Febronianism revisited: A brief and cautionary history

The general conclusion of history is that whenever the Church becomes reliant upon governments for money she loses a certain amount of her freedom.

Left: A late-18th-century portrait of Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, who used the pseudonym "Febronius", after which Febronianism is named (Wikipedia); right: Statue of St. Peter at the Vatican (Mateus Campos Felipe/Unsplash.com)

In a recent interview posted by CWR, Cardinal Gerhard Müller remarked:

Since the eighteenth century, along with absolutism, we have even in Catholic France, Austria and Bavaria the unholy tradition of the official state church (Gallicanism, Febronianism, Josephinism).

[As a result] the Church no longer defines herself in terms of her divine mission for the salvation of all people, but rather in terms of the service that she can perform for society within the parameters of the common good and dependence on the State. Only once, during the Kulturkampf [Culture War] against Prussian state absolutism and against the totalitarian ideology, was there practical opposition in the name of her higher mission (Pius XI, Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, 1937).

Since then, [German-speaking] Catholics have obviously subordinated themselves to a great extent to secular governmental goals (so-called “system relevance”) and have grappled with the aggressive de-Christianization of society only in the private sphere. A bishop in Central Europe today faces the choice of surviving through conformity or being branded a fundamentalist by ignorant people.

The terms Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephinism do not often arise in Anglophone circles, though the Church of England is sometimes offered as a concrete example of really existing Febronianism. The Church of England is a national church, deeply entwined with the state apparatus to such a degree that the British Prime Minister has a say in the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. For at least some members of the Anglican Church baptizing their children in the Church of England rather than in the Catholic Church is a patriotic act. The mentality is defined by an aversion to being governed by foreigners. The typically Anglican attitude is that Catholicism is for the Italians and the Irish but not the British. The idea of wanting one’s church governed by local officials is an archetypically Febronian mentality.

The original Febronian was Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701-1790), a bishop of Trier who used the pseudonym Justinus Febronius for his treatise Justini Febronii Juris consulti de Stata Ecclesiæ et legitimâ potestate Romani Pontificis Liber singularis ad reuniendos dissidentes in religione christianos compositus – a document published in 1763 and swiftly condemned by Clement XIII in 1764.

Hontheim had been influenced by the canonist Zeger Bernhard van Espen (1646-1728) while studying at the old University of Louvain. (One wonders: why is it that so many problematic ideas begin in Belgium – for example, Baianism, Jansenism, Correlationism and today’s subject Febronianism?)

Whatever the cause of Belgium’s reputation for being a seed-bed of wild theological ideas, in the seventeenth century Gallicanism was popular and Espen was regarded as a Gallicanist. Gallicans were those who, in disputes about the authority of the papacy vis-à-vis French kings, came down on the side of the kings and an affirmation of their extensive list of canonical prerogatives.

The key hallmarks of Febronianism, that took Gallicanism even further in the anti-Rome direction, included: the attitude that the powers of the keys were not given to Peter as an individual but to the whole church, that the Petrine Office is primarily an administrative office without any special juridical power, that issues such as the appointment of bishops, the naming of coadjutors with the right of succession, the establishment of dioceses and even the condemnation of erroneous theological ideas should be a matter for local authorities, that the pope cannot make judgments about issues of faith without the support of the entire episcopate, that church governance is best undertaken by national synods, and that general councils of the church have a higher authority than that of a pontiff whose ratification of Conciliar documents is not required.

Karl von Dalberg (1744-1817), the Prince Primate of the Federation of the Rhine, was the most powerful promoter of Febronianism in his time. Dalberg and others who followed Hontheim hoped that by marginalising the See of Peter they could effect a reconciliation of the German Catholics and Protestants who would all become members of one national church. Protestants, however, were appalled by the suggestion that the only problem with Catholicism was the papacy. They were keen to explain that they had many other issues with it as well.

The realization of Dalberg’s vision of a German national church largely independent of the Petrine Office was thwarted by Pius VII (1742-1823) who signed concordats with individual German states rather than having a single concordat for all the Germanic territories.

Historians have pointed out that ecumenism was not so much the major interest of the Febronians as their secular power. In the eighteenth century many of the German bishops were Prince-Bishops meaning that they enjoyed temporal as well as ecclesiastical authority and often they were more interested in their secular authority than their pastoral responsibilities. Febronian “theology” appealed to their secular priorities.

The place where Febronianism was most extensively applied was Austria during the reign of Joseph II (1780-1790), hence the expression Josephinism in the trio of terms used by Cardinal Müller.

Although in theory Febronianism fosters greater power for bishops by diminishing papal control over the conduct of their office, in practice wherever national churches are established the major consequence for the bishops is that they become the servants of state power. If they are faithful shepherds they also often end up as martyrs. Red martyrs are murdered by the state police, while white martyrs are simply thrown into prison. Sometimes white martyrs also have monstrous lies told about them to deter the faithful from following their leadership.

An example of a white martyr is the late Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei (1901-2000), now a Servant of God, who was the Bishop of Shanghai. He spent 30 years in Chinese prisons for defying attempts by the Chinese Communist Party to control Catholics through the agency of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association.

Where the “local church” controls episcopal appointments the civil authorities take a greater than usual interest in the appointments and use their power to control them. They also have the power to say to the bishops: ‘We know you have the authority to make your own decisions for the “local church”, so if you don’t support us we will make your life impossible, deprive you of civic freedoms, cut off the money supply and otherwise socially marginalize you. If you continue to complain you can go to jail as a public nuisance. The common good requires it’!

In these circumstances faithful ecclesial leaders can no longer hide behind the papacy or take advantage of the diplomatic soft power of the papacy or otherwise appeal to the papacy for protection and support from local political power-brokers. They are no longer in a position to say “No” to some demand of a local parliament or political leader on the grounds that such decisions cannot be made by them, only by the Supreme Pontiff. Conversely, if the Petrine Office is strong, they have a guard dog they can “whistle”.

One of Cardinal Newman’s arguments in favor of the superiority of the Catholic Church over that of the Church of England was precisely that the Petrine Office served to protect Catholics from being governed by local civil authorities. Newman wrote:

Our ears ring with the oft–told tale, how the temporal sovereign persecuted, or attempted, or gained, the local Episcopate, and how the many or the few faithful fell back on Rome. So it was with the Arians in the East and St. Athanasius; so with the Byzantine Empress and St Chrysostom; so with the Vandal Hunneric and the Africans; so with the 130 Monophysite Bishops at Ephesus and St. Flavian; so was it in the instance of the 50 Bishops, who, by the influence of Basilicus, signed a declaration against the Tome of St Leo; so in the instance of the Henoticon of Zeno; and so in the controversies both of the Monothelites and the Inconoclasts . . . In later and modern times we see the same truth irresistibly brought out; not only, for instance, in St. Thomas’s history, but in St. Anselm’s, nay, in the whole course of English ecclesiastical affairs, from the Conquest to the sixteenth century, and, not with least significancy, in the primacy of Cranmer. Moreover, we see it in the tendency of the Gallicanism of Louis XIV, and the Josephism of Austria. Such, too, is the lesson taught us in the recent policy of the Czar towards the United Greeks, and in the present bearing of the English Government towards the Church of Ireland. In all of these instances, it is a struggle between the Holy See and some local, perhaps distant, government, the liberty and orthodoxy of its faithful people being the matter in dispute; and while the temporal power is on the spot, and eager, and cogent, and persuasive, and dangerous, the strength of the assailed party lies in its fidelity to the rest of Christendom and to the Holy See.1

It is commonly argued that one reason why this eighteenth century movement known as Febronianism retains so much influence in Germany in the twenty-first century is because the Catholic Church receives enormous sums of money from the German government through the “Kirchensteuer” or Church tax policy. In 2019 the figure was 6.76 billion Euros. Such sums come into the Church in Germany on an annual basis. The threat of removing the Kirchensteuer is a weapon the Germany government can point in the direction of the German bishops if they step out of line. Those who do dare to step out of line often find themselves branded a “fundamentalist”, “ultra-conservative”, “ultra-montanist” and a variety of other unfair labels.

The general conclusion of history is that whenever the Church becomes reliant upon governments for money she loses a certain amount of her freedom. It’s difficult to speak truth to power at the best of times, but even harder when the civil power is also the Church’s banker. It was precisely for this reason that Mother Teresa never accepted money from governments.


1 Newman, J. H; Certain Difficulties, 2nd edition, (1894): 184–86.

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About Tracey Rowland 17 Articles
Tracey Rowland holds the St. John Paul II Chair of Theology at the University of Notre Dame (Australia) and is a past Member of the International Theological Commission. She earned her doctorate in philosophy from Cambridge University and her Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. She is the author of several books, including Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI (2008), Benedict XVI: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010), Catholic Theology (2017), The Culture of the Incarnation: Essays in Catholic Theology (2017), Portraits of Spiritual Nobility (Angelico Press, 2019), and Beyond Kant and Nietzsche: The Munich Defence of Christian Humanism (T&T Clark, 2021).


  1. And now for the unasked question:

    How much money do the bishops under the agency of the USCCB get annually from all State governments and the Federal government?

    Could we not state unequivocally that our bishops are beholden to secular powers?

    Could we not state unequivocally that as long as our bishops and their agencies are beholden to secular powers that they have placed serious impediments in advancing Christ’s mission.

    Do we need any more proof that this secular government of ours is doing everything in its power to undermine Christ and his missio?
    Why would secular governments ever give money to the Catholic Church if they did not expect the Church to advance its mission and NOT that of Christ’s?

    Do not our bishops have a lot of explaining to do?

    • This has been my chief beef with the bishops for many years. As the pews emptied out and the coffers ran low, the bishops looked to The State to fill in the deficit.

      I looked up on the USCCB website a few years ago, and at that time it was getting about $35 million, as I recall. But the Archdiocese was getting a whopping $75 million.

      The US Church is now a contractor to the federal government, and their loyalty is torn. Because the bishops are so compromised, there is a clear conflict of interest here. But that is a third rail issue. Best not mention it.

  2. At the head of the article, we read from CARDINAL MULLER, that “[As a result of Febronianism, etc.] the Church no longer defines herself in terms of her divine mission for the salvation of all people, but rather in terms of the service that she can perform for society within the parameters of the common good and dependence on the State.”

    And, at the end, of the article, TRACY ROWLAND concludes: “The general conclusion of history is that whenever the Church becomes reliant upon governments for money she loses a certain amount of her freedom.”

    But, in this era of ersatz “money” and OTHER KINDS OF IMMAGINARY CURRENCY for mind-bending, might we wonder today about a totally mutated novelty in current history? This would be where the CHURCH: (1) neither defines itself (2) nor is defined by secular governments…but instead (3) is redefined by a cultural smoke in the air we breathe.

    It didn’t take the threat of withheld state money to REDEFINE “marriage,” to impose “gender theory” and transgenderism, and the mandatory abortion culture/industry, and soon to terrorize through litigation the Little Sisters of the Poor (the list goes on). And, it won’t take much for this mutating counter-culture, specifically in the United States, to redefine by default the Church itself, under the tutelage of the cafeteria-Catholic, cross-dressed Anti-pope/President Biden. Says he, “Look, I have the great advantage of my faith, the Catholic social doctrine, and my political views COINCIDE.”

    To fully FLIP the Church today, all that is required is for our real leadership (Cordelione, Chaput) to blink and remain silent, while posturing careerists sidestep the unchallenged side plate of gay “marriage,” gender theory, and pockets of active clerical homosexuality. All aided and abetted by the “accompanying” (accommodating/ complicit?) gamble that a decapitated “synodal” Church will leaven all this from within. Surely, the Holy Spirit will always save us from our limp recklessness!

    Emeritus pope BENEDICT reminded us that “councils [and synods] are what that the Church DOES; NOT what the Church IS.” And earlier, this from the secular realm (former President Kennedy): “Those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.”

  3. Fair enough…

    Would you care to correct the error, Dr Lehner? And maybe cut a little slack for limitations of word count?

    Academics – you guys are a real piece of work.

  4. You write: “The nonsense of jumping from Febronnianism [sic, one n] to martyrs in China shows that [the need for research] clearly…”

    Actually, state and secularist patterns of dominance over the Church in Europe in the past, and now in China today, do exhibit similarities as well as “jumping.” Even the early Investiture Crisis (12th Century) is both history and a current event.

    The readers of CWR now look forward to more informative “comments” on the differences to be found in the still-Christian context in Europe and the current and more septic anti-religious context in China. Also, on the exact nature of German “ecumenism” today (other than the “binding synodal path”?). To offer your own “embarassing [sic, two r’s!] polemics” without providing specific value-added; isn’t this also “to talk rubbish”?

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