BY GERARD NOEL
MODERN CATHOLICISM'S greatest survivor who has bebn described as one of the "giants of the Catholic Church" will be ninety on 3 August.
I refer, of course, to Cardinal Franz Koenig, the former Archbishop of Vienna and Primate of Austria.
I met him last week in London when the Austrian Ambassador gave a small luncheon party in his honour, other distinguished guests being the Apostolic Nuncio, Cardinal Hume, and the Anglican Bishop of Stepney. We were asked to raise our glasses of champagne in tribute to the Cardinal, who made a gracious reply in his impeccable English. One of the dozen languages he speaks fluently.
The last time I had met him was in this very building, an imposing house in Belgrave Square which, more than a hundred years ago, had been the first house in the square to become an Embassy, of which there are now at least seven.
The occasion was nearly twenty years ago and I had gone to see him privately, having been told by a Canadian monsignor in Rome not long before that Koenig might be our next Pope. He chose, of his own volition, to follow a different path.
Paul VI died two years later and in that famous "year of the three Popes" Koenig played a central role in both papal conclaves, at which he and Cardinal Benneffi of Florence, were, at least to begin with, the outstanding figures. Koenig played a decisive part in securing the election of the present Pope, though coming very near to being chosen himself.
Among the field in which he had shown particular skill and finesse was that of East-West relations, both as to church and state affairs.
Most notably he had been the principal Holy See negotiator in the efforts to rescue Cardinal Mindszenty from Hungary where, as Primate, he had fallen foul of the communist regime.
He had taken refuge at the United States Embassy in Budapest after the 1956 Revolution and Cardinal Koenig made many visits to him there from 1963 onwards. The cloak-and
dagger operation that followed fascinated the world's press but this became an embarrassment and hindrance to Koenig's delicate shuttle diplomacy.
On one of the Austrian Cardinal's last and most decisive visits to Budapest, the journalists hatched a plot to fallow him all the way from Vienna, a scheme which might have frustrated his entire plan.
They waited outside his residence where his official car and driver were waiting to sweep him off to Hungary. The Cardinal meanwhile slipped out by the back door and accomplished his hazardous mission without press attention.
In writing about this great man, it is difficult to know where to start, as there is so much that could be said. One might perhaps stress Cardinal Koenig's fondness for England as fostered particularly by his friendship with Cardinal Heenan when they worked closely together at the Vatican Council.
It has been said that the Cardinal's stance has long been that of an "intellectual liberal" rather than a "progressive" in Church matters, such as when he so strongly emphasized the importance of personal conscience on the question of birth control. This, as mentioned in my last Charterhouse, was the line taken by the Catholic Herald, though I afterwards reflected that I might have intentionally done less than justice to the courageous and outspoken stand taken over Humanoe Vitae by The Mblet.
Many thought that the Catholic Herald was taking a similar line, but in fact there was an important difference.The Catholic Herald was the only Catholic periodical in England to take a consistently balanced view of the question, as on many other questions, both before and after the Council in general and Humanae Vitae in particular.
This was due to the prophetic view taken by Michael de la Bedoyere in the '40s and '50s and to the responsible stance insisted on at the time of controversy by our great editor in the late sixties, Desmond Albrow, with whom it was my good fortune to work closely as assistant editor. This unique achievement by the Herald has not always been universally recognised. The decisive moment came, of course, when Cardinal Heenan so clearly enunciated the principle of the primacy of conscience in this (still) difficult matter in his historic interview an television.
The "Herald-Heenan solution" (as it has been called) still remains the classic formula for Catholics for the difficult moral problems posed by that famous papal encyclical.
It completely avoids any imputation of internal theological error in Humanae Vitae itself and any kind of impugning of papal authority. Other attempted "solutions" have proved less felicitous.
I was once told that Cardinal Koenig was a regular reader of the Catholic Herald, particularly in those momentous post-Conciliar days.
I hope he still is and finds it, as do so many others, better than ever.
Ad rnultos annos! t