Standing for religious freedom
By Tom Grenchik
The recent death of Franziska Jägerstätter at the wonderful age of 100, and the various reflections on her life, reminded me of the loneliness she endured as the ostracized widow of a martyr. While many are now singing the praises of the Jägerstätter family, that was not always the case.
In 1943, Franziska’s husband Franz was imprisoned and condemned to death for his refusal to serve in the German army. A military court rejected his claim that he could not be a Catholic and go to war to serve a Nazi regime. Franz realized quite clearly that he was not only putting his own life on the line, but also putting his family at great risk by standing up for his conscience rights and religious freedom, choosing to follow Christ rather than act against his Catholic faith.
While he was in prison, many colleagues tried to persuade him to “see reason” and recant his position. Friends, family members, even clergy, encouraged him to agree to serve in what he believed was an unjust and immoral war. They constantly reminded him of his obligations to his wife, children, family farm, and even his community.
While Franz suffered greatly in prison, knowing that his stance would eventually lead to his execution, Franziska was agonizing back home, knowing that she would soon lose her loving husband and that their three young daughters would soon lose their father. With little help, she had to work the family farm while being shunned by neighbors and relatives for “not doing enough” to convince her husband to change his mind. Many in the village were concerned that his personal stand for religious freedom could endanger their entire community.
The contempt for the Jägerstätter family did not end with his beheading in August of 1943. Franziska continued to be shunned by neighbors. When other widows who lost husbands in the war received some government assistance, Franziska did not. Any subsidies to struggling farms were only given to compliant farmers. The Jägerstätters did not qualify for any coupons for clothing or shoes. Fellow villagers were afraid to lend support, for fear that they would be seen as encouraging conscientious objection. The family continued to be disregarded for decades after the war.
Though his witness may not have been appreciated in his own time and by his own people, Franz Jägerstätter was beatified in 2007, with his family present. The beatification homily noted that Blessed Franz Jägerstätter's witness remains a challenge and an encouragement to all the faithful who seek to live their faith with coherence and radical commitment, even accepting extreme consequences if necessary. Franziska most certainly continued to embrace the cross, for many years after Franz’s martyrdom.
Standing for religious freedom may not always require martyrdom. But it is nonetheless often unpopular and accompanied by suffering.
The U.S. Bishops, many religious non-profits and many individual business owners have taken an unpopular stand for religious freedom in our time. They are opposing a federal mandate that seeks to force people of conscience to facilitate insurance coverage of sterilization, contraception, and abortifacient drugs, and to force the employees of Catholic agencies to accept coverage for themselves and their children that violates their Church’s teaching on respect for human life. And this principled position certainly has its ramifications for business owners who want to survive financially and for Catholic agencies and programs who want to continue to fulfill their missions, while also caring for their employees.
The stakes are high. That is why the bishops have called for a nationwide effort to advance a movement for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty through prayer, penance, and sacrifice. In response to current challenges to rights of conscience, the bishops have also launched a nationwide postcard campaign, Project Life and Liberty. It seeks to ensure that taxpayers are not forced to subsidize abortion, and that Catholic (and other) individuals and institutions are not forced to violate their moral and religious convictions when they provide or purchase health care or provide assistance to people in need. As a Church, and along with all people of good will, we need to commit ourselves to the prayer, penance, sacrifice and action that will change public attitudes and government policy. To join the effort, go to www.usccb.org/postcards.
Tom Grenchik is Executive Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Go to www.usccb.org/prolife to learn more about the bishops’ pro-life activities.
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