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Issue Date:  December 21, 2007

Gordon Zahn
A giant of Catholic nonviolence dies


“My subject is war -- and the immorality of war.”

Gordon Zahn wrote that, with acknowledgement that he was paraphrasing “the great war poet Wilfred Owen,” in the forward to a 1967 book, War, Conscience and Dissent.

Although other writers are better known, Zahn is among the most important figures in Catholic social thought in recent history. And for most of his life, his subject was war and the immorality of war. Two early books, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars: A Study in Social Control (1962) and In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter (1964), confirm his place among major influences, including Dorothy Day, Michael Harrington and Thomas Merton. In a preface to the 1969 paperback edition of German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote, “In the formation of our will to resist legitimized murder, Gordon Zahn’s book had a major influence.”

Had it not been for him, we might never have known about Franz Jägerstätter, a martyr to his faith for refusing to participate in Hitler’s war. Jägerstätter was beatified in a ceremony in Linz, Austria, in October (NCR, Nov. 9). Without Zahn’s work, one can hardly imagine the publication of the American bishops, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response” in 1983. There, for the first time in Catholic history, nonviolence received equal billing with the just war tradition. The pastoral letter’s foundation, acknowledged in its footnotes, was the scholarship and research by Zahn.

Other writings important to many of us are his characteristically thoughtful 50-page introduction to Thomas Merton’s The Nonviolent Alternative (1974), a major text in the history of nonviolence, and Another Part of the War: The Camp Simon Story (1979). The latter was Zahn’s often witty account of his days as a conscientious objector in a Civilian Public Service camp from 1942 to 1945. Although his compatriots in the camp often had close ties with the Catholic Worker Movement, they also included reactionary followers of Fr. Charles E. Coughlin, the flamboyant and controversial “radio priest” of the 1920s and ’30s. And the author makes no attempt to hide the personal foibles, the flaws and inconsistencies of the participants, including several who resented the “unwarranted intrusion” of Catholics among the group.

Zahn called Camp Simon “the first corporate witness against war and military service in the history of American Catholicism” and rightly regarded it as a veritable farm club for the later “great Catholic conspiracy against the Vietnam War.” Another Part of the War accurately renders Gordon’s charm and goodness, qualities that were evident in our first meeting in 1965 and our various associations during his years in Boston. Eventually, he returned to his hometown, Milwaukee, where he died Dec. 9 of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 89.

Born a Catholic there in 1918, Gordon regarded his education in public schools as a factor in his commitment to pacifism and his draft refusal. “After all, had I been exposed to a parochial school training and education” -- at some hot-shot Jesuit academy, for example -- “chances are good that I would have gone off to war like most of their other products.” Although a priest on the Milwaukee Draft Board told him “that it was impossible for a Catholic to be a conscientious objector,” he appealed the ruling and received a CO classification. The cross-country trip to a CO camp in New Hampshire was the longest trip from home the 24-year-old had taken at that point in his life.

After World War II ended, Gordon enrolled at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where his pacifism provoked arguments with monks who had served as military chaplains and with veterans among the students. Transferring after his freshman year, he graduated from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Is it mere coincidence that his alma mater now harbors one of the best programs in peace and conflict studies in the United States?

Zahn went on to The Catholic University of America, where he completed a doctorate in sociology, studying with Fr. Paul Hanley Furfey. He spent his professional career as teacher, scholar and sociologist, at Loyola University, Chicago, and from 1965 until his retirement in 1983 at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

During those years, in addition to writing books and essays for Commonweal and other publications, he lectured widely, directed the Pax Christi Center for Law and Conscience in Cambridge, Mass., and cofounded Pax Christi USA. At colleges, universities and conferences, his commentary sometimes followed a presentation of the powerful German film, “The Refusal,” based on his biography of Jägerstätter. Referring to the Austrian martyr, James Harney, a young seminarian, war resister and member of the Milwaukee 14, said that Jägerstätter offered “courage to men who oppose a tradition of just war ... which lauds the marriage between church and state.” Zahn’s writings were often cited by young men refusing military service on religious grounds.

War or Peace? The Search for New Answers, edited by Thomas A. Shannon (1980), includes informed discussions of and fitting tributes to Zahn by, among others, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Eileen Egan, a noted Catholic pacifist with whom Zahn founded Pax Christi USA. Egan died in 2000. In an afterword to that collection, Zahn described the changing perspective on Christian pacifism reflected in testimonies and documents by Catholics during the 1960s and ’70s, as well as the bishops’ pastoral. “Twenty years ago, few Catholic writers would have given serious thought to nonviolence as a possible alternative to war.” Conscientious objection “had been all but condemned by Pius XII in his 1956 Christmas message,” Zahn said. Now, he continued, “individual bishops have appeared before courts and draft boards to plead the cause of conscientious objectors and war resisters.”

Although the present state of Catholic social thought is less vital than it was 20 years ago, Zahn contributed to our more sophisticated understanding of nonviolence, as well as to the growth and development of peace studies in the United States and elsewhere.

For a man whose stature is assured in the history of Catholic social thought, Gordon Zahn wore his learning lightly, remaining modest and unassuming throughout his life. He was a great teacher, as well as a good companion, with a marvelous sense of humor. The setting for one of my fondest memories of him was in the home of his old friends Betty Wahl and J.F. Powers, near the St. John’s University campus. Having arrived that summer evening in time for his traditional martini, Zahn was Powers’ equal as raconteur, their repartee worthy of Dr. Johnson’s circle. If only, if only, Boswell had been there to record it. Although we have no record of that meeting, we fortunately have Powers’ incomparable fiction, as well as Zahn’s memoir and invaluable moral insight.

Michael True, emeritus professor, Assumption College, is the author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995).

The ‘culmination’ of Zahn’s work: Blessed Franz

While Gordon Zahn, in his writing and his activism, is widely considered one of the most influential shapers of social thought in the modern U.S. Catholic church, his most recognized achievement is likely the biography of Franz Jägerstätter, the simple Austrian farmer who defied the Nazis on religious grounds. Jägerstätter refused to join the German Army because he believed it would mean fighting “an unjust war.”

He was a lone voice, as suggested in the title of Zahn’s work on Jägerstätter: Solitary Witness.

Zahn himself considered his efforts on behalf of making Jägerstätter known to the world his most important life’s work, according to his close friend and assistant Michael Hovey, now director of the office for Catholic social teaching in the Detroit archdiocese.

In October, Hovey told a gathering of international Pax Christi members in Austria that the beatification ceremony the following day “was the culmination of Gordon’s work. For many years, the peace movement in the U.S. has been marginalized. We are not respected and we are made to feel that it is not truly Catholic to oppose war. We now have no apologies to make to anyone. We have Blessed Franz as our model” (NCR, Nov. 9).

In a phone interview Dec. 10, Hovey spoke of the uncanny circumstances in the timing of Zahn’s death. Zahn had suffered from Alzheimer’s for years, said Hovey, and was unable, in the latter stages, to communicate. But Hovey said longtime friends and caregivers told him that when they read him a letter announcing the beatification, Zahn briefly raised his head and gasped. No one knows, of course, whether that was an acknowledgment. “A week after he was told of the beatification, he entered hospice, and he died six weeks later,” said Hovey, who worked as Zahn’s assistant for seven years at the Pax Christi Center for War and Conscience in Cambridge, Mass.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007

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