Category Archives: War and Peace

The Catholic China Syndrome

You probably have heard of Trump Derangement Syndrome. Well there is another syndrome out there.  It’s called China Derangement Syndrome and it is infecting many good faithful Catholics in a big way. It has reached new extremes since the pandemic began.

This syndrome is easy to find among the more conservative, traditionalist Catholic writers on the internet.

Here are some examples:

Blogger John Zmirak:

“If we can verify that China protected its own citizens from this virus, while sending those likely infected all around the world like human bioweapons … that’s an act of war.
And a much more infamous one than Pearl Harbor, in fact. At least that sneak attack targeted soldiers, not old people in nursing homes.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty at National Review Online:

“Incorporating China into the global order was supposed to bring about an internal reform of the Chinese Communist Party and the liberalization of the Chinese state and society. Instead, China has used its access to international institutions to whitewash its behavior, spread propaganda about the competence of its state, corrupt business, and make something as simple as cellphone towers a national-security threat. The Chinese Communist Party has infected global institutions and markets with its amorality and lawlessness. The cure will be tough and costly, but the disease is worse.”

At Church Militant, where they always refer to the virus as the “Wuhan virus:”

“In either case, this nightmare scenario was brought to you by the Chinese Communist Party — emphasis on communists — either engineering a killer virus to control populations, or creating an environment where people are so deprived that eating raw, sometimes live animals, is a necessity.”

At Lifesite News, from a report on a Chinese dissident:

“During last week’s interview Chen issued a stark warning to leaders throughout the world, saying: ‘If free nations do not face the difficult task of deciding how to eradicate communist authoritarianism – a cancer on humanity – they will become its victims.’”

Patrick Coffin interviews retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding:

“A war against the United States and the West has been raging under our noses for decades. This war is by definition covert and has many fronts: military, technological, political, and social.
The problem is so few people know it is being waged. Until now. Retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Spalding, a China expert and former Defense Attache to China in Bejing, China, has written a jaw-dropping book that every American should read. It’s called Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elites Slept.”

Steve Bannon, the brilliant Catholic political strategist, and Steve Mosher, a prominent pro-life Catholic activist, have teamed up with a rogues gallery of anti-China militants to throw down the gauntlet against the CCP at the Committee on the Present Danger: CHINA

The Committee states in its “guiding principles” that:

“The United States is likely to face in the foreseeable future a determined and aggressive superpower adversary, prepared and willing to use force, as well as non-military forms of warfare, to defeat this country decisively. The PRC’s aggressive actions are increasingly putting at risk its own people and environment and that of the rest of the world.”

Bannon himself has said (in March 2016) that

“We’re going to war [with China] in the South China Sea in five to 10 years.”

With all due respect, before these American Catholics devote themselves to “liberating” the Chinese people, they should consider devoting themselves to liberating America and Americans from slavish devotion to violence and militarism, not to mention abortion, divorce, contraception, pornography, same sex “marriage,” man-hating feminism, and now the insane gender ideology. And in doing so perhaps they can stop America from exporting these evils to the rest of the world.

For Catholics, of course, forced abortions in China are a monstrous evil. The China “one child policy” was demonic and the Chinese leaders who imposed it on an unwilling populace will have to answer to God for that. But, God help us, here in America abortion is a “civil right” and people clamor for it and celebrate it. Many Americans, including Catholics, voluntarily collaborate with the abortion regime in numerous ways. What is desperately required here is conversion and repentance. How do the anti-China militants propose to convert Americans from their self-imposed slavery by getting into a war with a nuclear power on the other side of the world?

These folks are doing a great disservice to unborn babies and the pro-life movement in general by associating it with American militarist paranoia and agitating for a potential WWIII with a country which does not threaten us militarily. Communist authoritarianism, although it sure ain’t what it used to be, may be a “cancer on humanity,” but so is a violent, declining and decadent American Empire and it is our cancer and we are responsible for preventing its spread and eliminating it.

The most concise statement on US imperialism I’ve read

“It was only after the planters of the South were defeated in 1865 that the balance of power was decisively transferred to the industrialists and financiers of the North. Once they gained control of the country’s economic development, the rise of the US empire proved unstoppable.” This is from British academic Will Fowler in his book “Latin America since 1780”.

I also recommend his fascinating biography of Santa Anna. All his books can be found here:

In his “Latin America since 1780”, there is great history showing how the revolutionary period in Latin America was partially caused by the Bishops siding with the governments and against the parish priests: “By the time the wars of independence began, a high proportion of leading revolutionaries were priests.” Obviously, at this site, we would never advocate armed revolutions, but parish priests should follow this model and lead the fight against the Bishops lack of leadership and tendency to side with the government.

Trump Derangement Syndrome

I saw this posted on Facebook today. It was posted by a “friend.” In my view, this is the predictable, cumulative effect of the daily “two minutes of hate” being orchestrated by our mainstream media. Very scary. Very sad.


If you are voting trump in November, please unfriend me. It is so unconscionable to me that I’m burning up every day at this point it feels equivalent to being a “friend” of a murderer who is brainwashed and beyond hope of any argument or event or obvious sign changing their mind. The conclusion is foregone because the conclusion is the premise. 

Your vote directly endangers the lives and wellbeing of the people I care about most. It’s not a “political question” anymore; it’s a life and death and basic goodness question. So just hit the unfriend button. I don’t want to talk about it because I believe you are beyond logic and brainwashed by the idiotic twisted plastic sadistic empty headed empty hearted white supremacist misogyny-filled hosts I see on conservative media. I don’t want trolls, I don’t want arguments. I just don’t want to see your posts, and I don’t want you to see mine. 

BECAUSE I’m more furious at conservatives than ever before, than any wrongheaded irrational superior self-righteous crazy inhumane bigotry I’ve seen before. there is no excuse anymore and if you can’t see how evil this man and his administration are, and how much damage they are doing to democracy and to ordinary people like me, I just don’t want to see you on my feed or in my life. Because it means you do not support my wellbeing or the wellbeing of my friends and communities and you do not have basic discernment to recognize that this narcissistic evil idiot is a threat to us all. 

BECAUSE the department of justice, the conservative stacked Supreme Court, now wants to sue state governors for opening when it makes sense for their state’s public health versus when trump says so because he cares more about the DOW and his re-election prospects and encouraging his crazy base than human life? 

AND Every single day I see messages in JP Facebook groups about people losing parents or other loved ones to this disease. It kills me. It scares me. Every day I read about health care workers (like my sister, my close friend’s father, medical professionals I know well who help me get monthly infusions, or medical professionals in my community) who worry about getting adequate PPE and who will not with this administration, or if they do it will be thanks to their governor, who will be vilified for taking any independent action to supply their need (like that poor guy Hogan). 

BECAUSE Trump Is halting all immigration demonstratively including the refugee program, which were already stopped anyway because travel is stopped, but also because he halted the refugee program before this, to rile up his base when travel was already stopped? 

AND I have friends and former students (whether ex pats living abroad, or friends from Iran, or Pakistan, or Western or Eastern Europe) who will directly suffer from travel and immigration bans. 

BECAUSE he is stopping funding to the World Health Organization (and therefore to developing countries that have 11 ventilators total) during a pandemic? 

AND I oriented a refugee (who had been detained by ICE) into his homestay this year and now know that the country he is from, Burkina Faso, is one of many African countries with extremely limited water and health care infrastructure that will suffer in unimaginable ways because of the president’s funding cuts to The World Health Organization, one of the most important actors in global health emergencies. 

BECAUSE he is letting human being stay packed into prisons, homeless shelters, and ICE detention centers.

AND I have friends who have experienced ICE detention, and a penpal new friend in a prison with cases who may get sick, and they are at the bottom of the list of who gets a ventilator. 

BECAUSE this man is endangering media freedom by labeling questions “nasty” or not taking them, labeling new outlets that don’t “yes” him as fake, firing people who don’t agree with him, and in every possible way endangering freedom of press, freedom of speech, academic freedom, freedom of thought, and freedom of critique. 

BECAUSE his Supreme Court is so partisan they would rather support voter suppression by not allowing mail-in voting during a pandemic, because they probably want to justify delaying the election, and further destroying our democracy. 

BECAUSE this administration both tacitly endorses anti-asian sentiment and hate crime and doesn’t do enough to stop it, and since the virus there has been a huge spike in hate crimes and I give this administration some responsibility for that. 

BECAUSE all this shit terrifies and infuriates me. 

BECAUSE close responsible talented friends of mine living month to month are not going to make it through this without reliable government support and instead this administration is giving supposed “small business loans” mostly to the pretty large businesses they are fans of and very vey few people are actually getting these loans, and most of the bail out bill went to corporate giants who would have been relatively fine compared to human beings living month to month. And even if things “start up” again this just means and excuse to not support people financially during the pandemic which essentially means anyone who cannot put themselves or others in their lives at lethal risk will not get either a paycheck or in some cases a backlogged unemployment check or an inaccessible small business loan or another one-time stimulus check… nevermind the students, undocumented people, and other ineligible Americans who need payments or rent and mortgage bans to survive now… “opening” is an excuse for the government to financially do a criminally minimal job of supporting people in an economic situation worse than the Great Depression. This suffering included children. Children of immigrant parents, black children, white middle class children, poor kids, scared kids… and everyone who falls between the cracks the policies forget or knowingly abandon, like those who aren’t eligible for unemployment, or who can’t move right now but can’t pay their rent because unemployment is so much less than they were making before, or who aren’t eligible for disability but still can’t put themselves at risk. 

BECAUSE this administration is destroying environmental protections, and cares more about the oil industry than the fate of life on this planet, and is willing to ignore the facts and allow climate change to progress and the periods of severe climate disasters, flooding of coastal cities, inequality, and diseases will get much much worse unless we take radical climate actions… and that endangers every life on this planet, including the unborn babies you claim to think are more important than the lives and agency and wellbeing of every single living adult. Supporting the oil industry also means supporting the oil industrial and military industrial complexes, which in a very not abstract way, means terror and death for people who are real people with real lives you can’t imagine or choose to ignore. Sanctions do this too; they punish people more than they punish governments. 

BECAUSE this evil demented gertrude stein and evil milktoast / oily snotbag (trump and pence) are misogynistic homophobic transphobic pieces of shit and that structurally and psychologically endangers me and 80% of my closest friends. even if a gay man can run for president and get disgustingly harassed not by trump but only by the ever-disgusting Rush Limbaugh to whom our president gave a medal of freedom, I know this administration especially pence would actively block national adoption rights and other protections for nontraditional families or any other number of policies, which means this country will continue to be built of benefit structures that benefit straight cis people. 

Don’t talk to me about politeness and decency… look at the billboard in your own eye before the speck in ours. is trump ever “decent”? we start dying inside when we lose our capacity for just outrage, to blend an MLK quote with a Rabbi Heshel line. Nancy ripping up a speech is a symbolic act of just outrage because the speech was full of outright lies and propaganda. I wish she had burned it. You know what is NOT a symbolic act of nonviolent resistance? Violent and/or idiotic protesters without masks on spreading disease and the disease of misinformation while conservative commentators perpetuate a comparison to Rosa Parks…. completely re-appropriating and dishonoring her legacy (are you fucking kidding me?) …. and Hilary’s emails? I mean… seriously? does that questionable fumble equate even remotely the open secret, now openly admitted of trump’s scandal which included actually blackmailing a nation and withholding military aid for his own interests? admit the problems with these facts and then talk to me about correctness, politeness, decency, or transparency. Look at trump’s actions… are they humane or based in empathy? Ending the REFUGEE program? trying to limit the FOOD STAMP program? don’t excuse my language when I say: what the Actual fuck. 

his defense’s only recourse to defense was in the argument that ABUSE OF POWER IS NOT AGAINST THE CONSTITUTION. you seriously want that precedent on the books? 

BECAUSE he is allowing his son in law’s company and other friends in big Pharma to build in legal ways to profit off of this disaster instead of guaranteeing accessible treatments and care to all. Because he won’t even let people with NO medical insurance buy it LATE. He wants them to be suddenly hit with 100K in medical bills and no insurance and no way to pay? 

There are about a million more things I could say here and I am furious. And I am watching our country fall apart because of “flu klux clan” protesters and churches suing states and the feds suing the states and the states having no choice but to sue the feds… honestly, I just wish the red states would go make their own country. just go away. no war, just leave. 

I wish the same of trump and his base. 

Dear trump base if I even know any of you (I can’t even think of any friends of mine I’m aware of so this is just in case): I believe you are brainwashed by conservative media and beyond hope of basic rational or basic compassionate argumentation reaching you. 

That has been my experience of trying to have conversations with those who support trump. It looks like total complete beyond hope brain washing to me of previously kind good people. 

So I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to argue. It does no good. The premise is the conclusion and reason and logic and human care went out the window a long time ago on your “side.” 

Trump’s supporters support him no matter what he does, no questions asked, no matter how his message changes, no matter who or what he hurts, or how much death his actions make him directly responsible for. 

Nevermind him being a narcissistic child and sociopathic misogynist asshole with an obvious personality disorder who actually expects governors to Thank and praise him profusely for (not) delivering on extremely basic needs during this crisis then bullies them for getting supplies however they can (because Hogan was to be his republican challenger; so it’s always about his political or financial interests). 

There is no logic that works. He acts like he is not subject to logic, law, or basic empathy. Out of one side of his mouth he pretends to be listening to experts and giving states leniency since every state’s situation is different, out of the other side of his mouth he eggs on protesters and incites those who feel violently toward reasonable people just doing their jobs who are now getting daily death threats because he is doing the opposite of protecting them. 

If you can not see that this man is the most obviously obviously obviously evil awful inhumane anti-empathetic scum bag that has ever walked the face of the earth, please just hit that unfriend button. I have a close friend who stopped talking to a parent because of this… since I do not have parents that support this man, this is my version of that. I would absolutely cut out the closest of family. In the same way I would cut out the closest of family if nazis brainwashed them and took control of their bodies and minds. It is disgusting and intolerable to me to see posts that do not recognize the evil in the powers that be right now and recognizing and standing up to it means protecting me and my friends and my communities, and human beings everywhere, so if you’re going to be in my life, know I need that basic level of human decency and recognition from you.

An Open Letter to LifeSiteNews

Dear LifeSiteNews, 

Thank you for the good and important work that you do. I hope you will today help your readers to recall that March 20 is the 17th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. 

One man, Mark Scibilia-Carver, has created a website and a Scroll of Remembrance, listing all Catholics (or at least those who have had Catholic funerals) who have died in these pre-emptive, unjust, immoral, ill-advised and unnecessary post 9-11 wars.

I did an interview with Mark here:

I understand the desire not to water down the meaning of “pro life” by trying to make it encompass every issue under the sun — I agree with that. But when it comes to people killing other people — especially in unjust, unnecessary, immoral, and pre-emptive wars — I think we can honestly call it a valid pro-life issue.

It is my opinion that the abortion pro-life cause is only hurt when Catholics turn a blind eye to other forms of unjust, systemic, white collar, corporate killing, refusing to speak about it in “conservative” circles, literally pretending that these wars do not exist. It’s a massive blindspot that undermines the pro-life cause. 

This war is the longest in our country’s history, with no end in sight. Just like the atomic bombs — dropped by Christians — were more effective in wiping out Japanese Christianity than hundreds of years of Christian persecution in that country, these wars have done more to wipe out Middle Eastern Christianity than persecution ever could. 

Let’s call to mind those men and women who died in these wars. Will you help? 

God bless.

Ellen Finnigan

Wars of the Papal State

In this week’s podcast, Episode 25, Fr. McCarthy and I discuss the article published a few weeks ago in America magazine called: “The Teaching of the Catholic Church is Clear: We Are Against War.”

Um, really?

There is much to say about that, but for starters, here is a list of wars waged by the papal state from 1563 – 1871.

Wars of the Papal State, until 1563 
Go to narrative history of the Papal State: 1447-1471 . 1471-1503 . 1503-1534 . 1534-1566 

1482-1484 War of Ferrara 
1485-1486  Florentine War of Pope Sixtus IV. 
1494-1495  Neapolitan War 1494-1495 
1499-1504 Franco-Aragonese War over Naples 
1508-1509 War of the League of Cambrai 
1510-1516 War of the Holy League 
1527 Sacco di Roma 
1556-1557  Carafa War, 1556-1557 

Wars of the Papal State 1563-1808 
Go to narrative history of the Papal State 1566-1590 . 1590-1618 . 1618-1660 . 1660-1700 . 1700-1730 . 1730-1758 . 1758-1789 . 1789-1799 . 1799-1809 

1571  Naval Battle of Lepanto (fending off the Ottoman Threat) 
1641-1644 War over Parma 
1660-1664 Franco-Papal War 
1707-1709 Austro-Papal War (War of Spanish Succession 1701-1714
1791  French occupation of Avignon and the Venaissin 
1792-1797  First War of the Coalition, parts of Papal State occupied by the French 
1797-1798 Revolution and French Occupation 
1798 Neapolitan Invasion of the Papal State 
1799-1802 Second War of the Coalition 
1808-1809  Franco-Italian annexation of the Papal State 

Wars of the Papal State 1808-1870 

Go to narrative history of the Papal State 1809-1815 . 1815-1830 . 1830-1849 . 1849-1860 . 1860-1871.

1831 Revolution 
1832-1839 Austrian Occupation of Bologna, French Occupation of Ancona 
Rebellion of Savigno/Imola (Legione Italica) 
1843 Austrian Occupation of Bologna, French Occupation of Ancona 
Rebellion of Savigno/Imola (Legione Italica) 
1845 Revolt of Rimini 
1848-1849 Revolution 
1860-1861 Garibaldi’s Expedition against Sicily 
1867 Invasion of Italian patriots 
1870-1871  Franco-German War 

What about Franz?

Thoughts on conscientious objection and the new film “A Hidden Life”

by Ellen Finnigan

This article was first published at

On November 24 I gave a presentation in the basement of my church in Colorado about two Catholic conscientious objectors. The first was Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer, husband, and father who refused to fight for Hitler during World War II. I was hoping that his witness, memorialized in the upcoming film by Terrence Malick, might be a stepping stone for people to consider the life of Ben Salmon, a Catholic man from Denver who refused to fight in World War I. Jägerstätter has been declared a martyr and “Blessed” in the Catholic Church, which is one step away from being canonized, or declared a saint, and some of us are trying to put Ben Salmon on that same path. President Kennedy once wrote: “War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige as the warrior does today.” By spreading the word about the film A Hidden Life and advocating for Ben Salmon’s cause for sainthood, some American Catholics are trying to bring that day a bit closer. (In case you don’t make it to the end of the article, you can help us by going here, reading about Ben Salmon’s life, and signing the petition!) 

Christ the King

November 24 happened to be the Feast of Christ the King. I was hoping that the priest’s homily would be a good primer for my presentation, pointing out the differences between that which we associate with worldly kingship — wealth, war, servants, subjects, thrones, political power, military might — and the kingship of Christ, the Prince of Peace, who was born in a manger, raised in nowhere Nazareth, rode into Jerusalem on an ass and came to serve rather than to be served. The two kingdoms are not necessarily opposed. As Pope Pius XI writes in his encyclical Quas Primas: “[Christ’s] kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness.” But the Feast Day of Holy Innocents which takes place a few days after Christmas reminds us that they can be opposed and, I would add, most often are: “Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the Wise Men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under…” (Mt 2:16). 

Worldly kingdoms are founded on violence. They are obsessed with counting, spying, surveilling, and keeping track. They demand, for example, that their subjects be accounted for in censuses so that they can tax them or draft them to fight in wars, even if this means a very pregnant woman must ride for for days on a donkey along dangerous, bandit-ridden roads to report to her Roman overlords. The state assumes the power to threaten, intimidate, imprison, torture, bomb, electrocute, assassinate, poison, and in the case of Franz Jägerstätter”, gruesomely behead. In contrast, Cyril of Alexandria writes: “Christ has dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” The Kingdom of Heaven is founded on love. Jesus assures us: “Even the hairs of your head have all been counted” (Lk 12:7). You see God counts too, but not in the same way or for the same purposes.

The feast day of Christ the King was established only relatively recently, in 1925. World War I had ended seven years before and was called “the war to end all wars,” but of course it only planted the seeds for the next one. Franz Jägerstätter had lost his biological father in the Great War. Though he had always had an interest in spiritual reading, he wasn’t yet any kind of Christian radical. In 1925, he was just a seventeen-year-old kid who would soon be working in the mines and earning a badge of honor by being the first person in his village to own a motorcycle. 

In his encyclical of 1925, Pope Pius XI reminds us that the establishment of a new feast day isn’t random but has something to do with the state of the world. At that time nationalism and secularism were on the rise. He writes: “The empire of Christ over all nations was rejected…the religion of Christ came to be likened to false religions…It was then put under the power of the state and tolerated more or less at the whim of princes and rulers. Some men went even further, and wished to set up in the place of God’s religion a natural religion…There were even some nations who thought they could dispense with God…The rebellion of individuals and states against the authority of Christ has produced deplorable consequences.”

He was writing all of this in the year after Lenin died and Stalin came to power, the year Hitler published the first volume of Mein Kampf, and the yearMussolini gave a speech marking the beginning of his dictatorship. Who could have guessed that the kid riding on his motorcycle in the middle of the mountains of nowhere Austria would turn out to be the kind of Catholic the Pope hoped to see, one who, without “station” or “authority” would nonetheless “bear the torch of truth”. He writes:

We firmly hope…that the feast of the Kingship of Christ, which in future will be yearly observed, may hasten the return of society to our loving Savior. It would be the duty of Catholics to do all they can to bring about this happy result. Many of these, however, have neither the station in society nor the authority which should belong to those who bear the torch of truth.This state of things may perhaps be attributed to a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict or oppose but a weak resistance; thus the enemies of the Church become bolder in their attacks. But if the faithful were generally to understand that it behooves them ever to fight courageously under the banner of Christ their King, then, fired with apostolic zeal, they would strive to win over to their Lord those hearts that are bitter and estranged from him, and would valiantly defend his rights.

By 1938, when Germany began the annexation of Austria, Franz had inherited a farm and married a devout Catholic, with whom he’d have three children, and largely because of her influence, he studied the Bible and became active in his village parish. When he was drafted in 1940, he did report to his Nazi overlords and went through six months of military training. That same year he became a member of the Third Order of Saint Francis. In the years following he would no longer cooperate with Hitler and his troops in any fashion. He would not swear an oath to Hitler, nor would he opt for some form of alternative service, such as working in a hospital. In his decision to refuse cooperation with what he believed to be evil, he was not supported by country, community, or church. 

Things Hidden

Standing at the lectern after Mass, I asked how many people had ever heard of Franz. Only one person out of about three hundred raised his hand. This is one reason why Terrence Malick’s film is called A Hidden Life.

“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory” (Col 3:2-4). 

For a long time nobody knew about the heroic resistance of Franz. He was a source of shame to many of those who did.We must ask: Why is Franz still mostly unknown, especially among Catholics, when his story has been out there for decades? Gordon Zahn discovered the story and wrote a book about him called “In Solitary Witness” in 1964. In 1968 Thomas Merton wrote a chapter about him in Faith and Violence, the last book to bepublished before his mysterious death (allegedly by electrocution). Daniel Ellsberg said it was Franz Jägerstätter who inspired him to release the Pentagon papers. (You can hear more about this in an episode of my podcast called “A Friend of Franz and Ben.”) In 1971 the Austrian government produced a film about Franz called The Refusal, which aired on Austrian television. It’s been over thirteen years since Franz was declared a martyr and beatified. 

Granted, there are a lot of saints out there, new ones being canonized all the time, but one would think that in an age when Adolf Hitler has become the “super villain” of the twentieth century, when the History Channel runs an almost continuous stream of content elucidating the sinister activities of the Third Reich, when any suggestion that Christians might be called to be peacemakers instead wagers-of-war is met with the inevitable question “What about Hitler?”, we might have heard something about one of the few Christians who actively resisted him, who was willing to pay the price, the price Jesus said His followers would have to pay. But most of us haven’t. So I didn’t bother asking my parish whether anyone had heard of Ben Salmon. I invited people down for the presentation and yes, coffee and donuts.


A Hidden Life is a stunningly beautiful achievement, one of those films that paralyzes you. When it’s over, you sit there immersed in the music until the last credit has rolled, the lights have been turned on, and a teenager is standing in back with a broom waiting for you to leave. When I left, the manager asked me if I was alright. I nodded and slipped into the restroom. Mascara: everywhere. A woman who also appeared raccoon-like whispered: “That is a movie you never forget.”

“Indeed,” I thought as I blinked my way out into the cold, disoriented. It was like trying to find my car at the airport after a long trip. I had parked so very long ago. 

On the drive home I thought about that kid with the broom, no different essentially from Franz. Will he ride home on his new motorcycle or in his new car with his windows rolled down, loving the feeling of driving at night with nobody on the road? Will he fall in love, get married? What will he do when he turns 18 and has to sign up for the Selective Service? What about when (not if) the wagers-of-war decide to launch the next one, which might be happening as I write this essay, against Iran? Does he go to church? Would his church even talk about the war and any moral dilemma it might pose to Christians or would they just applaud vaguely “all those in uniform” and send them on their way — to kill, to die? Would anyone tell him he could say “no”? Would anyone understand if he did?

Sometimes I think we prefer to attribute the support of Hitler among Christians of that time to, in the words of Pope Pius XI,“a certain slowness and timidity in good people, who are reluctant to engage in conflict.” We assume they must have been ignorant of what was happening or maybe, if they did see the powers of darkness at play, they were simply too weak or fearful to stand up to it. God have mercy on them. But Thomas Merton, in his essay on Franz, presents us with another way of understanding the people of that time: 

“[Franz’s] Austrian Catholic friends understood that he was unwilling to fight for Hitler’s Germany, but they argued that the war was justified because they hoped it would lead to the destruction of Bolshevism and therefore to the preservation of ‘European Christianity.’ He was therefore refusing to defend his faith.” 

What if the Christians in that time and place, instead of being fearful or weak, when they took the oath, trained and enlisted, believed themselves to be, in the words of Pope Pius XI, “fighting courageously under the banner of Christ their King,” “fired with apostolic zeal,” “valiantly defending His rights”? 

How many Christians before Hitler or since then have fought in wars waged by worldly kings because they thought it was justified if it would lead to the defeat of some “-ism,” or because they thought they were fighting the enemies of the Church, or preserving Christianity?

What happened to the priests in Hitler’s Germany? How many Christians existed in the Middle East before September 11, 2001? How many exist there now?

Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth about Christ’s third temptation: “…throughout history [the third temptation] is constantly taking on new forms. The Christian empire attempted at an early stage to use the faith in order to cement political unity. The Kingdom of Christ was now expected to take the form of a political kingdom and its splendor. The powerlessness of faith, the earthly powerlessness of Jesus Christ, was to be given the helping hand of political and military might. This temptation to use power to secure the faith has arisen again and again in varied forms throughout the centuries, and again and again faith has risked being suffocated in the embrace of power. The struggle for the freedom of the church, the struggle to avoid identifying Jesus’ Kingdom with any political structure, is one that has to be fought century after century. For the fusion of faith and political power always comes at a price: faith becomes the servant of power and must bend to its criteria.” 

Interestingly enough, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) actually grew up about an hour from Franz Jägerstätter’s village of St. Radegund, across the Salzach River, in Bavaria. He took the oath that Jägerstätter refused to take and joined Hitler’s youth corps when it became mandatory, but he was only about thirteen at the time. In 1938, Franz was no longer a kid. He was a 31-year-old man. And he thought like a 31-year-old man. By that point in his life, he’d had the time to read the Bible, to get to know Jesus, to grow in his faith. 

The questions Franz asks in the film are so universal they must surely resonate with us, the viewers. In one scene Franz says: 

“We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. And the priests call them heroes, even saints, the soldiers, the doers. It might be that the other ones are the heroes, the ones who defend their homes against the invaders.”

Every U.S. president over the last 28 years has ordered the bombing of Iraq. Something like a million Iraqis have died during the past three decades as a consequence of U.S. occupation, bombings and sanctions. The decision to launch new air strikes recently ignited nationwide resistance by Iraqis who want the U.S. out of their country and do not want Iraq to be used in a U.S. war on Iran. A veteran that I interviewed expressed that he “didn’t see the light on the sinfulness of American militarism and foreign policy until he was an active participant in it, while wearing a US Army uniform in Kuwait in 2009 and being told the Kuwaitis no longer thank us for our service.”

At one point Franz asks: Does it even matter if this war is just?

Many of us ask this question today! One of the tenets of a “just war” is that it must be waged by proper authority. There has been no declaration of war by Congress since the Korean War! My fellow blogger noted that in the November issue of Columbia magazine, published by the Knights of Columbus, they dedicated a whole article to a Navy SEAL who was a recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service in Afghanistan. My fellow blogger writes: “The Knights did not delve deeper on the morality and justness of the war in Afghanistan, especially after Osama bin Laden was killed…which is when the events occurred for this sailor to receive the award.” Even if the Knights had published the article a month later, after the release of “The Afghanistan Papers,” I doubt they would have acknowledged this sticky point. In the words of Caitlin Johnstone:  “from the very beginning [Afghanistan] was an unwinnable conflict, initiated in a region nobody understood, without anyone being able to so much as articulate what victory would even look like.…” But that wasn’t exactly a bombshell. Everybody already knew this! There was no “reasonable chance of success” from the beginning, and that too is a tenet of the Just War Theory that must be “strictly applied.” I’m with Franz in thinking: Does the question of whether a war is just even matter to most Catholics? 

The questions Franz asks in the film, however, about just war, do not seem meant to challenge the beliefs of his his neighbors and friends, or to condemn them; rather they show that he is puzzling out the issue for himself. He did not believe Germany’s was a “just war.” However, there is reason to think that by the time he died in 1943, after languishing in jail, after much prayer, meditation, and suffering, he objected to all killing in any war. In other words, the formation of his conscience, the solidification of his beliefs, did not happen overnight. For Franz, and for most conscientious objectors I would guess, it is a process, a gradual process of revelation, as they come to see what they didn’t before, and sometimes it takes years. Christ said he would “announce things lain hidden since the foundation of the world” (Mt 13:35). Sadly the institutional church seems to have played very little role, if any, in that process of revelation for Franz. In fact if anything, they seem to have been a hindrance, an impediment, a stumbling block. 

Similarities between Franz and Ben

About thirty people showed up in the basement of the church, which we considered a success. We showed the group the trailer for A Hidden Life, and one of two short documentaries about Ben Salmon. We explained a few of the similarities between these two men: 

  1. Both men decided when ordered to serve their country in a time of war to “obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Like Franz, Ben was older, about 30 when the draft was instated and he refused to complete a Selective Service questionnaire.
  2. They both suffered greatly for their choice, Franz being sent to prison and eventually the guillotine, Ben being sent to jail and then a mental hospital. (Ben died very young at the age of 43, most likely as a result of his damaged health from the treatment he received while being a ward of the state). 
  3. They were both motivated by their Catholic faith and we can come to understand their beliefs and position through their writing: Franz wrote many letters to his wife Franziska from jail and Ben wrote a 200-page manuscript on a typewriter from his hospital room explaining his beliefs, using only a Bible and the Catholic encyclopedia for reference. 
  4. They were both family men, Franz a husband and father of three girls, Ben a husband and father of one son at the time he was incarcerated. 
  5. Their choice was not supported either by their country or their church. Franz’s bishop told him it was is duty to serve his country and a priest actually refused to give Ben Holy Communion to punish him for the stance that he took. Ben was also expelled from the Knights of Columbus, Denver Council, for having edited and published an anti-war article and was attacked by them publicly and privately. 
  6. Both seem to exemplify Jesus’s words: “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” Franz was seen as a traitor for a long time by the people in his village, and his wife and children were ostracized and scorned; Ben was considered to be a source of shame for the family, called a scoundrel and a slacker by the press, and practically disowned by his in-laws. 

At the end of our presentation, one man whom I recognized, who was very involved in the church came up to us and said: “I respect what these guys did and all. But my view is that, if everyone did what they did, we’d all be speaking German.” 

Speaking Versus Silence

 Franz once wrote: “If the Church stays silent in the face of what is happening, what difference would it make if no church were ever opened again?” Franz wanted to “break the silence” of the Catholic Church, and yet, in the film, his resistance is largely silent. One of the most glorious things about A Hidden Life isthe sparse use of dialogue. You leave the film with the impression of having listened for most of the film to the sounds of the natural world — wind in the grasses, children playing in the fields, scythes cutting down hay, carts rolling over dirt, and the plodding of an ox. Franz, the protagonist, doesn’t speak much. Almost everyone else in the film seems to have more lines than him, and it is almost as if the Devil is speaking to Franz through the people around him, trying to get him to question his stance, second guess his decision, compromise. None of these people are evil or possessed! To us they might sound rather practical, but for Franz they are the equivalent of a chorus of reasoning demons.

Pope Benedict XVI writes in his book Jesus of Nazareth: “The tempter is not so crude as to suggest to us directly that we should worship the devil. He merely suggests that we opt for the reasonable decision, that we choose to give priority to a planned and thoroughly organized world, where God may have his place as a private concern but must not interfere in our essential purposes.” And our essential purposes would include, we believe, survival, the well-being of one’s family. In the film Franz is so very alone, like Jesus in the desert, and he is being tempted. 

Thomas Merton wrote in his essay on Franz: 

“Franz Jägerstättersurrendered his life rather than take the lives of others in what he believed to be an ‘unjust war’. He clung to this belief in the fact of every possible objection not only on the part of the army and the state, but also from his fellow Catholics, the Catholic clergy and of course his own family. He had to meet practically every ‘Christian’ argument that is advanced in favor of war. He was treated as a rebel, disobedient to lawful authority, a traitor to his country. He was accused of being selfish, self-willed, not considering his family, neglecting his duty to his children. 

…He was also told that he was not sufficiently informed to judge whether or not the war was just. That he had an obligation to submit to the ‘higher wisdom’ of the state. The government and the Fuehrer know best. Thousand of Catholics, including many priests, were serving in the armies, and therefore he should not try to be ‘more Catholic than the Church.’

He was even reminded that the bishops had not protested against this war, and in fact not only his pastor but even his bishop tried to persuade him to give us his resistance because it was ‘futile.’ One priest represented to him that he would have innumerable opportunities to practice Christian virtue and exercise an ‘apostolate of good example’ in the armed forces. All these are very familiar arguments frequently met with in our present situation, and they are still assumed to be so conclusive that few Catholics dare to risk the disapproval they would incur by conscientious objection and dissent.” 

The people around Franz present him with arguments. The arguments they make to Franz however never turn into arguments with Franz, because the character of Franz hardly ever responds, except by listening. Sometimes he appears pricked, pained, but never angered. He never rebuts or retaliates. The actor’s expressions give one the feeling that Franz wants badly to engage the person who is speaking to him but he knows there is nothing he could say that could make them understand. He can speak only through his actions. He seems submerged in himself, in something deep, quiet. It reminds you of “a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep silent before the sheerers, who opens not his mouth” (Is 53:7). 

The sparse use of dialogue is a hallmark of Terrence Malick’s style, but it works in this particular film on  a few different levels. For one, it says something about the Catholic world in which Jägerstätter lived. In the past sixty years, the Catholic Church has clarified its teachings on conscience. It was a major topic at the Second Vatican Council, especially in its final document, Gaudium et spes, butat the time of the first and second World Wars, many Catholics thought it was a sin not to fight in a war for your country. You can now find the term “Conscientious Objectors” in the index of the Catechism. Even in political circles people talk of “religious liberty.” But in Franz’s time, I’m not sure they had this kind of vocabulary or explicit Catholic teaching to appeal or refer to. 

Secondly, Franz was no scholar, academic, or theologian. He was a farmer. I doubt he would have been found reading Scriptural exegesis at night. He didn’t need to. He knew was right and what was wrong in this situation, what he should do and what he should not do. His conscience told him clearly. When an S.S. officer asks him, “Do you judge me?”, Franz doesn’t start arguing the finer points of Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Just War Theory. He doesn’t need to. He replies simply, gently: “No.” He adds that he doesn’t know everything; he only knows that he can’t do what he believes is wrong. I thought of: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.” (Mt 5:37). 

Thirdly, the sparse dialogue means that the film does not try to dramatize any theological or theoretical debates. Franz, though very intelligent, is clearly motivated by something deeper than intellectual understanding. A Hidden Life is art. It doesn’t argue: It illustrates. And what it illustrates is the completely unique, never-repeatable, all too transitory beauty of one human life. It shows the bonds between people, especially families, husbands, wives, parents, and children; it immerses us in Creation, in the rich soil, the moving clouds, the rushing rivers, the mountain air. It pulls you into the rhythms of work, the motions of the body, the breath of life, the joy of play. I think the strongest “argument” made to Franz, and one of the tenderest moments in the film, is when his wife, lying next to him in a field, sweetly asks if he would like more children. 

What the film does, which is so effective, is: It shows you through simple, everyday moments, the preciousness of everything Jägerstätter had to give up. It shows you what a beautiful life he had, how much he loved, how much he had to love, and how much more he could have loved if he’d had more time on this Earth. It shows you, too, the pain and the suffering that his decision caused to the people who loved him. It shows you the cost of his choice. It makes you ask why? 

Is Jesus not pro-life? Doesn’t he want us to live?

By seeing all of this in the film, being awash in it, living it vicariously and almost viscerally, rather than intellectually, one is prompted to try to envision “the pearl of great price” (Mt 13:46)  that Franz must have found, a “pearl of great price” which cannot be illustrated in film, depicted on screen, or conveyed through argument. Maybe it cannot even be imagined by us, who may still be in the process of seeking it, discovering it. It is like when Jesus talks about the treasure that was hidden in a field and found, and the finder buries it again and sells everything in order to buy the field. In these parables of the treasure and the pearl, there is something “hidden” about the Kingdom of God. But the one who finds it is willing to give away everything, absolutely everything, to possess it. Jesus himself was hidden from the dark forces of the world when he was born. By experiencing for two hours a semblance of the life that Franz lived and gave up, and becoming familiar with everything he sacrificed, which was so beautiful, we can begin to imagine the value of what it was he was giving it up for, which only Franz knew, which only Franz could see. The word “martyr” originally meant simply “witness.” Sometimes when we can’t see something for ourselves, we need a witness testify to what he saw, and this helps us to believe. Actions, of course, speak louder than words. 

In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “[Jesus] himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price.” Jesus tells us: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.” Pope Benedict XVI tells us that the phrase “Kingdom of God” occurs 122 times in the New Testament and 90 of these texts represent the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is at hand, in our midst. Not all of us, for some reason, can see it. Franz could! Christ the King reigned not in Franz’s head but in his heart, and here’s what seems most important to me: Franz knew that every good king needs not merely to be revered but obeyed. Jesus said: “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” This was not a suggestion, a moral guideline, a best practice. It was a commandment. 

We are told by the war wagers that every war must be fought, that it is necessary to kill, for “freedom.” 

Franziska’s last words to Franz at the end of the film are at testament to that Christ-like love that wills only good, and the ultimate good, for the other. She says: “I am with you always. Do what is right.” 

What other freedom is there? 

Better Questions

When someone tells us that “we would all be speaking German” if everyone had done what Franz did, it is the same thing as saying, “What about Hitler?” (This is still the best answer I’ve ever heard to that question.) It’s a seventy-year-old question and I think it’s time we start asking better ones. What is implied here is the old adage that evil triumphs when good people do nothing. Would we call what Franz did “nothing”? If we say no to evil, and let it mean no, doesn’t that count for something? 

The simple truth is that Hitler would have had no power at all in the first place if more people had done the “nothing” that Franz did. You wouldn’t need everyone to do what Franz did. Let’s say just the Christians did what Franz did, or of all Christians just the Catholics, or of all Catholics just ten percent of them, or five percent. What would have happened then? We don’t know. But it’s time to start asking, instead of “What about Hitler?”, “What about Franz”?

Perhaps we prefer the question “What about Hitler?” because it helps us to justify our own violence.

War movies have always sought, through spectacle, to glorify war and those who fight in them (Saving Private Ryan) or to facilitate collective mourning for their tragedies (Born on the Fourth of July). Before movies there were murals and other works of art that accomplished the same thing. When we first meet Helen of Troy in Homer’s Iliad, she is weaving a tapestry depicting scenes from the war, wallowing in shame and regret. In The Aeneid, Aeneas arrives in Carthage to find a giant mural depicting scenes from the Trojan War, which cause him and his men to break down and weep. In The Odyssey, when Penelope first appears, she asks the singer to stop singing a song about the war, as it brings her too much pain. Humans have always lamented war through art, poetry, song, literature, and film, but most of the art we make about war seems only to provide us with an opportunity for what Aristotle called “catharsis”. Our artistic testaments to the waste, destruction, pain, suffering and futility of war rarely serve to provide wisdom, to steer people in a new direction. When it comes to war, it seems the words of the great pagan writer, Aeschylus, still ring true: “Man must suffer to be wise.” 

But is that changing? 

I believe there is a perceptible shift, especially among war movies. With time comes perspective, and with some distance from a most dark and deadly century, we can see A Hidden Life as one in a string of recent films that have paid homage to the light which the darkness hath not overcome. In 2005 came the release of Joyeux Noelle and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. The first film tells the true story of the Christmas truce of 1914, the second the true story of a group of university students who, deeply motivated by their Christian faith, distributed anti-Nazi leaflets in 1943 in hopes of awakening the consciences of their fellow men. 

We have these stories of Christian witness amidst moral collapse, and in the actual transcript of the trial of Sophie Scholl, which the film is based on, we have a twentieth century example of what Jesus seems to have meant when he said: “When they take you before synagogues and before rulers and authorities, do not worry about how or what your defense will be or about what you are to say. For the holy Spirit will teach you at that moment what you should say” (Luke 12:11-12). A young woman speaks Gospel truth to worldly kings, judges, lawyers and military commanders, men of power, who think they hold her fate in their hands. (She, through the grace of God, knows better.) Sophie was beheaded six months before Franz Jagerstatter. She was only 22. 

The blockbuster hit Hacksaw Ridge (2016), directed by Catholic Mel Gibson, tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who served on the front lines as a medic in World War II and, despite the bombs, blasts, flamethrowers and machine gun fire, refused to arm himself or to kill: He ended up not only surviving but winning the Medal of Honor for his heroic (and some say miraculous) deeds. 

The next question we need to start asking is: Why didn’t more Christians do what Franz did, what Sophie did, what Desmond did, what Ben did? I’m afraid we can’t chalk it up to human fear or frailty. It’s a serious problem within the Church. Jesus told his disciples: “Go and teach them all that I have commanded you.” Are the Christian Churches, especially the Catholic Church, really teaching what Jesus commanded?  

Finally, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI: “Today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a just war.”

For the record, Ben Salmon asked this question long ago, and answered it, before Hitler, before the nuclear age, before The Pentagon Papers, before all that. Ben Salmon said: There is No Just War. Worldly kingdoms are entirely perishable. They come and they go. They rise; they fall. Christ, on the other hand, is “the Alpha and the Omega” (Rev 1:8). His kingdom is eternal and he assures us that he will be “with us until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20). Are we with Him? One kingdom has the power of violence; the other has the power of Christ-like love. Franz and Ben were modern day prophets. We ignore them at our peril. 

Copyright © 2020 Ellen Finnigan