Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen is a name that deserves to be better known in the United States. Fr. Daniel Utrecht of the Oratory’s faith-filled biography does an admirable job of beginning such a task. In following the beatified cardinal’s life, the author gives us both a hero for the history books and a living saint, whose example may continue to inspire Catholics faced with persecution and affronts to justice.
Exhaustive in his account, Fr. Utrecht begins not with the beginning, but with the bishop’s approaching end, setting the stage for a story both electrifying and, at times, tragic. In commencing with Clemens August’s triumphal return from being made a cardinal by Pope Pius XII, we are treated to the mixed happy ending that was the bishop’s life. Victorious, he came back to his home diocese of Münster a celebrity, to be dead only six days later, a testament to what his life itself preached: that we are instruments in the hands of God, sustained in His glory and taken when He decides it is time.
Most of the book, however, is a fairly straightforward, chronological account of the bishop’s life and works, spanning from his early years at his faithful and aristocratic home at Castle Dinklage to his final struggles with the Nazi authorities. Fr. Utrecht explores the centrality of Marian devotion to the young boy’s upbringing, his large—and clergy-filled—family, along with his early-instilled blend of German patriotism and Catholic exceptionalism. Born in 1878 and raised against the backdrop of the barely-finished persecutions of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf (Culture-Struggle), Clemens August was undeniably a product of his time: a faithful German, whose life would play out the tension so many felt during World War II between national identity and universal justice.
Initially a pastor in Berlin and then in his homeland of Münster, von Galen cultivated an attachment to the poor and vulnerable of these dioceses, people he—like so many Germans during the Weimar Republic—saw as victims of a stab in the back during World War I. Finding himself the first bishop named after a concordat was signed between Nazi Germany and the Vatican, the Lion of Münster initially made a name for himself as a loyal patriot, whose nationalism found some common ground with the Nazi ethos.
And yet, as Fr. Utrecht makes abundantly clear, von Galen was never comfortable with the perceived paganism of the new authorities, a people who, from an early stage fought to de-Christianize sectarian schools. His battles—some successful and others mostly provocative—for Catholic educational institutions earned him a name among his people, a flock he sought to protect even as he understood the dangers they faced. His true fame, however, arrived with a series of sermons delivered in 1941—later dropped in pamphlet form by the Allies over Germany—denouncing Nazi euthanasia policies. His constant protests, sometimes to the shame of other members of the German Bishops’ Conference, earned him the ire of Hitler who supposedly waited for the war’s end, knowing that, even if von Graf could not be dealt with during the conflict, his retribution would eventually come.
It is in this regard that Fr. Utrecht mostly helpfully illuminates the bishop’s complexities and contradictions. On the one hand more forceful than so many other prelates, he was always careful to blame the Gestapo (the Geheime Staatspolizei, or Secret State Police) while leaving Hitler, the Führer, as free of blame as possible. Seeing the government as divinely-ordained, von Graf opposed its most egregious policies without calling its very structures into question. Fr. Utrecht toes a fine line here: either the bishop was a true nationalist, a product of his time and upbringing who saw his Christian duty in supporting the rightful government, or he was a pragmatic politician who realized that too-forceful intervention would only lead to his own deposition and possible death—an event for which he was personally ready, but which might have deprived his people of a good shepherd and a moral voice. The author oscillates between the two, at times suggesting that he spoke out little against Nazi anti-Jewish atrocities because he realized he could do little; at others implying that the Bishop kept his criticisms limited to the Gestapo because he would not contravene the rightful—if corrupt—authorities of his beloved homeland.
In truth, von Graf probably fell somewhere in between, a clergyman besieged on all sides by impossible responsibilities to his own people. He was at once a leader whose struggles with the government could be read as support for Communist insurrection—something he opposed—even as he was the loudest roar against Nazi euthanasia and educational meddling. Perhaps what Fr. Utrecht best lays out here is the difficulty of making decisions under such immense duress, and especially the ways in which God guides those who place themselves before His will. It was, of course, in this way, that von Galen navigated wartime politics, protecting his people even as he made himself vulnerable, calling “black” “black” and “white” “white.” In this sense, Fr. Utrecht offers us a modern hagiography, a depiction of the tests and seeming impossibilities faced by holy people that make them at once all-so-human and yet something more: followers of Christ.
Casting light here reveals another fine line traced by the text: what, if anything, can the story of Clemens August Graf von Galen teach 21st-century, American Catholics? The book comes with blurbs from Frs. Paul Scalia and James V. Schall, classifying it as a solid antidote to what Pope Emeritus Benedict has called “the dictatorship of relativism.” There is, for sure, some truth here, as the bishop’s story makes clear the need for principled commitments, illuminates the need for the godly person to stand up for what is right whenever possible, whether it be in the face of a Nazi culture of death or our own. Fr. Utrecht has said as much in a summary of his book published in First Things:
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.
This is true, but we must also be careful. The good bishop’s complicated legacy on the Holocaust—something admirably addressed by Fr. Utrecht—might indicate for us that knowing which issues we stand for and with the loudest voice can be complex. Similarly, Nazi attempts to de-Christianize schools went so far as to ban crosses in classrooms, something we have not yet seen in the United States. Part of learning from this beatified man’s example is discerning exactly where and how God would lead us, when and how it is best to speak. He adeptly navigated a dictatorship bent on the paganization of his homeland and the extermination of all “degenerate” peoples. Our times are different, and though we have much to learn from his moral heroism, we must always be prudent in drawing historical analogies.
Similarly, we might say the same about von Graf’s relationship to the state as a whole. A committed patriot, he died with the words “God’s will be done. May God reward you. God protect the dear fatherland. Continue to work for Him. O, dear Savior!” (349) upon his lips. His final utterances encapsulate the complexities of balancing patriotism with reasoned dissent. How ought Catholics to interact with justly-installed authorities? At what point does patriotism hamper us? When is reverence to be put aside in the name of standing for universal justice? Here The Lion of Münster provides no easy answers, but it does raise a slew of worthy questions.
Overall, then, Fr. Utrecht’s work is a timely study of a brave and morally-upright man, whose legacy deserves to be better known. A bit long as a text, Fr. Utrecht’s style is invigorating, though occasionally overly reliant on primary-source quotations (a wonderful window into the past, but, at times, an overlong departure from an otherwise-gripping story). Better attention could be paid to the complex political affiliations of German Catholics in the period, especially that of Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler, bishop of Mainz and relative of the Lion of Münster, whose influence on the young von Galen and on Rerum novarum may have provided a different political path than that actually followed by the subject of Fr. Utrecht’s study. Still, overall, the biography ought to be greeted with praise as a worthy account of a blessed man, whose memory ought be eternal. Blessed Clemens August Graf von Galen, pray for us!
Fr. Daniel Utrecht, The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis, TAN, 2016, pp. 412.