Towards a Saintly Image of Catholic Social Teaching

By TJ Whittle
October 21, 2014

Americans Catholics are often perplexed how to apply the profound insights of the Church’s social teaching to the current problems we face.  To see the wisdom of the Church in action, we can learn from two Europeans, an emperor and an economist born over a century ago, who embody the “heart” and the “head” of Catholic social teaching.

Emperor Karl I of Austria reigned as the last head of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the final monarch of the ancient, distinguished Habsburg family line.  A tragic hero, Karl managed the decline Empire during the First World War and died shortly later in poverty and exile.  Blessed Karl’s popularity has only grown since his beatification in 2004, and his feast is celebrated today, October 21.  Catholics rightly admire Karl as a head of state who truly lived out the Church's call to holiness, to care for the poor, and to work for the common good.

Most well-known for his work after the Second World War, Wilhelm Röpke was a Protestant economist and social theorist who incorporated Catholic social teaching into his work as a German economic adviser.  Röpke offers us an example of how to engage the art of policymaking in the secular state today while making the insights of Christianity relevant to technical policy matters.

It is worth noting how odd it seems today to praise a political leader like Karl for his holiness and his charity.  We want our leaders to be strong, just, and wise, but we rarely care whether they are holy or live a life of deep love.  Pope Benedict XVI discussed this problem in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, warning that “charity has been and continues to be misconstrued and emptied of meaning ... In the social, juridical, cultural, political and economic fields – the contexts, in other words, that are most exposed to this danger – it is easily dismissed as irrelevant for interpreting and giving direction to moral responsibility.”  Yet in the life of Karl we see a charity that retains its full meaning precisely in these endangered realms of human activity.

Though he was not born next-in-line to the throne, a nun predicted when Karl was a child that “he must be enveloped in prayers, for he will be emperor someday and will have to suffer greatly. He will be a special target of Hell.” Karl took control of an Empire in shambles following his great uncle’s death in 1916.  World War I had depleted Austria-Hungary’s resources, the people were suffering under poverty, and a popular push for nationalism along ethnic lines threatened to tear the Empire apart.

As Emperor, Karl sought only to do the will of God and to care for his people.  The archbishop of Budapest noted after crowning him King of Hungary, “it was neither the ornamentation nor the pomp that interested him, it was only the duty, that he was undertaking before God, before the nation, and before the Church.”  Karl imposed strict rations at his palace to match the rest of the Empire, and he created the first Ministry of Social Welfare to care for the poor.  He also visited the people and organized soup kitchens.  He responded to the urge for nationalism with plans to decentralize political rule.

Pope Benedict XV was a staunch opponent of the war, calling it the “suicide of Europe,” and Karl was the only European leader involved in the war to follow the pope’s leadership.  He visited troops on the field, restricted the use of mustard gas, and worked for peace and to remove his nation from fighting.  He so desperately sought peace that he was publicly embarrassed by the leaking of secret negotiations with France.

At the end of the war in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points mandated that Austria-Hungary grant autonomy to its various peoples.  Negotiations broke down in the Empire, and Karl was forced to give up his rule.  After trying to retake power, Karl and his wife were eventually forced into exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira.  In 1922, he caught pneumonia and died after summoning his son to witness how he died “as a Catholic and as an Emperor.”

It is unlikely that a post-Christian Europe will again produce a political leader so devoted to his faith and the Catholic heritage of his nation, for Blessed Karl’s exile meant more than the end of his own rule.  It meant the end of the last remnant of Christendom in favor of secular liberalism, with its worship of state-managed autonomy through the sacraments of bureaucratic regulation and technocratic management.

Catholics in the West are now stuck working to make Catholic social teaching lively and informative in a political order more concerned with statistical calculations than deep considerations of the common good.  But Röpke’s work to build the modern economy offers us an example of how Catholics can work for practical policy solutions while remaining deeply steeped in the Church’s social teaching.

A staunch opponent of totalitarianism, Röpke was one of the first German university professors fired for criticizing Nazism, and he was eventually exiled from Germany.  After World War II, he returned as an economic adviser to the German government, and helped Germany reform its currency and end price controls, leading to a period of economic growth known as the "German economic miracle."  It was important for Röpke that his technical expertise helped to dismantle decades of bad economic policies that caused disaster during the Weimar Republic and contributed to the inhumanity of National Socialism.

For Röpke, economic disorder also revealed deeper social and political disorder, since economic matters are ultimately matters of philosophical anthropology.  Röpke’s most famous line might be a maxim from his A Humane Economy, that “It is the precept of ethical and humane behavior, no less than of political wisdom, to adapt economic policy to man, not man to economic policy.”  Nazism’s totalitarianism sought to shape man to fit its ideology, and in response, Röpke defended a deeply Catholic anthropology as the foundation for right thinking about economics.  He offers this diagnosis for the ills that Europe had suffered:

The ultimate source of our civilization’s disease is the spiritual and religious crisis which has overtaken all of us and which each must master for himself.  Above all, man is Homo religiosus, and yet we have, for the past century, made the desperate attempt to get along without God, and in the place of God we have set up the cult of man, his profane or even ungodly science and art, his technical achievements, and his State (A Humane Economy, 8).

Röpke was aware of the serious potential danger that economic development could lead to new problems in an already plagued West.  He noted that an overemphasis on material prosperity led many economists to reduce all man’s existence to merely economic calculation and action.  Röpke called this mindset “economism,” or the “incorrigible mania of making the means the end, of thinking only of bread and never of those other things of which the Gospel speaks.”  He warned that economism’s obsession with providing an ever-increasing abundance of products led economists and political leaders “to neglect to include in the calculation of these potential gains in the supply of material goods the possible losses of a non-material kind, in the form of impairment of the higher purposes of life and society” (A Humane Economy, 107).

Röpke reminds us that economic development has a legitimate and important role to play in the pursuit of genuine human progress, but it must not become the ultimate measure of progress.  Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio offers a similar consideration:

Man's personal and collective fulfillment could be jeopardized if the proper scale of values were not maintained.  The pursuit of life's necessities is quite legitimate; hence we are duty-bound to do the work which enables us to obtain them: "If anyone is unwilling to work, do not let him eat.''  But the acquisition of worldly goods can lead men to greed, to the unrelenting desire for more, to the pursuit of greater personal power.  Rich and poor alike—be they individuals, families or nations—can fall prey to avarice and soulstifling materialism.

We might imagine that Paul VI was thinking of Röpke when he insisted that because “development calls for an ever-growing number of technical experts, even more necessary still is the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism.” There are crucial political implications to Röpke’s reflection that economic development and material prosperity, while important, must not be society’s only concern.  This is because economic development is only sustainable in “a society that admits of the human virtues which issue in true service (not just “service to the customer”), devotion, charity, hospitality, and in the sacrifices which genuine communities demand. We might say that Blessed Karl is the ruler in recent history who most embodies the principles Röpke says are essential for a flourishing society.

In his homily for the Mass of Karl’s beatification, Saint Pope John Paul II explained Karl’s relevance to contemporary affairs:

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!

St. Paul wrote that “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” and many historians have treated Karl’s effort to preserve his empire as a hopeless folly.  Rather than seeing Karl as a failure, we should be reminded that our ultimate victory is not on or of this earth.  This means that Blessed Karl gives political leaders a holy model to follow, and he also offers a final lesson on the limits of what politics can achieve.