The politico-ecclesiastical system outlined by Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701 to 1790), Auxiliary Bishop of Trier, under the pseudonym Justinus Febronius, in his book on the position of the Church and the power of the Pope, written with a view to uniting discordant religious elements. Influenced by Gallican principles, Hontheim advocates an ecclesiastical organization subversive of the Church‘s constitution. By diminution of papal power, he attempts a reconciliation of Protestant bodies with the Church.
Christ, he claims, invested the power of the keys in the Church as a body only, and her prelates, including the pope, exercise this power subordinate to the Church body. While infallibility is denied, the primacy is conceded but can be attached to another see than that of Rome. The pope‘s power should be confined to administration and unification. He is subordinate to the general council which alone, with subsequent ratification by the entire episcopate, can bind in faith and discipline. All bishops have equal rights; the Holy See has no jurisdiction.
Febronius’s real purpose is to facilitate establishment of national churches and subordination of bishops to the State. Clement XIII, in 1764, condemned Febronius’s work. Hontheim defended his system, and published an abridgment in 1777. Pius VI urged a retractation, which was finally secured from Hontheim in 1778. In 1781 he issued a further vindication of his views. Various Catholic courts approved the principles. Attempted application was made in Germany at the Coblenz Conference in 1769, and by the Ems Congress in 1786, without practical results. Joseph II of Austria sought the realization of a national church, followed by Leopold I of Tuscany.