by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
With all that has been written recently about the importance of conscience and conscience protections in our laws and public policies, I thought it timely to recall heroic examples of fidelity to conscience.
One could choose any martyr as an example of paying the ultimate price for being true to one’s conscience.
Perhaps the most famous example of this, at least in the English speaking world, is St. Thomas More. Thomas More was the second most powerful man in England as lord chancellor, when Henry VIII wanted to divorce
his wife Catherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. When the church refused to sanction his desires, Henry VIII declared himself to be the head of
the church in England and required everyone to take an oath of supremacy, acknowledging Henry VIII as the supreme head of the church in England.
Although almost every noble and bishop succumbed to the king’s pressure, Thomas More refused to take the oath.
In a biography by his son-in-law William Roper, we have a firsthand ac- count of the pressure that his own family put on Thomas More to swear to the oath. Thomas More, despite his deep love for his family and his desire to spend more years with them, refused to swear before God falsely on a matter of such importance.
In the play, “A Man for All Sea- sons,” there is a famous scene in which Thomas More encounters his friend, the Duke of Norfolk. The duke asks Thomas More just to sign the oath for “fellowship sake.” After all, Norfolk and so many of his other associates at court had already signed. Thomas More asks Norfolk, when they both stand before God at the judgment with More being sent to hell for betraying his conscience, will the duke accompany him for “fellowship sake”?
A less well-known but more recent martyr for conscience is a 20th-century Austrian by the name of Franz Jaegerstaetter. I became aware of this modern martyr through the Little Sisters of the Lamb. Near the beginning of each year, it is the custom in the Community of the Lamb to draw by lot a particular saint with whom they strive to cultivate a special devotion throughout the year. They invited me to participate. The saint I received was Franz Jaegerstaetter.
He was born in 1907 in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. Franz, though receiving a minimal formal education, was very intelligent and well-read. In his early manhood, he wandered from his faith and failed to live a moral life. In fact, he fathered a child out of wedlock, when that was not as common an occurrence as it is today.
At the age of 27, he had a profound conversion. He began reading the Bible daily. His neighbors, who formerly criticized Franz for his rebellious and immoral behavior, now were wary of his public devotion. Franz began to frequent daily Mass and could be seen kneeling in prayer in the fields.
In 1936, Franz married a very devout young woman, Franziska Schwaninger. The couple had four daughters. Franz was a devoted father who adored his children.
In March 1938, Hitler invaded and annexed Austria. A month later, Austrians went to the polls and approved the German takeover almost unanimously. Franz Jaegerstaetter was the only one in his village to vote against the an- nexation.
Franz was horrified at the many evils of the Nazi philosophy — for example, the policy of euthanasia for people with disabilities. The friends and family of Franz became nervous because they knew the penalty for opposition to the Nazis. The priests from whom he sought advice reminded him of his duty to his family. Franz responded: “I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God.”
Others argued for his duty to his country and stressed his responsibility to obey legitimate authorities. It is those in authority who are to be judged for their decisions, they said, and not ordinary citizens. Franz rejected these arguments, too. It seemed as if he stood alone in his community.
For a while, for the sake of the family, Franziska also opposed his risking his life by opposing the Nazis.
However, eventually she became a firm supporter, and practically his only sup- porter, for his commitment to be true to his conscience.
In 1943, when he was called to serve in active military duty for the Nazi government, Franz refused and was immediately imprisoned. On Aug. 9, 1943, Franz Jaegerstaetter was be- headed at the age of 37. That afternoon at 4 p.m., Franziska felt an intense personal communion with her husband that was so strong she marked it in her journal. Much later, she found that he had died at that exact moment.
On Oct. 26, 2007, Franziska, then 94, had the joy of witnessing a glorious ending to her husband’s story. She and all four of Franz’s daughters were pres- ent in Rome to witness Pope Benedict XVI beatify their husband and father.
I am very grateful to the Little Sisters of the Lamb for giving me Franz Jaegerstaetter as a special patron this year. I cannot imagine a better friend to have at this moment interceding for me in heaven.
These profiles of courage are beautiful examples of fidelity to conscience and make clear to us it is not sufficient for the Christian to “just go along to get along.” We cannot simply compromise our conscience because others choose to violate theirs.
Engaged, as we are, in this struggle to protect religious liberty and the rights of conscience, we would do well to invoke the intercession of St. Thomas More and Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter. We should invite them to pray with us asking the Holy Spirit to renew in our hearts his gift of fortitude so that we will have the courage to stand strong and remain faithful to the truth, no matter how intense the pressure of those in power or how disparaging the disapproval of many of the cultural elite. St. Thomas More and Blessed Franz Jaegerstaetter, pray for us!