Religion & Liberty Online

The Habsburg Way and Ours

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A new book by the archduke of Austria offers insights into what contributed to his illustrious ancestors’ success in ruling a multiethnic empire. But could any of it be relevant to 21st-century America?

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Lord Acton believed that “the only real political noblesse on the Continent is the Austrian.” In The Habsburg Way, Eduard Habsburg, archduke of Austria and Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See and the Sovereign Order of Malta, has written a charming and insightful book. Despite being subtitled Seven Rules for Turbulent Times, this is no self-help bestseller-wannabe peddling the latest psychobabble and technocratic fashions. After all, along with its emphasis on learning from the past, the book contains countercultural rules like “Get Married” and “Be Catholic.” Habsburg thankfully is not embarrassed by Western civilization or the legacy of his renowned family, whose two dynastic branches played a major role in European and even world politics from the 1300s into the 20th century. As the archduke says, “This book is a love letter to my family.” In other words, this is no royal list of grievances like Prince Harry’s Spare.

The Habsburg Way is rooted in principles deeper than its light conversational style might suggest. Prominent among these principles are subsidiarity, the role of virtues like prudence in human affairs, the importance of the Christian faith to Habsburg and European identity, and the dignity of the human person.

Habsburg gleans valuable lessons about the subsidiary role of government from his family’s imperial past. Subsidiarity is a core principle of Catholic Social Teaching. “Subsidiarity,” Habsburg writes, “is the principle that issues should be addressed by the lowest institutional level that is competent to resolve them.” This is about as close to John Paul II’s classic definition of subsidiarity as you can get:

a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good.

If you want to understand the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires, according to Habsburg you need to understand “the key word and principle” of subsidiarity. Habsburg’s ancestors “learned about the importance of local governance the hard way.”

“Local governance” is not the first phrase that comes to mind when one thinks of the European Union, and subsidiarity is important to the author’s critique of the EU’s ponderous bureaucracy. Among the more practical reasons to promote the subsidiary role of government are efficiency, accountability, and knowledge. As Habsburg recognizes, however, subsidiarity ultimately is based on the nature of the human person. “Human beings are made for local interaction, in families, towns, and countries with common cultures.” The EU thus fails to take into account human nature and human dignity even as it crushes local variety and culture, all the while planning Europe’s post-Christian future from a room in Brussels. Worse still, the EU lacks what the Holy Roman and Austro-Hungarian empires had: an “overarching leadership that embodies the traditional, European values the way the emperor, in his very person, reminded people of the things that united them.”

Admittedly, not all the emperors were great or saintly, but Habsburg’s admiration for the best among them rests not so much on their sanctity (except perhaps in the case of Bl. Emperor Karl) as on their ability “to translate values into the appropriate form for any given time without sacrificing the principle.” The Habsburg Way provides plenty of historical examples of what to do and what not to do when it comes to decision-making in turbulent times. Governing wisely amid uncertainty requires the virtue of prudence. As Russell Kirk argues, “Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depends upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.” The prudent leader recognizes this and applies principles, rather than policy prescriptions, believed to be universally applicable in all times and places.

The Habsburgs’ concern for their subjects’ souls meant legally binding their subjects to be Catholic. Ferdinand II argued that heresy had to be banned out of “love,” for it was not loving to allow someone “to remain in error.” Catholic doctrinal development since the 1600s has come to recognize the necessity of freedom for one to act virtuously, as well as the freedom inherent in one’s response to God. As it turns out, even Ferdinand was more prudent than these statements reveal. Lord Acton praises his practice of “territorial toleration,” for example. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor who made war against Protestants as well as Pope Clement VII while trying to stop the Ottoman invasion of Christendom, abdicated his thrones in 1556. Acton praises him not for this or for his Machiavellian moves to stay in power—indeed, Charles was a man of his age. But the emperor, as king of Spain, defended in the New Laws of the Indies (1542) the liberties of Native Americans against their enslavers. Moreover, Acton argues, he “proclaimed the rights of conscience in language worthy of a better time.”

That better time arrived with the Second Vatican Council and the doctrine on the freedom of conscience as rooted in the nature of the human person:

Nobody may be forced to act against his convictions, nor is anyone to be restrained in acting in accordance with his conscience in religious matters in private or in public, alone or in association with others, within due limits.

This teaching “is based on the very nature of the human person, whose dignity enables him freely to assent to the divine truth.” And it applies to those who do not fulfill their obligation to pursue the truth. The “sanctuary of conscience,” as John Paul II called it, must be honored. “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”

The best that Habsburg can say about his ancestors’ religious policies is that “in those centuries gone by, people truly believed that only by living the Catholic faith could you get to Heaven, so encouraging, indeed requiring, your subjects to be Catholic was not only part of your duty as emperor; it was an act of charity because it helped others reach eternal salvation.” To judge too harshly the confessionalization of Europe during the 1500s and 1600s would be to engage in what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” But we ought to avoid the error at the other extreme, which is to extract the Habsburg model from the 1500s or 1800s and reinstitute it now, as is suggested in some integralist circles. Doing so does not help others reach salvation, for as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, one must “freely assent to the divine truth which transcends the temporal order.”

So where does The Habsburg Way come down on this question of religious liberty and the state? “The state can corrupt faith just as readily as faith can corrupt the state,” Habsburg admits. But he opposes the intemperate modern push to drive all religion from the public square or for political leaders to compartmentalize their faith, precisely because he recognizes the social nature of the person. “If religion is entirely excluded from the public square,” he correctly points out, “then it can have no influence on individuals, because individuals (unless they are hermits) live much of their life in that same public square.” This is especially true of politicians, who are in the public eye almost constantly. The virtues of prudence and moderation, combined with local traditions and armed with a recognition of the dignity and social nature of the human person, ought to determine church-state relations.

Eduard Habsburg has much to say about his and his ancestors’ Catholic faith. Indeed, the only one of the seven rules that is broken into two parts is “Be Catholic,” signaling how important he thinks it is to practice one’s faith. Doing so is not just for one’s own well-being but also for that of one’s spouse, for community flourishing, and for the common good. The conservatism of the Habsburgs, as presented in The Habsburg Way, means that with some notable exceptions, like Joseph II, they “stood for continuity and traditional values,” believing that honor demanded them to “stand for the values of their fathers.” This translated to maintaining peace in the realm (most often through marriage) and caring for their subjects’ souls—or not, and Habsburg is able to draw lessons from his ancestors’ mistakes as well as their successes.

As Gertrude Himmelfarb argues in her excellent study of Lord Acton, mid-19th-century Habsburg Austria “provided a test case of Acton’s views, for it boasted the Conservative attributes of tradition, aristocracy and monarchy.” Acton strongly criticized John Stuart Mill’s approach to liberty and order as too willing to toss aside tradition, custom, and mores in favor of a purely rationalist approach to freedom that would result only in individualistic happiness rather than the rightly ordered freedom to do what one ought. Himmelfarb called this a “utopian variety of Liberalism.” Acton instead urged a virtuous balance of “authority, tradition and experience.” This was conservatism in the tradition of Edmund Burke. We see it in Eduard Habsburg’s own arguments as well as in his portrayal of many of his ancestors in The Habsburg Way.

All times are turbulent, even if some are more fraught with danger than others. Habsburg recognizes this and strikes a hopeful tone even as he encourages readers to demand law, justice, and traditional values from their leaders. “Believe in subsidiarity,” he says, and use it as a “map to judge politics.” In our age of history-cleansing iconoclasm and cultural self-flagellation, The Habsburg Way is a welcome relief.

John C. Pinheiro

John C. Pinheiro is director of research at the Acton Institute and lectures nationally and internationally for Acton on topics such as the American founding. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee, degrees in history and religious studies from California State University, and he studied Italian at Universitá per Stranieri di Perugia. Dr. Pinheiro currently serves on the advisory board for the Ferris State University Economics Program, the editorial board of the Journal of Markets & Morality, and as consulting editor on James K. Polk for the American President resource at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.