The man who stood alone
His name was Franz Jaeggerstaetter but you will not find it in any “Who’s Who’ in the world. He was what would be called a ‘small Austrian farmer’ with a wife and two young children, and when Hitler united Austria to Germany by force in the ‘Anschluss’ of March 1938, he was probably in his early thirties. Franz had only grade school education but he was a man of high intelligence and strict moral principles. He had read and heard the speeches of the Fuhrer; he had studied the Nazi philosophy and he found it impossible to reconcile that philosophy with his Christian convictions. He had come to a very definite decision. Nazism was an immoral code; Hitler was an immoral man; Franz Jaeggerstaetter would never submit to Hitler or his henchmen.
From the time Hitler entered Austria in triumph in 1938, Franz made no secret of his opposition to the Nazi regime. When hail destroyed the crops in the area, including his own, the Government, in order to gain favor with the people, provided disaster relief. Franz refused to accept handouts from the Nazis. Up to 1943 his open contempt for the Nazis was not considered serious as it was confined to his own friends in his native village. (He was popular with the villagers and did not have any enemies.) But in February 1943 everything changed drastically.
An edict was issued that every able-bodied man must join Hitler’s army. When his turn came to be registered in the army, Franz simply said, ” No, I won’t join.” His friends asked him why. He replied, “My conscience will not allow me.” He was advised to talk to his parish priest and the priest explained the difference, in moral theology, between “formal” and “material” cooperation in evil. He told Franz that it would not be wrong to join Hitler’s army as he did not intend to do evil and the consequences if he refused, execution, were so dire that he would morally be excused for doing so.
Franz prayed about it and thought about it, but his conscience remained the same. He would not join. It was the function of the men of the village council to implement the order to join the army, and they told Franz if he joined they would put him in the Medical Corps, so that he would not have to do any killing, but simply look after the wounded. He made his position very clear. ” If I put on the Nazi army uniform, I would be pretending to agree with Hitler and his policies. I don’t, so it would be a lie in action.”
They got a lawyer to try to convince him of his foolishness. The lawyer asked him: “Franz, has any German or Austrian bishop in a pastoral letter called on Catholics to refuse to join the army or support the war?” “Not that I know of,” responded Franz. “And there are millions of other German and Austrian Catholics who are joining up with no problem of conscience, so what makes you so different?” Franz’s answer was again simple and uncomplicated. He said, ” I guess they don’t have the grace to see it as I do, but I do have the grace and my conscience tells me I cannot join.”
Franz Jaeggerstaetter was executed as a traitor on August 9, 1943 – a solitary witness to truth!
All this seems so very far away from us both in time and space that we might see very little practical connection between the problem which Franz faced and any personal situation of our own. But let’s make a few changes in the actors, the details and the year. It is 1983 and you are a builder or an electrician or an engineer. Your company gives you the job of working on a new clinic. When you have studied the plans and asked a few questions, you find it is to be an abortion clinic. What would you do? To refuse to cooperate would mean losing your job. A moral theologian would probably advise you that, under the circumstances, you could go ahead and build this house of death. After all, you are not going to perform any abortions. And of course you would never do such a thing! But just building the clinic in which others will deal out death to unborn babies, well, that’s different, or is it? If you could call Franz on the phone, what would his answer be?
We could apply the same principle to countless situations germane to the abortion issue, don’t compromise with evil even on the periphery! I think it is the Ojibwas Indians who have this wonderful saying in their folklore, “Cowards walk in crowds; the brave in single file.” Think about it!