ROME — Eduard Habsburg-Lothringen, Hungary’s new ambassador to the Holy See, believes it’s important to be positive about the direction Pope Francis is taking the Church and recognize that he is answering the call of a world “crying for a message of mercy.”
Habsburg-Lothringen, a native of Bavaria and member of the famous Habsburg family that ruled the Holy Roman Empire continuously between 1438 and 1740, sees the Holy Father as an “impressive” Pope who “knows what he wants.”
The great-great-great grandson of the late Austro-Hungarian emperor Franz Joseph I, Habsburg-Lothringen has spent much of his life in Austria. He was spokesman for Bishop Klaus Küng of Sankt Pölten before his appointment to Rome last year, but he is also a citizen of Hungary. His father, Michael, was born in the country.
The new ambassador is also a novelist and television producer, and he wrote a dissertation on Thomism, investigating why it largely disappeared after the mid-20th century but is now making a comeback.
In this interview at the Hungarian Embassy to the Holy See in Rome, Habsburg-Lotheringen discussed a number of subjects, including his recent meeting with the Holy Father, Hungary’s controversial policy regarding the refugee crisis, and the time when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger urged him to write a detective thriller.
How did you find the Holy Father when you presented your credentials?
He was very impressive; it was a very impressive meeting. I sat in front of someone who has a clear vision, and I had the impression of someone who knows what he wants. What struck me most from that meeting was the way he personalized things. We talked about Hungary, of course, and he told me why he knew Hungary very well without having been there. Then he told me this story about the Mary Ward Sisters, who had fled from Hungary and who taught him everything about Hungary. They taught him about righteousness and courage, how Hungary was. He said: “They told me what was the single and most sacred symbol of Hungary,” and then he opened his eyes wide and said: “Tokaji wine!” It was fun. Then we talked about his trips.
Did you touch on immigration and refugees?
We didn’t — I spoke for a long time about that with Cardinal [Pietro] Parolin, whom I met five minutes after the Pope, but he didn’t speak about refugees and immigration. We spoke about the possibility of his trip to Hungary, the reason why he hasn’t given a clear answer so far.
Has he been officially invited?
Yes, he’s very aware of having been invited. He said: “Every single Hungarian repeats that to me and I know it. And I know I’ve said I’d like to come for St. Martin’s feast.” We have St. Martin’s jubilee now in Hungary, the 1,700th anniversary of his birth, and most people don’t realize that St. Martin is a Hungarian saint and not a French one. The Pope told me that he knows he’s an old man and can’t go everywhere. So he has this nice way of not saying No and not saying Yes, but keeping his options open, I think. I then elaborated that the Hungarian government would love to have him celebrate Mass with gypsies, with the Roma, and he was very interested in that. I’m going to organize a conference about that in 2016 in Rome. That topic is very close to his heart, and so he liked that, but he didn’t say Yes or No. He was friendly.
He then asked me about my family. I talked to him a lot about family, and that was a central topic: family, my experience of family.
And you brought your six children?
Yes, but first he meets you, and then he meets your family; so he wanted to know what ages they were, their names, where they were, and I explained that to him. Then, at the end of the talk, the family came in; and that was great, because he prayed with us, blessed us, gave everyone a book.
But the greatest moment was when I was leaving. It was an absolutely fantastic moment, because, up until then, it was a courteous, cheerful and friendly talk. As I was going out, he took my arm, he looked into my eyes, and he said: “Thank you so much for your testimony, because it has done me lots of good.” He held my hand, looked into my eyes and told me that because I have a big family I have the courage to have a big family. And the great thing is, and this is typical of the Pope, I think, he didn’t say: “You’re giving an example to society,” which one usually says, but he personalized it: “It has done me good.” So that was very impressive.
But content-wise, we didn’t speak very much. It was mostly about Hungary, his possible trips, what he’s planning. I tried to explain to him the difference between Calvinists and Catholics in Hungary. I tried to convey the message that the Hungarian government is very Christian, and he liked the way I told it. There’s a very nice story of two politicians who were supposed to fight against each other, in the end prayed together and laid the foundations for prayer being present in government work. He liked that. But he never turned the conversation to talk about the refugee topic. I think he wanted to get to know me and understand who I am, and I think he got that.
Did you try to explain the Hungarian situation to him?
No, I didn’t address it, and I think that was wise. Those details were then told to Cardinal Parolin, who would be the person to address these things to.
How did your family respond to the audience?
My children were very impressed, of course, and thought he was very nice. … It was nice, with the symbols, when you go in; you go with a long line of gentiluomoni (gentlemen of the papal household, usually Black Nobility, whose tasks include greeting dignitaries) and so forth, and when you step outside of his door, suddenly there are four Swiss Guards around you. They don’t stop you from saying rubbish, but they are there to say: “You are really now an ambassador.” It’s interesting, the change of the atmosphere.
As a member of one of the oldest and best-known Catholic royal families in Europe, what are your general views of Pope Francis?
I have the impression this Pope has a very clear line, and you can’t put him into a box. At the same time, Francis is trying to do new things. Whenever someone is trying to do something new, there are fears, but my attitude is that he’s the Pope, and I can lean back and relax because God has given the job to him, not to me! Don’t worry too much; we can begin to form an opinion of this pontificate a few years after his pontificate and not now, every day.
But I strongly encourage all of us to take his impulses to heart. He’s calling us to ask ourselves: “What does God’s mercy mean for me?”
You see, those of us who had the gift to grow up “firmly inside” the Church sometimes tend to see things from a very inside perspective. Living in Germany and Austria, I’ve realized the great majority of the Catholic population wouldn’t fall into the line of classical orthodoxy and don’t share every little detail, but we have to open the doors for these people, too.
I see a world crying for a message of mercy. The truths of the Church are easier to accept once you’ve stepped into the boat. But there are so many — incredibly many — people who cannot see them because they can’t make this step. The image I like most is that of the Prodigal Son: The Pope is the father who is going out to welcome his son back in, but he’s going out very far to meet him. I’m quite certain it wasn’t easy for the elder brother. But look what the father tells him: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But now we have to celebrate.” I think this parable is a key to Francis.
What did you discuss with the Vatican secretary of state?
With Cardinal Parolin, we talked about the refugee crisis, the Islamic State crisis, and I think both of us agreed. I explained to him what happened over the summer in Hungary: that I was present there, that I helped with the refugees and the migrants, why Hungary built the fence.
Was he understanding about what was done?
Very much so. As I felt also with Archbishop [Paul] Gallagher [secretary for relations with states], they all realize this is not a Hungarian crisis, but a European crisis, and right now, every country is trying to solve the question as they can, as there’s still not a common line. Europe still hasn’t found an answer to this huge event that is on our doorstep and which will continue this year. So Europe has to find a common answer to know what to do with all these people who come here looking for a better life, for more hope, more security, but will be coming on foot.
Could you briefly explain what Hungary did to deal with the crisis?
Basically, what Hungary did in the summer was to fulfill its duty towards the European Union, Schengen and the Dublin Treaty. To put it simply, this summer you had several thousands of refugees/migrants coming over the Hungarian border every day. At the peak, it was nearly 10,000 per day. Hungary is a small country, and they were just walking in. Some filled out the asylum requests, some didn’t, and all of them moved on towards Germany on foot. The Hungarian government realized there was no way they could enforce the Schengen rules under these circumstances. Hungary was constantly reminded to keep its part of the Schengen Treaty, but at the same time they were vilified for building fences and being controlling, and so there’s a certain schizophrenia here, which was born out of a panic because no one had an answer. Everyone sort of agreed that fences were something nasty, but as I always try to explain: You can come into Hungary whenever you want. There’s a door; there’s a border crossing; if you have a passport, you walk on, but if you don’t have one, you fill out your asylum request. If you don’t want to do this, then you shouldn’t cross the border. What happened is, of course, as soon as Hungary had closed a fence — not a wall, a fence — suddenly, the numbers went from 10,000 to 100, or 30 or 40 per day, because that’s the real number of those who wanted to comply with the Schengen rules. The others moved on to our neighbors in Croatia, Slovenia and Austria. So in a way, what Hungary did is a legitimate answer to the crisis. Certainly it’s not a solution for Europe, and Europe has to sit down and figure out what to do, because more will be coming next year (in 2016).
Do you think the Vatican supports Hungary in this?
There were no accusations against Hungary or criticism of Hungary. There was no crisis between the Holy See and Hungary on this.
The Habsburg family goes back a long way and has an illustrious history in Europe. Can you explain your connection with it?
First of all, it’s extremely cool to be a Habsburg. It is quite helpful to belong to such a great family because most people don’t know who they are or where they come from, so it’s useful that you can identify yourself. You can coordinate yourself somewhere in the universe. If I’m in an accident, they won’t say a Hungarian is in an accident, they’ll probably say ambassador, but there’ll always be a Habsburg element to it. If my name were Müller, that wouldn’t make the headlines.
Secondly, you have a huge family, several hundred people everywhere in the world, and many of them know each other. We have a private Facebook page that we meet on. Wherever I go, I have family. That’s fantastic — absolutely fantastic. Also, faith is a strong element in our family. There are not too many royal families around who have a blessed (Blessed Charles I of Austria), and just two generations ago. That’s quite something. So this is the basic thing about being a Habsburg.
What it also means is that you don’t have to find out about your ancestors, but you can go on the Internet and find the family tree there. That’s interesting, too, because you really know where you come from. Nowadays, the family consists of four big branches. They have all intermarried several times, but I’m from the Hungarian branch of the Habsburgs, and you can explain the family pretty easily.
What is your relationship to the late Otto von Habsburg?
He’s from the line one, and I’m from the line four of Habsburgs. In one relationship, he’s probably a great-great-uncle, but it always goes by whom I go with my family, so he’s a distant uncle. Charles [the current head of the family] is a distant cousin.
Your appointment is interesting in that, having had the Austro-Hungarian Empire, things seem to have gone full circle; now a Habsburg is again representing Hungary. What do you think about that? Is it rather odd for you to be back in this historical setting?
It’s funny because the stars have aligned in a way that the wife of the Austrian ambassador to the Holy See and the wife of the Hungarian ambassador to the Holy See are sisters. So Austria and Hungary are sisters again, at least here in Rome, and our embassies are 13 minutes on foot from each other. That’s a very nice image.
It’s also a nice image that my father is ambassador of the Order of Malta to Hungary, and I am the ambassador of Hungary to the Order of Malta. That’s coincidental, but it’s very nice. I feel things are clicking into place.
I think that there’s a long tradition in our family of diplomacy, building bridges. If you look at the history of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy at the beginning of the 20th century, together with the Ottoman Empire, we were the only counter-model to nationalism. We have a long experience in dealing with complex relationships with states that live very close to each other, and we always try to see the bigger picture and not only the interests of one nation. That’s the Austrian-Hungarian heritage. So that’s a bit of the fuel to help me on the long way of the work I’m doing now.
Do you see it as providential?
Yes, absolutely, because, in a way, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy prefigured what we’re trying to do in Europe: states living together in a bigger unity with their problems and tensions.
And maintaining sovereignty?
Yes, but the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was in a much better state towards the beginning of the First World War. It was in a very good state. Even the radical nationalists within the monarchy never wanted to leave the monarchy. So one should never think about what would have, could have, happened. I very often try to imagine if Archduke Ferdinand hadn’t been killed in Sarajevo, if the first shot hadn’t been fired, there wouldn’t have been a world war, and what might have happened after that?
You wrote your dissertation about St. Thomas Aquinas and recently wrote an article about that in L’Osservatore Romano. Could you tell us a little more about that?
Yes, that was a lot of fun. There is one part scientist in me — yes, I have a doctorate in philosophy, but at the same time I’m a scriptwriter and a novel writer. So it’s quite fitting that the thesis I wrote in philosophy about 20 years ago is somewhere on the borderline between the two of them because I try to figure out how Thomistic philosophy disappeared in the 20th century. Was it murder? Was it illness? Was it an accident? Did it become extinct? It was interesting because I basically traveled through Europe with my dictaphone in one hand and interviewed people about how Thomism disappeared. I met people from both camps: liberal ones and more conservative ones. It was interesting because the conservatives said: “Well, it’s very clear; it was murdered by those liberals.” The liberals would say: “Well, it was a dinosaur; you can’t talk in Latin about nuclear war. It’s a philosophy for the Middle Ages, not fit for the 20th century.” The truth was: It was a bit of both, of course; but in reality something totally different happened, and so I tried to apply Kunz’s theory of scientific revolutions, which has been written about natural sciences, to philosophy.
How did it turn out?
I found that the Thomistic philosophy that I wrote about was always closely linked to Thomistic theology. And Thomistic theology, of course, began to disappear in the 1950s, because all the theologians discovered the Church fathers and patristic theology and, while Thomistic theology made sense to prepare you for Thomistic or scholastic theology, it didn’t seem to make sense to prepare you for patristic theology. So, in a way, all this apparatus for formation suddenly seemed to have become obsolete; and that’s how, in my opinion, it disappeared. Even the most stout defenders of Thomism didn’t really see what they were fighting for anymore. Thomism disappeared for 20 years, and now it’s back with a vengeance. Everywhere in the world, there are centers. There’s one in America, where they still learn in Latin. As I said in L’Osservatore Romano: Good philosophy never dies. It will transform and come back differently.
And you interviewed then-Cardinal Ratzinger for the dissertation?
Yes, that was the most fun thing. He told me about the events at the Second Vatican Council. He wrote me a very nice letter saying this topic is far too important, [that] people should know about it, so make a television documentary about it, or at least write a thriller, a detective novel about it. It was so funny that the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would ask me to write a detective novel in the vein of Dan Brown! When he became Pope, I realized I hadn’t done it, so I wrote him a nice letter. As I also wrote in the piece, he met my brother in St. Peter’s Square just two years before he became Pope and said: “Tell your brother he still owes me a detective novel on Thomism,” which is very, very witty.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.