religione Christianos compositus. The work, composed from Gallican, Jansenist, and Protestant sources, created such a stir that it soon appeared in German, French, and Italian translations. Its theses undermine papal authority: Christ transmitted the power of the keys to the faithful as a group (collectivity of the faithful) and only the execution of this power to the pope and the bishops. The pope has only a primacy of honor, not of jurisdiction, a primacy in the Church, not over the Church. At the same time Hontheim raises episcopal authority immoderately by maintaining, against historical truth, that in the course of history the popes, especially through the pseudo-Isidorian decretals (see false decretals), deprived the bishops of many rights conferred upon them by Christ Himself. Thus he denied supreme papal jurisdiction in favor of practically unlimited episcopal executive power. The bishops would still be in communion with the Holy See and were to report to Rome in important official matters, but they could appeal from a papal decision to a general council, since, according to Hontheim, only the collective Church is the real bearer of infallibility.
Significantly, Hontheim, having thus erected his episcopal system, turned to the secular princes and urged them to interfere, if necessary, with the internal affairs of the Church, even at the risk of a schism. His book was put on the Index by Clement XIII as early as Feb. 27, 1764. On May 21 of the same year the pope in a letter to the German bishops summoned them to suppress the work, whereupon Abp. Clement Wenceslaus of Trier and nine other bishops forbade it. Later Hontheim wrote a rejoinder to various refutations that appeared against his work, notably those by F. A. zaccaria and T. M. Mamacchi. Wenzel Anton von Kaunitz declared to Empress Maria Theresa that the doctrines of Hontheim were precisely those "that are publicly taught at all Your Majesty's universities and are recognized as true and correct by the whole intelligent Catholic world, the only exception being the Roman curialists and their adherents." Later the author of the book, who long remained unknown, was identified, and summoned by Rome to retract. This he did, but only half-heartedly, as appears clearly from his correspondence with Councilor Krufft, an administrative official in the state chancery in Vienna, and also from a commentary to his recantation, which he published in 1781. His real reconciliation with the Church took place only shortly before his death.
Bibliography: o. mejer, Febronius (2d ed. Tübingen 1885). l. just, ed., Der Wiederruf des Febronius in der Korrespondenz des Abbé F. H. Beck mit dem Wiener Nuntius G. Garampi (Wiesbaden 1960). j. zillich, Febronius (Halle 1906). e. wolf, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 3:447–448. h. raab, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 5:479–480. t. ortolan, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables Générales 1951–) 5.2:2115–24. y. m. j. congar, Catholicisme 5:933.