Note: Originally entitled, “Ven. Emperor Karl I of Austria and Empress Zita,” this article was written well before Pope John Paul II’s October 3, 2004 beatification of Emperor Karl. In his canonization homily Pope John Paul said this of the new Beatus: “The decisive task of Christians consists in seeking, recognizing and following God’s will in all things. The Christian statesman, Charles of Austria, confronted this challenge every day. To his eyes, war appeared as ‘something appalling.’ Amid the tumult of the First World War, he strove to promote the peace initiative of my Predecessor, Benedict XV.” His feast day is October 21, the anniversary of his 1911 marriage to Zita of Bourbon-Parma.
On October 10, 1988, Pope John Paul II flew from Rome to Strasbourg in order to address the European Parliament. There is probably not one member of that body present that day who remembers what the Pope said. The day was memorable, however, on account of an incident that took place just as His Holiness began to speak.
That was when the Rev. Ian Paisley, the notorious anti-Catholic bigot and a member of the parliament from Northern Ireland, stood up, unfurled a banner, and started shouting the same thing proclaimed by his banner. That was that the Pope (for Paisley it would be any pope) is the Antichrist.
Paisley’s demonstration did not last long. Another member of the parliament, one from Bavaria, raced up the aisle, tore the banner from Paisley’s hands and, with three other men, hustled the obscene Protestant leader out of the chamber. The member from Bavaria was Archduke Otto von Habsburg.
That of everyone present it was the Archduke who acted to defend the Pope ought to have been expected. For 1,200 years his family’s historical mission was to uphold the interests of the Faith temporally. In the unity of throne and altar and sword and cross that was the political basis of Christendom and which found its highest expression in the Holy Roman Empire, his ancestors occupied the throne and wielded the sword during the five centuries before 1918. In that year, the Empire — become by then the Austro-Hungarian one — was dissolved as a condition for peace demanded by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I.
There was also historical reciprocity in the Archduke’s defense of the Pope. That is because during World War I, when the corner of Poland where Karol Wojtyla grew up was still part of the Empire, the Pope’s father, a professional military man, wore its uniform. I.e., he was under arms to defend the Archduke’s father, Ven. Karl I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, the last emperor.
We are going to talk here about Ven. Emperor Karl, his life, and the cause for his canonization. We shall do this with a view to showing why the cause merits the popular support it has enjoyed since being introduced in 1949. We shall also speak of Karl’s spouse, Empress Zita, whose own life was exemplary in its Catholicity.
A Real Monarch
Karl was born on August 17, 1887, at the Castle of Persenbeug in Lower Austria. As he was the great-nephew of the then ruling Emperor, Franz Joseph, it was not envisioned at his birth that it would one day fall to him to rule. Yet, his education prepared him for the task.
That as Emperor he would rule wants to be emphasized. The emperors of the Holy Roman Empire and then the Austro-Hungarian one did not merely reign, like the European monarchs who remain today, all of the “constitutional” ones. By the time of Karl’s accession their power was no longer absolute as it still was with the Russian Tsar, but it was real. None was a figurehead unless rendered so by personal incapacity.
Karl grew up imbued with a deep personal trust in God and equipped with all the Catholic moral principles whose political application he would combine, as Emperor, with his appreciation for the Church’s social doctrine. He came to the throne in 1916 due to a series of tragic events: the death at Mayerling (some say by suicide and others by assassination) of Franz Joseph’s only son, Archduke Rudolph; the early death of his own father, Otto, in 1906; and the assassination of his uncle Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914.
On October 21, 1911, five years before assuming the throne, Ven. Emperor Karl married Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma, who shared his deep religious faith. The couple would eventually have eight children, and even amid the trials of war, revolution and exile would build a solid Christian home for them. There were always daily family devotions (the Rosary, novenas, Scripture reading), family catechism lessons, daily Mass, and particular pious practices promoted by the Habsburgs over the centuries and known to Catholic history as the Pietas Austriaca (devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Cross, the Immaculate Conception, and Corpus Christi).
Lover of Peace
As soon as he succeeded to the throne, Ven. Emperor Karl bent his energies to seeking the end of the carnage of World War I, which had been raging for two years. To that purpose he authorized a brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon-Parma, an officer in the Belgian army, to deliver a set of peace proposals to President Poincare of France. As testimony to the sincerity of his effort, the Emperor stipulated his readiness to sacrifice his hereditary claim to Lorraine and to cede to Italy the Italian ethnic portion of the Trentino, even though Austrian troops at the moment were well advanced into the northern part of the Italian boot. In a Peace Note of August 1, 1917, Pope Benedict XV seconded Karl’s initiative. Both the Pope and Emperor foresaw that unless the war was quickly ended, the unstable Kerensky government that had taken power in Russia in March, 1917, could degenerate into something far worse because it would be far more threatening than imperial Russia ever was to what remained of Western Christendom. This is to speak of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in terms of what it was: the last Catholic world power.
Unfortunately, Austria’s Western enemies of the moment, who were looking for U.S. intervention to enable them to achieve territorial and other ambitions, were not ready for peace. At the same time Karl’s own ally, the Prussian Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, hoped to beat England and France on the Western Front before effective U.S. aid could arrive. The war continued.
It produced great deprivations on the home front. The poor were especially hard hit. In his capital of Vienna, Karl ordered that carriages and coaches of the imperial court be used to deliver coal to them. Further, he established a new Ministry of Social Welfare in his cabinet and gave its portfolio to the redoubtable Msgr. Ignaz Seipel, an apostle of reforms based on Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum and other papal social encyclicals. Karl also acted to restructure the Empire politically along federalist lines. Establishment of a kind of United States of Greater Austria was his aim. In a manifesto of October 16, 1918, he ordered each ethnic group in the Imperial Parliament to caucus and draw up a plan for the government of its portion of the Empire. These were excellent and desirable moves. However, powerful forces were working against Karl, forces within the West itself, forces which had their agents even inside the Empire.
Enemies of God and Man
Overseas, anti-Catholic Freemasons Tomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes drummed up support among Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian ethnics in the U.S. by making contradictory promises to each group and, assisted by American “Nativists,” persuaded President Wilson to push for the destruction of the monarchy as an obstacle to “progress.”
At home, another Mason, Karl Renner, leader of the Austrian Social Democrats (they advocated “Austro-Marxist” social revolution) plotted both the downfall of the monarchy and the destruction of Austria as an independent state. Although they were a minority in the Austrian caucus in the parliament, the Social Democrats were highly organized. When the caucus set a date to vote on the form of the new Austrian state, they swung into action: rioting Austro-Marxist militants in the streets lent substance, or at least credibility, to Renner’s threat of a violent revolution unless a republic were immediately proclaimed along with Anschluss (annexation) by Germany.
The Emperor refused to abdicate a throne that was a gift from God and an inheritance from his ancestors. Nevertheless, on November 11, 1918, he agreed to withdraw from the active exercise of power and to recognize the form of state which Austrians might choose in a national plebiscite. (A similar declaration was issued for Hungary on November 13.) Fearing that a majority of voters would favor the monarchy, Renner used his threat of a revolution to stampede the Austrian caucus, or “rump parliament,” into disregarding Karl’s condition of a national plebiscite. Surrounded by howling Austro-Marxist mobs, the parliament voted on November 12 for Renner’s “Law Defining the Form of State.” In addition to proclaiming a republic, Article Two of this Law declared Austria’s national suicide: “Austria is an integral part of Germany.”
The preservation of Austrian independence mandated by the Peace Treaty of St. Germain-en-Laye (the equivalent for Austria of the Versailles Treaty for Germany) thwarted the Anschluss goal of the republic’s founders — temporarily.
Karl, Empress Zita, and their children had to flee Vienna. They escaped with their lives but nothing else except, literally, the clothes on their backs. All of their private property and funds were confiscated. Zita was pregnant at the time. Such was the imperial family’s sudden poverty that when the new baby, Rudolph, was born, his crib was a donated laundry basket.
Before leaving Austria en route into exile, Karl issued a Manifesto and Diplomatic Protest at Feldkirch on March 24, 1919, against the Renner government’s violation of the plebiscite agreement of November 11, 1918, and the intended destruction of the nation by Anschluss to Germany. Given his protest, and as seen from a Christian moral perspective, the republic that had come into being was clearly an illegitimate usurper of political power whose very birth certificate was an act of treason against the Austrian nation.
A soldier by training, Karl instinctively fought back against the cabalistic intrigues that had destroyed his Empire, impoverished his family, and were actively working to extinguish Austria as a nation. Because Hungary remained de jure a kingdom with Admiral Nicholas Horthy serving as Regent until Karl could return as King, His Majesty slipped into the country during Holy Week, 1921. Since Horthy had sworn an oath to restore Karl and there was no reason to doubt his loyalty, the plan was to use the cessation of public activities during Holy Week to present the world with a fait accompli. Alas, Horthy, grown used to the perquisites of his vice-regal office, refused to fulfill his oath and sent Hungary’s crowned legitimate Apostolic King back into exile.
He and Zita were undeterred. She was again pregnant, but the two of them flew by open airplane from Switzerland to the Hungarian estate of a legitimist supporter. There they were joined by a company of loyal troops led by Col. Anton Lehar (brother of the famous composer Franz). It was intended to confront Horthy with this armed force and demand that he execute his oath. Accordingly, Karl and Zita boarded a train for Budapest. On the way, a truce was arranged with Horthy to discuss matters. On his side, the execrable Horthy, having already broken his oath, now had no trouble breaking a truce. He had troops of his own surround the train and Karl and Zita were incarcerated in the Monastery of Tihany on Lake Balator.
Exile and Death
A Council of Allied and Successor States Ambassadors assembled to decide the fate of the imperial couple. Extreme opinion called for the imprisonment of Karl as a “war criminal.” However, all his life he had been plagued by weak lungs that made him susceptible to pneumonia, and the infirmity was not overlooked by the All-Seeing Eye. Thus, a subtle, more permanent solution to the “Habsburg problem” was crafted. Karl and Zita were exiled to the damp and rainy island of Madeira. Marooned there without any funds on November 19, 1921, they had to accept the offer of a local banker who gave them the use of his unheated summer home 2,000 feet in the mountains. There was fungus growing on the humid walls.
The couple’s gloom was somewhat dispelled by the arrival of their children, but in March, 1922, a dense fog and deep chill caused the Emperor to catch a bad cold. There was no money to summon a doctor and the cold developed into a fatal case of pneumonia.
As Karl’s end approached, he placed himself with complete resignation into the hands of Our Lord. His eldest son and heir, Archduke Otto, was brought to the side of the deathbed so that as future head of the House of Habsburg he might learn, in Karl’s words, “how one behaves in such circumstances as a Catholic and as an Emperor.”
Zita was once more pregnant. The Emperor had already prayed for each of his children by name: “Dear Jesus, protect our children. Protect their bodies and souls, take them away rather than they should commit a mortal sin.” Finally, placing his hand over the womb of the Empress, he prayed especially for their unborn child, Archduchess Elizabeth.
As a Christian Emperor, Karl expressed forgiveness of all his enemies, especially the Masons among them. Suddenly, he declared in an emphatic voice, “I have to suffer so much in order that my people may be united again.” Then, kissing a crucifix, he began to pray in what sounded like a dialogue.
“Thy holy will be done. Jesus, Jesus, come! Yes, yes, my Jesus, as thou willest it.”
Conscious to the very end, the Emperor gave up his ghost, exhaling with his last breath, “Jesus.”
Because of the many miracles worked at the tomb of Karl in Funchal, Madeira, and granted to persons who invoked him in prayer, the cause for his canonization was introduced in Rome in 1949. He was subsequently declared “Venerable.” On the fiftieth anniversary of his death, April 1, 1972, his coffin was opened by an ecclesiastical commission (the heroic Cardinal Mindszenty was present as a witness). His body was seen to be preserved without corruption. All the miracles required for both his beatification and canonization have been authenticated. During 1988-89, a detailed history of his life as a private man and as a ruler was prepared and then presented to the Pope. It was expected that John Paul II would announce his canonization during a trip to Vienna a few years ago, at which time the Emperor’s remains were to be translated from Madeira. That did not happen, and no explanation was given. It is easy to believe, however, that the same forces arrayed against Karl in life would find it objectionable today to have him raised to the Church’s altars. The attention canonization would focus on him and events in his life, and especially the circumstances surrounding the overturning of his throne, could even lead some to wonder about the legitimacy of the political arrangements prevailing in a number of nations today.
Worthy of the Altar
In any event, let us see what there was in the Emperor’s life and time as a ruler, as they have here been sketched, that recommends canonization.
First, he was a champion of peace and reconciliation. His statesmanship in seeking an honorable peace to end World War I provides a model for political leaders today who do not scruple to wage war even in “anticipatory self-defense.” His deathbed forgiveness of his enemies, including the Masons, challenges the many forms of hatred that abound today. His example is instructive to the public as well as to leaders.
Second, he was a champion of social justice. Influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, he established a Ministry of Social Welfare to implement the Church’s social doctrine. His personal commitment to social justice is shown by his use of his carriages and coaches to transport coal to the poor during the war. (Has anyone ever heard of heads of state or government in Washington, London, Paris, Berlin or Moscow using their limousines to bring help to the poor?) His implementation of the papal social encyclicals sets an example for public officials looking to solve today’s economic and social problems.
Third, he was a champion of Austro-Slavonic unity and minority ethnic rights. Foreseeing Russian domination of the smaller Slavonic and other ethnic nations sandwiched between the Russian and Prussian Empires, Karl strove to transform his own centralized Empire into a confederation of individual ethnic nations, each having internal autonomy, but with their security and other benefits provided by a united defense, a common market, economic and financial union and foreign policy. Had he succeeded, both Hitler and Stalin would have been blocked. What he tried to do still makes geopolitical and economic good sense. Here, Ven. Emperor Karl sets an example for ethnic reconciliation and unity among Eastern European peoples still trying to adjust themselves to the circumstances that arose with the fall of the Iron Curtain fourteen years ago.
Fourth, he was a champion of Christian family life. The fact that as head of state of a nation at war he found time every day for Mass, family devotions and catechism classes gives the lie to our modern excuse of “lack of time” to pay due attention to our religious obligations. The life of the family he headed stands in contrast to the spirit of a society dominated by liberal materialism and where mortal sin is a normal and socially accepted way of life. The emphasis he placed on the Christian formation of his children and the role of the family as the school or “domestic church” in which this formation should take place makes him an example to modern families struggling against the allures of “alternative life-styles.” His deathbed prayer for the preservation of his children from mortal sin gives pause for reflection in a society where contraception, abortion, “sexual freedom,” and uninhibited sodomy are considered “human rights.” We need the example of Ven. Emperor Karl’s family’s Christian life in an era when highly organized forces — feminism, the homosexualist movement, secular humanism — are crusading to destroy the family as an institution.
Finally, the Emperor was a champion of the preborn. The thought of his laying his hand on Zita’s womb to pray for their unborn daughter challenges contemporary society, where the human sacrifice of abortion on the altar of liberal democracy is defended as a “right.” Further, although the first five of his eight children were born while he possessed his civil list (i.e., his salary as Emperor), the last three came into the world after he had been dethroned and left penniless. This sets an especially instructive example for the many modern couples who deliberately limit the number of their children, or have none at all, choosing instead an affluent “life-style” over having a family.
We said earlier that we would speak in this article of Empress Zita as well as of Ven. Emperor Karl. This is fitting not simply because, as we have seen, the couple were a real team — as much partners in politics as in the formation of their children. It is also because Zita led her own life in such a way as to make her in various ways an example for Catholics. Indeed, to the present writer it seems virtually certain that one day a cause for the canonization of Empress Zita will be introduced.
Readers familiar with Catholic history will know that if Ven. Emperor Karl and Empress Zita ever are both canonized, it would not be the first time an imperial couple were raised to the altars of the Church. There is a precedent in Emperor St. Henry II, the last Saxon Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, and his consort, Empress St. Cunegund. Henry succeeded his father, Otto III, in 1002 and was crowned by Pope Benedict VIII at Rome in 1014.
Zita, who was born on May 9, 1892, would live until March 15, 1989. Her place of birth was Pianore, a town north of Pisa in Italy. Her parents were Duke Robert of Bourbon-Parma and Maria Antonia of Braganza. The family was large. Zita had no fewer than six brothers and five sisters. There were servants to help rear all these children, to be sure. Nonetheless there were many opportunities in such a big family to learn patience and self-reliance as well as selflessness. Zita grew up both strong in character and modest.
You can see in books photographs taken on the day of her wedding to Ven. Emperor Karl in 1911. Everybody in the pictures, the newlyweds, relatives and friends, the old Emperor, Franz Joseph, looks as he or she should at a wedding: carefree, happy, festive. How could anyone foresee the assassination in Sarajevo three years later that would plunge the world into war and speed Karl and Zita to the throne two years after that? In 1911, the couple supposed they would come to the throne in about 1940. By then all the children they looked forward to having would be grown, they would themselves be middle-aged, they would have had plenty of time to master the political skills and acquire the wisdom to make them the kind of rulers they hoped to be.
Except that they had the children, none of it happened. Heaven had its own plan for them, as it has for every couple, whatever their rank. It is in our response to Heaven’s designs that we show the manner of person, and kind of Christian, we are — Do we accept the will of God or continue to insist on the primacy of our own, as if His did not exist?
We have seen how Ven. Emperor Karl met the challenges brought his way by Providence. It was with real holiness, especially, I think, in his dying when still so young — 34. How many other men facing death at such an age would fail to curse their fate?
Zita, of course, was not yet 30 when Karl went to his repose in the bosom of the Lord. Living as she did until the age of 96, she had to face challenges of an entirely different order. For one thing, living as one should for a very long time is not easy. Were it so for even a short life, the Church would not require her priests to be available for our confession whenever it is needed.
The immediate challenge she had to meet when she became a widow was the poverty into which she had been cast, now a single parent of eight children living in forced exile. (If anyone doubts the poverty was real, perhaps it will be enough to relate that at age 12 her eldest son, Otto — a boy born to be an emperor! — hired himself out as a deckhand on a Spanish fishing vessel to help make ends meet.)
Except for the children, her poverty might not have vexed Zita. Her own needs were practically non-existent. For instance, there was the matter of wardrobe, so important to many women. It was not to Zita. Archduke Otto writes somewhere of knowing when his father died because in the morning his mother was wearing a colored dress. The next time he saw her she was in black. He never saw her in color again.
The permanence of the mourning she wore bespoke the constancy of Zita to her husband, his memory, and her understanding of who she was. Her constancy is what is most important about her. In a few moments we shall offer our reflections on it. Right now it seems useful to contrast Zita’s widowhood to that of two other women, two other empresses, both of whom also outlived by decades husbands who lost their thrones, and both of whom were still living when Zita joined Karl in his rule over an empire whose history began with Charlemagne’s coronation.
One of the empresses was Carlota, the widow of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who was the brother of Franz Joseph. He was shot by a firing squad in Queretaro in 1867 (see From the Housetops No. 55). She lived until 1927. The other empress was Eugenie of France. She died in 1920, having outlived her husband, Napoleon III, by 47 years.
The lives of Carlota and Eugenie, especially as widows, were nothing like that of Empress Zita. (But, then, neither were their husbands anything like Ven. Emperor Karl.)
Carlota, born Princess Charlotte of Belgium, was nearly insane with ambition. Save for her insistence, poor Maximilian, a Romantic dreamer who wished nothing so much as to be able to dream forever, almost certainly would not have accepted the crown of Mexico when it was proffered. Carlota never had a child, or at least none by her husband. After Maximilian was shot the world saw little of her. Driven truly mad by the loss of the Mexican throne, she lived all the long decades of her remaining life in seclusion at one of her family’s chateaux in Belgium, still believing she was a reigning empress.
Eugenie, who was born a Spanish countess, was a pious Catholic, if not always an especially virtuous one. She did possess a mind, and used it, usually well. To the extent her husband sometimes acted in support of the Church, or, more exactly, the papacy during the risorgimento, it was due largely to her influence. Further, in 1870, when France’s defeat in a war with Prussia resulted in the downfall of her husband’s regime, she knew the personal terror of hearing a howling mob crash through the front entrance of a palace (the Tuileries in Paris) as she literally ran for her life toward an exit in the rear. Her one child, a son, would be killed fighting with the British army in South Africa during the Zulu Wars in 1879. Apart from that unhappiness she was able to spend all the last decades of her life in material, even luxurious, comfort. Many of those years were passed in England at the court of Queen Victoria, another famous widow.
What is the point of contrasting the lives of these three women? Let it be observed, first, that if all bore the title empress, history bestowed its validation on only one of them. This is to say, from the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome in 800 to 1804 when Napoleon I usurped the title, there had always been only one Emperor in Western Christendom. After Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, dusted off the crown fabricated by his uncle, he managed to keep it on his head a mere 19 years. As for the crown of Mexico, it was never more than a phantom. Maximilian was not the man to give it substance. Even if he had somehow been able to preserve it and pass it on, the tradition of it would still not yet be 150 years old. That is as nothing compared to the span of history embodied by Karl and Zita.
In a word, Carlota and Eugenie may have been rulers for a time, but Zita was the Empress. The throne occupied by her husband was neither contrived by other men representing special interests nor a hand-me-down cobbled together by a relative who was calling himself First Consul before illegitimately arrogating to himself the most august title Christendom ever knew outside the precincts of the Church. Of the three, Karl’s throne alone owed its provenance to no one and nothing but God. Yet, Zita’s only treasure in this world for most of her life would be her children. Not for her would be either the happy oblivion of madness or the patronage of the Queen of England. All three women had long lives, but two of them spent the end of their days amid surroundings that were the best money could buy. Only Zita would die in a decent but modest nursing home run by religious sisters.
There are words in Holy Scripture that Our Lord uttered to make another point, but which seem appropriate to the one being got at here: “To whom much is given, of him will much be required.”
However much Heaven expected of Zita as the last Empress, she gave it in full measure. Might, then, some reward await her that this world can never give?
A Valiant Woman
When the Church considers whether anyone’s holiness is such as to merit his being raised to her altars, it is reasonable if she sees the meaning the candidate’s life can have to others in a particular age as a sign of God’s will in the matter. Thus, it was surely His will that a world increasingly given to sexual license would have recommended to it by the Church the example of Maria Goretti defending her virginity even unto death. Today it is hard to imagine an example of which there could be greater need than that of a couple confronted by all the obstacles to marriage thrown up by modern society and who yet remained faithful to each other and God, even beyond the grave.
The sign of Zita’s faithfulness was the black she never stopped wearing after Karl’s death. Of course such constancy seems “strange” in today’s world. So much is that the case, the New York Times in its obituary of Zita could not refrain from using the word. Speaking of when her exile brought her to live in Tuxedo Park, N.Y., at the beginning of World War II, it said “she would be seen taking little lonely walks near her home, a strange black-veiled figure wearing high-button shoes.”
Think on it: Zita, already a widow for nearly two decades, was still in her forties at that time. Then or at any moment during the previous eighteen years she might have subordinated the interests of her family and her own role as the last Empress to seeking “self-fulfillment” — another marriage, work for a “good” cause, a job in, say, public relations. In our day she could have a book ghosted for her, My Life with Karl, and expect to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America. If she chose constancy and a life of consummate dignity instead, may she not be seen as a model, a very desirable one, for countless women in this age of the single mother?
Beyond that, think of all that was lost between the time of Zita’s becoming Empress and her death in 1989, a period that saw fourteen U.S. Presidents and seven Popes.
What was lost can be summed up in a few words not from Scripture: most of an entire civilization. The very impermanence of our marriages, 50 percent of which currently end in divorce in the U.S., is only one index of the upheaval. Another is our even greater inconstancy in nearly everything else. Few persons, even today, manage more than two or three divorces in a lifetime, but it is very common to know men and women who change their convictions so often that they end by having none at all. They believe in nothing. Many such persons are known to us from the press and television as “national leaders” if they are in politics, or “role models” if they are active in other fields. Young women, for instance, look at a rich and famous celebrity actress and imagine her as happy and want to be like her because the money and fame and celebrity itself obscure the woman’s numerous failed marriages and known drug habit.
Another sort of model and different leadership are needed. We need someone like Zita, as well as Ven. Emperor Karl. As all the world around her cast off the standards which sustained civilization in its Christian and thus highest form, she remained faithful to the ones she embraced when she took her vows as wife and consecrated monarch. If she did, it was because among the highest of the standards was constancy itself. Taking a vow was forever. So it was that Zita’s “strange” black mourning symbolized, to employ the language of our day, her commitment. Without riches, without a political party or publicity machine to promote her, dressing as she did was the one small thing she could do, given her means and in her circumstances, to remind the world that it still had in its midst, not simply a faithful wife, but its last anointed Catholic monarch. If, as long as she was still with us, most of the world did not notice or was indifferent, she still soldiered on, still did her duty. She was saying to us, in effect, as long as one woman clings to all that is represented by my person, and even if it is only myself who does so, constancy remains in the world.
We need such faithfulness, and therefore the model of it, if we are to have any real hope of getting back to civilization when the world, at last wearied of ceaseless change and novelty, finally realizes it needs it, too.
At a ceremony in Rome on April 12, 2003, even as this article was being prepared but unbeknownst to the writer at the time, the “heroic virtues” of Ven. Emperor Karl were publicly proclaimed by Jose Cardinal Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for Sainthood Causes, in the presence of Pope John Paul II.
Zenit, the online Catholic news service, reported the Cardinal describing Ven. Emperor Karl as a “man of solid faith, who always sought the good of his people, and in his governance was inspired by the social doctrine of the Church…. He fostered justice and peace, and nourished a constant yearning for holiness. He was exemplary as husband, father and sovereign.”
Clearly, if the heroic virtues of Ven. Emperor Karl have now again been publicly and ceremonially reaffirmed in this way, his beatification, if not yet actual canonization, is to be expected. Other beatifications and canonizations in recent years have been charged with political significance, but none more so than this one. (Those of Bl. Father Miguel Pro in Mexico, the Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War [including many known Carlists], and Bl. Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac in Croatia come quickly to mind.) Evidently the Holy See judges that objections will not now be raised, or not so loudly as to harm Church-state relations anywhere. Should this development, like the proclamation itself, be grounds for rejoicing? In some ways, obviously. On the other hand, it is sobering to reflect that parties previously opposed to Ven. Emperor Karl’s canonization may now be so thoroughly ensconced in power as not to feel threatened by it, or that those who might once have challenged their power are now too negligible as a force to do so.
As long as we have opened this article to addenda, there is another matter that can be broached: Reference was made early in the piece to the death of Archduke Rudolph, only son and heir of Emperor Franz Joseph. His death may have had to do with the election to the papal throne in 1903 of the Patriarch of Venice, Giuseppe Sarto, Pope St. Pius X, following the death of Pope Leo XIII. How so?
As is well known, the conclave that elected Pope St. Pius was first going to choose Leo’s longtime Secretary of State, Mariano Cardinal Rampolla, but the selection was vetoed by Cardinal Puszyna, Archbishop of Cracow, acting on behalf of Emperor Franz Joseph. This was the last time the so-called Right of Exclusion was exercised by anyone asserting it. (The Emperors were not alone in their assertion. The Kings of France and Spain also claimed and exercised it at various times.)
Many Traditional Catholics have come to believe that Franz Joseph vetoed the selection of Cardinal Rampolla because evidence was presented to him that showed His Eminence to be a secret Freemason. That reason for the veto has shown up in numerous books and articles seen by the present writer, but they never cite any authority except one another; no primary source is ever given.
What can be gleaned from primary sources is that Pope Leo had made it clear he wanted Cardinal Rampolla to succeed him. This was because he believed, doubtless justifiably, that the Cardinal would continue with the policies the two of them had pursued together over the years. The most important of these policies to Leo was the one known to history as the “Ralliement,” Leo’s policy of attempted accommodation with the French Third Republic and, indeed, with republicanism itself. It was no secret in 1903 that the Austrian monarchy — i.e., Franz Joseph — did not care for this policy. Unquestionably, the Emperor did not wish to see it pursued by two popes in a row. Thus, it seems certain that he exercised his right of veto primarily for this reason of state.
I say “primarily” because it is conceivable that a personal factor may have been part of the picture, at least at the margin. There is no documentary evidence of it that I know, but this is where the death of Archduke Rudolph might have come in.
He died at a hunting lodge at Mayerling near Vienna on January 30, 1889. The exact circumstances and manner of his death have always been a mystery. Not long before her own death, Empress Zita told a German newspaper that Ven. Emperor Karl was informed by Franz Joseph that Rudolph was killed. However, Rudolph left behind two letters, one to his mother and the other to a female cousin who was close to him, both of which are on the historical record. They are clearly suicide letters.
Movies and sentimental novels have portrayed Rudolph as killing himself over his “tragic love” of a young mistress, Marie Vetsera, who died with him. This is nonsense. Rudolph was leading a thoroughly dissolute life. In fact he spent the night before his death with a girlfriend other than Marie Vetsera. In other words, the notion he would kill himself over “love” is silly.
Yet, in both the letters he left he spoke of having “dishonored” himself so completely that his guilt could only be expunged by death. Since cheating on his wife would have been no dishonor to him, what was? Numerous historians have concluded he had either instigated or, more likely, let himself become embroiled in, some political intrigue. There is evidence that is far from conclusive that it may have involved a plan to seize the crown of Hungary for himself. In any case, we know he was under police surveillance.
But if discovery of a treasonous plan, or the prospect of its exposure, was the motive for suicide, what about Empress Zita’s story to the German newspaper? It is quite possible that a young man as unstable as Rudolph could have resolved to kill himself, but then have changed his mind, presumably after seeing his mistress die. Somebody else might then have done the job for him, and probably not by gunshot. Photographs of his funeral show the entire top of his head wrapped in bandages. Did a blow from a rifle butt or, as according to some, a champagne bottle shatter his skull?
Whatever exactly happened, the point of this addendum is Rudolph’s funeral. Because the cause of the Archduke’s death was officially given as suicide, Cardinal Rampolla, as the Holy See’s Secretary of State, refused permission for a Church burial. The refusal would have been nearly as heavy a blow to Franz Joseph as the scandal of his son’s death itself. In fact, it would have compounded it. Local Church authorities in Vienna did allow a religious funeral after a panel of physicians signed an affidavit attesting that in their view Rudolph was “momentarily” insane when he killed himself. Still, it is just conceivable, as I say, that when Franz Joseph vetoed the selection of Cardinal Rampolla as Pope in 1903, besides any reason of state, he may have had a certain satisfaction in returning the courtesy done by the Cardinal in 1889.
If a reader finds it improbable that an emperor would let an action as momentous as the veto of a papal election be colored even partially by a personal reason, it needs to be grasped that the relationship the Imperial House has with the papacy is not like that of ordinary Catholics. It is not irreverent to say that to its members a pope is practically the family chaplain. That is so even unto our day with the monarchy gone for now. For instance, Archduke Karl, the eldest son and heir of today’s Archduke Otto, had the Pope of the day, Paul VI, for his godfather. And Empress Zita, when advancing age made travel difficult, seldom went anywhere except to Rome to visit with John Paul II. “Visit” is the operative word. She went to Rome to spend time with the Pope as a reader might stop by the local rectory to chat with his pastor, if he is also his friend. The point is, how many others might? She could do it because she was the Empress.
Also, let us bear in mind that the Church, beginning with the Pope, is inclined to think of time in terms of centuries, not in television sound bites. The Church will remember, if few others do these days, that the last time the Empire was restored, it took 400 years from the fall of Rome to the coronation of Charlemagne. As of the moment of this writing, it is a mere 85 since Ven. Emperor Karl suspended, but did not abdicate, the exercise of his power. A decade ago there were polls showing half of Austria’s citizens agreeable to having Archduke Otto as head of state. No one can say what the future holds. Keeping on familiar terms with the Imperial House could prove to be good political sense.