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Father Muench Says...

Living with a well-formed conscience

Oct. 25, 2017

By Father William Muench
NCC columnist

Recently, I discovered a new saint – new to me anyway.  I was wandering through some of the you-tube videos on my computer and came upon the life story of Franz Jaegerstaeter. Jaegerstaeter was condemned to death and executed by the Nazis in 1943 at the age of 36 for refusing induction into the Nazi army and was beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI – Franz

Franz Jaegerstaeter lived his life in a town in Upper Austria. The German government had invaded and ruled over Austria, demanding the men of Austria to be inducted into the Nazi army.   Jaegerstaeter was married and had three daughters.  The story goes that although he underwent basic military training, he received an exemption from involvement in the military because he was a father and farmer.  During that time he was the sacristan at the parish church and a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.

In 1943, that exemption was removed.  He was formerly inducted into the Nazi army but he refused induction claiming to be a conscientious objector.  He considered the war and the Nazi cause to be morally unacceptable.  He was arrested.  He was executed.  He was truly a martyr.

Franz’s story was not recognized until years later.  Now many have learned of him and written about him.  One witness to his life and sanctity was his wife, Franzista, who lived many years after Franz’s death until the age of 90.

Following conscience – we, Christians, trust in the notion of conscience.  The Catholic Catechism for Adults reminds us: “The formation of a good conscience is another fundamental element of Christian moral teaching.  Conscience is a judgment of reason by which the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act.”
We are referred back to the Second Vatican Council. In the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), there is a section on the Dignity of Moral Conscience (16).

This document helps us to understand more about conscience.  “The voice of conscience calls all to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells all inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun this.”  We all have in our heart in our heart a law inscribed by God.  St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans: “They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts.”

Franz Jaegerstaeter was challenged by the call of conscience.  He could have lied to the Nazis and served in the army.  This could have saved his life but he chose to follow his conscience.

“Gaudium et Spes” goes on to say: “Hence, the more a correct conscience prevails, the more do persons and groups turn aside from blind chance and try to be guided by the objective standards of moral conduct.”
I decided to use the story of Franz Jaegerstaeter on the Sunday when the Gospel was about – “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

In that Gospel story, the Pharisees ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” to test Jesus – if he says the tax to Caesar was lawful – the Hebrew people would be upset with Jesus.  If he considers it not lawful, the Romans would react against Jesus.  So, he cleverly says: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Christians are citizens of the country in which they live.  They owe the fact that they are able to life in peace and security too its forces of law and order.  Christians are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. To it they owe certain other privileges and to it they also have obligations.

Christians can sometimes be faced with a real dilemma – how to be a Christian in a secular world when the laws may often be unchristian.  True Christians will strive to be good citizens of their country and at the same time good citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.  They will fail neither in their duty to God nor to their fellow men and women.  But as Christians our first and deepest loyalty is to God.  Our well-formed conscience must be our guide.

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