Jägerstätter left behind a widow and 3 small daughters. Both his priest and his bishop had urged him to give up his conscientious objection, and join the army. His sacrifice was uniformly regarded as foolish by his neighbors, and his story was known to but a handful of people for almost 2 decades.
In the early 1960’s, an American intellectual, Gordon Zahn was researching the Catholic response to Hitler and came across the story of Jägerstätter. He wrote a book: In Solitary Witness.
But for this book, we would not know the story of Franz Jägerstätter, who is now a candidate for beatification.
The book came to Merton’s attention, and he wrote an essay, “An Enemy of the State”, commenting on Jägerstätter’s life, conscientious objection, and the role of religion in military matters and war. Jägerstätter’s own bishop had judged his conscience to be “in error”, but “in good faith”, and that the priests and seminarians who died in Hitler's armies “firm in the conviction that they were following the will of God” to be following “a clear and correct conscience.”
Merton, while conceding that whose conscience was erroneous and whose was correct could ultimately only be decided by God, says that the real question raised by the Jägerstätter story is not merely that of the individual Catholic’s right to conscientious objection but the question of the Church’s own mission of protest and prophecy in the gravest spiritual crisis man has ever known.
Merton’s essay includes an impressive meditation from Franz Jägerstätter in which he intuits that his refusal to fight is not a private matter, but concerns the historical predicament of the Catholic Church in the 20th century:
“The situation in which we Christians of Germany find ourselves today is much more bewildering than that faced by the Christians of the early centuries at the time of their bloodiest persecution … We are not dealing with a small matter, but the great (apocalyptic) life and death struggle has already begun. Yet in the midst of it there are many who still go on living their lives as though nothing had changed … That we Catholics must make ourselves told of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something that I cannot and never will believe … Many actually believe quite simply that things have to be the way they are. If this should happen to mean that they are obliged to commit injustice, then they believe that others are responsible. … I am convinced that it is still best that I speak the truth even though it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded him by his secular ruler. We need no rifles or pistols for our batte, but instead spiritual weapons, - and the foremost of these is prayer.”[“Franziska and Franz Jägerstätter” is a wonderful essay by John Dear, recounting his meeting with Franziska Jägerstätter (Franz’s widow) in 1997. It is online here.]