By Thomas C. Reeves
Reviewed by Thomas J. Burns (2007):
Fulton J. Sheen will never be canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church for two obvious reasons: his sins are bright scarlet and we know them too well. Sheen established a television intimacy with the American public in the 1950’s that only a few individuals have achieved—Walter Cronkite and Johnny Carson come to mind—through his apostolic use of that explosive new video medium. I was a lad in Catholic elementary school when Sheen delivered his prime time homilies from 1952 through 1957. While I remember little of the content of those shows, I was captivated by the style. Sheen, I noticed, paused to let the audience think. None of my local priests did that, nor did they have Skippy the angel to erase the blackboard.
Thomas Reeves is to be commended for the manner in which he tells the truth, the whole truth, about Sheen without defacing the Bishop’s many good works and his positive influence upon a wide and diverse American public. Sheen’s life was indeed a message “written with crooked lines” and one is reminded of Christ’s words to the penitent woman, “her sins, many as they are, will be forgiven because of her great love.” Though haunted by the pride and ambition that would seem to stalk nearly all television evangelists who followed, in the final analysis Sheen did love his God, though he himself ran a close second.
Born in 1895 on a farm in rural Illinois, the youthful Peter John Sheen was devout, smart, and disdainful of manual labor and farming. He was hardly the first country boy to see the cloth as a step up from shoveling manure. We forget that he was originally a priest of the Peoria, Illinois, diocese, possibly because of his distinguished academic record at the Louvain.
There is an air of mystery about Sheen’s academic status, though. Desperate to escape a life in Peoria, Sheen joined the philosophy faculty of Catholic University in 1926 but never became “one of the boys” of the staff. In fact, tenure was denied him for some years, in part because the young priest was away from the campus three days a week for his growing number of speaking engagements. [In 1928 he hired a clipping service to track his press notices.] Catholic University itself was in academic, political, and organizational disarray. The school was frankly under-funded and underachieving. Perhaps to ease himself out of the philosophy department and into theology, Sheen invented for himself a second doctorate, an S.T.D. that suddenly appeared after his name in 1928 and which remained on his letterhead as late as 1966. Reeves speculates that Sheen got away with this massive deception precisely because it was so audacious, and no one would have expected it of him.
Reeves wonders if Sheen is under-appreciated today as a scholastic. Although brilliant and prolific, Sheen was not original, and added nothing of substance to twentieth century philosophy. Sheen’s strength was apologetics: the presentation of Catholic faith and devotion in simple, straightforward, and yet cosmopolitan ways. For about forty years, from 1928 through 1966, Sheen was arguably the best preacher in the United States, dividing his time between public appearances, radio and television, prodigious devotional writing, and fundraising for the Society of the Propagation of the Faith [and, surprisingly, acting as an “observer” of sorts for J. Edgar Hoover, who admired his fierce anti-communism.] His work for the Society earned him the title bishop, appointed auxiliary to Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York in 1951. Reeves finds that Sheen was a holy priest who made a daily holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament and spent hours personally instructing converts, including numerous celebrities of the entertainment and publishing industries.
Having said that, it cannot be denied that Sheen shocked his clerical brethren with a champagne lifestyle. While a faculty member at CU Sheen built a magnificent home in NW D.C. and entertained frequently and graciously. As a fund-raiser, millions of dollars passed through his hands, though there is no whiff of impropriety. Reeves does comment upon Sheen’s total absence of fiscal management skill, his arrogance and petulance that insulated him from sound advice, his unfettered cash charity, and his pride of bestowal, so to speak. These factors, coupled with his Cardinal Spellman’s own devils, led to an estrangement between the two that produced one of the strangest episcopal appointments of our lifetime.
In October 1966 Fulton Sheen was appointed bishop of Rochester, NY. To church observers it was clear that Spellman had orchestrated the transfer for ultimate humiliation effect. In public, at least, Sheen put the best face on things, explaining that his tenure would be an experiment with the reforms of the recently concluded Vatican II. In truth, Sheen was a pre-Vatican II autocrat who alienated nearly every local constituency. His unilateral decision-making cost him his priests, and his explicit criticisms of racial policies at Kodak the support of the city’s largest employer. He was deeply wounded that Rochester did not recognize the celebrity in its midst, and within three years “America’s best preacher” withered into retirement.
If the Rochester years were his crucifixion, they also brought Sheen into communion with his best self. In retirement he publicly regretted his earlier opulence and vanity. He became less dogmatic and more open to philosophical systems other than that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Although not entirely shedding his theatrical instincts, he lived the last of his 84 years with an optimistic piety that belied the sufferings of multiple illnesses. Appropriately, he was found dead in his private chapel. Throughout this remarkable life, with its graces and glosses, Sheen’s prayers were always sincere. His arrogance and sense of self-importance are perhaps the less desirable fruits of his utter certainty in the truth and goodness of God and the holiness of the Roman Catholic Church.
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2018 postscript: Bishop Sheen has not been canonized to this point. There is nasty litigation between the Archdiocese of New York and members of Sheen's family, as the latter are seeking to have the bishop's remains removed from St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to a site in the Peoria, Illinois, Diocese. Moreover, Catholic University is enduring yet another identity crisis, not unlike those of Sheen's years, the 1920's.