I have recently been reading a book entitled "In Solitary Witness: The life and death of Franz Jagerstatter" by Gordon Zahn. Zahn was a professor of sociology at Loyola University, but more importantly, he had been a conscientious objector during the Second World War.
It is because of Professor Zahn's book in 1964 that a fellow conscientious objector, Franz Jagerstatter, became better known. Unfortunately, Jagerstatter suffered a more dire fate than Zahn did, being beheaded by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to serve in the army when called up to service.
Zahn calls Jagerstatter's courageous act a "lesson set forth for us by a humble peasant giving solitary witness in a community so small that it lacks almost all the customary civil autonomies ... Yet in this unlikely setting an extraordinary act of rebellion took place ... nothing less than a repetition of an old story, the ever-recurring confrontation between Christ and Caesar."
Later this month, on May 21, we will celebrate Franz Jagerstatter's feast day, having been beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. A man of conscience, a man of peace, and declared a martyr by the apostolic exhortation of the pope, Jagerstatter's feast day should create some considerations in our own minds about our own willingness to object in conscience to our present culture that esteems war and funds increasingly outrageous budgets to support it.
Conscientious objection to military service has disappeared as an issue in recent years since we have an all-volunteer army. Still, we need to keep in mind the support that the Church has given to such a stand of conscience, and even the approval of those who declare themselves to be pacifists.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, the U.S. bishops issued a startling document entitled "Statement on the Catholic Conscientious Objector." In supporting conscientious objectors, the bishops said, "A Catholic viewing his tradition, the message of the Gospel statements, could validly question and abstain from participation in war or the preparations for war."
Most notably, the bishops began their document with these words: "Since apostolic times, the Church has cherished and valued the spirit of nonviolence based on the teaching of Jesus. This is one of the reasons Christians of the early Church did not participate in military service. There was even a strong tendency toward pacifism."
These words were introduced to me in 1972 when I had received my Selective Service notice, classified 1-A and had number 65 in the lottery - almost a sure sign I would be drafted into service. I had adopted pacifism as a part of my Catholic faith a few years before, and had been counseled by a priest who was one of my high school teachers.
Since most draft boards were not granting Catholics C.O. status, I was sure that I would be convicted and jailed. Fortunately, I was spared that fate since the war was winding down and I was reclassified and put "on hold."
Today we have the opportunity to oppose war, to object in conscience, to the incessant build-up of military budgets and weapons of mass destruction while other expenditures that reduce poverty, help the least among us, and promote human dignity are constantly being threatened.
On Blessed Franz Jagerstatter's feast day, perhaps we need to reflect on his words from prison: "Now anyone who is able to fight for both kingdoms (of God and State) and stay in good standing in both communities ... such a man, in my opinion, would have to be a great magician. I for one cannot do so."
I'm not sure any of us can.