Emperor and King Karl of the House of Austria: A Saint for Our Day

by Cristoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., D.D., Archbishop of Vienna

L’Osservatore Romano
October 3, 2004

English Translation by Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B.


Can a politician possibly live a modestly holy life? Is it conceivable and meaningful for a man who held a responsible leadership position during World War I to be named a blessed? These questions are constantly posed concerning the beatification of Karl of the House of Austria. Every person – wherever God has placed him – is destined for and called to holiness. People in positions of responsibility and decision makers, such as politicians and business leaders, as well as bishops, are challenged by special circumstances but are by no means exempt from this call to holiness.


The upright personality of Emperor Karl of Austria has become distorted in the eyes of the public through propaganda and slander, like few others of his time. The extremely careful work of scholarly historical investigations – done in connection with the beatification process – has been able to uncover and correct these manipulated distortions.


Uniquely among the responsible leaders on all sides of the First World War, Karl had frontline
experience. After assuming power he strove to alleviate the horrors of war he saw, and took
concrete steps to bring about peace. As emperor he understood peace to be his absolute, kingly duty. In his ascension manifesto, therefore, he named peace as his central goal. Only Karl took up the peace proposal of Pope Benedict XV, incorporating its principles in a set of proposed peace accords (which historians have evaluated as thoroughly realistic and having had great potential). All of these efforts failed in the long run because of the peace through-victory delusion decided by his German ally policy-makers (Hindenburg, Ludendorff) and because of the anti-peace party of the Entente.


Karl was ready to make considerable sacrifices for peace and, even after his removal from power, he wholly strove to arrange for the peace and stability of his peoples and all nations of Europe. His attempts to return to power in Hungary were undertaken at the request of the pope who was concerned with the stability and liberty there (his concerns were justified!). The emperor saw his fatal suffering as a sacrificial offering for peace and unity in Central Europe.


Although Emperor Karl did not succeed in leading the Danube monarchy in peace, due to superior counter forces, he could however (against determined German-Austrian plans) retain the independence of Austria and, through the establishment of national assemblies, cause a peaceful transition from the monarchy to various succession countries.


Not only in the sense of individual charity, as a child Karl took upon himself the needs of people in need whom he encountered. As emperor, he created a comprehensive social program. He created the first social ministry in the world, which was commissioned with overseeing rent control, child and youth protection, family rights and social insurance, industrial law and employee welfare, thereby adding new dimensions to social politics. The basic structures of these reforms are still in place today.


Emperor Karl saw his office as a commission from God. This did not mean in any way an authorization of the arbitrary execution of power, but rather the absolute duty to follow and imitate the example of Christ in His exalted position of being the one true King. Because of this, Karl made no important decision without prayer. An ardent reverence for the Eucharist and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus (both symbols and expressions of the love of God) gave both purpose and direction to the emperor. Emperor Karl, therefore, could not simply put his commission aside. An abdication could have secured for him wealth and comfort (like Emperor Wilhelm II). Karl accepted misery, hardship and impending death (although he himself was certainly little concerned with wealth) upon himself in order to remain faithful to the duty of service to the people of Christ entrusted to him.


Karl and Zita had an exemplary marriage. In openness and confidence the emperor discussed all important affairs with his wife, who was fully respectful of his responsibility and authority. The passionate out-going nature of the empress and the quiet introspective personality of the emperor complemented each other in a mutually appreciative and affectionate way. In eleven years of marriage eight children were given to the couple. The beatification procedures were extremely careful in investigating Emperor Karl’s family life, and behavior as a husband, and proved his behavior to be completely upright and faultless. His last words, which Karl addressed to his wife, were: "I love you endlessly." Emperor Karl strove personally to ensure that his children received religious education, and he guided them in the truths of the faith and taught them their prayers.


Karl lived a lively practice of prayer. His fundamental attitude was one of prayer: consciously
standing before God, Whose Will he sought and in Whom he trusted. From childhood and throughout his life, Karl joined his prayers with those of others. Since his death members of the League of Prayers, in a similar way, join their prayers with his intercession for peace among peoples.


Karl's modesty, kindness and spirit of reconciliation have been held against him – particularly by cynics in power – as weakness, even stupidity. This attack is directed against the "foolishness" of the Christian, who follows the commandments of God and the example of Christ who relied upon God.


From the very beginning Karl was thrust into situations of discord (into the tensions between his parents, the tensions between Emperor Franz Joseph and the Heir Apparent Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and into the middle of the 1st World War), that he had not created, and yet he strove to create peace – both as emperor and as a child. Could anyone have solved these problems? That question has relatively few answers, perhaps the issue should be to consider how the emperor prevented much worse things from happening. Whether a life before God – and concomitantly before the definitive end of history – succeeds, does not depend on immediate earthly success. (Otherwise Christ could not be our model.)


Whoever attempts to conform to the Will of God, despite all adverse circumstances and in light of his limitations, has a life that has become holy and beneficial to others. As Christians, we all are overtaxed. To follow the example of Christ – the adversities of this world certainly exceeds human capabilities only. But we are not solely dependent upon our own strength, rather, we are invited to accept the help of God and trust that He will provide the necessary strength. A feeling of resignation threatens to spread itself, in view of the discord and the cynical use of power in our world. Do we have a sense to fight against it? Do not the wicked triumph nevertheless, as already the psalmist complains? Is peace in the world generally possible? Can the peoples of Europe ever live together in freedom and respect? Can we also simply have peace in the circle of our families?


The life of Emperor Karl is an encouraging example of faith. His beatification gives encouragement to all who feel overtaxed by their duty – and it invites us to use his inherent qualities (yet also limited) for the pursuit of peace, freedom and loving responsibility. After a “wasted century” of destruction by the godless ideologies of National Socialism and Bolshevism the peoples of Europe have again the opportunity to seek these aims together. Now it must be considered that the soul of Europe can be revived and inspired anew for this task in the spirit of Christ, by the Holy Spirit. Resistant forces who oppose us requires that we do not despair, but rather asks that we seek yet more earnestly the Will of God and to act in confidence on it. Karl of the House of Austria, who lived out this spirit and gave his life for the betterment and unity of his people, is for us therefore an encouraging example and guardian-patron.The foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world. Reliance upon this helps us to live.