French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe

In a letter to the editor of First Things, my brother Benedict objects to Pierre Manent’s claim that while Western Christianity was born in an imperial form, it “found its form in the nation, or in the plurality of nations once called ‘Christendom,’ then ‘Europe:’”

To me, the nation-state does not mean heroic unity in the face of foreign invasion, but World War I: the destruction of the supranational Danube ­Empire and the creation by violence and forced emigration of homogenous nation-states. […] For Dante, it was precisely the inability of Christendom to unify under a single emperor, Ottoman-style, that was its downfall. Nothing illustrates the failure of the loose federal Christendom model better than its inability to unite against the external threat of the sultan’s armies. French national interest, Venetian national interest, Hungarian national interest prohibited a united effort, and the result was the Ottoman conquest of the entire Balkan peninsula and untold suffering for its Christian inhabitants.

As the example of Dante shows, Medieval Christendom all the way to the end was inspired by the imperial ideal of a universal temporal order. Virgil can be said to be the “father of Europe,” partly because of his imperial ideal was subsidiarist ideal that left room for local piety. And the Roman Church— from Pope Gelasius’s Famuli vestrae pietatis to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’— has never given up the ideal of a universal temporal power, corresponding in some way to her universal spiritual power.

The ideal was, however, never fully realized, and was made almost impossible by the forces that brought the Middle Ages to an end. Arguably the estrangement of Byzantium and Rome had already made the ideal of empire unattainable, but it was the Reformation that made even a semi-empire in the West practically impossible. And sadly “French national interest” had an important role in making the Reformation possible, preventing it from being reversed, and preventing the emergence of a post-Reformation empire in the parts of Europe that remained Catholic.

However much the medieval popes and emperors quarreled, they always shared a basically imperial idea of Christendom. The quarrel between Philip the Fair and Boniface VIII on the other hand was quite a different thing: it was (among other things) a quarrel between an imperial and a national ideal of human of common life. This was the beginning of the end of the Medieval Christendom. There followed the Avignon exile of the papacy, and then the conflicts between France and the Habsburgs. If France had supported the emperor in the 30 Years War, it is likely that the Reformation could have been reversed. Even afterwards, “French National Interest” continued to make a semi-empire in Catholic Europe impossible. Charles VI losing the War of Spanish Succession to the French was almost as great a blow to the Holy Roman Empire as Francis II formally dissolving it under the pressure of Napoleonic French aggression, less than a century later. Fittingly, it was Charles VI, who left one of the most beautiful symbolic monuments of the empire: the Karlskirche. I celebrate Mass in the Karlskirche from time to time for Una Voce Austria, and it always makes me reflect on the nature of Christendom.


The Karlskirche

As Friedrich Polleroß has pointed out, the Karlskirche is meant to remind us of the Solomonic Temple, the temples of pagan Rome, Hagia Sophia, and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The classical portico stands for the heritage of imperial Rome, the two great pillars stand both for the for the pillars of Hercules and for Jachin and Boas. The pillars of Hercules show that the empire is to stretch to the ends of the earth. But Jachin and Boas show that the emperor is the new Solomon; above the classical portico is a dome reminiscent of the cupola of St. Peter’s— the Holy Roman Empire exists for the exaltation of the Holy Roman Church.

Pierre Manent is of course right that the EU is antithetical to the true spirit of Christendom, but it is ironic that he praises French nationalism as conformable with that spirit. Oddly enough, the EU was largely put together by Frenchmen. It is even said that Alexandre Kojève was an influence, after his dream of a Latin (i.e. French) Empire failed to materialize.

Postscript: lest I be accused of Francophobia: France is awesome.



8 thoughts on “French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe

  1. The story of how the French stood as an obstacle to the rise of a post-Reformation Catholic empire is tragic. The Habsburgs were left with only the pieces of empire. On the one hand, the lesser branch of the House in the Holy Roman Empire, now virtually reduced to a mere association of quasi-independent states. On the other, the senior line in the Hispanic Monarchy, forming what explicitly aspired to be, and to a great extent was, a universal imperium (see the magnificent symbol of it at El Escorial), but lacking the imperial crown. And in the middle, the French. I was just speaking with a friend the other day about this, musing on counter-factuals. One of the most interesting was wondering what would have happened if Philip II of Spain had had a male child of Mary Tudor and the House of Austria would have come to rule in England in addition to Spain, Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands, restoring the Catholic faith to the British isles and encircling France entirely. For while it is true that the French played their part, it was probably the Protestant British who, in the end, have most decisively influenced the development of the liberal West.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Chesterton wrote an essay in The Common Man speculating if Philip II’s brother, Don John of Austria, had married Mary Stuart, not Tudor. This is a different scenario then yours, but he shares similar sentiments:

      There was a moment when all Christendom might have clustered together and crystallised anew, under the chemistry of the new culture; and yet have remained a Christendom that was entirely Christian…The significance of two people like Mary Stuart and Don John of Austria is that in them Religion and the Renaissance had not quarrelled; and they kept the faith of their fathers while full of the idea of handing on new conquests and discoveries to their sons. They drew their deep instincts from medieval chivalry without refusing to feed their intellects on the sixteenth-century learning; and there was a moment when this spirit might have pervaded the whole world and the whole Church… There is perhaps, therefore, something more than a fancy, certainly something more than an accident, in this connection between the two romantic figures and the great turning-point of history. They might really have turned it to the right rather than the left; or at least prevented it from turning too far to the left.

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      • I think I had heard of this before. Thanks for the quote! Ah, the “only-ifs”… Thing is, Philip II and Mary Tudor were actually married (he remains in the list of kings of England, I believe), but I think she was too old at the time, and Philip rather detested spending time in England, as he had to since he was not yet king and she was.


  2. Pater, what do you make of the story that Pope Boniface VIII, ‘Sedens in solio armatus et cinctus ensem, habensque in capite Constantini diadema, stricto dextra capulo ensis accincti, ait: “Numquid ego summus sum pontifex? nonne ista est cathedra Petri? Nonne possum imperii iura tutari? ego sum Cæsar, ego sum imperator” ?


    • Well, the popes certainly saw themselves as in some way the heirs of the emperors— the universality of the Roman Empire was a type of the Roman Church. But Boniface VIII himself very clearly teaches the distinction between secular and spiritual power: “We have been learned in the law for forty years, and we know very well that the powers established by God are two. How should or can anyone suppose that anything so foolish or stupid [as the contrary] is or has been in our head? We declare that we do not wish to usurp the jurisdiction of the king in any way…”

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      • Interestingly enough, James Bryce practically dismisses the story as apocryphal, which seems to be confirmed by Boniface’s actual writings (Bryce quotes him as saying, “Imperator est monarcha omnium regum et principum terrenorum”). Friedrich Heer however, in his work The Holy Roman Empire, posits a connection between the downfall of the House of Hohenstaufen when the Emperors tried to usurp the Sacerdotal Power, and the subsequent “downfall” of the Papacy at Avignon after the Papal attempt at usurping the Temporal Power. It’s an interesting idea, but it seems not quite borne out by the actual writings of the Popes.

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