The Catholic way: Lessons from an imperial family

Catholics have long held that all genuine authority derives from God. Any public official, whether elected or hereditary, carries a duty to act for the good of others rather than pursuing personal interests. Because we often view authority as deriving from the people directly, not from God, we act like we can establish any law or take any action that furthers our interests as we perceive them, apart from any set or established order.

A Catholic approach to politics, and to life in general, recognizes within public life the opportunity to pursue the good in cooperation with others. The heresy introduced by John F. Kennedy and followed by many others -- of leaving faith outside the capitol door -- only furthers the sense that politicians answer only to their constituents rather than a tradition of human thought, morality, custom, and, ultimately, to God.

This Catholic approach to politics and life has recently been expressed in a captivating and delightful way by Archduke Eduard Habsburg, detailing the accumulated wisdom of his imperial family: "The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times" (Sophia Institute Press, 2023). Starting out as barons in Switzerland, the family came to prominence in the 13th century through Rudolph I, who stabilized the Holy Roman Empire after a damaging interregnum. It would be centuries until another Habsburg became emperor again, but from the 15th century until the end of the Empire in 1806, the dynasty served almost exclusively in this role. Their imperial role continued in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire until the end of the First World War, ending with a saintly final emperor in Bl. Karl I.

We, as Catholics, have too quickly discarded centuries of wisdom on how to live our faith in the world. In fact, in accord with Kennedy's false doctrine, we often live secular lives, keeping our faith and life in society in distinct compartments. Archduke Eduard's distilling of his family's ethos provides deep insights, even for diehard adherents of modern democracy. We all can celebrate the accomplishments of this unique family, working for peace throughout Europe, bringing the faith around the globe, and, when necessary, leading military victories that saved the very life of Christendom.

The Archduke does not hide the sins and foibles of his family, but, drawing upon their strengths, he proposes concrete lessons for us from its long history, organizing the book around them:

Rule 1: Get married and have lots of children. This first point could summarize the heart of the Habsburg way as they forged peaceful alliances throughout Europe by love rather than war. They survived for over a thousand years due to their commitment to family life.

Rule 2: Be Catholic and practice your faith. Not all Habsburgs followed this principle but those who did became great examples and defenders of the faith, modeling the integration of faith and life.

Rule 3: Believe in the Empire and in Subsidiarity. This might seem like the chapter that would be the least accessible, but I found it to be one of the most compelling. The Holy Roman Empire succeeded for so long because it united a large number of peoples and respected their local customs. Subsidiarity is desperately needed today to reinvigorate local communities by enabling them to shape their own daily political and economic life.

Rule 4: Stand for law and justice and your subjects. Because the Habsburgs were not elected officials, they could stand for timeless principles and represent the people more effectively than modern politicians who largely seek to enrich themselves. The family embodied the timeless traditions and laws of European Christendom.

Rule 5: Know who you are and live accordingly. In our modern democratic societies, we often do not know who we are, cut off from our ancestors and the traditions of the past. Archduke Eduard certainly has much family history to guide him in his own mission and work, which currently consists in serving as the Ambassador of Hungary to the Holy See.

Rule 6: Be brave in battle or have a great general. The Habsburgs were known for promoting peace and avoiding aggressive and expansionist warfare. Nonetheless, they knew how to fight when necessary and fought for the freedom of Europe against the Turks and Napoleon.

Rule 7: Die well and have a memorable funeral. The public witness of faith given by the Habsburgs continued to death. In this moving chapter, we hear how many of them died publicly professing their faith and receiving the sacraments (especially Bl. Karl) and bore witness to the primacy of eternal life through the ceremony of their Catholic funerals.

The entirety of the book could be summarized well in Rule 5, which stresses the importance of finding who we are today by returning to our roots and the Catholic ways of our ancestors: "Finally: what about you? Do you know who you are? Do you know the values that shaped you? Do you live accordingly? I hope so. Knowing who you are ... will give you confidence not to be swayed by fleeting fads, but to follow the truth -- about yourself and about God. The alternative is the empty aimlessness that torments so many and characterizes so much of modern life" (115-16).