In the Holy Roman Empire, the central empire of Christendom, due to the onslaughts of the Protestant Reformers, its Catholic subjects of the Emperor had come to cling more closely to the Holy See.
However, once the religious wars had ended without a decisive victory for either party, and once the theory of imperial religious neutrality (cuius regio, eius religio) had been sanctioned formally by the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the Catholic rulers of Germany, not excluding even the spiritual princes, showed more anxiety to increase their own power than to safeguard the interests of their religion.
The evil example of the Protestant states, where the rulers were supreme in religious as in temporal affairs, could not fail to encourage Catholic sovereigns to assert for themselves greater authority over the Church in their own territories, with the danger of compromising the rights of the Pope and of the constitution of the Church.
During the reign of the Freemasonic and theologically liberal Emperor Joseph II (1765-90) - pictured above - the full results of the Jansenist, Gallican, and Liberal Catholic teaching made themselves felt in the Empire.
Joseph II was a consummate hypocrite, insisting on both theological liberalism and freedom to ignore the Pope but also absolute power for himself to dictate to his subjects, even in religious matters.
This was all the more hypocritical given his central position in Catholic Europe as Holy Roman Emperor. He wanted liberal theology so that he could do what he liked but, equally, he wanted to remove the liberty of his subjects and rule them dictatorially.
He became the great icon for Liberal Catholicism and set the tone for liberal dissent ever after, right up to our own day.
Like all Liberal Catholics, he wanted to be free to dissent from the Pope but dealt harshly with anyone who dared to dissent from him.
Such is the consummate selfishness and hypocrisy of the revolutionary - he demands excessive freedom for himself but refuses even basic freedom to others.
The most learned exponent of Gallican views on the German side of the Rhine was Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701-90), Assistant Bishop of Trier in 1740.
Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim, aka Justinus Febronius,
the heterodox author of the Febronian heresy and Assistant Bishop of Trier
the heterodox author of the Febronian heresy and Assistant Bishop of Trier
At the time the hope of a reunion between the Lutherans and the Catholics in Germany was not abandoned completely. It seemed to von Hontheim that by lessening the power of the Papacy, which was regarded by the Protestants as the greatest obstacle to reconciliation, Gallicanism provided the basis for a good reunion programme, that was likely to be acceptable to compromisers.
This was the beginning of what later became the ecumenical movement for the re-union of Christendom. It appealed to men in the Holy Roman Empire of Germany because the Peace of Westphalia had carved up the Empire into both Protestant and Catholic parts, nominally under a Catholic Emperor. Hence the seemingly perennial enthusiasm of Germans and Austrians for ecumenism.
With the object therefore of promoting the cause of reunion he set himself to compose his heretical book, De Statu Ecclesiae et de Legitima Potestate Romani Pontificis, published in 1762 under the assumed name of Justinus Febronius.
According to Febronius, Christ entrusted the power of the keys not to the Pope nor to the hierarchy, but to the whole body of the faithful, who in turn handed over the duty of administration to the Pope and the hierarchy.
Hontheim/Febronius claimed that the Pope was only the first among equals, empowered no doubt to carry on the administration of the Church, but incapable of making laws or irreformable decrees on faith or morals.
Sound like many liberal Catholics, today?
So what’s new?
The Devil is merely the ape of God and never has any original ideas.
Febronius taught the old heresy that the Pope subject to a General Council which alone enjoyed the prerogative of infallibility.
Febronius called upon the Pope to abandon his untenable demands, and, if he refused to do so spontaneously he should be forced to give up his usurpations, and if necessary the bishops should call upon the civil rulers to assist them in their struggle.
The book was in such complete accord with the Freemasonic and absolutist tendencies of the age that it was received with applause by Freemasonic civil rulers, and by the court canonists, theologians, and lawyers, who saw in it the realization of their own dreams of a state Church subservient to the civil ruler, just as Henry VIII had.
The book was roundly condemned by Pope Clement XIII, in 1764, who exhorted the German bishops to take vigorous measures against such dangerous theories.
Some were indifferent but the majority suppressed the book in their dioceses.
Hontheim continued stubborn but, before his death in 1790, he expressed regret for the doctrine he put forward, and died in full communion with the Church.
The teaching of Febronius, paving the way as it did for the supremacy of the State in religious matters, was welcomed by the Emperor Joseph II, as well as by the spiritual princes of the Rhine provinces and particularly by the Freemasonic Prime Ministers of Catholic Europe.
Emperor Joseph II was influenced largely by the Gallican and liberal tendencies of his early teachers and advisers. After the death of his devout Catholic mother, Empress Maria-Theresa, in 1780, and in conjunction with his prime minister, Prince Kaunitz, he began to inaugurate his schemes of ecclesiastical reform.
He insisted upon the Royal Placet on all documents issued by the Pope or by the bishops, forbade the bishops of his territories to hold any direct communication with Rome or to ask for a renewal of their faculties, which faculties he undertook to confer by his own authority. He forbade all his subjects to seek or accept honours from the Pope, insisted upon the bishops taking the oath of allegiance to himself before their consecration, introduced a system of state-controlled education, and suppressed a number of religious houses.
He abolished the episcopal seminaries, and established central seminaries at Vienna, Pest, Louvain, Freiburg, and Pavia for the education of the clergy in his dominions in the heretical way he wanted. Clerical students from Austria were forbidden to frequent the Collegium Germanicum at Rome. Even the smallest details of ecclesiastical worship were determined by royal decrees. In all these reforms Joseph II was but reducing to practice the teaching of Febronius.
So far did the Emperor Joseph II – the very Holy Roman Emperor himself, he who should have been the most faithful lay Catholic – lapse from the true faith that, when he paid a visit to Rome, he was, with difficulty, induced by the representations of the Spanish ambassador to desist from his plan of a complete severance of the Empire from the Holy See.
Imagine the disaster of the entire Holy Roman Empire severing all connection and loyalty to the Holy See! It would have been far worse than the split from Rome of King Henry VIII of England.
Joseph II’s radicalism cost the Empire the loss of the whole Austrian Netherlands, following revolution in 1789.
When the Rhine archbishops attempted to repudiate papal authority, through a Council at Ems and the subsequent document called the Punctuation of Ems, even the Protestant ruler Frederick II, King of Prussia, took the part of Rome against the archbishops and mocked Emperor Joseph II by calling him the “Sacristan king” for his obsession with suppressing even minor religious ceremonies and devotions.
Friedrich Karl Joseph, Reichsfreiherr von Erthal (1719-1802) was Prince-Archbishop-Elector of Mainz and a stubborn Febronian heretic whose obstinacy did him no good - he lost everything when the French revolutionary armies swept over his lands and he was ousted by a movement that had grown out of his own disloyalty and heresy
Eventually, all the rebel bishops finally submitted to the Pope, save Friedrich Karl Joseph, Reichsfreiherr (Baron-Imperial) von Erthal, the Prince-Archbishop-Elector of Mainz, who clung obstinately to his heretical views until the storm of the French Revolution broke over his city and territory, and put an end to his rule as a temporal prince forever.
In Tuscany where the Grand Duke Leopold, brother of Joseph II, reigned (1765-90), a determined attempt was made to introduce Febronian principles. Scipio Ricci, the Bishop of Pistoia set himself deliberately to introduce Jansenism and Gallicanism amongst his clergy, establishing a seminary at Pistoia, and a synod at Pistoia.
Eventually the Catholic Faithful attacked the palace of the Bishop and the synod and brought proceedings to an end.
In 1794 the Pope issued the Bull, Auctorem Fidei, in which the principal errors were condemned.
Bishop Scipio Ricci, the heretical Bishop of Pistoia in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, whose Febronianism later led him to support the French Revolution. Later, after the full horror of the Revolution had been unleashed, he was eventually reconciled to the Church.
Bishop Scipio Ricci refused for years to make his submission and eventually supported the French Revolution. It was only in 1805, on the return journey of Pope Pius VII, from the coronation of Bonaparte at Paris, that he could be induced to make his peace with the Church, after Bonaparte had already set fire to half of Europe.
It was under the influence of these heterodox ideas that the Jesuit Order was suppressed in 1773 and these ideas led directly to the French Revolution which left Christian Europe in ruins and led on to the rise of Communism, Nazism and modern Secularist Fundamentalism.
Such was the disastrously poisoned legacy of Febronianism, Josephism and the heresies of Gallicanism, Jansenism and Freemasonry.