Venerable Fulton Sheen: Theologian? Timeless?
With the unofficial feast day of Ven. Fulton Sheen coming up, it seemed a good time to present some thoughts on Sheen. Most people who know him think of him as “popularizer” of the Catholic Faith; does this mean he is not a theologian? Should he have stayed in the obscurity into which he seemed to fall? And…if the bulk of his preaching was directed against Communism, why is the Catholic Church investigating his Cause for sainthood? Doesn’t his subject-matter make him outdated?
NOTA BENE: It is not the author’s intention to anticipate the judgment of the Catholic Church in presenting the writings of the Venerable Archbishop Fulton John Sheen. The statements presented herein rest on human authority alone. The author submits wholeheartedly to the infallible wisdom and judgment of the Catholic Church in regards to the work and writings of the Venerable Fulton J. Sheen.
What is necessary to call someone a “theologian”? The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), in its document Donum Veritatis, “On the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian,” defines a theologian’s role as follows: “His role is to pursue in a particular way an ever deeper understanding of the Word of God found in the inspired Scriptures and handed on by the living Tradition of the Church. He does this in communion with the Magisterium which has been charged with the responsibility of preserving the deposit of faith.”
Fulton Sheen fulfilled both parts of a theologian’s role. In his writings, radio and television programs, instructions of converts, and, above all, in his personal daily Holy Hour, he sought to penetrate deeper into the meaning of Scripture and Tradition. His 1958 Life of Christ takes the life of Our Blessed Lord and interprets it through the lens of the Cross. Centuries of theologians before Sheen had written lives of Christ, had commented on and explained the Scriptures. None of them doubted that Our Lord came to save mankind through His redemptive Death on the Cross (actually, there was a dispute over the primary purpose of the Incarnation, but that’s too big a topic to discuss now); but did they see hints and shadows of the Cross throughout Our Lord’s life, for example in His conversation with Nicodemus or in His preaching of the Beatitudes? I don’t know the history of theological thought well enough to say definitively that Sheen was, or was not, the first to see the constant presence of the Cross in the Life of Christ; but I know Sheen’s writings well enough to say that his presentation of the subject is masterful and engaging. For even today, one of the most popular books written by the farm-boy-turned-bishop is his Life of Christ, in which he sees the Cross of Christ “cast[ing] a shadow” over Bethlehem, over Nazareth, and over the Public Ministry of the God-Man. In Sheen’s analysis, “[e]very event in Christ’s Life—even those that, at first sight, do not appear to be related to the Cross—is…either a preparation for, a prophecy of, or a manifestation of the Cross.”
As for Sheen’s fidelity to the Magisterium, Blessed John Paul II said it best when, on October 2, 1979, he embraced Sheen in front of hundreds gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and told him: “You have written and spoken well of the Lord Jesus! You are a loyal son of the Church!” Granted, that statement was not infallible, but for the head of the Catholic Church to say that to one of Her most prominent apologists is pretty impressive. It reminds me of what Our Lord Himself told St. Thomas Aquinas: “You have written well of Me, Thomas! What recompense do you desire?” to which the Doctor of the Church responded: “None other than Thyself, O Lord.”
Sheen most likely would have responded the same way if Our Blessed Lord had asked him that question. For the Archbishop, fidelity to the Magisterium as personified in Peter’s successors was a defining tenet of his life. Commenting on the conferral of the title “Assistant at the Pontifical Throne,” Sheen writes: “I could never become very excited about this, although it is an honor, because my heart was always at the Throne of Peter. This honor merely means that I now can put my whole body and person where my heart always was.”
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An article in the Vatican magazine Tertium Millennium says that the theologian is one who makes a new contribution to theological thought: “The theologian . . . is a person immersed in the timeliness of his time, always linked to the community of believers; indeed, with it, he attempts to move towards the fulfillment of truth, providing his specific contribution: the deeper intelligence of the mystery.” I argued for this point in my thesis: “While remaining in line with Catholic doctrine concerning Christ, [Sheen] [had] profound new insights regarding the role of the Cross in the life of Christ.”
I have heard the argument that Sheen was not a theologian because he did not write scholarly treatises, or because his writings are not on the same level as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. While it is true that Sheen’s writings are not on the level of the Medieval Summae, the Archbishop presented theological truths to the American “Everyman” of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s, in a way that he could understand. Fr. Andrew Apostoli, the Vice-Postulator for Sheen’s Cause, writes in his Introduction to Fr. Charles Connor’s book The Spiritual Legacy of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen: “This book is not a theological textbook. That would not have been Archbishop Sheen’s approach. It would run the risk of being dry, lifeless and unchallenging.” This does not mean that scholarly, theological treatises, qua scholarly treatises, have to be dry and lifeless; I personally enjoy Pope Benedict’s writings; but it does point out, and rightly, that the bulk of Sheen’s writings was not comprised of theological textbooks.
Although Sheen spent twenty-four years teaching philosophy at The Catholic University of America, during which period he wrote numerous scholarly works, at the same time he wanted to reach a broader segment of the American people, a decision that led him to radio in 1926 and television in 1952.
Once he was speaking on television to a national audience, many of whom were not Catholic, Sheen had to adjust his preaching to his audience. This does not mean that he “watered down” the truths of the Catholic Faith. One does not teach a first-grader “watered-down” religion if one gives him the Baltimore Catechism rather than Aquinas’ Summa. Similarly, Sheen was not “watering down” Catholicism by finding a common denominator from which to preach about angels instead of telling his audience all the metaphysical properties of separated substances. As he himself put it in his autobiography:
When I began television nationally and on a commercial basis, the approach had to be different. I was no longer talking in the name of the Church and under the sponsorship of its bishops. The new method had to be ecumenical and directed to Catholics, Protestants, Jews and all men of good will. It was no longer a direct presentation of Christian doctrine but rather a reasoned approach to it beginning with something that was common to the audience. . . . Starting with something that was common to the audience and to me, I would gradually proceed from the known to the unknown or to the moral and Christian philosophy. . . .
In retrospect I had two approaches; one was the direct one on radio, the other was the indirect on television. The direct was the presentation of Christian doctrine in plain, simple language. On television, I depended more on the grace of God and less on myself. If the subject of the telecast was flying, I might end it by talking about angels.
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Is his theology “timeless,” that is, “referring or restricted to no particular time”?
I have heard the argument that Sheen’s teachings are no longer relevant. Many of his books address Communism; he reached the height of his popularity during the Cold War; and to some, the Fall of the Iron Curtain makes Sheen’s writings irrelevant. The Iron Curtain may have fallen, but Communism is still rampant in parts of the world such as China; and there is a tendency in our modern world to view Communism as a joke, the hammer and sickle as a slogan to adopt. (Which, incidentally, is why my alma mater, Christendom College, still teaches a course called “The Causes and Effects of the Communist Revolution”—to keep my generation of Catholics, and the coming generations, from ever denying the horrors of Communistic atheism). Sheen himself seems to have suffered from being ignored; as John Muggeridge put it in 1990: “[I]n these divided times Sheen suffers the fate of all orthodox writers: consignment to the memory hole.”
Yet, despite the seeming “irrelevant” or “outdated” nature of some of Sheen’s writings, the Catholic Church saw fit to open his cause for canonization. His cause did not open in the 20th century, or shortly after his death; it opened in the 21st century, more than 20 years after his death.
Why? Why canonize a man who admittedly had a serious problem with pride and vanity, who did not preach fasting because he himself did not practice it in any extraordinary manner, and whose writings on suffering and on objective truth seem intolerable to our modern world that avoids suffering at any cost and sees truth as subjective? Why bother spending millions of dollars investigating his personal sanctity, the orthodoxy of his writings, or his squabbles with Cardinal Spellman over the allocation of funds for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, when he otherwise would have stayed in that “memory hole”?
Because if Sheen did live a life of heroic virtue, if the miracle under investigation is found to be authentic, if his writings are determined to be orthodox and free from heretical teaching, then he may one day be declared a saint. A saint preaches Truth—not the relative, changing “truth” of our modern world, but the eternal, living Truth Who is Christ. He may preach that Truth in a manner that will make it more pertinent to his audience; but it is always the same Truth that he preaches.
And even if Sheen’s words on Communism seem outdated; Communism was not the only subject of his writings. Many of the topics Sheen treated—the presence of the Cross throughout the entirety of Christ’s Life (Life of Christ, 1958); the necessity of the Sacrament of Penance for the forgiveness of sins, as opposed to Freudian psychoanalysis, which tries to excuse or explain away sin (Peace of Soul, 1949); the decay of Western Civilization explained through the parable of the Prodigal Son (The Cross and the Crisis, 1938) —remain timeless and pertinent, even in the 21st century.
Sheen’s teachings on the redemptive value of suffering when accepted in union with the Cross of Christ are timeless, because men will always have to endure suffering, they will always ask “why” and seek to either explain it away or to accept it. As I wrote in my Senior Thesis: “[T]he question of pain has plagued man since the Fall of our first parents, and will plague him until he arrives at that eternal day in which ‘God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes: and death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more’ (Rev. 21:4).”
While people may have begun to fall away from frequent confession in the wake of Freudian psychoanalysis—because it is so much easier to lie on a couch and let someone explain away your sins, than it is to get down on your knees and admit to them with humility and contrition—they are continuing to fall away.
As for Western Civilization and its abandonment of Christianity, Sheen’s words to journalist Malcolm Muggeridge give hope to those who would otherwise be tempted to despair: “Christendom is over, but not Christ.”
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Veritatis, (24 May 1990), “Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian), http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/ rc_con_cfaith_ doc_19900524_theologian-vocation_en.html. Accessed June 25, 2012.
Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ, (New York: Image Books, 1990), 20.
Emily C. Hurt, “Redemptive Suffering in the Theology of the Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen,” (undergraduate thesis, Front Royal, VA, 2012), 4.
Edward T. O’Meara, “Epilogue: Bye Now, Fulton Sheen, and God Love You Forever,” in Fulton J. Sheen, Treasure in Clay: the Autobiography of Fulton J. Sheen, (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 377.
http://www.ourcatholicprayers.com/aquinas-after-communion.html. Accessed June 25, 2012.
Sheen, Treasure in Clay, 185.
Central Committee for the Great Jubilee of the Year 200, “Library of the Jubilee,” in Tertium Millennium, http://www.vatican.va/jubilee_2000/magazine/documents/ju_mag_01041998_p-70_en.html. Accessed June 25, 2012.
Andrew Apostoli, Introduction to The Spiritual Legacy of Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, by Charles P. Connor, (Staten Island: St. Paul’s/Alba House, 2010), xiii.
Thomas C. Reeves, America’s Bishop: The Life and Times of Fulton J. Sheen, (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001), 59, 78-82, 211, 223-7.
Sheen, 72, 73.
http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/timeless. Accessed June 25, 2012.
 John Muggeridge, Foreword to Life of Christ, Sheen, 6.
http://www.archbishopsheencause.org/the-cause/about-the-cause/history. Accessed June 26, 2012.
Sheen, Treasure in Clay, 335-7.