From the reign of David at the beginning of the first millennium before Christ until the day before yesterday, the form of government in the Christian world was kingship, and that Christian kingship was, given the vagaries of human nature, arguably the best government the world has known. That this might be so is now carefully concealed from school children under a specious historiography which teaches that kings were always tyrants and that the New Testament is about democracy, the latter fact unaccountably obscured during the Dark Ages, rediscovered by enlightened founding fathers, perfected in the United States and spread throughout the world.
Let it be said at once that the founding documents of the United States are works of local genius, offering what may have been the only possible political solution for the modern age in which the idea of an organic culture professing a common faith is unthinkable. But gratitude that the republic has existed for two centuries ought not obscure the fact that our constitutional republic, now increasingly a democracy, was made workable and successful not only by the Constitution and Declaration, but, as the greatest of the founders wrote, by locating those documents among a religious people, Christian, in fact, adherents of a religion founded not in 1689 or 1776 or 1789 but on that hill in far away Palestine at the beginning of time as we count it.
The modern republic at its best is government for a fatherless world. Eric von Kuehnelt-Leddhin, the notable Austrian political theorist, wrote that the three natural political realities are the Fatherhood of God, expressed through His kingship, that makes all men brothers; the fatherhood of the king over the nation; and the fatherhood that creates the family. The age of kings is past, destroyed in part by the feckless, unkingly attempts at absolutism that brought down the Stuarts, Louis xvi, the Enlightenment, Hapsburgs, Nicholas ii, and Kaiser Wilhelm, and in part by the age of revolutions that on philosophic grounds sought a fatherless world, not of brothers but of equal competitors, each living out the dark myth of social Darwinism. In that destructive brew, the last ingredient is the anti-patriarchy which seeks the destruction of fatherhood, that is, secular feminism.
That being as it must be, one of the last, apparently anachronistic, acts of John Paul ii, and one that should engage attention in an era of political malaise, was the beatification of Charles of Austria, the last Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in the year 2004. Son of Archduke Otto and Princess Maria Josephine of Saxony and great-nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph I, Charles maintained a strong devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the Sacred Heart of Jesus from boyhood. His life motto was: “To seek to know and to do God’s will and to seek to do it in the most perfect way.” His marriage to Princess Zita of Bourbon and Parma in 1911 was founded on their common dedication to Christ and the Blessed Sacrament. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, in 1914, Charles became heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, succeeding as Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary on the death of Emperor Franz Joseph in November 1916.
Charles inherited his office from his great uncle Franz Joseph in the middle of the Great War, a war begun by the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, and enflamed by Austrian insistence that Serbia, the putative sponsor of the assassins, be punished. The tale of the summer of 1914 has been told often: how Austria, having exacerbated Balkan instability by annexing Bosnia in 1908, unwilling that the murderers of their future king go unpunished, encouraged by Prussia, went to war, bringing Russia, France, Great Britain, and finally the United States into the field for a bloody debacle from which Europe has never fully recovered—the Kosovo-Bosnia-Serbia hostilities of the 1990s being in part its inheritance.
From the time of his accession, Charles worked to bring the war to an end, his being the only government to support Pope Benedict XV’s peace effort. The dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the supplanting of monarchies, especially Catholic monarchies, by secular ethnic democracies was an understandable but baneful goal of the victors, having, as such actions do, their own unintended consequences, notably the unchecked rise of German influence in Europe.
Exiled to Switzerland in March 1919, Charles, confident of his title and inspired by his sense of duty and the threat of post-war communism, tried twice in 1921 to regain his throne. Since he refused to be the cause of civil war, Charles accepted exile to Madeira, but, considering his office a vocation given by God, he never abdicated his crown or title. His widow, Princess Zita, lived in mourning her remaining 67 years, until in 1989 she at last returned to Austria to be buried in the tomb of the Hapsburg emperors.
In the race for sanctity, the fact that Charles was the last emperor is merely grist for the mill, the question being, as it was with the missionaries, martyrs, and founders of religious orders beatified with him by John Paul ii, how did Charles fulfill his particular vocation to sanctity? That vocation was exercised through his discharge of his duties as the ruler of the multi-ethnic, religiously diverse central European empire that was the remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, that empire founded in one sense by Charlemagne but in another as old as Constantine—or Augustus. Its boundaries shifted as nationalism broke France from it; and after the religious settlements of the sixteenth century divided its religious heart, the empire was increasingly a shadow. Napoleon, that bureaucratic wrecker of tradition, abolished it in 1806 and after the Congress of Vienna in 1814 the empire was an ideal represented by the House of Hapsburg, whose kings, even after the rise of Prussia, still ruled a territory that stretched from Tyrol to the Russian frontier and from Silesia to the Dalmatian coast.
Charles of Austria was beatified not because he was a king but because his life as a Christian, lived in the context of his vocation, was heroic; his witness to Christ, whose name was on his lips at his death, unfailing. The events of the Great War, the end of kingship represented by the death of Charles in 1922, and the subsequent establishing in 1925 by Pius xi of the Feast of Christ the King cannot have been unrelated events. The Church and the Empire had lived in uneasy alliance for sixteen centuries—the imperial prayers would not be dropped from the papal liturgy until 1955. But the ideas of Catholic kings and kingdoms had become inconceivable. Yet the original on which that ideal was built, poorly realized as are all things human, remains eternally. Christ is king forever. Thus the Feast of Christ the King was established, first in October, but subsequently celebrated on the last Sunday after Pentecost, the last November Sunday before the Church celebrates the coming of Christ the King both as the Son of Mary in Bethlehem and with great glory at the end of the age. For that Sunday the traditional preface to the Mass recites the anointing of Christ as eternal High Priest and Universal King; that “offering Himself on the altar of the cross, as an immaculate and peaceful oblation, He might complete the pledge of human redemption; and all creation being made subject to His dominion,” delivering into the hands of the Eternal Majesty, “a kingdom eternal and universal, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.”