Count Clemens August von Galen, a member of an old aristocratic family, was consecrated Bishop of Münster in October 1933, a few months after Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany. Before taking office, von Galen had sworn an oath renouncing any action that would harm the good and interests of the German state.
On April 1, 1934, Easter Sunday, von Galen showed how he understood the oath he had taken. In a pastoral letter read in all the churches of his diocese, he attacked the ideology of blood and race that was being promulgated by the Nazi Party. For Bishop von Galen, attacking the neo-paganism of the Nazi racial theories was not a violation of his oath, but rather a fulfillment of it. He saw a return to paganism as a gigantic cultural step backwards into deliberately-embraced idiocy, and it could only harm the interests of the German state.
Nazi propaganda constantly insulted Bishop von Galen, and repeated over and over the theory that the true Germanic spirit was pagan, not Christian. The bishop responded with scorn and anger. In a sermon in 1937, at the spot where the Saxons had accepted the Gospel in the eighth century, he lashed out at the proponents of paganism. They were insulting all of their forefathers, including his own ancestors, who could be traced back for more than seven centuries:
It galls me that people malign my ancestors, my father, my mother, and insult their faith, their Christian life, as un-German, as alien. … We will not let our heroes and saints, our forefathers and ancestors, be insulted! And if we cannot hinder it and bring the insults to silence, then let it, one time, be said openly: A so-called worldview that would make us slanderers and despisers of our loyal German forerunners, our parents and ancestors, … we reject such a worldview.
Throughout the pre-war years, von Galen strove to keep a place for Christianity in Germany, while the government constantly worked to undermine the Church. Public outcry successfully defeated an attempt to have the crucifixes removed from Catholic schools. But before long the Catholic schools themselves were closed. Von Galen was convinced that the government was seeking to destroy the Catholic Church in Germany.
The problem was how to fight against this so that the Church could survive and her voice of moral teaching be heard. The head of the German Bishops' Conference favored closet diplomacy. He issued protests against every infringement of the Church's rights, but most protests were not responded to or even acknowledged. Von Galen sought unsuccessfully to persuade the other bishops to take a more public stand. He was convinced that this had to be done in a unified way; otherwise the regime would exploit the appearance of division in the Church.
In the summer of 1941, at the height of Germany's success in the war, he decided to take that more public stance, even if he had to do it on his own. In three sermons that were circulated throughout Germany—and eventually printed by the British and dropped from planes over the country—he denounced the Gestapo, the confiscation of the houses of religious orders, and the killing of the mentally handicapped. He reminded his fellow Catholics that there are limits to the obedience one owes to any worldly authority: If one is commanded to do evil, one should follow the example of a nobleman from a previous century who said to his king, “My head is at Your Majesty's disposal, but not my conscience.” Unless Germany returned to the rule of justice, he prophesied, she would collapse from within, no matter what victories her soldiers won in the field. Against the charge that he was weakening the home front during the war, he replied that it was those who murdered their countrymen and made refugees of innocent men and women, religious sisters and brothers and priests, who were weakening the home front.
The courage and truth of his sermons were an inspiration to many, including Hans and Sophie Scholl and their resistance group, the White Rose.
For his heroism and holiness, Clemens August von Galen was beatified in 2005. He had to deal with many of the same struggles we have today: keeping a place for religion in the public square; defending moral truth against ideology—in our case, the dictatorship of relativism; defending innocent human life from abortion and euthanasia; defending the right of parents to have their children educated in schools that reflect their religious faith.
A priest from Africa whom I met on a recent trip to Germany told me that he thinks Blessed Clemens August has something to say to Africa, where there are many dictatorial governments and where few bishops speak out against the abuses of human rights. Clemens August teaches not only bishops, but everyone, how to speak the truth with courage.
In a video posted on his Facebook page shortly after Christmas, Canadian Member of Parliament Garnett Genuis spoke about the importance of religion in the public square. Von Galen is an example of someone taking a crucial moral stance from the basis of his religious convictions. For Genuis there is a personal angle. His grandmother grew up in the diocese of Münster. She was a Protestant by confession, half-Jewish by ethnicity. As a teenager she had to go into hiding, and she survived thanks to the help she received from Catholic farmers who kept her hidden. She passed on to her family her veneration of von Galen, as she was convinced that those who had protected her were inspired by the leadership of their bishop to defend each person's human rights.
Genuis makes a compelling case against the tendency to exclude religious people from politics. It is precisely from their religious convictions that people like Blessed Clemens August von Galen fight for justice for all. His witness deserves to be better known.
Fr. Daniel Utrecht is a priest of the Oratory of St Philip Neri, Toronto and author of The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.
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