Issue Date: December 21, 2007
By MICHAEL TRUE
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 Hitlers 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 Hitlers Wars, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote, In the formation of our will to resist legitimized murder, Gordon Zahns 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 Hitlers war. Jägerstätter was beatified in a ceremony in Linz, Austria, in October (NCR, Nov. 9). Without Zahns work, one can hardly imagine the publication of the American bishops, The Challenge of Peace: Gods 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 letters 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 Mertons 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 Zahns 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 Gordons 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 Alzheimers 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. Johns 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. Zahns 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. Johns University campus. Having arrived that summer evening in time for his traditional martini, Zahn was Powers equal as raconteur, their repartee worthy of Dr. Johnsons 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 Zahns 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).
National Catholic Reporter, December 21, 2007
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