Eduard Habsburg, Hungary’s Man at the Vatican, Talks Pope Francis, Cheesesteak and Family Secrets

His new book distills centuries of Habsburg history into a slim volume of entertaining anecdotes, including family members who were exemplars of faith like Blessed Emperor Karl and Venerable Archduchess Magdalena.

Eduard Habsburg
Eduard Habsburg (photo: Christopher D. Edwards / EWTN)

The archduke of Austria, Eduard Habsburg, who serves as Hungary’s ambassador to the Vatican, stopped in Washington, D.C., last week to talk about his new book about his famous family that he says he wrote especially for American readers.

Habsburg (his publicist referred to the 56-year-old diplomat as “His Imperial Majesty” when arranging an interview) comes from a line that includes several Holy Roman Emperors as well as Catholic kings and queens of Germany, Italy, Spain and Austria, who ruled almost continuously from the 13th century until the start of World War I. 

The book, titled The Habsburg Way: Seven Rules for Turbulent Times, from Sophia Institute Press, distills centuries of Habsburg history into a slim volume of entertaining anecdotes about the Habsburgs. He covers a lot of ground, stringing together tales of the dynasty’s politically advantageous marriages, intermarriages (and the famous “Habsburg jaw”), and family members who were exemplars of faith (see Blessed Emperor Karl and Venerable Archduchess Magdalena) and those who were paragons of pragmatism.

So, why would lessons from the Holy Roman Emperors be particularly relevant to Americans today? 

“What I found out quite surprisingly is the number of topics that the Habsburgs, the Holy Roman Empire and the United States have in common,” he told CNA. “You would think the tyrants of old and the greatest democracy in the world can’t have much in common. But, surprisingly, they do.”

Both were founded, he explained, on the principle of subsidiarity, “the idea that you respect the lower levels and give the lower levels independence.” With a far-flung empire made up of diverse peoples, it just made more sense. He offers the example from his book of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in the 16th century, who explained to his son, Philip II, how to govern: “Each nation [you rule] must be approached with respect and dealt with differently according to the nature of its peoples.”

Subsidiarity, also a key tenet of Catholic social teaching, is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the principle that maintains that “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order” (1883).

As for lessons from the Habsburgs, he writes in the book that his family more or less followed a set of principles that he believes is worth adopting today. Among them: subsidiarity, fidelity to the Catholic faith, and belief in the importance of family and having children.

Habsburg had arrived in Philadelphia the day before, fresh from hosting Pope Francis on his apostolic journey to Hungary. In the spirit of subsidiarity, he dined like a local at Geno’s Steaks in South Philly (he ordered a plain steak without “Whiz” and Tweeted that it was “absolutely delicious”). 

For a man with so many titles, Habsburg has a striking affinity for mixing with regular people. While in the U.S. he schedules “Tweet-ups” to meet his Twitter followers (he has more than 60,000) in person, even though most are strangers.

“You never know what will happen. You hope that no ax-wielding maniac will come, but followers aren’t usually like that,” he told CNA. “It’s very nice. I had one in Philadelphia where seven or eight people turned up, and it was one of the nicest conversations I had in a long time because, of course, you tend to have people who will think a bit like you.”

A member of the Hungarian branch of the family, Habsburg grew up mostly in Germany, living the life of a member of an exiled royal family. 

“As I say in my book, as a Habsburg, you always are between several countries. You never belong to one. So I was a bit German, but I was also a bit Austrian. I was very much Hungarian. I was also a bit Italian because my mother’s Italian and I lived in Italy for a while,” he told CNA.

While pursuing a career as a screenwriter — he wrote television and movie scripts, including the film Mary, Queen of Scots — he was hired as communications director for a Catholic bishop in Vienna, Austria. There, he realized the importance of social media to a good communications strategy — and that he was quite good at it.

“I thought, ‘I have to find out what people think about the Catholic Church. I have to find out which journalists regularly write about Catholic topics, about sexuality, about bioethics.’ So I went on Twitter, and I began following them, interacting with them, and then meeting every single one of them for coffee and just getting to know them,” he said.

His social-media presence, as well as his family name, his facility with languages (he knows seven), and his experience working with the Catholic Church attracted the attention of the Hungarian government, who talked him into applying for the job.

He then spent a year studying Hungarian “like a maniac” while continuing to work for the Austrian bishop and hosting a TV show about castles. Once his appointment was approved by the Hungarian Parliament, he was off to Rome to embark on what he calls “the greatest time in my life.”

With other jobs, he said, “I could only pour a part of me into. And with this job — it’s everything — my passions, my faith, my interest in the internet, my writing ability, all of this together. I love it. Thank you, God!”

Since moving to Rome eight years ago, Habsburg, his wife, Baroness Maria Theresia von Gudenus, and their six children have traveled “light years in our development as a family.” He said they pray the Rosary together every day and go to Mass several times a week.

“I never managed that in 50 years of being a good Catholic. I sometimes prayed, but never regularly. I never went to Mass during the week. I only went on Sundays. Now, we go one, two, three times during the week, too, because, of course, the Lord is always there, and every single Mass is an incredible gift,” he said.

A highlight of his tenure as ambassador was Pope Francis’ recent visit to Hungary, where Habsburg said the Holy Father “gave a little jump-start to the Hungarian Catholic population,” which makes up 62% of the country. 

“The Pope, in his three days, really reconfirmed us in our Catholic identity,” he said. “He came as a pastor to his flock.” Noting that some in the media only reported on differences relating to Hungary’s policies limiting migration into the country, Hapbsurg said that the Pope and the government of Hungary see eye-to-eye on some of the most important issues of the day, such as the war in Ukraine and gender ideology.

”Hungary and the Pope are the only two voices in Europe calling for an immediate cease-fire and peace negotiations, he said. “The Pope very strongly agrees with our idea of family. He told Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in the private meeting, ‘Family is father, mother and children, nothing else.’”

“[Pope Francis] agrees with our law protecting minors from gender ideology in schools. Europe jumped down our throats about that. We got punished, yelled at, maligned, and crucified for that law. The Pope came to Hungary for his trip. And what did he say in his first speech to the diplomats and the political world? A strong condemnation of gender ideology,” he said.

While in Hungary, the Pope, he said, applauded the country’s efforts to encourage families to have more children. To increase the country’s declining birth rate, Hungary recently offered women under the age of 30 a lifetime exemption from income taxes if they become mothers.

“This is a big topic for the Pope. He spoke in Hungary about it. He spoke again about it in the last Wednesday audience. After his trip, he began again [talking] about Europeans not having children anymore and Hungary being an example of how you do this. So you see, it’s easy for me to love the Pope because I see so many things that he says and does that very strongly coincide with what my government does. And then there are one or two topics where he has slightly different opinions.“

Habsburg added: “He’s like a good father. He will encourage you to give a bit more, to be a bit more generous.” 

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