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Voices Online Edition
Lent - Easter 2006

A Pro-Life Hero
Blessed Clemens-August von Galen

by Joanna Bogle

The pro-life movement needs its heroes. Sometimes they will be unexpected ones. When Clemens-August Graf von Galen was born in a Rhineland castle into the now-vanished world of pre-1914 Europe, no one could have imagined that at the start of another new century he would be acclaimed as a spiritual figurehead for people opposing euthanasia and related evils.

Bishop von Galen was beatified in 2005 and as he is going to be of increasing spiritual significance in the pro-life cause, it is worth learning his story.

There was something extraordinary and providential in the election of a German pope in 2005 -- a year that would also see the beatification of a great German figure -- for this same year marked the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Pope Benedict XVI, who as a teenager was drafted into an anti-aircraft unit during World War II, spoke at the beatification ceremony, attended by huge numbers of Germans who packed St. Peter’s Basilica and the great square outside.

As a teenager, the young Joseph Ratzinger would undoubtedly have heard of Bishop von Galen, and known of the stand he was taking against the deliberate killing of innocent people under the Nazi regime. The bishop was the heroic voice of Germany’s Christian conscience during World War II. In defiance of the Nazis -- and in daily expectation of being taken away to prison or a concentration camp -- he hurled denunciations at the country’s euthanasia program, and demanded that the killing of the disabled and the sick be stopped.

Born into an aristocratic family at the end of the 19th century, Count von Galen had worked as a young priest in Berlin before returning to his native Rhineland, where he was appointed Bishop of Munster, presiding over a Catholic community with deep roots, where families cherished their unbroken religious tradition and its associated customs and folklore.

As bishop, he was greeted with festive garlands and local hymns when he went to country parishes for confirmations -- and the youth movements, women’s groups, and parish organizations associated with the church represented a challenge when the Nazis, gaining power in Germany, sought to nationalize all community organizations and marginalize the Church.

Although historically he has been seen simply as an anti-Nazi figure, today his opposition to euthanasia -- and also to the Nazis’ racial policies, rabid nationalism and anti-Church stance -- has a new significance. In the years immediately following World War II, euthanasia was regarded with abhorrence. But today it is legal in some European countries, is openly discussed as a policy option in others, and has gained an acceptability once regarded as unthinkable. Similarly, attacks on the Church for being outdated, irrelevant, opposed to progress, and promoting hidebound beliefs at variance with the needs of a forward-looking community also have an uncomfortably familiar ring. Bishop von Galen’s robust defense of the right and duty of Christians to stand up for traditional values seem right up-to-date.

It is interesting, also, that the Nazi propaganda machine in Germany seized on instances of pedophilia among priests and members of religious orders to promote the idea that this scandalous behavior was a widespread problem involving vast numbers of clergy. There were also attempts to replace traditional Christian celebrations with secular ones, and to emphasize young people’s independence from their parents and from family bonds and to direct them toward youth leaders who would instruct them in different values.

Bishop von Galen, in a 1941 sermon, denounced euthanasia policies, which gave “legal sanction to the forcible killing of invalids, the disabled, the incurable and the incapacitated”. As Bishop of Munster, and a member of a family that for centuries had played a leading role in public life, he spoke with authority. When he gave details of what was taking place in local hospitals, it caused drama: “I have discovered that the practice here in Westphalia is to compile lists of such patients who are to be removed elsewhere as ‘unproductive citizens’ and after a period of time put to death. This very week, the first group of these patients has been sent from the clinic of Marienthal, near Munster”.

He pointed out that murder was still, officially, illegal in Germany. “It is in order to protect the murderers of these poor invalids -- members of our own families -- against legal punishment, that the patients who are to be killed are transferred from their domicile to some distant institution. Some sort of disease is then given as the cause of death, but as cremation immediately follows, it is impossible for either their families or the regular police to ascertain whether death was from natural causes”.

“Once we admit the right to kill unproductive persons -- then none of us can be sure of our lives. We shall be at the mercy of any committee that can put a man on a list of unproductives…. If this dreadful doctrine is permitted and practiced it is impossible to conjure up the degradation to which it will lead”.

“Woe to us German people if we not only license this heinous offense but allow it to be committed with impunity…. ‘Thou shalt not kill’. God engraved this commandment on the souls of men long before any penal code laid down punishment for murder, long before any courts prosecuted and avenged homicide. Because of His love for us God has engraved these commandments on our hearts and has made them manifest to us. They are the unchangeable and fundamental truths of our community life grounded on reason, well pleasing to God”.

Describing the fate that awaited a country that allowed the murder of its disabled citizens and the destruction of its moral values, Bishop von Galen used dramatic Biblical language, quoting Christ’s prophecy that Jerusalem would be destroyed “not leaving one stone upon another”.

When the Allied bombing raids reduced Munster and other German cities to rubble, people remembered his words and regarded him as a prophet.

In addition to opposing euthanasia, Bishop von Galen denounced the Nazis for introducing pagan ideas of worshipping nation and race, for promoting adultery and sexual license, and for mocking God and the Church. He called on faithful Catholics to oppose all who “revile our faith, who hate God’s commandments, who associate with those who alienate young men from their religion, who rob and drive out monks and nuns, who condemn our innocent brothers and sisters”. He said that the new ideas in Germany meant that people were breaking the commandment to honor parents and also the commandment about the Sabbath -- Sunday as a day for church was being deliberately undermined by the promotion of other activities on that day.

Of tall and commanding appearance, the bishop was known for his austere life -- especially during the war, when food was short and he refused any small luxuries that could instead be given to children or to the sick. He was also known for his dedication to prayer and his reverence for the Eucharist. He especially liked traditional devotions and old-fashioned hymns that helped people to associate their faith with family and community memories. His opposition to the Nazis centered not only on their contempt for the sanctity of life and their reviling of non-German races but also on their open dislike of old traditions, and the morals and family life of Catholics.

Today one of Bishop von Galen’s nieces, Countess Johanna von Westphalen, runs a pro-life lobby group, “Christian Democrats for Life”, which plays a major role in campaigning against euthanasia and abortion. The church in Munster where the bishop preached and where he is buried has become a place of pilgrimage. There are always flowers and votive offerings on his grave.

Officially silenced by the authorities, Bishop von Galen was due for arrest but -- as revealed in papers retrieved by the Allies after the end of the war -- there was concern about an uprising in Westphalia if he were taken away. With war on two fronts -- against the Western allies and the Soviet Union -- the Nazis could not hold down unrest in a central part of Germany.

While the bishop remained in Munster -- he was almost killed when the cathedral and his adjoining residence were destroyed -- the Nazis organized a round-up of several of his priests and a number were taken away to concentration camps, never to return. Trying to discover their whereabouts, and to protect other clergy and church workers from a similar fate, occupied much of the bishop’s time, in addition to relief work for people made homeless by raids. He died shortly after the end of the war, just one month after having been made a cardinal in recognition of his faithfulness and the stance he had taken on the moral issues confronting Germans.

Today, Bishop von Galen’s life and message are seen as having a significance far beyond his native Germany. During the war, copies of his sermons, smuggled out of the country, were reprinted by the thousand and dropped over Germany by British aircraft. Sixty years later, pro-life campaigners from Britain paid tribute to his memory and were among those attending the beatification in Rome. John Smeaton of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said “Cardinal von Galen is a model of fearless opposition to euthanasia, and we thank the Holy Father for honoring such heroic pro-life witness”.

There is something more. As Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about the lessons that had been learned from the German Church’s experiences in World War II. One major lesson was that of the importance of a bishop, in his diocese, taking full responsibility as a Christian leader and father of the people entrusted to his spiritual care. As a group, the bishops of Germany found themselves in a quandary -- trying to negotiate with the government and uncertain among themselves as to how to proceed.

A group of people, such as a bishops’ conference, has to seek first its own common ground and find a united voice. A bishop in his own diocese has no such problem. Christ instituted a Church through the apostles, under the direction of Peter. He did not ask them to form committees among themselves on national lines, and although these can be convenient and useful at times, they are not the essential plan that Christ had in mind. Rather, each bishop must take responsibility for the piece of the mission that has been given to him.

In the story of Bishop von Galen we see that of a brave bishop -- not the first and we can be sure, not the last, in history -- who courageously speaks up for what is right and does not fail in his task of instructing his people in what is right, in the teachings of the Church and the unchangeable laws of God.

In our German pope, who must have had a sense of great joy in seeing von Galen’s name honored by the worldwide Church, we have a fine pastor who does not fail to point to the lessons learned from history and who loses no opportunity to teach and guide us. Every Christian who takes a pro-life stance -- the doctor, the teacher, the anxious parent, the campaigning student, the busy priest -- can know that the Church is there, a faithful witness, an ever-present guide.

Joanna Bogle, a contributing editor of Voices, writes from London. She is a well-known author and journalist, who writes and lectures on issues of the Catholic faith, and appears frequently on the radio.

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