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Austria’s holy uproar

The Vatican’s decision to beatify Karl I, Austria’s last reigning emperor — putting him on the road to sainthood — has triggered a spirited political and religious debate.
Emperor Karl I, Austria's last reigning emperor, is shown at age 26 in this 1913 file photo. Pope John Paul II will beatify him on Sunday.Friedrich Kranzfelder / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Some think he’s already a saint for seeking a peaceful end to World War I. Others think he’s a scoundrel for commanding troops who used poison gas and for mounting two bloody comeback attempts.

On Sunday, Pope John Paul II is to beatify Karl I, but the Vatican’s decision to put Austria’s last reigning emperor on the road to sainthood has triggered a spirited political and religious debate at home.

Austria’s government has come under fire for its plans to send a high-profile delegation to Rome. And the Roman Catholic Church has been ridiculed for the miracle it attributes to Karl: a Brazilian nun whose varicose veins were healed after she prayed to the monarch.

“As an active Catholic, I protest the beatification of Emperor Karl,” said Rudolf Stanzel, among believers who think the Vatican is making a mistake. “The church is standing on the side of wealth and power.”

Karl I’s supporters have worked for 55 years to get the emperor beatified, the final step before possible sainthood. He is among five people the pope will beatify this weekend.

Vatican approves ‘heroic virtue’
Karl I, sometimes called Charles I in the West, took the throne in 1916 and worked for peace as the Austro-Hungarian Empire neared its end. He abdicated at the end of the war and died in Portugal in 1922 at age 34.

The Vatican, which last December formally attributed a miracle to Karl I — one of several necessary steps for beatification — in April approved the emperor’s “heroic virtue.” Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, said the monarch “served his people with justice and charity.”

“He looked for peace, helped the poor, cultivated his spiritual life with commitment,” he said.

Martin Kugler, spokesman for the Hapsburg royal family that ruled Austria-Hungary, said he can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Social changes championed
“As emperor, Karl pushed a comprehensive social program,” Kugler told the Austria Press Agency. “He appointed the world’s first social affairs minister and protected tenants and children. He instituted worker protections and a family’s right to social security. The essence of these measures remain in place today.”

Critics contend Karl I is a poor choice because as emperor, he had ultimate command responsibility for troops who used poison gas on the Italian front, although historians say he sought to limit its use, angering his own military command.

Some scoff at the miracle the Vatican credits to Karl I. The Vatican says a cloistered nun in Brazil was cured after praying for his beatification in the 1970s; Austrian church leaders say she suffered from a debilitating case of varicose veins.

Others note that Karl I made two attempts to regain power by force after the monarchy was abolished in 1918 as part of the settlement ending World War I, and that several dozen people were killed in street fighting on both occasions.

The emperor and his family were placed on a ship under British escort and taken to the Portuguese island of Madeira, where he died of pneumonia.

Is beatification necessary?
“Karl was a weak, uncertain young man who was dependent on those around him,” historian Brigitte Hamann told the magazine Profil, which examined the debate in a cover story headlined: “The Emperor Karl Comedy.”

“I’m against the constant trashing of the Hapsburg family — but do we really need to beatify him?” asked Herbert Schreibner, a leader of the rightist Freedom Party.

The government’s decision to send a delegation led by parliament speaker Andreas Khol, Health Minister Maria Rauch-Kallat and other top officials has been criticized as a violation of the separation of church and state. President Heinz Fischer, who as a university student worked to block the return from exile of Karl I’s widow, Princess Zita, asked Khol to go in his stead.

Khol defended his decision to attend the ceremony. “I am no monarchist — I am a Republican,” he told Austrian radio Tuesday.

Karl I “sought peace and led a religious life with decisiveness,” Khol said, insisting that “church and state are in all instances separate” in overwhelmingly Catholic Austria.