Growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Gordon Zahn was in most respects a traditional Catholic—except in his inability to reconcile the teachings of Christ with orders to kill his fellow humans. In 1942 he declared himself a conscientious objector, though no priest or bishop would support his stand. He was assigned to a work camp for Catholic conscientious objectors, supported by the Catholic Worker. Afterward he had trouble finding a Catholic college that would accept him. Nevertheless, he earned a doctorate in sociology and taught at several universities.
In 1963 his book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars showed how Germany’s bishops, through their general exhortations of loyal obedience to authority, had become instruments of Nazi power. This was followed by In Solitary Witness, which recovered the lost story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant executed for his refusal to serve in Hitler’s army. Zahn’s work, including his personal lobbying, was influential in moving the Council Fathers at Vatican II to support recognition of the right of conscientious objection.
Zahn worked tirelessly in the cause for peace, helping to found Pax Christi USA. In later years he suffered from Alzheimer’s—and thus was unable to recognize the significance of an invitation in October 2007 to attend the beatification of Franz Jägerstätter. He died two months later on December 9.
“All Christians, whether they realize it or not, have that vocation (in the full religious sense) of serving the cause of peace and, by logical extension, the obligation to oppose war.”