We’ve addressed Nazi Germany’s T-4 program on the site before, but have never discussed one individual who played an instrumental role in ending this large-scale, wicked persecution: Blessed Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, who served as Bishop of Münster from 1933 until his death in 1946.1
Long before he was Cardinal von Galen, Clemens August von Galen was born in Dinklage, Germany on March 16th, 1878 as the eleventh and third-to-last child of Count Ferdinand Heribert von Galen, a Catholic politician in the Reichstag, and Elisabeth von Spee. He would spend his childhood in Dinklage before being sent to Feldkirch, Austria to receive a Jesuit education, which was necessary with tensions surrounding the Catholic Church and the German state making a Catholic education more difficult in his homeland. Galen would go on to study philosophy and theology in Frebur, Innsbruck, and then Münster prior to being ordained a priest on May 28th, 1904 to serve the faithful in the Diocese of Münster.2
After spending his first two years of priesthood as vicar of the Münster diocesan cathedral, Father von Galen spent most of his early priesthood outside the city, serving as chaplain and later parish priest of St. Matthias parish in Berlin-Schönberg as well as curate of another parish in Berlin. Father von Galen returned to Münster in 1929 at the request of Bishop Johannes Poggenpohl where he served as parish priest of St. Lambert for about three years.
Following Bishop Poggenpohl’s death in January 1933 and the refusal of two other candidates for the bishopric, Father von Galen was elevated to the episcopacy by Pope Pius XI and was officially consecrated on October 28th, 1933, becoming the first newly consecrated diocesan bishop under the new Nazi regime. For the rite of episcopal consecration, now-Bishop von Galen chose the motto: “Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God.” He would hold true to this sentiment. He would also show his devotion to prayer and personal love of Jesus Christ by beginning his episcopate with initiating perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Church of St. Servatii in Münster.3
In March 1933, Adolf Hitler had seized absolute power in Germany with the passage of the Enabling Act. Although Hitler promised that he would protect the Catholic Church in the early months of his regime, most apparent in the Reichskonkordat that guaranteed the Catholic Church in Germany’s ability to conduct liturgies, education, and other activities without state interference, the Nazi regime would soon violate the agreement on a regular basis. Hitler’s racist and discriminatory policies would violate the intrinsic dignity of many men, women, and children, especially through the T-4 program and the Holocaust.
Due to Bishop von Galen’s outspokenness about social and political issues since his early days as a priest, Pope Pius XI called him to Rome in 1937 where they discussed the publication of an encyclical that would be released in March 1937 titled ‘To the Bishops of Germany: The place of the Catholic Church in the German Reich’ or Mit brennender Sorge. This magisterially authoritative document would concretely restate the foundations of the Catholic faith, express concern about the social isolation forced onto faithful German Catholics, and critique any attempt to create a false religion relying on nationalism and racism within Germany. Here’s an excerpt from paragraph 23 of the encyclical that emphasizes God’s Revelation as being distinct from national or racial ends and projects.
"Revelation" in its Christian sense, means the word of God addressed to man. The use of this word for the "suggestions" of race and blood, for the irradiations of a people's history, is mere equivocation. False coins of this sort do not deserve Christian currency. "Faith" consists in holding as true what God has revealed and proposes through His Church to man's acceptance. It is "the evidence of things that appear not" (Heb. ii. 1). The joyful and proud confidence in the future of one's people, instinct in every heart, is quite a different thing from faith in a religious sense. To substitute the one for the other, and demand on the strength of this, to be numbered among the faithful followers of Christ, is a senseless play on words, if it does not conceal a confusion of concepts, or worse.4
Mit brennender Sorge would be widely circulated by Bishop von Galen and many other Catholic clergy to the great vexation of Nazi officials.
Bishop von Galen would directly complain to the Nazi government when he observed violations of the concordat. In November 1936 after the Oldenburg Nazis had removed crucifixes from schools, Bishop von Galen’s complaints sparked public demonstrations that led to the reversal of the anti-Catholic policy.5 In 1941, Bishop von Galen would receive confirmation from Kurt Gerstein that the Nazis were conducting a euthanasia program, called the “Aktion T4” or simply “T-4 program”, aimed especially against those with developmental disabilities. The Bishop would give three homilies in July and August of 1941 denouncing the state’s confiscation of Church property and systematic attack on Christianity, as well as the great evils of the T-4 program.6 Here’s an excerpt of Bishop von Galen’s condemnation of the Nazi euthanasia program in his famous August 3rd, 1941 homily:
Have you, have I the right to live only so long as we are productive, so long as we are recognized by others as productive?
If you establish and apply the principle that you can kill 'unproductive' fellow human beings then woe betide us all when we become old and frail! If one is allowed to kill the unproductive people then woe betide the invalids who have used up, sacrificed and lost their health and strength in the productive process. If one is allowed forcibly to remove one's unproductive fellow human beings then woe betide loyal soldiers who return to the homeland seriously disabled, as cripples, as invalids. If it is once accepted that people have the right to kill 'unproductive' fellow humans--and even if initially it only affects the poor defenseless mentally ill--then as a matter of principle murder is permitted for all unproductive people, in other words for the incurably sick, the people who have become invalids through labor and war, for us all when we become old, frail and therefore unproductive.
Then, it is only necessary for some secret edict to order that the method developed for the mentally ill should be extended to other 'unproductive' people, that it should be applied to those suffering from incurable lung disease, to the elderly who are frail or invalids, to the severely disabled soldiers. Then none of our lives will be safe any more. Some commission can put us on the list of the 'unproductive,' who in their opinion have become worthless life. And no police force will protect us and no court will investigate our murder and give the murderer the punishment he deserves. …
Woe to mankind, woe to our German nation if God's Holy Commandment 'Thou shalt not kill,' which God proclaimed on Mount Sinai amidst thunder and lightning, which God our Creator inscribed in the conscience of mankind from the very beginning, is not only broken, but if this transgression is actually tolerated and permitted to go unpunished.7
This particular homily and its widespread popularity would cause great alarm within the Nazi hierarchy, and certainly had a role in Hitler’s decision to suspend the T-4 program on August 23rd, 1941 (though euthanasia killings did continue to an extent after this time).8 The Nazis later retaliated against the bishop by beheading three parish priests who had distributed written copies of the homily, but did not kill Bishop von Galen himself to avoid making the man a martyr. During the latter part of the war when the Münster Cathedral and the bishop’s house were completely decimated, Bishop von Galen took up residence at a home in Sendenhorst.
On February 21st, 1946 a Public Consistory was held in St. Peter’s Basilica where Bishop von Galen was installed as a Cardinal by Pope Pius XII, another important voice in the fight against national socialism. Cardinal von Galen would return to Münster on March 16th, 1946 and would give what would be his last address to more than 50,000 gathered people on the site of the destroyed Münster Cathedral. He affirmed that it was his duty to speak clearly and straightforwardly about the evils taking place in Germany during the war. The cardinal was gravely ill on the day of the address and, after a failed operation, this man of God died on March 22nd, 1946.
Cardinal von Galen was beatified on October 9th, 2005, by his fellow German, Pope Benedict XVI.
“All of us, and particularly we Germans, are grateful because the Lord has given us this great witness of faith who made the light of truth shine out in dark times and had the courage to oppose the power of tyranny,” Pope Benedict XVI said at the conclusion of the Eucharistic Concelebration for Cardinal von Galen’s beatification. “He feared God more than men, and it was God who granted him the courage to do and say what others did not dare to say and do. Thus, he gives us courage, he urges us to live the faith anew today, and he also shows us how this is possible in things that are simple and humble, yet great and profound.”
“I see plenty of parallels today,” Father Daniel Utrecht, author of a book on Cardinal von Galen called The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis, said in an interview with Catholic News Agency. “I hope that people reading the book get it for themselves. [Cardinal von Galen's] example of courage and being able to speak out in defense of human life is of interest, very much of interest today, in the fight against abortion and euthanasia … the defense of liberty, religious liberty, the defense of a place for religion in the public square is a very, very big lesson that he has for us.”9
Blessed Cardinal von Galen, pray for those with special needs, the preborn, and all people who defend, care for, and love them!
1: Lacombe, Pierre. “Modern-Day Eugenics in Belgium.” Especially Pro-Life, Especially Pro-Life, 29 Jan. 2021, www.especiallyprolife.com/post/modern-day-eugenics-in-belgium.
2: “Bl. Clemens August Von Galen.” Vatican, www.vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/saints/ns_lit_doc_20051009_von-galen_en.html.
3: von Galen, Bishop. “Three Sermons in Defiance of the Nazis.” Church in History , Church in History Information Centre, 11 June 2006, www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/vongalen(n).htm.
4: Pius XI. “Mit Brennender Sorge .” Vatican, Vatican.va, 13 Mar. 1937, www.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge.html.
5: “Blessed Clemens August, Graf Von Galen.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Blessed-Clemens-August-Graf-von-Galen.
6: Simkin, John. “August Von Galen.” Spartacus Educational, Spartacus Educational, spartacus-educational.com/GERgalen.htm.
7: “Cardinal Clemens Von Galen: Against Nazi Euthanasia.” The History Place , The History Place - Great Speeches, www.historyplace.com/speeches/galen.htm.
8: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. “Euthanasia Program and Aktion T4.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/euthanasia-program.
9: Bunderson, Carl. “What the Bishop Who Resisted the Nazis Can Teach Us Today.” Catholic News Agency, Catholic News Agency, 17 December 2017, www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/35672/what-the-bishop-who-resisted-the-nazis-can-teach-us-today.