Blessed Karl and Pope Francis Part 3: Socially Responsible Governance

In addition to exemplifying Pope Francis’s magisterium through his outstanding devotion to family life as well as his tireless efforts for peace, Blessed Karl von Habsburg was also a picture of the socially responsible ruler that Pope Francis has promoted to government officials on many occasions.  He was a man of solidarity with a personal concern for the poor and suffering, an appreciation of the diverse cultures entrusted to his care and in summary, truly a servant of the people under his rule.

Emperor Karl taking his Coronation Oath at Holy Trinity Column outside Saint Matthias Church, 30 December 1916.

Emperor Karl taking his Coronation Oath at Holy Trinity Column outside Saint Matthias Church, 30 December 1916.


“The first element of European vitality must be solidarity.” These were the words Pope Francis spoke to the Parliament of Europe when he met with them in Rome on the 60th anniversary of the founding of Europe (Pope Francis, March 24, 2017). They are words that the Emperor Karl lived out admirably a hundred years earlier as he inherited the governance of an Empire that consisted of many peoples including those who spoke German, Hungarian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, Polish, Ruthenian, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian and Italian among others. Sadly, due to the ravages of war and the spirit of the times the centuries-long unity of these peoples under the Austro-Hungarian Emperor would soon fragment into nationalistic interests. Blessed Karl had a personal love for each of the peoples and cultures under his care and traveled widely throughout the Empire before and after becoming the Emperor. He refused to give in to the nationalistic interests of some of his advisers and made strong decisions that caused some tensions with those in power in Austria, but helped maintain unity throughout the Empire. For example, he commuted death sentences whenever he could, including among dissidents in other parts of the Empire. “He decreed an amnesty for anyone sentenced by military or civilian courts on charges of high treason, insults to the Royal Family, disturbance of the public peace, rebellion or agitation. ... He also constantly urged his Hungarian ministers to enact universal suffrage in Hungary (unfortunately, his ministers resisted his instructions and suffrage was not legislated during Karl's reign).” (Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B., Why Canonize an Austrian Emperor: An American Perspective) As the Empire began to pull apart at the end of the war, Karl worked tirelessly for long hours to secure peace and support the interests of his diverse peoples. “Even those within his empire who were actively working against him—such as the Czech nationalists—knew him to be a hard-working, humble and honorable man who was passionately devoted to his Empire as well as to his wife and family.” (Joanna and James Bogle, A Heart for Europe, p. 103)

Blessed Karl summarized his own approach to ruling his people and his hopes for their future in a final public statement given after relinquishing an active role in their governance:

Ever since my accession I have tried ceaselessly to lead my peoples out of the horrors of war for whose inception I bear no trace of blame. I have not hesitated to restore constitutional life and I have opened up for the peoples the path of their development as independent states. Filled, now as ever, with unwavering devotion to all my peoples, I do not wish to oppose their free growth with my own person. ... The happiness of my peoples has, from the beginning, been the object of my most ardent wishes. Only an inner peace can heal the wounds of this war. (Quoted in Bogle and Bogle, p. 115)
Emperor Karl receives floral gifts from his people.

Emperor Karl receives floral gifts from his people.

Love For the Poor and Promotion of Human Dignity

Blessed Karl’s love for his people included not just the powerful or influential members of the Empire, but especially the poor and the suffering. Pope Francis emphasized the importance of this to the European Parliament, pointing them back to the Founding Fathers of Europe, “Their common denominator was the spirit of service, joined to passion for politics and the consciousness that ‘at the origin of European civilization there is Christianity’, [words of Pope Paul VI] without which the Western values of dignity, freedom and justice would prove largely incomprehensible.” (Address to European Parliament, March 24, 2017) It is only this “service” that could win the values of dignity, freedom and justice. Furthermore, following the teaching of his Petrine predecessors, Pope Francis has taught that such a service is "necessary" to establish any lasting peace:

What is called for is a constant work of 'humanization', for ‘it is not enough to contain wars, to suspend conflicts… An imposed peace, a utilitarian and provisional peace, is not enough. Progress must be made towards a peace which is loved, free and fraternal, founded, that is, on a reconciliation of hearts’; [words of Pope Paul VI] in other words, to encourage processes calmly, yet with clear convictions and tenacity. (Pope Francis, Address to the Council of Europe, Nov. 25, 2014)

Blessed Karl could easily have spent all his time in political negotiations and military strategies looking beyond the borders of the Empire, but he concerned himself just as readily with the internal affairs of the Empire, in order to establish social justice, improve morality, care for the hungry and the poor and bring about a “humanization” that would be able to welcome a lasting peace. As Br. Nathan Cochran, O.S.B., beautifully summarized it:

Emperor Karl established a Ministry of Social Welfare—the first of its sort in the world. Its mission was to deal with such social issues as youth welfare, war disabled, widows and orphans, social insurance, labor rights and job protection, job placement, unemployment relief, and emigration protection and housing. ... Karl ordered rationing to be instituted at the palace, just as it was throughout the rest of Vienna. He organized soup kitchens, used the palace's horses and wagons to deliver coal to the Viennese, fought against usury and corruption, and gave away most of his private wealth by distributing alms beyond his means. He went among his people, suffered with them, and comforted them with his presence and words. His subjects called him ‘The People's Emperor,’ a title he cherished more than his noble and royal titles. (Why Canonize an Austrian Emperor: An American Perspective)

Truly Blessed Karl exemplified the words spoken by Pope Francis to members of the European Parliament when he spoke to the importance of upholding the dignity of every human being against a culture of waste:

Today, the promotion of human rights is central to the commitment of the European Union to advance the dignity of the person, both within the Union and in its relations with other countries. This is an important and praiseworthy commitment, since there are still too many situations in which human beings are treated as objects whose conception, configuration and utility can be programmed, and who can then be discarded when no longer useful, due to weakness, illness or old age. (Pope Francis, Address to the European Parliament, Nov. 25, 2014)

When Pope Francis proposed an ideal of Europe to the European Parliament, he could have pointed to Blessed Karl as a model of the principles he upholds, specifically the combination of faith with the human values needed to foster human flourishing through all the diverse cultures of the continent: 

The time has come for us to abandon the idea of a Europe which is fearful and self-absorbed, in order to revive and encourage a Europe of leadership, a repository of science, art, music, human values and faith as well. A Europe which contemplates the heavens and pursues lofty ideals. A Europe which cares for, defends and protects man, every man and woman. A Europe which bestrides the earth surely and securely, a precious point of reference for all humanity! (Nov. 25, 2014)

We can conclude and summarize our reflections on Blessed Karl as a model Christian statesman by turning to the words of Pope Saint John Paul II in his homily for the beatification of Emperor Karl on Oct. 3, 2004

From the beginning, the Emperor Charles conceived of his office as a holy service to his people. His chief concern was to follow the Christian vocation to holiness also in his political actions. For this reason, his thoughts turned to social assistance. May he be an example for all of us, especially for those who have political responsibilities in Europe today!


In this small, three part series, we have reflected on how an Emperor from a century ago remains a relevant and compelling witness of a modern papal magisterium. We can best see what Pope Francis proposes as an ideal marriage and family in the loving marriage and strong, tender fatherhood of Blessed Karl of Austria. Further, we see how this man and leader embodied and labored to carry out the work of peace to which Pope Francis emphatically calls us. Finally, we find in Blessed Karl, the kind of conscientious and socially responsible Christian statesman whom Pope Francis calls our current government leaders to be today.  

In summary, to bring all of these points together, we could say that the unifying theme in Blessed Karl’s life is that he was a father.  Because he knew who he was as a son of God in Christ, this made it possible for him to be the father of a family and the father of an Empire; the best of fathers who always held in his heart an irrepressible desire for peace for his people. In Blessed Karl, we can find an example to follow and an intercessor. He teaches us and supports us in all our efforts to battle the evils of a culture of waste and the violent, relativistic, individualistic chaos that threatens peace in our day. Perhaps most importantly, however, we can find in Blessed Karl a strong and tender father who cares for us and can help us to find our ultimate purpose in living out the will of God, our Heavenly Father in all that we do. May we learn to echo his last words, “The Holy Will be done. Jesus, Jesus come! My Jesus, as you will it. Jesus.” Blessed Karl von Habsburg, pray for us!

Karl Austria