The Emperor and the Peasant


For my fellow Catholics on what Bill Kauffman called the “peace-and-love left wing of paleoconservatism,” no two beatifications have done more for our faith in recent years than those of Blessed Charles of Austria and Blessed Franz Jägerstätter.

At first glance the two Austrian holy men couldn’t seem to be more different. His Imperial and Royal Apostolic Majesty, descendant of Holy Roman emperors, died in poverty and exile on the island of Madeira, Portugal on April 1, 1921. His compatriot was a small farmer, the illegitimate son of peasants, who was beheaded in Brandenburg, Germany on August 9, 1943. Indeed, the emperor and the peasant remind us that in The Catholic Faith, in the words of the Apostle, “There is neither Jew nor Greek: there is neither bond nor free: there is neither male nor female” (Epistle Of Saint Paul To The Galatians, III, 28).

Yet, however different their backgrounds were, the two beatified Austrians speak from Heaven with the same thunderous voice for peace, if not near-pacifism, in this day and age of war and rumors of war.

To the young Karl Franz Josef Ludwig Hubert Georg Maria von Habsburg-Lothringen, Pope Saint Pius X bestowed this prophetic blessing: “I bless Archduke Charles, who will be the future Emperor of Austria and will help lead his countries and peoples to great honor and many blessings — but this will not become obvious until after his death.”

Blessed Karl’s reign began at the end of 1916, when the Great War was already nearing in its third bloody year. He immediately entered into secret peace negotiations with France. He was the only European leader to support the peace efforts of Pope Benedict XV, who “maintained the Vatican as politically neutral throughout the war, working with both sides for peace, and supporting widows, orphans, the wounded, prisoners, and refugees.”

Blessed Karl’s tireless peace efforts were ignored and he and his empire were crushed by Woodrow Wilson‘s crusade to make the world safe for democracy. Indeed, the religious fanatic who then sat in the White House had a personal and visceral hatred of the saintly emperor. In his recent article An Inconvenient Miracle, John Zmirak, reporting that “the Catholic Church has recognized the final miracle required to make a saint of one of Wilson’s greatest enemies,” also reminded us of the following:

It’s rarely remembered now, but Woodrow Wilson set as one of the primary war aims of the U.S. as she entered (thanks to his careful maneuvering) World War I the destruction of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. As a multi-ethnic state based not on 19th century nationalism but ancient dynastic loyalty cemented by a majority Catholic faith, it offended his modern notions of what should constitute a countryu2014and as a good Princeton academic, who was in addition convinced that he personally embodied the Will of God, Wilson knew that he could do better.

“Wilson’s name continues its slow decline into disgrace,” notes Mr. Zmirak, of a man once sainted by American academia. Blessed Karl is soon to be sainted by a much more ancient and venerable institution.

Blessed Karl was sent into exile and poverty. He twice attempted to regain his throne, but abandoned the effort to avoid civil war. He died of severe pneumonia in the company of his beloved Empress Zita and their eight children.

(Among the children present on that sad day was Archduke Otto von Habsburg, originator of this great political observation: “I am often asked if I am a republican or a monarchist. I am neither, I am a legitimist: I am for legitimate government. You could never have a monarchy in Switzerland, and it would be asinine to imagine Spain as a republic.”)

Of the emperor-king, English author Herbert Vivian said, “Karl was a great leader, a prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his empire; a king who loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessings come.”

“Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him,” said Anatole France. “He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost.”

The war Blessed Karl tried so desperately to end claimed the life Blessed Franz’s father when the boy was ten years old. There were few signs of his future greatness in his youth, which was spent like many young men sowing his wild oats and busying himself with his beloved motorcycle. After marriage and the birth of three daughters, he began to take his religion seriously. A patriot, he was the only member of his village to vote against the 1938 Anschluss, the annexation of his native land by Nazi Germany. To the greeting “Heil Hitler” he never responded with anything but “Pfui Hitler.”

Like his namesake Saint Francis of Assisi, Blessed Franz was ostracized by his fellow villagers. Both Francises were Holy Fools, in that they refused to do the “respectable” thing that society demanded of them. Blessed Franz was drafted into the German army but found he could not in good conscience serve a régime he opposed with all his soul. He deserted. He was court-martialed and sentenced to death.

Any speculation that he was motivated by cowardice or contrarian peasant stubbornness is dispelled when one reads his writings from prison. Awaiting the guillotine, Blessed Franz wrote, “I definitely prefer to relinquish my rights under the Third Reich and thus make sure of deserving the rights granted under the kingdom of God.” Here is another striking passage:

Just as those who believe in Nazism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal Kingdom. But with this difference: we need no rifles or pistols for our battle but, instead, spiritual weapons…Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are they who live and die in God’s love.

On the morning of his execution, he wrote to his beloved wife Franziska, who was present sixty-four yeas later at her husband’s beatification mass, the following words: “The heart of Jesus, the heart of Mary and my heart are one, united for time and eternity.” After receiving “Last Rites” (Extreme Unction), Blessed Franz told the priest, “I cannot and may not take an oath in favor of a government that is fighting an unjust war.” From this priest, Blessed Franz was happy to learn of another Catholic priest who had recently been martyred by the Nazis (there were 4000 of them by the war’s end), and he had always been charitable and maintained that his fellow Catholics, laity and churchmen alike, who did not oppose Hitler simply “were not given the grace” that he had received.

Like the saints of early Christian history (Saint Martin of Tours, a Roman officer who renounced the sword, comes to mind), news of his sanctity spread by word of mouth and his cultus grew. Twenty-one years after his death, Gordon Zahn’s biography, In Solitary Witness, provided inspiration to those opposing the unjust war against Vietnam.

“A week before George W. Bush arrived in Rome for their first meeting,” observed Frank Purcell in A Martyr for Peace, “Benedict XVI put his signature to a document proclaiming Franz Jägerstätter a martyr of the Church for refusing to serve in an unjust war, such as Benedict and John Paul the Great insisted the Bush war against Iraq has been from the beginning.”

In declaring him a martyr, the Church clarified her Just War Doctrine. Catholic neocon war apologists hinged their support for the War on Iraq on this single phrase: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” Official recognition of Blessed Franz’s witness, and well as clear statements by the popes, taught that that line was not a trump card. The other criteria for a just war, which are very strict, take absolute precedence.

Blesseds Karl and Franz were beatified by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI respectively. These two pontiffs have raised the strongest and clearest voices of opposition against Mr. Bush’s Wars. In Pope John Paul II and the Iraq War, Austin Cline, an atheist, admitted the following:

The most public and serious condemnations of the invasion of Iraq came from Pope John Paul II and other top officials at the Vatican. Catholic leaders did as much as they could to dissuade Britain and America from their bellicose course of action, but to no avail.

In September of 2002, in the build up to the war, then-Cardinal Ratzinger stated, “The concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Then, in May of 2003, after the start of the war, the future pope made this following remarkably clear statement:

There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a “just war.”

This past Palm Sunday, the Holy Father issued an “appeal to the Iraqi people, who for the past five years have borne the consequences of a war that provoked the breakup of their civil and social life.”

(Roma locuta est, causa finita est. Rome has spoken, the case is closed.)

And the Pope may well be the last best chance for Iran to avoid annihilation, as a Time Magazine article from last year, Iran’s Secret Weapon: The Pope, speculated: “According to several well-placed Rome sources, Iranian officials are quietly laying the groundwork necessary to turn to Pope Benedict XVI and top Vatican diplomats for mediation if the showdown with the United States should escalate toward a military intervention.”

Holy Mother Church is above and beyond politics, especially when it comes to beatifications. Blessed Karl and Franz were made “heroes of the faith” for their personal holiness, not for their political positions. But the two are sometimes inseparable, as evidenced by these words Blessed Franz wrote in prison: “It is always possible to save one’s own soul and perhaps some others as well by bearing individual witness against evil.”

And we can see the Church’s beatifications as being politically providential. It is hard not to see in Blessed Karl’s beatification and eventual canonization the rejection of the Wilsonian interventionism that still guides American foreign policy, carried out in the name of “self-determination by ethnic groups,” “the spread of democracy,” and “intervention to help create peace and/or spread freedom.” In Blessed Franz’ beatification and by declaring him a martyr, a “witness” who died for the Faith, the Church has affirmed forever the primacy of conscience over State power.

Although I’d love to see the Holy Father do what this petition asks, you will not find my name among the undersigned — Letter urges Pope to protest Iraq war during US visit. Not only do I find unseemly the politicking of an institution as august and venerable as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church, which is only perverted by anything reeking of democracy, but I also find such petitioning utterly unnecessary. The popes have already spoken. And Blesseds Karl and Franz bore and continue to bear witness in life, death, and in the afterlife.

Orate pro nobis.