History-minded readers will recognize the letters A.E.I.O.U. as the logo of the Habsburg dynasty and therefore Austria when it was the center of the Holy Roman Empire that they ruled for centuries, an empire which became the Austro-Hungarian one, the last Catholic world power. What does the logo stand for? Adopted by Emperor Ferdinand III in the fifteenth century, and whether it is interpreted as Austria erit in orbe ultima or Austriae est imperare orbi universo or some other similar way, the idea was always of a universal Catholic political power — the secular arm, the sword, of the universal Catholic Church. The idea also found expression in the Habsburgs’ arms, the standard of the Holy Roman Empire, which featured a double-headed eagle, which is to say an eagle facing both West and East — worldwide Christendom.
It is nearly a century since the Empire’s last ruler, Bl. Emperor Karl, suspended the exercise of his political power (he never abdicated) and the Empire was replaced by a rump Republic of Austria and several other independent nations, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson having required its dissolution as a condition for peace in World War I.
No one imagines it will be revived anytime soon, but who can say what a remoter future may hold? The truly history-minded will remember that after the ancient Christian Empire of the West fell it took four centuries before it was revived in 800 A.D. as the Holy Roman one.
This can be said: Recent political developments in Austria, among others in other Eastern and Central European lands, suggest that the notion men had when Christendom existed — the notion of sword and altar, politics and religion, Church and state operating in tandem in the governance of human society — still lives, even if it is but vaguely, in the hearts and minds of some number of people.
How many? The number in Austria was sufficient enough to elect 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz the country’s new Chancellor. Leader of the heretofore centrist conservative People’s Party (OVP), he is the youngest head of government in the world and has made it a point to have it known he is a practicing Catholic.
Here is what is really interesting: In order to govern with a clear majority in parliament Kurz needed a coalition partner. Instead of turning left to the Social Democrats, as conservatives usually have done in the past, he invited Heinze-Christian Straahe, leader of the “far right” Freedom Party (FPO) to join him as Vice Chancellor. (“Far right” or “extreme” is how politically-correct European media describe parties and movements like the FPO, France’s National Front headed by Marine Le Pen, the Dutch Freedom Party headed by Geert Wilder, and Germany’s Alternative for Germany [AfD].)
At FPO rallies Straache has repeatedly declared, “Islam is not part of Austria!” Further, the FPO has a formal cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party and has called on the E.U. to lift economic sanctions against Russia (as have Le Pen and Wilder).
(Speaking of Russia, the Christian character of the country’s government was recently demonstrated once again when the Duma — parliament — enacted legislation decriminalizing “domestic violence.” As President Putin explained, “Russian families no longer have to fear interference from the police.”)
In a move that was powerfully symbolic, Kurz and Straache announced their new coalition at Kahlenberg Hill just outside Vienna. It is the spot — virtually at the gates of Vienna — where the sudden appearance on the battlefield of Poland’s King John Sobieski and his troops halted and drove back the Turkish assault on the imperial capital in 1683.
That the FPO will have a real say in the new government was shown by the ministerial portfolios it received: interior and defense. Further, the FPO was able to name the foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who is not a member of the party but speaks eight languages, is a Middle East expert and has described German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “negligent” for welcoming one million Muslim “refugees” into Germany two years ago. Most of the “refugees” passed through Austria. Many stayed. It is that flood of aliens and reaction against the socially disruptive effects of their presence that accounts in large measure for the electoral success of Kurz and Straache.
It also appears that Austrians have become fed up with government telling them how to live. For instance, last year the then governing Social Democrats decided to impose a total ban on smoking, including in restaurants and bars, such as exists nearly everywhere in the U.S. and most E.U. nations. The ban was to go into effect next May. Even before Kurz and Straache were sworn into office last month, it was announced that the new government will scrap the ban.
On a more substantive level, it is expected that Austria, especially with Kneissl as foreign minister, will loosen its ties to Angela Merkel’s Germany and align itself with the Visegrad Group, four nations (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) that have been resisting E.U. dictates, especially when it comes to accepting Muslim “refugees.” The aim of the Visegrad Group is to support one another in that resistance and it has worked so far. For example, E.U. globalists like Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron seek to punish Poland because they consider efforts of its governing Law and Justice Party to reform the country’s judiciary to be inconsistent with E.U. “democratic values”. However, the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has pledged to veto sanctioning Poland. (In order to take effect, any sanctions would have to be approved unanimously by E.U. member states.)
The governments of Poland and Hungary are not exactly “far right,” but they are populist and nationalist. In this regard, we should be mindful that populist nationalism, preferable as it may be to globalism, can go too far. An illustration of this: At Vatican II nobody lobbied harder for a vernacular liturgy than the Polish bishops. (Explanation: When Poland was a Communist Soviet Union satellite nation with its countryside dotted by Soviet military bases, going to Mass was as much a political demonstration as it was a religious obligation. The bishops thought the religious dimension of attendance would be fortified if Mass was said in the national language.)
We mustn’t speak here of Angela Merkel without noting that her years as “Queen of Europe” are obviously numbered. This could be seen in the results of last September’s German federal elections. Merkel’s Christian Democrats failed to win a clear majority of seats in parliament chiefly because a party that didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, the “far right” AfD, won 94 seats. Merkel, of course, wants to pretend this didn’t happen, that the AfD isn’t there, so she tried to form a coalition with the Green Party (Marxists with a politically-correct color) and the neo-liberal Free Democrats (the equivalent in Germany of the Republican Party in the U.S.). Negotiations fell apart because the Free Democrats kept moving its goal posts, so Merkel is now trying to form a “Grand Coalition” with the Social Democrats. Talks between her and them are predicted to go on until Easter. Meantime, a poll conducted in the last week of December showed 47 percent of Germans hoping another election will be called before Merkel finishes her four-year term in office.
One more recent significant development: the election of Andreq Babis as Prime Minister of the Czech Republic. Though a populist, Babis is the second-richest man in the country and thus has been compared to Donald Trump. The comparison is unfair at least insofar as Babis speaks in complete sentences. In any event, the same day Kurz and Straahe were sworn into office in Vienna there was a conference in Prague of the Europe of Nations and Freedom Alliance attended by Western European “far right” leaders like Le Pen and Geert Wilder as well as ones from the Eastern and Central European lands discussed here. It became a celebration of developments in Austria and reminds us that Le Pen did make it to the run-off in France’s presidential election last year and Wilder came in second in a crowded field seeking the premiership in the Netherlands. That would not have seemed possible a few years ago.
Do all these developments and others that could be cited portend Europe, the historical heartland of Christianity, turning away from the suicidal course on which it has been bound throughout the lifetime of most Europeans (and Americans) living today? Or, are we seeing a last glow of embers that will soon cool and then die forever? No one can say for sure, but in the end what matters is the effort of some to keep them burning and that they, or others like them, continue to do so. To paraphrase a well-known saying of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta: God does not ask men to succeed, but only to do their duty.
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Questions. Some months ago I wrote for the SBC website about Cardinal Sarah’s wonderful, recently published book, The Power of Silence. There is a line in the book whose possible significance did not register with me at the time. A friend has now drawn my attention to it. The Cardinal is writing about conclave, the gathering of the college of cardinals to elect a pope, It is on page 112: “During conclaves, the Spirit points out God’s choice to the cardinals; the latter must submit to his will and not to human political strategies. If we thwart the Holy Spirit by miserable, petty human considerations, secret meetings, and media consultations, we run headlong into tragedy and we are gravediggers of the divine nature of the Church.”
The point is that Cardinal Sarah received his red hat from Pope Benedict in 2010. Thus he has participated in only one conclave, the one that elected Pope Francis in 2013. Was it his sole personal experience of conclave that prompted his writing as he did in his book? If so, what should we make of his reference to “media consultations”? Did no one think to take their smartphones from cardinals who had them? It probably is not in the competence of anyone who reads these lines to judge the matter (it is certainly not in mine), but one does wonder about the outcome of proceedings that are supposed to be secret if the secrecy is violated.