Fulton J. Sheen is defined in popular imagination by the persona he adopted on Life Is Worth Living, his Emmy-winning television program. During each episode, the telegenic bishop strode onstage in vestments and opened with a few jokes that introduced the evening’s topic. He headed to his blackboard, inscribed “JMJ” (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) at the top, and began writing in sloppy cursive. He then discussed what he had chalked up, walked away, and returned to find that the board had been cleaned by his “angel.” The gag would lighten up the audience after what might have been several minutes of rather technical discourse for evening family viewing. Sheen would then discuss how to apply the lesson to daily life and would finish with an exhortation, after which he would bow to applause from the studio audience.
Sheen’s television persona secured him a mass audience, but it has caused many to overlook the significance and subtlety of his thought. Born in 1895 in El Paso, Illinois, Sheen graduated valedictorian from his high school, attended minor seminary, and completed his training for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary. After earning two bachelor degrees at The Catholic University of America, he received his doctorate from the University of Louvain, whose faculty invited him to pursue the prestigious agrégé in philosophy, which he completed in 1925. The final stage was a public examination, after which, in accordance with tradition, the faculty served beverages reflecting the quality of the answers—from water for “satisfactory” to champagne for “very highest distinction.” Sheen drank champagne. His dissertation was the basis for his book God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy: A Critical Study in the Light of the Philosophy of St. Thomas, with an introduction by G. K. Chesterton. After a stint in Great Britain, he took up a position at The Catholic University of America in 1926.
Sheen began his public ministry in America two years after the 1928 presidential campaign. Al Smith, the Democratic candidate, had been the first Catholic ever nominated by a major party to seek the presidency, and the Republican campaign had dealt in anti-Catholic polemics. Sheen’s early public efforts, especially his appearances on the radio program The Catholic Hour, defended the patriotism of American Catholics. Sheen had also received direct papal instruction to condemn communism. With both ends in view, he drew on diverse sources: the Thomism taught at Louvain, along with the writings of Cardinal St. Robert Bellarmine, Jacques Maritain, Blessed Frédéric Ozanam, the Irish theologian Fr. Vincent McNabb, and the nineteenth-century Russian literary greats. From these materials and his own emphases he developed the political synthesis he called “Americanism.”
The term is a surprising one. “Americanism” was the name of a heresy Pope Leo XIII had condemned in the 1899 letter Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. (Sheen never endorsed any of the errors condemned in the letter.) Sheen elevated America as a model for the proper relationship between Church and state, another position disputed by Pope Leo XIII in his 1895 letter to the American hierarchy, Longinqua Oceani. (For all this, Sheen remained close to the popes of his day, and before his death received warm commendation from John Paul II.) “Americanism” had also been the name of the nineteenth-century American Nativist platform, which opposed the American Catholic Church. In adopting this fraught word, Sheen repurposed the nativist template of a “Romanist” conspiracy against liberty for an America in which the acknowledged threat was totalitarianism rather than Catholicism. In this new arrangement, “Americanism” was a Judeo-Christian alliance against political ideologies that opposed themselves to faith and freedom.
Sheen defined Americanism as “the political expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man,” as “understood by our Founding Fathers.” He elaborated:
As a political document, [the Declaration of Independence] affirms what the Gospel affirms as religion: the worth of man. Christ died on a cross for him, and governments are founded on account of him. He is the object of love theologically and politically—the source of rights, inalienable and sacred because when duly protected and safeguarded, he helps in the creation of a kingdom of Caesar which is the steppingstone to the Kingdom of God.
In political life, Sheen argued, the Catholic doctrine of man had the following implications:
Firstly, his rights come from God, and therefore cannot be taken away; secondly, the State exists to preserve them. . . . The recognition of the inalienable rights of the human person is Americanism, or to put it another way, an affirmation of the inherent dignity and worth of man.
Sheen held liberty to be essential, but on non-liberal grounds. He began with the proposition that God creates each person with the reason to know God and the will to obey the authority of God’s Church. If a person submits to the authority of the Church, he may benefit from the objects that perfect his reason and will—the grace of Christ in the sacraments; but the Church cannot force anyone to submit to her authority, as this would violate the freedom God gives each person. As Sheen said, “God could save us from our chaos and our slavery by force, but that would be the destruction of liberty. God awaits man’s free and unforced response to His call, that is why His last farewell to the world was from the powerlessness of the Cross where His eyes could summon us to the sweet purpose of life.” The Church does not rob the person of freedom by compelling belief, but “begs us to seek the things that are above, to rise in our minds with Christ in His Glory.”
For Sheen, freedom in spiritual matters required freedom in temporal affairs. The power of government comes from God, Sheen granted, but only through persons’ consenting to form that government: “Our rights come from God. . . . If God is the ultimate source of rights and liberties, what is their proximate source? The person. Only a person has rights, because only a person has a reason and a will.” Each person exercises this reason and will to consent to government, and the inherent dignity of the person sets limits on what the state may do. Sheen located this idea in the Declaration of Independence. Citing the work of the legal scholar James Brown Scott, he insisted that Thomas Jefferson had learned that “government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed” not from John Locke, but from Robert Bellarmine’s arguments in De Laicis. But more important to Sheen than provenance was the fact that what Jefferson and Bellarmine argued was simply true: Popular sovereignty, arising from “the affirmation of the intrinsic rights of man,” was “the only solid basis upon which any government can be built.”
Personal rights and liberties must be ordered to the common good, which in turn must be ordered to the highest good, found in God. Neither ordering interferes with the other. The Church, however, influences legislation by providing the people and their representatives with moral formation in rightly ordered government. In return, the government observes the freedom of the Church to provide this formation. “The primary business of religion is God; to bring man to God and God to man,” Sheen observed. “Religion’s service to democracy is secondary and indirect; that is, by concentrating on spiritualizing the souls of men, it will diffuse through political society an increased service of justice and charity rooted in God.” Similarly, “Democracy serves religion indirectly by removing those obstacles and disadvantages which stand in the way of man achieving the more glorious liberty of the children of God.” Religion and democracy meet in their service to the common good. The common good is prior to any individual good, since the common good is a necessary condition for all persons’ pursuits of their own affairs. Drawing on Leo XIII’s 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei, Sheen said:
The common good is superior to any private good, and hence in case of need it may set aside the interest of individual citizens. The common good is therefore the good of the whole and of its parts, a good which subordinates man to society inasmuch as he is social, but also a good which respects man as a person ordered directly to God and his eternal end. Man is independent as regards his value—immortal, spiritual, and God-destined. He is dependent as regards his function—social, bound to the common good. . . . Society in like manner has rights and duties; rights as regards its ends—the fostering of the common good; duties as regards its respect for inalienable rights which the State did not give and therefore cannot take away.
In all-too-brief a summary, then, we have Sheen’s Americanism.
Perhaps it makes him sound liberal. He was willing to call himself “liberal,” if by the term one meant “a system which believes in progress toward freedom as the right to do whatever man ought.” But Sheen knew that the ordinary meaning was “the right to do as one pleases.” Sheen condemned this version of liberalism his entire life. It entailed the rejection of truth as a standard, in favor of “progress.” The measure for progress was material rather than spiritual improvement. Reason, then, was concerned not with “ends and the means to an end,” but with “means to the exclusion of ends.” Because progress had no defined end, Sheen observed, neither did the argument over its meaning. Sheen lamented, “The liberal of the last generation invoked liberalism to free economic activity from state control; the liberal of today invokes liberalism to extend state control over the economic order.”
On economics, Sheen was a sharp critic of laissez-faire capitalism, preferring the distributism of Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. He believed that property rights weaken as the property becomes less essential to a good life, and that the protection of property should be ordered to habits of hard work, independence, and meeting one’s neighborly obligations. Liberals had abandoned this view of the world by abstracting the person from his or her social obligations, and thereby reduced the person to the “individual.” The individual, according to Sheen, was the foundation of capitalism. Without the ordering principle of the common good, the individual endlessly seeks wealth as a means to happiness. A few secure it, and most do not. The desire for wealth, however, is not unique to capitalists. Sheen warned, “Every Communist is a capitalist without any cash in his pockets. He is the involuntary capitalist—but his heart is just as set on materialities as the economic baron whom he would replace.” An aspiring dictator might use the enmity between the many and the few to start a revolution, but in truth the revolution started with the liberals who reduced the human person to an individual consumer and the common good to material gain.
In Sheen’s view, communism was the natural consequence of a liberal, capitalist order that excluded the Church from public life. “Many of the ideas which our bourgeois civilization has sold at retail, communism sells at wholesale,” he wrote. “What the Western world has subscribed to in isolated and uncorrelated tidbits, communism has integrated into a complete philosophy of life.” The liberal exclusion of religion contributed to the popular interest in communism, whose adherents sought not merely to exclude religion but to replace it with ideology. Sheen pronounced:
[Communism] persecutes all religions because it claims to be the one true religion and hence can suffer no other; it is the religion of the Kingdom of Earth, the religion which renders to Caesar even the things that are God’s; it is the body of the elect; the new Israel; the ape of Christianity in all externals.
Communism, Sheen concluded, “is the Mystical Body of the Anti-Christ.” But he was no vulgar red-baiter. He sought to recover what was true in communism: “Bolshevism, too, is grounded on a very sound Catholic principle, which is the Brotherhood of Man, but it has exaggerated it so far as to leave no room for the Sovereignty of God.” If Vladimir Lenin “had loved the poor in charity as he detested classes in hate, he might have been the St. Francis of the twentieth century.” Sheen was not making concessions to communism. He was seeking common ground with communists in order to persuade them to renounce their ideology for the Christian faith. He succeeded with Louis Budenz, Heywood Broun, and Bella Dodd, among others.
In a little book addressed to the American people, Sheen argued that the Church showed intolerance toward false ideas but tolerance towards those who believed false ideas. The Church, “like Our Blessed Lord, advocates charity to all persons who disagree with her.” With charity, the Church can fan the flames of truth to burn away error; in the same fashion, Sheen found much truth in the American founding and used it to burn away errors of liberal and totalitarian ideologies. “The doctrine of the inalienable rights of man, founded on the worth of the person, may be stated during the days and in . . . the language of Deism, or the Enlightenment or Rationalism,” he wrote, “but that does not make the truth expressed any less true.”
Sheen was a formidable, original thinker on matters of politics and economics. He condemned liberalism but affirmed liberty, denounced capitalism but upheld private property, and called communism the anti-Christ but lauded its dedication to the poor and exploited. The source of his originality was what he called, in reference to Jacques Maritain, “the primacy of the spiritual.” By keeping his eyes fixed on spiritual matters, Sheen resisted efforts to reduce human suffering to material causes and solutions.
In 1936, a Boston reporter asked Sheen for his opinion of Fr. Charles Coughlin, who, like Sheen, was a popular radio priest. Coughlin had begun to express support for fascist governments and purvey anti-Semitic conspiracies as causes of war and economic depression. Sheen, careful not to speak too ill of a brother priest, said that Coughlin “chooses to confine himself largely to the material,” whereas Sheen’s sermons were “confined to spiritual values” that, in his view, “out-last the material.” Sure enough, whereas Coughlin started the National Union for Social Justice, Sheen called American Catholics to a holy hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. And it was before the Blessed Sacrament that Sheen died on the evening of December 9, 1979.
James M. Patterson is the author of Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell.
Image via the St. Joseph Province of the Order of Preachers. Cropped.