Hontheim, Johann Nikolaus von (Justinus Febronius)

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Hontheim, Johann Nikolaus von (Justinus Febronius) (1701-1790): German Historian and Theologian.

Johann von Hontheim, Auxiliary Bishop of Trier, Germany, writing under the name Justinus Febronius, was the founder of Febronianism, an unsuccessful ecclesiastical movement within the Roman Catholic Church, now of only historical significance. The movement, a more radical counterpart of French Gallicanism, acknowledged the administrative and unifying authority of the pope, but denied his infallibility, and sought, on the basis of church history, to subordinate the pope to the church as a whole and the ecumenical council, a situation that prevailed during the first eight centuries of the church. Under Febronianism, sovereign rulers and bishops would gain power and national churches would be more independent of the Holy See. One aim was to attract German Protestants to Catholicism by removing their fears of the papacy.

Hontheim was born in Trier where he was ordained a priest in 1728. In 1734 he was appointed professor of civil law, and in 1748 auxiliary bishop. He conducted a study of the history of the papacy, publishing his conclusions in 1763 in Concerning the Condition of the Church and the Legitimate Power of the Pope. The book was translated into several languages and widely debated, but put on the Catholic Index in 1764. Its author was compelled to make a formal retraction in 1778. Febronian principles were supported by various bishops and rulers, but ultimately they were repudiated. Hontheim also published two valuable works on the history of Trier. He was reconciled with the church shortly before his death in Montequentin, Luxembourg in 1790.

Further Reading:

M. O’Callaghan, "Febronianism." New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 5. New York: McGraw Hill, 1967.

Pamela S. Saur

Lamar University