US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Conscientious courage

By Michael Hovey | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Justice
Franz Jägerstätter paved the way for those who object to war by following a higher order.

In April 1974, while serving at the U.S. Navy base in Sasebo, Japan, I visited the Atomic Bomb Memorial Museum in the nearby city of Nagasaki, the second city destroyed by an atomic bomb dropped by U.S. forces.

I was horrified to realize that, in killing more than 70,000 women, men, and children instantly, our country demonstrated that it was-and, sadly, still is today-ready, able, and willing to engage in acts condemned by our Catholic Church. "Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation," reads the Second Vatican Council's Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).

Remembering that the council's bishops also supported "those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms," I decided to apply for a discharge from the Navy as a conscientious objector. I believed that, by continuing to serve in our nation's military, I would truly be living in a "near occasion of sin."

A younger Catholic chaplain supported me, but the senior Catholic chaplain said, "I'm a priest and I've been in the Navy for 17 years. I don't see your problem!" If my request were denied, I knew I would end up in prison. Thankfully, after eight months of interviews, interrogations, and anxiously waiting to hear from the Pentagon, I was honorably discharged on Feb. 11, 1976, as a conscientious objector to war and military service.

I was therefore overwhelmed with joy and a sense of peaceful vindication as I stood with 5,000 other Catholics in the Mariendom Cathedral in Linz, Austria on Oct. 26, 2007, to witness the beatification of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a 36-year-old Austrian farmer, husband, and father of four daughters. Jägerstätter had refused to serve in the Nazi army, was sent to prison, and was ultimately beheaded in Berlin on Aug. 9, 1943, for his conscientious objection.

His 94-year-old widow, Franziska, and daughters Hildegard, Rosalie, Maria, and Aloisia sat in the front pew with tears in their eyes as they listened to Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, say: "In a time like ours the testimonial of Blessed Franz, his unbroken bravery, and his imperturbable strong conscience is a shining example."

I first learned of Jägerstätter's heroic witness when I worked with Gordon Zahn at the Pax Christi Center on Conscience and War in 1982. Zahn, himself a conscientious objector in World War II, "discovered" the story of Jägerstätter's faithful and courageous martyrdom.

Jägerstätter kept a journal, so when Zahn researched his path to sanctity, it was easy to sense what motivated him to eventually offer his life in sacrifice rather than violate his conscience.

In one passage Jägerstätter wrote about a dream he had in the summer of 1938: "All of a sudden I saw a beautiful shining railroad train that circled around a mountain. Streams of children-and adults as well-rushed toward the train and could not be held back.... Then I heard a voice say to me: ‘This train is going to hell.'... The longer our situation [Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938] continues, the clearer the meaning of this train becomes for me.... It is National Socialism [Nazism]."

Jägerstätter rejected the creeping influence of Nazism in Germany and his beloved Austria from the beginning. His faith in a nonviolent Jesus gave him the clarity of mind and soul to be able to view the reality around him and interpret it in light of the gospel.

His local pastor and the bishop of Linz counseled him to be prudent and go back to his farm and his family; let the authorities worry about the war. This he could not do. His religious leaders, he wrote, perhaps "were not given the grace" that he felt he had received. "[My dream] has convinced me in my heart how I must answer the question: Should I be a National Socialist-or a Catholic?" he wrote.

The question that Jägerstätter had to answer for himself is similar to the question each of us must answer: As a Catholic, when my country goes to war or calls on us to perform military service, should I unquestioningly follow the patriotic crowd in blind obedience, or should I follow my well-formed conscience as a believer in the Prince of Peace? Does my Catholic faith help me to discern when "this train is going to hell"?

As the bishop of Linz pointed out at the beatification ceremony, "Franz Jägerstätter does not allow himself to be merely looked up to, without at the same time posing a question about one's own life: And what about you? What part does sacrifice play in your own life? How seriously do you take the question of whether there is something in your life so big that you would, if necessary, be willing to die for it?" Pray for us, Blessed Franz!