By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published September 21, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
Shortly before World War II began, a clergyman around 60 years of age would be registered by the office of Chancellor Adolf Hitler as the Nazi government’s most dangerous enemy.
Many would call that man the lion of Münster, the German city he shepherded as a Catholic bishop. Yet this foe dreaded by Hitler nearly wasn’t consecrated bishop at all. The position came to him only after other nominees had turned it down.
One could hardly blame them. In January of that year, Hitler had been appointed chancellor. In March, the National Socialism party had gained an absolute majority in federal elections, and the newly elected Reichstag legislators had passed the Enabling Act, which gave Hitler the power to make laws, set budgets, and pass treaties.
German democracy died that month in 1933, and Hitler’s dictatorship began.
The election of Count Clemens von Galen, parish priest of the Town-and-Market Church of St Lambert, as bishop brought dismay to some. The towering (6’8”) nobleman had been an intense and likable pastor. Yet one social reformer felt he was a throwback to medieval Christianity, and a papal nuncio complained he had “overbearing attitude, stubbornness, and too schoolmastery a manner for a simple pastor.”
His only published work, a small book, criticized the push by liberalism and socialism to remove religious values and institutions from public life and politics.
Now the new bishop, assigned Sept. 2, faced the supremacy of socialist ideals, and he recognized his difficult situation. For his official motto as bishop, he chose “Nec laudibus nec timore” (“Regardless of praise or fear”). He also adopted a second name, August.
After establishing Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist, the lion of Münster began tirelessly studying and publicly challenging Nazi teachings. In an Easter 1934 pastoral letter, he denounced the widespread book “Myth of the 20th Century” by official Nazi philosopher Alfred Rosenberg.
He dubbed it “a new ill-omened totalitarian doctrine that sets race above morality, sets blood above law... repudiates revelation, aims to destroy the foundations of Christianity... It is a religious sham. Sometimes this new paganism happens to hide even under Christian names... This anti-Christian attack we are experiencing in our days goes beyond, in its destructive violence, all others we know of from the remotest times.”
His letter stirred up clergy and laypersons inside and outside Germany. In reaction Hermann Göring, the head of the German secret police, demanded clergy be excluded from teaching in schools. Rosenberg led a large menacing rally reviling Galen in front of the bishop’s home. But the city of Münster reacted with a huge religious procession the next day — July 8, 1935 — in support of their shepherd.
The news travelled around the world. The Paris newspaper Le Figaro commented, “If the (German) Catholics are accused of meddling in politics, in reality it is National Socialism that is meddling in religion.”
In a campaign to discredit church opposition, Nazi courts staged “immorality trials” of priests and consecrated religious that were widely publicized and alleged shocking sexual immorality. Organized groups of Nazi supporters would throw stones at the home windows of bishops and priests while singing obscene songs. Bishops were kept under extreme surveillance by the government.
In April 1935, the Nazi regime forbade newspaper articles with religious content. In 1936, the government banned publishing any bishop’s pastoral letters.
But they couldn’t silence Christian outrage.
In 1937, Pope Pius XI summoned Galen to Rome to help him with an encyclical that would be written in German, rather than in Latin first, then translated. That encyclical would be Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Heart) and the pope ordered it read in every church in Germany on Palm Sunday that year.
Among many things, Pope Pius XI wrote: “Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State… or any other fundamental value of the human community – however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things – whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God…
“This God, this Sovereign Master, has issued (moral) commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. As God’s sun shines on every human face so His law knows neither privilege nor exception. Rulers and subjects, crowned and uncrowned, rich and poor are equally subject to His word.”
Nazi authorities declared the encyclical “an act of high treason against the State,” seized any copies they could, and arrested many.
"It is not possible to be Christians and Germans at the same time.