While I have several posts cooking on the stove on a variety of topics, I thought I might comment on the expected sainthood of Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, the famous television priest of the 1950’s. Bishop Sheen has been in the news a great deal this week, in both Catholic and secular reporting. U.S. News and World Report, The Rochester Chronicle, and Crux Catholic News Services are just a few commentators on the surprisingly sudden action of the Vatican to delay the canonization of Bishop Sheen, previously scheduled to take place next week on December 21, 2019, in the Cathedral of Peoria, Illinois. Withholding a previously declared canonization on the heels of the event has happened only once before in my lifetime. Pope Benedict XVI overturned a canonization approved by Pope John Paul II when the candidate’s writings were found to be antisemitic.
As it happens, I reviewed a biography of Bishop Sheen by Thomas Reeves for Amazon Books in 2004. In my opening line I said this: “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.” If you read my review, you might want to check the ‘comments” section in response to my treatment, some of which were rather spicy. And in truth I was proved to be a poor prognosticator, or so I thought, until last week. Looking back fifteen years I may have been too harsh, but my point at the time was that modern communications and computer documentation enable researchers—including Vatican investigators—to bring to light “too much humanity,” so to speak.
And indeed, it is documentation that has at least delayed the bishop’s canonization, and the story or stories behind it will someday prove to be a colorful book. To understand what is currently happening, it is important to understand the relationship between three dioceses—New York, Rochester [N.Y.] and Peoria [Ill.] Sheen was born in and ordained for the Peoria diocese, and he taught in a local Catholic college, St. Viator, for about one year. But his zeal for teaching, and admittedly his ambition, led him to seek a faculty position with Catholic University in the nation’s capital, the only pontifical school in this country at the time. Sheen never returned to Peoria, moving to Washington and then to New York City as an auxiliary bishop, primarily on the strength of his radio show, preaching, and writing, all of which he did exceptionally well. [He also coined the phrase, “Hearing nuns’ confessions is like being stoned to death with popcorn.”]
Sheen’s tenure in New York coincided with the reign of Francis Cardinal Spellman [r. 1939-1967], probably the most powerful churchman in the United States. Relations between Spellman and Sheen were never good, professional jealousy probably the root cause. Spellman was never the man Sheen was; he was the type of bishop who reported priests and religious to the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover for suspected leftist or communist preaching or writing. In fact, the FBI file on Spellman can be found easily on-line. In 2019 an accusation against Spellman was made to the Archdiocese of New York by a former cadet at West Point.
So it is not surprising that Spellman, according to EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo in a 2007 introduction to a new edition of Sheen’s autobiography, set out beginning in 1957 to undermine Sheen’s career in a series of calculated moves:  he ended Sheen’s popular prime time television preaching program;  he stripped Sheen of major speaking/preaching appearances in the Archdiocese;  he instructed priests in New York to shun him;  he worked to eliminate Sheen’s position with the Society for the Propagation of the Faith.
Perhaps the final crushing blow from Spellman was Sheen’s transfer outside of the Archdiocese of New York to the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y. [r. 1966-1969]. It is conceivable that Spellman put Sheen in a position where Sheen’s main character flaw—pride--would do him in. Although Sheen accepted this embarrassing demotion with public grace, talking about his desire to lead the Rochester diocese as a Vatican II-style bishop, Sheen remained too proud to work in any form of collegial or democratic fashion with Rochester priests. Among other things, he offered a functioning parish--with no consultation from his diocese--for the purpose of establishing housing for the poor. He alienated Rochester’s Eastman Kodak, the city’s largest employer, during a dispute over minority hiring, during his first week as bishop. Both cases are vintage Sheen—his sincere love for the poor derailed by his autocratic modus operandi. Reeves’ biography more than hints that in Sheen’s mind, the good folks of Rochester failed to recognize the celebrity in their midst. His extraordinarily short three-year term speaks to the mutual unhappiness of bishop and diocese.
Now, a half century later, there is no proper adjective that adequately describes the past two decades of controversy surrounding the possession of the bishop’s body and the canonization cause itself. Call it “bishops behaving badly” or a small town hoping to revitalize itself. [The Boston Pilot summarizes this public spectacle as well as anything I have seen through 2014.] The main contestants were the Archdiocese of New York, where Sheen was buried as his will directed in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the Illinois Diocese of Peoria, which hoped [and still hopes] to become a national shrine to the popular bishop and [hopefully] saint. Eventually Peoria—specifically, members of his family—obtained his body in 2019 in anticipation of his eventual canonization.
What is not generally public is the investigation of Sheen’s personal and administrative history by the Vatican, in conjunction with the dioceses where he served. This is standard canonization procedure. For Sheen, the process would involve the dioceses of Peoria and New York, and the three-year tenure as Bishop of Rochester. Many Catholics forget the Rochester years; perhaps Sheen did so, too. But as Rochester’s bishop for three years, Sheen was responsible—like any of his brother bishops—for priestly transfers. Two weeks ago, the Vatican halted the canonization, scheduled for next Sunday, December 23, in Peoria. In the current atmosphere of the Church, the first public impulse was the possibility of personal misconduct by the bishop himself.
To address this impression, the Diocese of Rochester came forward and clarified that it had requested the pope delay the canonization. “Other prelates [in the U.S.] shared these concerns and expressed them,” the diocese said. “There are no complaints against Archbishop Sheen engaging in any personal inappropriate conduct, nor were any insinuations made in this regard.” The question was more along the lines of whether Sheen had knowingly transferred a priest with a history of abuse. This was not a new question. As early as 2007 the name of a priest in the Rochester diocese became publicly known, but apparently the question of Sheen’s involvement was not regarded as an issue by the standards of that time. “An official in the Peoria diocese, Monsignor James Kruse, says those concerns focus on assignments involving a particular former priest in Rochester who was accused of sexual misconduct. Kruse told the Peoria Journal Star that the Peoria diocese thoroughly investigated that case [years ago] and found no wrongdoing by Sheen.” Years later, the idea of a diocese investigating its own clergy and bishops would be a major issue in the clerical abuse saga.
There are some who believe that Rochester’s intervention against immediate canonization of Sheen was and is an act of vindictiveness, though for what is unclear. But Rochester’s caution is driven in part by an ongoing civil grand jury investigation of the diocese’s history of handling abuse cases, including all documentation of the Sheen years. This investigation will take some time, and the possibility that it will uncover more questionable administrative decisions by previous bishops, including Sheen, is a true possibility. Some publications have claimed that there is more than one questionable case. A second point to consider is the current bankruptcy proceeding initiated by the Rochester diocese. The entire financial history of the Rochester diocese is being scoured by court appointed investigators. In other dioceses which have declared bankruptcy, investigators have found expenditures for victims of priestly abuse which did not appear in routine auditing. In short, Bishop Sheen is under the same scrutiny as any American bishop, living and deceased, and with greater intensity than was generally employed even a decade ago.
Rochester’s request for a delay seems more prudent in today’s atmosphere. It is known that a number of American bishops are concerned, partly over Peoria’s unusual haste to hold the canonization less than a week before Christmas. Another concern took shape early this month when the bishops of New York and New Jersey—each group making its five-year papal visit—requested the public release of the investigation of disgraced former American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. The pope assured the bishops that the McCarrick investigation report will be made public, either just before Christmas or after New Year. It is grim to acknowledge that Pope John Paul II promoted McCarrick four times.
The papal secretary of state confirmed the pope’s timetable to the Americans, adding that the contents would be quite disquieting to the Church at large. When all is said and done, the moment is not propitious for the canonization of a bishop with any whiff of question about his own sensitivities to clerical child abuse. Sheen, a holy man who loved the Church, would understand this. Hopefully the Diocese of Peoria will understand, too.