Pope Benedict's Surprise

March 2009By James M. Thunder

James M. Thunder, a Washington, D.C., lawyer, was introduced to the story of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame.

George Weigel has said that Pope Benedict XVI has been full of surprises. Just before Benedict arrived in the United States in April 2008, another observer, Fr. Raymond DeSouza, wondered whether Benedict would say or do anything that would surprise us as much as several other apparent "mistakes" he had made during his three-year papacy. Fr. DeSouza's list of "mistakes" or "surprises" did not include the decree Benedict issued on June 1, 2007. This decree was indeed a surprise, and it is equally surprising that, in the ensuing year-plus, there has been precious little analysis of the import of this decree in light of world events.

On June 1, 2007, Benedict declared that Franz Jagerstatter had been a martyr for the Catholic faith. It was one of several papal actions on June 1 announced in a June 3, 2007, Vatican press release. The announcement simply stated that Jagerstatter was "an Austrian peasant who was guillotined in Berlin in 1943 for having refused any collaboration with the Nazis. He was 36, a husband and a father of three."

Taken at face value, this decree appeared to be just another routine example of a pope making a ruling concerning the beatification or canonization of a Catholic. Outside observers might ask: Wasn't Jagerstatter just another man among the millions killed during the Nazi era? Wasn't it obvious to Jagerstatter's contemporaries who had half a brain that the war the Nazis waged was grievously wrong? No and no.

Benedict's decree allowed Jagerstatter, a native of St. Radegund, Austria, to be declared a "blessed," one step short of a canonized saint. He was declared blessed in a ceremony on October 26, 2007. It was surrounding this event in October -- not the decree in June -- that some short biographical sketches of Franz appeared in the Catholic and secular press. Franz was clearly a devout Catholic -- he was a sacristan who attended daily Mass -- but no sketch answered the question of why his refusal to collaborate with the Nazis was a distinctively Catholic thing to do, meriting the appellation "martyr" for the Catholic faith. After all, the Nazis did not generally arrest or execute Catholics. Indeed, Franz himself was not arrested until he presented himself to military authorities, as he was ordered to do, and refused service.

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So am I to refuse to have "even a minor role in destroying innocent human life" by refusing to pay my taxes to the Obama administration, or am I rather to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's" according to the command of Our Lord? I ask this in all sincerity, because I honestly am having trouble reconciling this principle cited by the author with reality.

Mr. Jagerstatter was called to serve in the German Army, not necessarily to load Jews into ovens. He would likely have been a simple rifleman, an occupation never condemned by Christ. Shouldn't his refusal have waited until he was ordered to actually do something immoral?

Ah, you say, but the Germans' war was itself and in toto immoral. It was an unjust war of aggression waged against Germany's peaceful neighbors and all of Europe. Ok then, and what exactly were the Romans' intentions when *they* designed to spread their influence across Europe and the Mediterranean by force? Were they not doing the same thing, and weren't they just as brutal in their methods (does "crucifixion" ring a bell?)? Why, then, was not the Centurion in the Gospel admonished by Christ for having abetted so infamous an enterprise?

The author uses the word "collaborate" to characterize what would have been Mr. Jagerstatter's relationship to the German army had he enlisted. Does the author really mean to suggest that privates in the American army are "collaborators" with the generals in the Pentagon and the politicians in the White House? Hypothetically, if those politicians authorize the firebombing of a city of innocent civilians in which the private takes no part, is he guilty of "collaboration" in that act? I tend to think not. That is just hyperbole.

I have no insight into the state of Mr. Jagerstatter's soul, nor am I meaning to belittle him or question his motives. He may well have been an utterly holy and virtuous man. But Benedict's justifications, as well as the thrust of this article, raise many more questions in my mind than they answer. Unless the Pope is arguing for the moral superiority of simple pacifism (as a universally applicable principle), his argument just doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
Posted by: jnewl
March 10, 2009 05:09 AM EDT
Ok, having rattled on so at length, I think I now understand the argument. It seems that Pope Benedict is not condemning those who enlisted and served in the German army, but rather praising those who refused to serve as having chosen the "better way." This doesn't resolve all the questions, but it does make some sense of the article. Posted by: jnewl
March 10, 2009 05:33 AM EDT
It is not a question of the "state of Mr. J's soul" or condemning this or that position on the War. Rather, it is quite simple - Bl. J. used his free will and understanding, and took a stand in accord with it. JPII and BXVI have each been hugely supportive of being "responsible". Bl. J's heroic virtue was self-evident. Clearly he loved God more than his own life. Would that we were all so responsible. Without any threat to life, many Catholics today are not even willing to risk giving life to children, as "responsible" parents are supposed to. "Responsible" is a weighty word indeed, and there are many who wish to side-step its implications. Our hindsight lets us judge the NAZI War. I wish I were sure what I would have done in the confused tenor of the times, but Bl. J decided and took the consequences. A great Saint, I think. Posted by: benbernie
March 17, 2009 01:14 PM EDT
We are given a free will and a responsibility to develop an informed conscience. To that end, we all know right from wrong as we develop in knowledge and conscience. In the context of a consciencist objector, he would be seen as a traitor and coward by his fellow citizens (unless, of course, they all were against the war also). Either way, as a Catholic, he was compelled to act according to his conscience. The soldier, typically, is a young man for whom such a weighty analysis (as opposed to being ready to support and defend your country) and decision is mostly considered after the fact. I often wondered, as a young college grad and Ensign in the USN, what I would have done if faced with an order of moral implication. Would I have recognized it? Would I have refused? (I did refuse an order that was wrong but that's another story)
Similarly, today, many people of Catholic upbringing voted for President Obama. They know, (or should have known and had plenty of opportunity to know) that they could not, in good conscience, vote for him. They did so and are now complicit in his pro-abortion actions. Some, well educated, individuals used their education to spin a rationale as an excuse which doesn't release them from their culpability. It's not education but the forming of conscience that matters.
Posted by: awunsch
April 06, 2009 12:11 PM EDT
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