A draft-dodging martyr?

In June, Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree of martyrdom for Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian farmer who was beheaded on Aug. 9, 1943 for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army. That means that the Church recognizes that he died for the faith, and his beatification is now set for Oct. 26, 2007 in Linz. (The Church does not require a miracle for the beatification of martyrs, as it does for those who have lived a life of heroic virtue--people like Cardinal Newman, for example, whose cause is pending.)

Franz, who was married with three young daughters, had been drafted to serve in the Wehrmacht, the German army during the Nazi era. He considered it wrong and against his Catholic faith to serve the Nazi cause in any way, and particularly in its war of aggression that goes by the name of World War II. Interestingly, Catholic priests and his bishop had all urged him to serve, the bishop even going so far as to say it was his duty.

He wrote: “Just as the man who thinks only of this world does everything possible to make life easier and better, so must we, too, who believe in the eternal kingdom, risk everything in order to receive a great reward there. Just as those who believe in National Socialism tell themselves that their struggle is for survival, so must we, too, convince ourselves that our struggle is for the eternal kingdom. But with this difference: We need no rifles or pistols for our battle, but instead, spiritual weapons--and the formeost among these is prayer...Through prayer, we continually implore new grace from God, since without God’s help and grace it would be impossible for us to preserve the Faith and be true to His commandments ... . Let us love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us. For love will conquer and will endure for all eternity. And happy are those who live and die in God’s love.”

Basically, people urged this conscientious objector to serve in the military because it was required by governmental authority (but governments cannot legitimately demand that people violate their upright consciences), and out of a sense of duty to his family. Here’s what he wrote from his prison cell: “Again and again, people stress the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children. But I can not believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God by lying (not to mention all the other things he would be called upon to do). Did not Christ Himself say ‘He who loves father, mother, or children more than Me is not deserving of my love?’ or ‘Fear not those who can kill the body but not the soul: rather fear much more those who seek to destroy body and soul in hell.’”

St. Thomas More faced a similar choice whether to follow his conscience or his government, which was demanding something that violated his conscience and his faith (in his case, swearing that Henry VIII was the Supreme Head of the Church in England, thus denying the primacy of the pope). He too died as a martyr, as a witness to the faith, even at the cost of his life, leaving behind a widow and children.

Hopefully, of course, following our conscience and being true to the faith will not require of us the supreme sacrifice of our lives. But the example of our Lord, and St. Stephen whose feast is the day after the Christmas, and St. Thomas More, and soon-to-be-Blessed Franz Jagerstatter are there to remind us that we must be true to God and conscience, no matter what the price. “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

Father Jochmann was the prison chaplain in Berlin who saw Jagerstatter the day of his execution.. Robert Royal writes that Father Jochmann observed the prisoner to be calm and uncomplaining. Indeed, Father Jochmann later said of Franz: “I can say with certainty that this simple man is the only saint I have ever met in my lifetime.”

Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.