1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Febronianism

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FEBRONIANISM, the name given to 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 monarchical power usurped by the papacy at the expense 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 (q.v.). The name is derived from the pseudonym of “Justinus Febronius” adopted by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (q.v.), coadjutor bishop of Treves (Trier), in publishing his work De statu ecclesiae et legitima potestate Romani pontificis. 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 Catholic Churches” and, moreover, “has no practical utility.” The Church is based on the one episcopacy common to all bishops, the pope being only primus inter pares. 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 abusum 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 pope’s will, defy his excommunication, and in the last resort refuse obedience in those matters over which the papacy has usurped jurisdiction.

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 1764), and by a brief of the 21st of May the pope 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 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 notable ecclesiastical assemblies, both held in the year 1786. The reforming synod which met at Pistoia under the presidency of the bishop, Scipione de’ Ricci, is dealt with elsewhere (see Pistoia). The other was the so-called congress of Ems, a meeting of the delegates of the four German archbishops, which resulted, on the 25th of August, 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 XXIII. 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, &c., 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 pallium 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; the German Church went down in the storm: and in 1803 the secularizations carried out by order of the First Consul put an end to the temporal ambitions of its prelates. Febronianism indeed, survived. Karl Theodor von Dalberg, prince primate of the Confederation of the Rhine, upheld its principles throughout the Napoleonic epoch and hoped to establish them in the new Germany to be created by the congress of Vienna. He sent to this assembly, as representative of the German Church, Bishop von Wessenberg, who in his diocese of Constance had not hesitated to apply Febronian principles in reforming, on his own authority, the services and discipline of the Church. But the times were not favourable for such experiments. The tide of reaction after the Revolutionary turmoil was setting strongly in the direction of traditional authority, in religion as in politics; and that ultramontane movement which, before the century was ended, was to dominate the Church, was already showing signs of vigorous life. Moreover, the great national German Church of which Dalberg had a vision—with himself as primate—did not appeal to the German princes, tenacious of their newly acquired status as European powers. One by one these entered into concordats with Rome, and Febronianism from an aggressive policy subsided into a speculative opinion. As such it survived strongly, especially in the universities (Bonn especially had been, from its foundation in 1774, very Febronian), and it reasserted itself vigorously in the attitude of many of the most learned German prelates and professors towards the question of the definition of the dogma of papal infallibility in 1870. It was, in fact, against the Febronian position that the decrees of the Vatican Council were deliberately directed, and their promulgation marked the triumph of the ultramontane view (see Vatican Council, Ultramontanism, Papacy). In Germany, indeed, the struggle against the papal monarchy was carried on for a while by the governments on the so-called Kulturkampf, the Old Catholics representing militant Febronianism. The latter, however, since Bismarck “went to Canossa,” have sunk into a respectable but comparatively obscure sect, and Febronianism, though it still has some hold on opinion within the Church in the chapters and universities of the Rhine provinces, is practically extinct in Germany. Its revival under the guise of so-called Modernism drew from Pope Pius X. in 1908 the scathing condemnation embodied in the encyclical Pascendi gregis.

Authorities.—See Justinus Febronius, De statu ecclesiae et legitima potestae Romani pontificis (Bullioni, 1765), second and enlarged edition, with new prefaces addressed to Pope Clement XIII., to Christian kings and princes, to the bishops of the Catholic Church, and to doctors of theology and canon law; three additional volumes, published in 1770, 1772 and 1774 at Frankfort, are devoted to vindications of the original work against the critics. In the Revue des deux mondes for July 1903 (tome xvi. p. 266) is an interesting article under the title of “L’Allemagne Catholique,” from the papal point of view, by Georges Goyau. For the congress of Ems see Herzog-Hauck, Realencyklopädie (Leipzig, 1898), s.v. “Emser Kongress.” Further references are given in the article on Hontheim (q.v.).  (W. A. P.)