An Emperor Blessed

A little noted, but extremely important, event occurred this past Sunday. An emperor was beatified.

The emperor was Karl I, the last Hapsburg monarch, and in a ceremony at the Vatican presided over by Pope John Paul II, he was declared blessed. To many, including myself, Karl of Austria was a man of holy virtue who happened to be one of the last symbols of the dying European order that existed before the ascendancy of mass democracy. To others, he was old-fashioned and anachronistic man obsessed with prolonging the monarchy.

Tell me which side you are on and I will tell you your politics. If you are Catholic, I will tell you whether you lean toward orthodoxy or toward modernism.

Being declared blessed by the Catholic Church is the last step before canonization as a saint. The Church claims no monopoly power on the saint creation process. When one is declared blessed or is canonized, the Church formally acknowledges a previously determined fact. Not all saints are declared explicitly by the Church. Francis of Assisi was a saint well before the Church stated so; likewise, my grandmother could easily be a saint whether or not the Church declares her so after she dies.

It is a complicated process involving the office of an advocatus diaboli, requiring at least two proven miracles. The standard of evidence is weighted against approval. Having one declared a saint is not as simple as a perfunctory submittal of names of some dearly departed for honor roll. While sometimes the process appears to be on a fast-track — see the upcoming canonization of Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the first bona fide saint of post-Vatican II Catholic culture — others take centuries. The great Edmund Campion was declared a saint over four centuries following his martyrdom.

Since there are, at any given time, many saintly people among the deceased among whom the Church can choose to consider for canonization, there are sometimes questions about ulterior motives. While there is little doubt of the correctness of Karl’s cause, there may be other good reasons for the Church to promote it at this point in history.

First, Karl was a man of enormous personal piety and courage who stood athwart the rise of the nation-states and their perpetual wars for perpetual peace — wars which we can date with the opening skirmishes of the First World War up to this week’s bombing of Samarra in Iraq. During World War I, when the carnage reached 6000 lives per day, only two figures were seen as providing serious peace plans capable of ending it: Pope Benedict XV and Karl I.

Karl’s efforts to promote peace were more than noblesse oblige, but a Christian obligation — what he called a "solemn duty before God, towards the peoples of his Empire and all the belligerents." The French writer Anatole France wrote that "[t]he Emperor Karl has offered to make peace; here is the only decent man who has appeared in the course of this war — they didn’t listen to him. . . he sincerely wants peace, so everyone detests him." Having the right people detest you is a sign that you are imitating Christ.

Upholding the belief that governments should be bound by higher moral law, a profoundly Catholic (and anti-neoconservative) idea at least since St. Augustine’s City of God, he refused to go along with the new rules of war that applied to the treatment of prisoners and to the care of civilians. He banned, for example, the Sherman-esque practice of bombing of cities. As noted by the National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen, Karl "forbade his troops … to plunder, to engage in wanton destruction, or to use mustard gas. He also banned dueling."

We live today in a similar era when new rules of warfare are urged by the reigning secular powers. Pre-emptive war and fourth generation warfare, the dispersion of nuclear weaponry, the rise of public and private terrorism, and a hated U.S. military empire so vast that it makes the Britain’s empire-builders look like amateurs — all call for the emergence of leaders like Karl. With his beatification, the Vatican may be suggesting a new role model for the political class of today.

Second, the beatification of Karl can be seen as a shot in the arm for Christian central Europe. These were the countries of the last stages of the Hapsburg Empire that suffered much during the 20th century. They first acquired socialist governments, thanks to the efforts of the arch-democrat (and G.W. Bush foreign policy forerunner) Woodrow Wilson. Later, they were among the spoils of World War II that Franklin Roosevelt cheerfully handed over to his friend Stalin during the closing days of World War II like poker chips in a card game.

Military subjugation and various levels of police state rule were established, where the only acceptable worship was State worship and the only legal shrines were those to the Great Leader. Roosevelt’s poor judgment and Soviet favoritism would turn Catholic and Protestant churches in former Hapsburg countries into martyr factories for the next 50 years. Today, these countries are finally free of destructive communist rule and faced with the task of rebuilding their civilization and culture. Rome may be saying that they can look to the Hapsburg family as they start to reclaim their roots.

These roots surely defined Austria. It is hard not to wonder whether another motive for the advancement of Karl’s cause at the present time is for the Catholic Church in Austria, which is currently mired in scandal and, after eight decades of dependence on the Austrian government, with church membership rolls at record low levels. Clearly, the Catholic Austria of 1900 no longer exists, thanks in part to needless compromises with modernism that it made over the subsequent 100 years.

But the Austrian Church is not the only arm of the Catholic Church to deserve such blame, and this is perhaps the most important aspect of Karl I’s cause. The European society that he represented was vertical, from the steeples in its ancient churches, to the Latin Mass that fed Christendom since the days of the early Church, to the civic life that placed the man on the street answerable to a king who answered to the Pope, who, as Vicar of Christ, answered to God.

This order, which had been deteriorating for centuries before Karl’s birth, established and nurtured western civilization, and the Church abandons elements of it at great peril to itself and the culture. The social order that produced men like Karl I created many saints. It is hard to think of similar saints emerging from today’s horizontal society (summed up so well in Louisiana’s everyman Huey Long’s phrase, "every man’s a king") — unless they are created through red and white martyrdom.

Many of the problems facing the Church today are self-inflicted, resulting from similar compromises with 20th-century secularism and epitomized in the Second Vatican Council and its damaging aftermath. They stem from prelates lacking the courage and holy optimism of men like Karl I. One can only hope that his example and his intercession will help the Church reclaim its roots as well.

An aside: The Hapsburg family has maintained a special relationship with the Austrian school of economics in many ways — for instance, the Crown Prince Rudolph funded the academic career of Carl Menger, while Karl I’s oldest son Otto and Ludwig von Mises were close friends until Mises’s death in 1973. Today, Otto von Hapsburg is a 91-year-old retired member of the European Parliament, and his son, Karl Ludwig, was the keynote speaker at the Mises Institute’s 15th anniversary dinner in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1997. Mises’ intellectual disciple Murray Rothbard, very much a man of Catholic sensibilities if not the Catholic faith, once remarked that the 20th century should be repealed. Karl I died four years before Rothbard’s birth. One hopes that they have had the chance to meet.

The feast day of Blessed Karl I is October 21, the anniversary of his marriage to Princess Zita in 1911. He proposed to her in front of the Blessed Sacrament at the Marian Shrine of Mariazell, when the tragic murder of his uncle, the Hapsburg Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand, was still three years away. Blessed Karl of Austria, ora pro nobis.