“The Lion Roars Again”

Fr James McTavish, FMVD

Fr James McTavishWhat Cardinal Von Galen, the lion of Münster, can teach Catholic healthcare workers about their prophetic duty to speak out against euthanasia in the world of today

Cardinal Von Galen was known as the Lion of Münster, following his courageous and prophetic stance against Nazi tyranny. [1] He spoke out against human rights abuses, especially the Nazi T4 euthanasia program where the elderly, infirm and those with Down syndrome were targeted. At least 70,000 people were killed in this euthanasia program.

The courageous Bishop gave three public homilies in 1941. He denounced the murderous attitude of the governing Nazi powers. The long homilies necessitated a careful and methodical preparation. He based his prayerful discourses on Jesus weeping over the state of the city in chapter 19 of St Luke’s Gospel: “As Jesus approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace’.” (Luke 19:41-42).

Cardinal Von GalenVon Galen asked how can we permit a committee to arbitrarily decide on killing the so called “unproductives”, noting that this same committee could at any moment deem that you and I are also unproductive at times. He also appealed to the hearts of his hearers. He proposed that those brave young men returning wounded from the battle front, after having survived the onslaught of war, may be also classed as “unproductives”, and put to death and die, not at the hands of enemy forces, but killed by their own German people. These sermons were also said to have been used by the British army who shared them as propaganda to the German troops!

Some brief excerpts from these homilies give us an insight into the power of his oratory.

These numerous unexpected deaths of the mentally ill are not the result of natural causes, but are deliberately brought about; that in these cases that doctrine is being followed, that one can put an end to so-called “worthless life,” that is, can kill innocent persons, if one believes that their life is of no more value to the people and the state; a horrible doctrine, that would justify the murder of the innocent, that gives a fundamental license for the violent killing of those invalids, cripples, incurable sick, and weak old persons who are no longer able to work! [2]
If that principle is accepted and made use of, that one can kill “unproductive” people, then woe to us all, when we become old and weak! If one can kill unproductive people, then woe to the disabled who have sacrificed their health or their limbs in the process of production! If unproductive people can be disposed of by violent means, then woe to our brave soldiers who return to their homeland severely wounded, as cripples, as invalids! Once it is granted that people have the right to kill “unproductive” fellow human beings—even if at the moment it affects only the poor defenceless mentally ill—then in principle the right has been given to murder all unproductive people: the incurably ill, the cripples who are unable to work, those who have become incapacitated because of work or war; then the right has been given to murder all of us, once we become weak with age and therefore unproductive.[3]
Who will then be able to trust [their] doctor? Perhaps [the doctor] will report the patient as “unproductive” and receive the order to kill [them]. It is unthinkable what degeneration of morals, what universal mistrust will find its way even into the family, if this frightening doctrine is tolerated, taken up, and followed. Woe to humanity, woe to our German people, if the holy commandment of God, “Thou shalt not kill,” which the Lord gave on Sinai amid thunder and lightning, which God the Creator wrote into the conscience of [humankind] from the beginning, is not only broken, but if this breach is tolerated and taken up as a regular practice without punishment! [4]

Von Galen spoke out publicly to defend life against the Nazi euthanasia. He was not afraid - he had chosen as his motto, "Nec laudibus, nec timore" (Neither praise nor threats will distance me from God), and he lived it. The Nazis decided to retaliate but decided that revenge “was a dish best served cold” and they would wait until after the war. In a conversation over dinner in July 1942, even Hitler told his companions that after Germany wins the war, he would reckon with von Galen “down to the last penny.”[5] Von Galen survived the war, and after was made a Cardinal but died shortly after. His courageous legacy still inspires today.

1. It’s our turn now

In the Mass for the beatification of Cardinal Von Galen, Pope Benedict XVI said,

However, we must also ask ourselves: "Where did this insight come from in a period when intelligent people seemed as if they were blind? And where did he find the strength to oppose it at a time in which even the strong proved weak and cowardly?". He drew insight and courage from the faith that showed him the truth and opened his heart and his eyes.
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.
Let us remember that he often used to make pilgrimages on foot to the Mother of God in Telgte, that he introduced perpetual adoration at St Servatius and that he frequently asked for the grace of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance and obtained it.[6]

The Catholic News Agency (CNA) interviewed Fr. Daniel Utrecht of Toronto Oratory, the author of a marvelous book titled, “The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis.” "I see plenty of parallels today," Fr. Utrecht told CNA. "I hope that people reading the book get it for themselves." Blessed 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.”[7]

2. The prophetic duty of Catholic Healthcare Workers (CHW)

The Christian baptism constitutes us as priests, kings and prophets. The documents of the Second Vatican Council, especially Lumen Gentium, explain well this prophetic task. “Consequently, even when preoccupied with temporal cares, the laity can and must perform a work of great value for the evangelization of the world.”[8] In Christifideles Laici, the exhortation of Pope St. John Paul II on the vocation and the mission of the lay faithful in the church and in the world, the Pope underlined the prophetic mission of the lay.

Through their participation in the prophetic mission of Christ, “who proclaimed the kingdom of his Father by the testimony of his life and by the power of his world,” the lay faithful are given the ability and responsibility to accept the gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed, without hesitating to courageously identify and denounce evil [9]

The duty and right to evangelize is even enshrined in the Canon law of the Church. “The laity have the right, whether as individuals or in associations, to strive so that the divine message of salvation may be known and accepted by all people throughout the world. This obligation is all the more insistent in circumstances in which only through them are people able to hear the Gospel and to know Christ.”[10} If we are still not convinced of our prophetic duty, perhaps the exhortation of Pope Francis can help us. “The new evangelization calls for personal involvement on the part of each of the baptized. Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization. . . . So what are we waiting for?”[11]

How could this prophetic duty be undertaken or carried out? Some suggestions could be to write a short piece for the Parish newsletter or Bulletin, sharing some excerpts from Catholic teaching. Alternatively, an article could be published in a local or national Catholic newspaper pointing out the wrongs of euthanasia. Even you can consider writing something for our dearly beloved Catholic Medical Quarterly! The Spirit will inspire us when and as he wills. Informal dialogues and conversations in the workplace or around the dinner table with friends and family can be precious moments also to share the truth about the dignity of human life and how it needs to be protected. A discussion group or formation moment could be arranged in the hospital or local Parish, with the focus of discussion being a Church document like the highly informative “Samaritanus Bonus” on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life.[12]

3. Latest developments - a world going mad?

There is a growing movement, even within the medical profession, pushing for euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. [13] Our Lord urged us to keep abreast of the signs of the times (see Matthew 16:3), and nowhere can the insanity of euthanasia programs be seen more clearly nowadays than in Canada. The program there is called Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD). In 2022, there were 13,241 MAID provisions reported in Canada, accounting for 4.1% of all deaths there. The number of cases of MAiD in 2022 represents a growth rate of 31.2% over 2021.[14] With the publication of these latest statistics, Canada’s Minister of Health, the Honourable Mark Holland, P.C., M.P., had the gall to state, “As Minister of Health, I am proud to present Health Canada’s Fourth Annual Report on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada (2022).” Nothing to be “proud” of here. This is in fact dishonourable, and an example of calling “good” something that is clearly evil. To be in favour of Maid is clearly to be going mad! It means that for every person who commits suicide in Canada (in 2022 there were approximately 4,500 cases), Doctors help three other persons take their lives through MAiD. That is why the New Vatican Charter for Healthcare workers unequivocally states, “Euthanasia is a "crime" in which health care workers, who are always and only guardians of life, can in no way cooperate.”[15]

Michael Cook, the editor of the influential bioethics newsletter “Bioedge” puts it as “Euthanasia in Canada. MAiD in hell?” [16] A strong denouncement of MAiD comes in a recent article written by three Canadian doctors and a bioethicist, published online in the journal “Palliative and Supportive Care” (Cambridge University Press). In commenting on the results of their study, the authors’ statement says it all, “The Canadian MAiD regime is lacking the safeguards, data collection, and oversight necessary to protect Canadians against premature death.”[17]

In Colorado, an extraordinary case also highlights how crazy things are becoming.[18] An elderly man, who wanted to kill himself through MAiD, drank the lethal cocktail prescribed by his doctor. As he drank it, he stated, ““Man that burns!” A younger man with him said, “Let me see,” and then also took a swallow. Both were found unconscious by the ambulance crew. A bystander, part of a group of loved ones invited to be present for the older “death with dignity” patient, remarked that the older man “should be dead” and the younger one “should be alive.” The rescuers began to resuscitate the younger man, who eventually recovered, and the older man was left to die. As St John Paul II commented, euthanasia “is really absurd and inhuman.”


What would Blessed Von Galen make of this? I wonder what he would say in a homily today? He was faithful to the Holy Spirit and to his prophetic task in the extremely oppressive and dangerous context of Nazi Germany. The lion of Munster did not shirk from his duty to speak out on behalf of life. How about you and I? It is now our turn. As the medical situations become more complex, the formation of conscience of Catholic healthcare workers must keep abreast. “Advances in medicine and the constant appearance of new moral questions, therefore, require on the part of the health care worker a serious preparation and ongoing formation in order to maintain the necessary professional competence.”[19] An adequate and updated formation will give the Catholic healthcare worker courage and confidence in their challenging prophetic task.

To continue to keep silent would be an omission, a “zero” mission, and perhaps even sinful. As the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer also noted, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act. Each one of us should do our part.” Our good Lord is relying on each and every one of us. As the prophet Amos announced, “The lion has roared - who will not fear? The Sovereign Lord has spoken - who can but speak out?” (Amos 3:8).


  1. I have previously written at length about Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen and how his courageous stand against euthanasia can encourage us today to also to speak out.
    See James McTavish, “The Lion roars - Opposing euthanasia and assisted suicide in the spirit of Cardinal von Galen,” Landas, Journal of Loyola School of Theology, Vol. 34, No. 2, 2020, 23-37.
    This present article focusses more on the prophetic task of Catholic healthcare workers.
  2. Daniel Utrecht, The Lion of Münster: The Bishop Who Roared Against the Nazis (Charlotte, NC: TAN Books, 2016), 238. Online English translations of the homilies can also be found in “Three Sermons in Defiance of the Nazis by Bishop von Galen”
    (available at http://www.churchinhistory.org/pages/booklets/vongalen).
  3. Utrecht, The Lion of Münster, 241-242.
  4. Utrecht, The Lion of Münster, 242.
  5. Utrecht, The Lion of Münster, 260.
  6. Beatification Of The Servant Of God Clemens August Graf Von Galen, Greeting Of His Holiness Benedict XVI At The End Of The Eucharistic Concelebration, St Peter's Basilica, Sunday, 9 October 2005.
  7. Carl Bunderson, “What the bishop who resisted the Nazis can teach us today.” Catholic News Agency, 22 March 2017.
  8. Lumen Gentium, no. 35.
  9. Christifideles Laici, no. 14.
  10. Code of Canon Law (1983), no. 225 §1.
  11. Evangelii Gaudium, no. 120.
  12.  Available at https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2020/09/22/0476/01077.html#eng
  13. See James McTavish, “Towards A More Human Society – “No” To Euthanasia And Assisted Suicide.” Catholic Medical Quarterly, Volume 72 (3) August 2022.
  14. Government of Canada. Fourth annual report on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada 2022. Available at https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/publications/health-system-services/annual-report-medical-assistance-dying-2022.html#highlights
  15. Pontifical Council for Pastoral Assistance to Health Care Workers. 2017. New Charter for Health Care Workers. National Catholic Bioethics Center, Philadelphia, no. 150.
  16. Michael Cook, “Euthanasia in Canada. MAiD in hell?” Bioedge, 26 July 2023.
  17. Coelho, R., Maher, J., Gaind, K., & Lemmens, T. (2023). “The realities of Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada.” Palliative & Supportive Care, 1-8. doi:10.1017/S1478951523001025
  18. Nikole Baxter, Sean G. Morgan & Thom Dunn. “Death with Dignity: When the Medical Aid in Dying Cocktail Gets into the Wrong Hands.” Journal of Emergency Medical Services, 29 Nov 2022. Available at https://www.jems.com/patient-care/death-with-dignity-when-the-medical-aid-in-dying-cocktail-gets-into-the-wrong-hands/
  19. New Charter for Health Care Workers, no. 5.

Fr James McTavish, FMVD, is a Scottish Catholic missionary priest of the Verbum Dei community (https://uk.verbumdei.org/).
He is a surgeon by profession, educated at Cambridge University and the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh.
Currently based in Rome as a General Counsellor, his teaching affiliation is through the St. Paul the Apostle Verbum Dei Institute of Theology in Loeches, Spain.
His latest book “A Life of Prayer: 30 days with the Word of God” can be found on Amazon UK.