King (König), emperor (Kaiser), cardinal – a Viennese legend


Thomas J. Nagy commemorates the 110th birthday of Franz König (1905-2004), the most important churchman of the II. Republic, with a biography.

A great life deserves great appreciation. Thomas J. Nagy succeeds in this.

Former altar servant at St. Stephen’s Cathedral Nagy compiles a compelling wealth of different voices. Including the fact, that Franz König [became] “an enthusiastic, passionate pastoral counselor, who had the youth particularly at heart” (49). Likewise, “König, Kaiser, Kardinal” stands out through the biographer’s compression of the time line at the beginning of many sections while still achieving to describe the essentials pointedly. From there, he breaks down the events in terms of the action of the main character.

Franz König, born in Warth near Rabenstein, Lower Austria, lost his father as a six year old already. The stepfather, Johann Kaiser, later ÖVP member of parliament, was hardly interested in him. He constantly pushed him to work and treated the six children from his wife’s (Franz’ mother’s) first marriage, of whom he is the eldest, worse than his four own ones with her. This, despite Franz’ school performance being excellent and regardless of his enormous work achievements. Even in old age, König still suffered because of this. He often seemed introverted and had considerable difficulties divulging his feelings or giving praise to others. The Lower Austrian Stift Melk (Melk monastary), under the Benedictines trusteeship influenced him as a teenager in his view of the world and humanity, as well as for the spiritual journey. Soon, the years of study in Rome followed in the interwar period. Nagy describes how the students were encouraged to live disciplined lives and to make the best possible use of time: “The Fragile and ephemeral aspect of the world and its people were formative throughout his life.” The biographer also strives to do justice to the players, acting in oppressive, dangerous times, without painting them whiter than white: “The Catholic Church experienced a multiple dilemma, for despite the Vatikan having regained its sovereignity through the Lateran Treaty [closed in 1929, with the Italian figure in power, Mussolini], atrocities of the Nazi regime (…) can not have gone unnoticed by the Holy See. Nagy explains unambigously: “The representatives of the Catholic Church had sympathized and collaborated with the Austrofascists for years, hoping after all, to gain back lost prestige and power through the (…) new order.” For years the talented, passionate teacher and respected Kaplan was under surveillance by the Gestapo. In particular, he wanted to support young people and women whose husbands were at the front. Only vehement insistence of Pope Pius XII. in late 1955 made him agree to switch from St. Pölten to Vienna. Austria’s most important diocese by far, with St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Steffl) as its heart, was led by König from 1956 to 1985. It was not until ’80 that he left the office – without waiting for permission from Rome.

To Franz König, the intellectual and the emotional level of his Christian spiritual existence were equally important. With Thomas Aquinas, who reinterpreted Aristotle in a christian fashion, he said: “There is a structural principle in the universe, a large order (…)”

In 1960 he crashed heavily in a car. His jaw smashed with long-term consequences, the driver died. It is questionable how Nagy describes König’s serious accident in 1960. The chauffeur’s widow accused König of having pushed her husband to speeding. This has always been firmly rejected by church people, despite (with one exception) no one having been present. The Biographer checks no other version, except the popular one, according to which the driver was distracted because he was eating an apple.

While the Cardinal spent a long solitary time bedded in a Yugoslavian hospital, he was facing a picture of Tito on the wall. His work thereafter was shaped for decades by the thought: “The Archbishop of Vienna has to care about what goes on behind the Iron Curtain in the Catholic Church’s areas.” In his remarks to the Second Vatican Council, Nagy succeeds in clarifying the mental and emotional situation. Also, to transmit numerous facets, without getting caught up in details.

The theological restoration that was already irritating Archbishop King during his travels to his Warsaw colleague, reached Universal Church proportions, as Archbishop Karol Wojtyla of Krakow became Pope in October 1978 . The clashes between one of the main Council Fathers and the Polish Pope influenced the late phase of König’s tenure and its aftermath considerably. Instead of the opening hoped for, as a result of the election of a Slavic Pontifex – significantly promoted by the Viennese dignitary – there was controversy with Rome:

The Pope accused King of rushing ahead in essential ethical issues, and of publicly representing and manifesting in statements, positions that had not been prearranged. This was particularly true for the attitude to contraception and abortion. Far from legitimizing pill and abortion, Cardinal König gave great importance to the conscience of couples and the existence of church counseling services. The pontiff, however recognized no leeway or room for negociation in these essential questions of sexual morality. Adding to this was the fact that John Paul II blamed the Vienna Cardinal for membership numbers of the Catholic Church declining (also) in Austria, as well as the binding strength of their institutions overall rapidly declining. Despite the painful criticism, the ever compensatory Franz König, filled with great respect for the Holy See as well as unconditional obedience, never publicly and directly voiced his chagrin: “Franz König never showed letdowns, but rather patiently (…) discussed them.”

What is bothersome about this book, are often incorrect age informations on several people:
The distance from 1985 to 2003 is 18 years, not 13. In 1985, König turned 80, not 85. Pope John XXIII. was not 71 years old at the beginning of his pontificate, but already 77, König 73 and not 68 in 1978.

In addition, the biographer gives particular attention to König’s dealings with the Social Democrats. The archbishop even spoke before the Austrian Union Federation (OGB), earning him the nickname “Red Cardinal”. This was meant unflattering, but actually helped König to build bridges. Given his own meager origins, numerous visits to factories of his diocese and countless conversations, he knew the conditions of life, concerns, fears and needs of the “little people”. In the media, he even spoke in favor of social democratic policy objectives. Cardinal König wanted to improve the situation of workers, particularly that of young people. For this, Thomas J. Nagy gives a vivid example: That of his father, who, having recently escaped from Hungary at 21, was encouraged by König while clearing rubble at the archbishop’s palace, to seize his opportunities. The Chief Shepherd knew all in Vienna.

At the very beginning Nagy writes, how he wanted to touch König’s handprint on the Bishop’s crook as an altar servant in 1977/8. Whether one regards this as to adoring, is a matter of taste. The images inserted compressedly in two places in the book’s mid section, disappoint a little: There are relatively few, the explanations are short and there are hardly any assignments made in terms of time and place or where Franz König is to be seen. Some quotations lack a grammatically necessary word that would have had to be inserted by the editor.

Even internal Church differences in Vienna, Nagy does not leave out: The left theologian and priest Adolf Holl was a brilliant scientist who quickly gained access to Cardinal König in the 1960s. They shared a mutual appreciation and worked together. From the middle of the 1960s, Holl criticized the official Church ever more open and fundamentally, as well as the exercise of faith in the church institutions. King personally harbored sympathies for Holl. Therefore, he later offered him financial support, for example. Still, after “denigrations” in Rome, he was left with no choice but to take restrictive measures against the journalist acting provocateur in the mid 1970ies. He had meanwhile become the best-selling author of “Jesus in bad company.” König was hit particularly hard by the disaster around his succession in the mid-1980s: Without asking for his advice and despite many other proposals, Pope John Paul II decided for the ultraconservative Benedictine Father Hans Hermann Groër, who was extremely unpopular in Vienna from the outset. 1995 it became publicly known, that as a teacher in the minor seminary Hollabrunn he supposedly repeatedly overstepped sexual boundaries – proteges and confreres reported, for example in “profile” magazine. Groer said nothing until his death in 2003.

Captivating, not least, is the final chapter about the human being Franz König: companions describe the Cardinal consistently very positively, his lifestyle right up to diet, exercise and his physical and mental fitness to nearly 100; his “children”, too, are discussed: He took care of young immigrants from East Asia. Likewise, König expresses the value of home. The fact that he had no biological children or lovers, is conveyed believably by Nagy. The manfully handsome, well-read and eloquent König simply had no need for a double life. He would have had plenty of opportunities in life as a “Secular”. The long list of those individuals who do him references is sensational: International,  and across worldviews as well as generations, there is still high recognition for König. The biographer himself steps back here. Many contacted witnesses are, in personal union, experts for certain parts, mostly because of their own life path.

Thomas J. Nagy manages to deliver a biography that has the makings of a standard work. This also applies in terms of a long piece of Catholicism’s history in Austria. Likewise, with regard to the II. Republic with its enormous changes. The Vienna business consultant combines respect for the cardinal and personal experience in dealing with a multi-perspective look at him. His pleasantly readable work is carried by a desire to let the players concerned be granted respect and fairness across the epochs. Franz König’s long life still harbours writing material.

Nagy, Thomas J.; Kaiser, König, Kardinal: Auf den Spuren von Kardinal Franz König.
Styria Verlag. Wien/Graz/Klagenfurt, 2015. 324 Seiten, 24,90 Euro.

Translation from German: Serena Nebo